What Is the Future of Islam?

We should make it clear, by the way, that you're not Muslim yourself. So you're not in the position of defending your own personal faith in this work. 

That's right. I am Roman Catholic. I was with the Capuchin Franciscans for roughly ten years, many years ago. My first degree was in Catholic theology, which I taught for some years before I moved on and did my Ph.D. and Islam became the major focus of my work.   

Let's give readers of this interview some examples of misconceptions that need to be cleared up. Obviously, some of these may seem basic to people who know a lot about Islam -- but a surprisingly large portion of readers don't know things as basic as this: Most Muslims aren't Arab. In fact, most Muslims don't live in the Middle East.

When I was starting out studying in this field, I wasn't aware of this fact, either. If you studied Islam back then, it was assumed that you would focus on Arabs. When I had an opportunity to travel around the world, someone said: "Of course you'll come to southeast Asia." That hadn't even been on my map! The academic training I'd received was so Arab-centered. In the West, we know that there are various forms of Christianity and Judaism -- forms with very different cultures. But most people don't know this about Islam. African Islam vs. Asian Islam vs. Islam in a country like Saudi Arabia have big differences in many ways. But think about the way American media show Islam. If there's a story about Muslim women, it's likely you'll see a Saudi woman who is fully covered. But the truth is, for example, in one country, women can't drive a car. In another Muslim country, they're out in the streets driving motorcycles! The implications of this diversity are quite large. 

Here's another major misconception that you debunk in your book -- the idea that Muslims hate the West in general or that Muslims hate Christianity or democracy. We've heard that kind of claim thrown around by TV preachers and political activists. You actually dig into Gallup data from a whole range of countries around the world and you make the case that Muslim populations actually are fairly nuanced in their viewpoints. Generally, their attitudes are shaped by political policies, you write. Here are a couple of lines from your book: "Majorities of Muslims globally clearly do not see conflict with the West as primarily religious or civilizational. Rather, they distinguish Western powers by their policies."

I'm glad you asked about this. Yes, this is very interesting -- and it's one reason I'm so glad we have this Gallup data. You don't have to take my viewpoint on this -- or the viewpoint of someone opposed to what I'm saying. We can actually look at the Gallup data on what's happening in many different countries. What you find is that Muslims distinguish very carefully on these government policies. The majorities of Muslims clearly judge countries in the West individually. The data show, for example, that Muslims gave very poor marks to policies of Bush and Blair -- in contrast to the marks they gave to other European rulers. Or, you can see this in Muslim attitudes toward Canada. In terms of culture, we might call Canada America without the foreign policy. What attitudes do we find among Muslims about Canada? For example, in one Muslim country only 3 percent of people were critical of Canada, while 60-some percent were critical of the U.S. Why? The cultures are quite similar. The reason is: They were making a distinction based on foreign policy. Muslims do make these distinctions and the data show this.    

I don't think we can describe your book as rosy about the future. You describe a sort of global crossroads, and you do outline some nuanced policies that could make a positive difference in the future. But how do you feel yourself at the moment: Hopeful? 

That's hard to answer. Most of us like to see things done, like, yesterday. I can appreciate that because my own personality type is not always: Ready, aim, fire. Sometimes, it's: Ready, fire -- aim. So, I do feel a little down right now because of my sense of immediacy. I want to see things improve. But, if one has the patience to think in terms of historical cycles, then I do think positive changes will unfold. It's going to take several decades. There are all kinds of powerful, entrenched forces -- forces of resistance to change, resistance to moderation. But there are people around the world who are doing some creative new thinking. 

In terms of the immediate future of Islam and the West, I think the jury is still out on where our relationships are headed. I think Obama does have a shot at improving these relationships. Brown in Britain hasn't done well, though. And even with Obama, I think the jury's still out on how he will be regarded worldwide by Muslims. It's too early to tell whether Obama will have the grit and take the risks to do some of the stuff he needs to do to strengthen relationships in the Muslim world. We're living in an extraordinarily fluid and difficult time. Overall, things are moving forward, but we live in a world in which the actions of a minority -- even the actions of an individual -- can become a major setback. This is why we need to know so much more about these forces unfolding all around us. Most Americans still are asking the same questions we were asking after 9/11. It's time to learn more and look deeper.

Read a brief excerpt of The Future of Islam here.


This interview was first published at Read the Spirit and is reprinted with permission.

4/16/2010 4:00:00 AM
  • History
  • Media
  • politics
  • Islam
  • About