Religion and Rationality in the Muslim World

As we continue to see people across North Africa and the Middle East take to the streets to demand democracy, or at least some voice for themselves and accountability for their governments, the question of just what role religion will play in the future of these societies arises again and again. There is little doubt that at least two different groups in the region, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, are committed to eventually establishing some kind of Islamic State. Yet the differences between them is large, and the differences in situation from Libya to Iran are too great to let the ready but very rough term “Islamist” dominate an analysis. And more to the point, there is little evidence that the protesters themselves have an Islamist agenda. In Iran it is precisely what they oppose.

The problem is that too much Western analysis from both the left and right associates the religious commitment of Muslims with a kind of fanatic forgetfulness of rational self-interest. The origins of and evidence for this particular facet of orientalist bigotry need not be rehearsed – simply read your editorial cartoons or tune into Fox News. Nor is it immediately necessary to explore the apologetic assertions by Muslim scholars that their is the most rational of religions. More to the point: the demonstrators on the streets have shown that what they want is governments that address their legitimate and ration interests. Despite some provocation by radicals they have not been coaxed into scapegoating religious or ethnic minorities. Nor have we seen them thrust men who are popular symbols of Islamic piety in to the political limelight.

This isn’t to say that such things cannot happen. Events in Iraq and Pakistan remind us that Islam, like other religions, can serve as the focal point for inchoate rage. And the ability of foolish humans to be led by bigots to act against their own interest cannot be ignored. It happens here in the United States on a regular basis. Yet the observable reality is that when the peoples of the Muslim world speak most freely, whether in the mass demonstrations of these last weeks or in free elections in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and even Iraq they speak, however imperfectly, for their rational self-interest, and not for irrational hatred. And this is why democracy is the solution, and the people are our true allies and friends in the Muslim World, not the dictators.

There is a particular hubris in believing that we of the West are the only people capable of taming our passions and pursuing rational self-interest while still living in the warm glow of religious faith. We need to get over it. It is irrational.


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