What’s Special About Islam?

Not much.

An acquaintance asked me the other day whether I thought there was something ‘inherent’ in Islam that had made it ‘the opponent’ of America today – compared to other religions, was it more warlike, or more repressive, or more philistine, or what?

There is a huge amount to say in response to this question – there’s the faulty assumptions in the idea of Islam as an opponent of the USA, as if a religion could fight a country, there’s the scholarly question of doctrinal differences, there’s the sociological question of ‘do doctrinal differences make any practical difference?’.

But rather than going into a long discussion about those sorts of things, I thought: given that Islam has attained a particular prominence in current geopolitical events and discourses, can we explain this in any fantastically simple ways? And then I thought: yes.

That way is: look at where people of different religions live. Now, there are only really 4, maybe five, major world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the vague category of ‘Chinese-and-other-East-Asian-Religions’, which is a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc.

Now if we look at where people of these religions live, we see:

Christianity: Christians live principally in 1) Europe, North America, Australia, 2) Russia, 3) Latin America, and 4) scattered through various places in Africa.

Hinduism: Hindus live overwhelmingly in India.

Islam: Muslims live principally  in 1) scattered through various places in Africa, 2) Indonesia and Malaysia, 3) a broad belt stretching from North Africa across the Middle East and into South Asia.

Buddhism: Buddhists live principally in 1) South-East Asia, and 2) as a minority in South Asia, and 3) in the next entry…

Chinese-Mixed-Religion-Combo: As you would imagine, principally in China, although also Japan, Korea, Mongolia, etc.

Now we ask, what role is played by this “Islam” that is so talked about, which is the “opponent” of this “the West”? As far as I can see, it plays two major roles: as a reaction against social liberalism, and as resistance to imperialism. Now we ask – could another of these five major religions play such a role?

Christianity? Obviously not, it is the religion of almost all the imperialist countries. And its turn at opposing social liberalism was in the past – it lost. It still fights but it has decisively lost the battle. And Christianity can’t really be an anti-imperialist force in Latin America or Africa, because it was imposed there imperialistically.

Hinduism? To some extent it does, through things like the BJP. But India is, for a start, too religiously diverse. Hindus are only 80% of the population, after partition – if you include Pakistan and Bangladesh, only about 60%. As a result, it’s been hard for Hinduism to be the basis of any unity in opposing either imperialism or cultural change. Hinduism isn’t “the enemy of the west” because organising around Hinduism in India leads into fronting off against other Indians, not uniting against forces outside India.

Also, India’s international position isn’t bad enough – it is emerging as a powerful country, it is politically united, etc. There’s far too much hope there.

Chinese-Religious-Combo: China is also too optimistic about it’s future, and besides, the Chinese ‘religion’ is 1) not organised as an exclusive specific religion, like Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and 2) has been largely driven out of public life by the Chinese Communist Party. Although we might note that Shinto played some sort of anti-western, anti-modern-decadence role in Fascist Japan.

In contrast to all of these, Islam is concentrated in areas which are politically divided and tumultuous, internationally weak and victimised, and yet where religion is a unifying factor.

Buddhism: this is maybe the trickiest one. Buddhism unifies the population in South-East Asia, which is an area that has been the site of a lot of imperialist violence (especially Indochina) and general political fail. But Buddhism, apart from in monk-protests in Burma/Myanmar, hasn’t been a big popular rallying-point. During the 20th century, nationalism and leninist communism were used instead (the same is of course true of the middle east). In the last couple of decades, while Islamism has grown, Buddhismism hasn’t.

So what’s the difference between the Middle East, full of Muslims, and South-East Asia, full of Buddhists? The Middle East contains the world’s largest deposits of oil, and has consequently been the object of extensive American (i.e. foreign, non-Islamic) meddling. South-East Asia is much less rich in resources, and so since the end of the cold war, has not been as heavily imperialised by Westerners. Indeed, it has mainly been imperialised by China, whose population are not all that different in their religious habits from South-East Asians.

So my point is: simply because of the regions where they happen to predominate, only one of these religions is well-suited to the role of socially reactionary anti-imperialist rallying-point. You don’t need to appeal to any actual facts about Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no important differences – just that the distinctive prominence that Islam has suddenly picked up in the ‘War on Terror’ can be explained without appealing to such differences.

3 Responses to “What’s Special About Islam?”

  1. a very public sociologist Says:

    Re: Christian anti-imperialism, couldn’t you make the argument that liberation theology that has its origins in Latin America, is precisely that? But aside from that, I agree with the rest of your post. There is nothing essentially different to Islam, except it happens to reside in a part of a world especially significant to the global geo-political order.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Indeed, I think Liberation Theology is an example of Christianity doing something like this, just like the monk protests in Burma/Myanmar are one small step towards buddhism rallying people against a Chinese client-state.

    But neither has got much steam behind it, because they can’t (mis)represent these conflicts as being religion X vs. religion Y, in the way that middle eastern conflicts can be (mis)represented as Islam vs. Christianity or Islam vs. Judaism/’the Jews’. In Latin America and South-East Asia, it has to be ‘the true spirit of Christianity/Buddhism’ against ‘the corruption of it by our rulers’ – which is unlikely to work as well because if you’re going to rely on people grasping a relatively sophisticated point like that, it’s unhelpful to be presenting a profoundly false account of things.

  3. Awais Says:

    Yeah, i totally agree with you.

    Religions evolve and change their nature according to the requirements of time. Islam already had certain concepts of fighting oppression, like Jihad, which made it easier to become an instrument of these reactionary sentiments. However, if even some other extremely anti-violent and anti-war religion were predominant in the Middle East, socially reactionary, anti-imperialist doctrines would have emerged in it as a result of imperialist exploitation.


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