Arnold Toynbee, in “Islam, the West, and the Future,” describes two different responses in the Islamic world to the threat poised by the ascendancy of the West in the 20th century. By analogy to two trends in the Jewish response to Hellenism around the beginning of the Christian era, he terms these “Zealotism” and “Herodianism.” “Zealotism,” a kind of “archaism evoked by foreign pressure,” was exemplified by the “Central Arabian Wahhabis.” The “Herodian” took the opposite approach, “abandoning his traditional art of war and learning to fight his enemy with the enemy’s own tactics and own weapons,” as was the case in the Turkish revolution.
“Zealotism” in the Islamic world has, of course, undergone a dramatic revival since Toynbee’s time, reaching even the most modernized Muslim societies, and a new population of Muslims, firmly planted in the heart of Western civilization through immigration, appears to have learned to combine zealousness in religion with effective exploitation of liberal institutions and freedoms.
Toynbee recreates a memorable conversation that illustrates the way of thinking of a “Zealot” who has taken from the West military technology alone but who wishes to exclude all other influences:
This state of mind may be illustrated by a conversation which took place in the nineteen-twenties between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of San’a and a British envoy whose mission was to persuade the Imam to restore peacefully a portion of the British Aden Protectorate which he had occupied during the general War of 1914-1918 and had refused to evacuate thereafter, notwithstanding the defeat of his Ottoman overlords. In a final interview with the Imam, after it had become apparent that the mission would not attain its object, the British envoy, wishing to give the conversation another turn, complimented the Imam upon the soldierly appearance of his new-model army. Seeing that the Imam took the compliment in good part, he went on:
‘And I suppose you will be adopting other Western institutions as well?’
‘I think not,’ said the Imam with a smile.
‘Oh, really? That interests me. And may I venture to ask your reasons?’
‘Well, I don’t think I should like other Western institutions,’ said the Imam.
‘Indeed? And what institutions, for example?’
‘Well, there are parliaments,’ said the Imam. ‘I like to be the Government myself. I might find a parliament tiresome.’
‘Why, as for that,’ said the Englishman, ‘I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of Western civilization. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.’
‘Well, then there is alcohol,’ said the Imam, ‘I don’t want to see that introduced into my country, where at present it is happily almost unknown.’
‘Very natural,’ said the Englishman; ‘but, if it comes to that, I can assure you that alcohol is not an indispensable adjunct of Western civilization either. Look at America. She has given up that, and she too is one of the great Western powers.’
‘Well, anyhow,’ said the Imam, with another smile which seemed to intimate that the conversation was at an end, ‘I don’t like parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing.’
….Those words indicated, in fact, that the Imam, viewing Western civilization from a great way off, saw it, in that distant perspective, as something one and indivisible and recognized certain features of it, which to a Westerner’s eye would appear to have nothing whatever to do with one another, as being organically related parts of that indivisible whole. Thus, on his own tacit admission, the Imam, in adopting the rudiments of the Western military technique, had introduced into the life of his people the thin end of a wedge which in time would inexorably cleave their close-compacted traditional Islamic civilization asunder. (1)
Westerners have been slow to learn about Islam in the years since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and those who should know better – the educated opinion-shapers of our society – rather than studying the history and doctrines of Islam, have repeated the unproven assertion that Muslims are “just like us.”
Consequently, Western resistance to Islam has flared up mainly in symbolic areas. In Europe, we have seen it at the parliamentary level with the possible French ban on the burqa, or the Swiss ban on minaret construction, all enacted by parliamentary process. In America, we have seen the still strongly felt belief in “free speech” lead to deliberately provocative movements like Terry Jones’s proposed Koran burning or the “Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook project.
If this resistance remains stuck at the symbolic level, without leading to policy changes – mainly the reduction of Muslim immigration – it will ultimately fail. But it should be applauded and encouraged in whatever form it takes. For these demonstrations show the possibility of the Western consciousness of Islam shifting to a very different form than it takes today. They give evidence that Westerners are seeing the danger of Islam, and showing this understanding to their fellow citizens. Washington’s famous quote is pertinent here:
It is among the evils, and perhaps is not the smallest, of democratical governments, that the people must feel, before they will see. When this happens, they are roused to action–hence it is that this form of government is so slow.
It is very important for us to acquire a thorough knowledge of Islam. But it is even more important for us to understand ourselves, our history, and what we would be willing to die for. If we accomplish this, the danger of Islam – and other foreign threats – will be sufficiently obvious at all levels of society for us to take the actions that need to be taken, even if we fail to gain an expert’s grasp of the subject. Like the Imam, we can start by affirming that we don’t like headscarves and stonings and the Koran and “that kind of thing.”
(1) Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, New York: Oxford University Press, 1948, 190-191.