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The last history

Now, to the exceptionalism that is posing the greatest challenge to convergence in political culture: Islam. Late in July 2020, a video circulating on social media showed five Nigerian men kneeling while blindfolded with a red cloth. Behind them, off video, someone could be heard telling them the basis for their pending execution. The claim against them was that they were seeking to convert Muslims in neighboring villages to Christianity. In reality, as confirmed by Nigerian and international aid organizations, the five men were aid workers who were distributing COVID-19 relief to the remote areas in northeastern Nigeria. That notwithstanding, the Islamists executed the men.

While jihadists consider it a capital offense to attempt to convert Muslims to other religions, they themselves are on a mission to make Islam the world’s sole religion. The resulting campaign for Islamization may be deemed the last serious challenge to convergence in global political culture. Some may point to communism as another challenge. But the few surviving communist countries—China, North Korea, and Cuba—are striving to hold on to the ideology rather than seeking to spread it. That leaves Islamization as the last real challenge to “the end of history.”

Its agenda, rationale, and process are most succinctly, yet comprehensively, articulated in a paper by the Islamic scholar Jaafar Sheikh Idris. His paper titled “The Process of Islamization” encapsulates the agenda of Islamization with this opening statement:

The aim of the Islamic movement is to bring about somewhere in the world a new society wholeheartedly committed to the teachings of Islam in their totality.... Our organized and gradual effort which shall culminate in the realization of that society is the process of Islamization.3

The word somewhere suggests that this theologically pure Islamic state is to be established in one locale, as with ISIS’s caliphate. However, further down in the 15-page essay, Idris contradicts this. He argues that in the eye of true Islam, all societies are corrupt, a term he uses apparently to refer to every activity that is inconsistent with strict Islam. Furthermore, he argues, only adherence to strict Islamic faith can rid societies of “corruption.” It is, therefore, the duty of every true Muslim to “warn” non-believers of the imperatives of converting to Islam.

“This attitude of sincere and convincing warning should be our attitude towards all communities and nations whether they belong to Islam or not,” Idris writes.

Our aim and duty is not to destroy Western civilization and build on its debris but to attempt to save and guide it to the correct path. If it refuses to heed our warning, or listen to our advise its downfall is inevitable and we shall not be responsible for it.

Idris suggests that the inevitability is a matter of scripture, rather than military compulsion. However, Islamist insurgencies are to be found everywhere from the Middle East to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. It seems evident, therefore, that the goal of Islamization is not merely to establish a holy Islamic state somewhere, but to make fundamentalist Islam the world’s religion by all means.

Idris does not provide any empirical or even conjectural evidence of why societies are better off with Islam. He bases his entire argument on passages from the Quran. Islamization is thus an advocacy of the very practice the Enlightenment stands against.

Idris also does not address contradictions between his claims and the realities. Why have no Muslim country met the standards of Islamic purity that he articulates? If, indeed, Islamization is to be pursued through persuasion and ominously enough “warnings,” why are there so many Islamist insurgencies around the world?

A booklet issued by the Saudis in 2008 answers some of these questions. The booklet titled Clear Your Doubts About Islam: 50 Answers to Common Questions blames the press for equating Islamist violence with Islam. In reality, it states:

Extremism is something blameworthy in Islam, as it means deviation from the moderation of Islamic teachings or from the correct method of applying them. Although the extremist might present his arguments from an Islamic point of view or be motivated by religious feelings, it remains an unacceptable position according to the Qur’an and guidance of Prophet Muhammad. Consequently, it has been condemned by all reliable Muslim scholars.4

But then that begs the question of why so many Muslims have embraced violence and bloodshed. The Islamic State, for example, was established ostensibly to actualize the ideal society that Idris describes. Yet, during its brief tenure, it was readily the most violent “government” in the world.

Regarding material well-being, the pamphlet concedes that relative to the West, “the Muslim world has been in decline for several centuries.”5 It blames the decline on indulgence during its period of prosperity. “But affluence, excessive concern with worldly life, and the spread of corruption eventually weakened religious consciousness,” the pamphlet states.

The inevitable result of these human failures was an ebb in conversions to Islam and territorial expansion, losses sustained in East

Asia and Europe, the ascension of Western power and influence, and a change from an ascendant to a defensive posture.6

But even if one concedes the explanation, there is still the fact that that was centuries ago. What are the realities today? Outside of the oil-rich Gulf states, why are Islamic societies so impoverished and wracked with violence?

In Nigeria, for example, the virtually all-Muslim Northern states are lagging considerably behind the predominantly Christian South. When both regions were merged in 1914 by the British colonial administrator Lord Lugard, they were of approximate parity in economic development. In fact, the North may have had the advantage, with its expansive Sultanates and Emirates. Then Northerners—mostly Moslems—led Nigeria for about 40 of the 60 years since independence in 1960. Yet, the South has distanced the North in prosperity and educational attainment.

By 2020, a number of Northern state governments had begun to dismantle the Almajirai boarding schools that were established to educate Muslim children as an alternative to secular schools. It was a concession that their Quran-focused curriculum had proven disastrous for purposes of preparing the estimated 10 million to 12 million children for life in the modern world.

But then, the states did not make adequate alternative plans for the children. One of the options exercised was both inhumane and surreptitious. When hordes of children were found abandoned in various communities in the South, locals feared a terrorist scheme. Though that was never fully discounted, they soon realized that the young ones were Almajirai children surreptitiously dumped in those communities under cover of darkness. The practice created tension when some Southern states threatened to truck the children back to their states of origin—to the extent that that could be determined. Even the Northern state governments feuded among themselves over responsibility for the children.

What about parental responsibility in this scenario? The simple answer is that the children’s parents couldn’t afford to take care of them. In the Muslim tradition, men may marry as many wives as they wish and may leave them simply by repeating thrice, “I divorce you.” So, impoverished men routinely married multiple wives—usually young girls—and fathered several children with them. Those children typically ended up on the streets as beggars or are taken to the Almajirai schools. It was the closing of those schools that led to the desperate measures to find where to leave them.

During his six-year tenure as the Emir of Kano—one of the highest positions in Nigeria’s Muslim world—Sanusi Lamido Sanusi implored his fellow Muslims to eschew this and other similarly impoverishing practices7. “We have to be honest with ourselves,” he said in one of the speeches.

If you look at the poverty indices in the world today, you find that in South-West Nigeria, the incidence of poverty is 20 percent. In the North West, it is 80 percent. The North-East, it is 80 percent. Why is it that the poorest parts of this country are the Muslim parts?

Sanusi, who had served as the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, answered his own question with another question: “What part of Islamic law, what verse in the Koran, what ideals of the Prophet allows a father.... to leave the child to go and fend for himself?”

Such outspokenness may have cost Sanusi the emirship, as he was soon dethroned and exiled to another state in March 2020. Yet, the questions he raised are among those that confront Islamist exceptionalism. If Islam has engendered neither peace nor prosperity, wherein lies its challenge to the secular ethos of the Enlightenment?

The Saudi pamphlet seems to concede that it is not. The pamphlet’s response to the question of “Islam’s attitude toward Western civilization today” suggests as much. “Undoubtedly, Western culture is the dominant influence in the modern world today,” the pamphlet states. “Hence, it is inevitable that others interact with it and assimilate its positive values and achievements, but without adopting its negative ones.”8 It goes further to add that, “What Muslims and many other peoples of the world today reject is the presumed centrality and universalism of the West and its self-centered attitude.”9

One does not have to read these excerpts too closely to discern that resentment toward Western exceptionalism is a factor in current Islamic revivalism. Islam and Christianity have, of course, vied with each other over the centuries. But as the excerpts indicate, the West’s “self-centered attitude” is a hindrance to current prospects for convergence.

As discussed in Chapter 12, the Enlightenment is also being revisited to address its limitations. Its contemporary champions, such as Jurgen Habermas, have conceded its deficiencies. To begin with, it gave rise to behavioral excesses. Among them were the hedonism of the 1960s that spurred a culture of irreverence and illicit drug use, and the radical feminism that contributed to the deterioration of the nuclear family, the bedrock of society. Moreover, the Enlightenment’s exclusive focus on rationality and science discounts human spirituality and the search for meaning. This is the province of all religions, regardless of their specific theology.

It could be said then that global convergence is progressing from mutually complementary directions. Societies that are steeped in the ethos of the Enlightenment are modifying it to meet the human needs it doesn’t fulfill. Meanwhile, societies that are lagging in its ethos are incorporating it at various rates, while guarding against losing aspects of their culture that fulfill what the Enlightenment does not. Without cultural chauvinism, both sides might move more speedily closer. And “the end of history” would come at some point in the process.

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