If you lived in 11th century London around the time when Harold Godwinson was making the mistake of leaving too many troops in the north, your life was rather shabby compared to the life of a man living in Damascus or Samarra. This was the Golden Age of Islam. The Muslims were on the cutting age of commerce, math, science and economics. If you were looking down from above, Islam looked like a winner.
Granted, the Muslim advance into Europe had been halted, but they still controlled large parts of Europe and controlled the Mediterranean. As a practical matter, just in terms of peace and prosperity, Islam looked like a superior model to what existed in Christendom and Asia. It was not just at the top either. Literacy rates, and life expectancy were much higher in the caliphate than anywhere else.
Fast forward 200 years and life in London would not have changed much. The typical peasant would have had a life similar to his ancestors under William the Conqueror. To the East, however, little guys on ponies had defeated the armies of Europe and were poised to drive all the way to the Atlantic.The armies of the Batu Khan had smashed the Rus and were ready to ride to Paris.
To the south, those same guys from Asia were sacking Baghdad, burning its libraries and murdering most of the male citizens. They tended to just impregnate the females. Historians estimate that a million citizens of Baghdad were killed in one week. The destruction was so massive, the population of the region did not recover until the 19th century. The Mongol Invasion ended the Golden Age of Islam.
By the 14th century, Islam was still dominant in what we call the Arab world, but it was not producing or even augmenting an ascendant culture and people. In fact, as the culture of the Near and Middle East collapsed, it took Islam with it, turning it into a tool for jostling between clans and tribes. The Muslims held on militarily through the 20th century, but that was largely due to the Turks and their long involvement in Europe going back to antiquity.
Even so, by the late Middle Ages, life in the typical European village was not that much better than life in the typical Muslim village. If you just looked at the top, the Ottoman Turks looked strongest, but the seeds of decline were apparent. While the West was on the cusp of great technological, cultural and financial revolutions, the Ottomans were still running a system Diocletian would have understood.
As the West moved from the Middle Ages into the Early Modern Period, it was about to rocket ahead of the rest of the world technologically, financially, culturally and military. The typical villager in Europe was living a vastly more prosperous life than his contemporary in Baghdad or Tripoli. The religion, the culture, the demographics and even the climate all came together to produce what we know to be the modern world – in Europe.
Islam never made it out of the Middle Ages until Western prosperity overflowed its cups and brought material wealth to the Arab world. Even so, Iraq is still a Medieval society equipped with satellite dishes and mobile phones. Their culture, economics and politics remain locked in the amber of a bygone age. Even their revolutionaries sound like extras from a B-movie about the Crusades.
That’s not just a reality we in the West accept. It is a reality that every Muslim from the Arab world faces and grapples with every day. The culture that produced him lost to the culture that confronts him. No one stands in line for the latest Muslim mobile phone. There is no Muslim Silicon Valley. The armies of Allah throw rocks at the space ships and lasers of the infidel. To be a Muslim is to be a loser.
That daily reality is in his pocket when he looks at his cell phone. It is on TV where all the actors wear Western clothes. It is in his house where his sister demands to wear makeup and live on her own, dating men outside the family. Even at mosque he is reminded that he is on the losing side of the fight. He rides a Western made bus or drives a Western made car. He texts his coreligionists on an iPhone, not a Mohammad Phone.
There is an argument that Islam is on the rise. As we see Muslims pouring into Europe and even America, the argument goes, Islam is like rising flood waters, about to wash away the West. That misses what’s happening at the roots of Muslim culture. Every one of those Muslims is on a journey that will end as it did for John the Savage in Brave New World.
The Muslim defines himself by his family relations. He is everyone who came before him. His culture is their culture and their culture defines him. Those Muslims on the road to Berlin can either abandon themselves and their identity in order to join their new world, or, they can embrace death. The self-detonation phenomenon is just a dramatic way of choosing the latter.
The thing is, both choices have the same implication, the death of Islam as an organizing philosophy. Just as the Muslim is faced with the reality of assimilation, Islam is faced with the same choice. Islam can cut itself lose from its past and embrace the material world of Western culture or it can blow itself up in a last final act of vengeance against the victor. Either way, Islam is dying.
The Sunni-Shia war that is centered in Syria is perhaps the way forward so Islam can evolve and become a workable mode of thought in a modern technological world. Like the Thirty years War, maybe old Islam is burning itself out and what comes next is a lighter, personal version of Islam. The Thirty Years War left large chunks of central Europe depopulated and others reduced to cannibalism so these transformations carry a heavy price.
Islam is collapsing and it could very well take the rest of us with it. The central challenge to leaders of the West is how to manage this civilizational collapse, which primarily means containing it. The past year has been about piety contests over who can invite the most Muslims in for settlement. The coming decade will be about who can keep the most Muslims out of the West.