Religion and the Islamic world
Carlton M. Caves
2003 April 8

This very brief piece was originally an e-mail I sent to my friend Ivan Deutsch, who had sent me a very interesting article by Paul Berman, entitled "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror," which ran in Sunday New York Times of 2003 March 23. This e-mail was my brief response to that article

Very interesting article indeed. The message is somehow contained in the idea that the current conflict represents the Crusaders vs. Islam. The West has gotten past the Crusades. Part of the Islamic world hasn't. They're still living back there in the 11th and 12th centuries, dreaming of returning to the world of that time.

We need to understand that the problem is Islam itself, not all of it, of course, but the fundamentalist part that lives in the distant past, that never went through something like the Enlightenment. We need to understand that religion has been perhaps the biggest negative force in history (there are some positives there, too, of course, and I wouldn't want to try to make a balance sheet); religious conflict has killed as many people as anything. We need to understand that religion has been negative when some religion insisted on having the exclusive road to God and truth and on the right to force others to acknowledge that. We need to understand that it is unacceptable for any religion to insist on having the exclusive road to truth.

If we've accomplished anything in America, it is to demonstrate that religion prospers best where no religion is allowed to impose its will. We haven't gotten to the point where every religious persuasion acknowledges the legitimacy of all the others, and we should be trying to move in that direction, but we have, for over two centuries, shown how good it is when every religion is required to allow all other religions to do as they please, free of coercion from the state or anyone else. The West has now adopted this principle, and we Americans are the ones who showed how to do it. Much of the Islamic world is stuck way back in the past, dreaming of theocracies, and this makes it both tragic and dangerous.

   Index to CMC commentaries