Religions Are What People Make Them
The current crop of Republican presidential candidates is accomplishing something I would have considered impossible: making George W. Bush look like a statesman. Say what you like about his actions after 9/11 — and I did not like, at all — at least he made a point of not feeding anti-Muslim hysteria. But that was then.
Reason probably doesn’t do much good in these circumstances. Still, to the extent that there are people who should know better declaring that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy, or science, or good things in general, I’d like to recommend a book aIrecently read: S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. It covers a place and a time of which I knew nothing: the medieval flourishing of learning — mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy — in central Asian cities made rich by irrigated agriculture and trade.
As Starr describes their work, some of these scholars really did prefigure the Enlightenment, sounding remarkably like Arabic-speaking precursors of David Hume and Voltaire. And the general picture he paints is of an Islamic world far more diverse in its beliefs and thinking than anything you might imagine from current prejudices.
Now, that enlightenment was eventually shut down by economic decline and a turn toward fundamentalism. But such tendencies are hardly unique to Islam.
People are people. They can achieve great things, or do terrible things, under lots of religious umbrellas. (An Israeli once joked to me, “Judaism has rarely been a religion of oppression. Why? Lack of opportunity.”) It’s ignorant and ahistorical to claim unique virtue or unique sin for any one set of beliefs.