If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam. Almost every night we see images of fanatical people brandishing flags with Arabic slogans and proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is Great) alongside images of bombed out building, beheadings and abductions. We hear stories of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives to avoid the choice of execution or forced conversion. Is this an inevitable result of Islamic dominance in society, or is something else going on?
When these persecutions and religious cleansing efforts first became headline news and various commentators and friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically. The Prophet Mohammed received his revelations in the early seventh century CE and Islam has been the dominant faith in the Middle East since the eighth century - 1,200 years and counting. For much of this time the Arabic-dominated cultures of the Middle East and North Africa were the most powerful and advanced civilisation on earth, dominating and threatening their Christian neighbours.
Yet through the 20th century there were still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq. There were also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam. There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on. If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?
The answer is that the level of intolerance we are seeing in the some parts of Middle East now is a relatively new development, imposed by a radical minority. The majority view in Islam, and the view that has prevailed through most of history, is that minority religions, particularly "religions of the Book" including Christianity and Judaism, are to be licensed and tolerated. This toleration has not always been totally benign and there have been instances of persecution throughout history, but these are the exception, not the norm. The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion (often requiring payment of a extra tax known as the jizya) provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.
We can also see this dichotomy in Australia. There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia. Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas. In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims actively support IS. What of the other 99.94%? Every indication is that the vast majority are as appalled by IS as anyone else - indeed many of them have fled similar regimes. This horror is the norm in Islam.
If the current radical activism is historically relatively new, and is a small minority position in Islam, why is it gaining increasing power and influence now? What has led to this change?
Earlier this year I attempted to develop a framework for understanding immediate surface phenomena and their underlying causes through a simple pyramid diagram. The diagram below reworks this to provide a context for the current Islamic radicalism. Click on it so see it full-size.
At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war. We are right to be frightened of this, but what has brought it into being after all these centuries?
Sitting just beneath this surface is a history of international tensions. These are quite complex but we can think of them as being of two types. The first is the long-standing ethnic and religious tensions that have developed through the centuries within the Middle East and North Africa. There are tensions between Peninsula Arabs, Northern Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Egyptians, and so forth. There are also tensions between the branches of Islam - particularly between Sunni and Shia - and between different interpretations within the Sunni majority.
In the past century these tensions have been further exacerbated by increased American and European intervention in the region's affairs. The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War 1 saw the region divided between the victorious powers who created states and protectorates within their spheres of influence, often cutting across ethnic and religious divides and exacerbating existing conflicts. This led to the creation of unstable states which degenerated fairly quickly into various forms of dictatorship. At the same time, US and European meddling has sowed the seeds of our current problems - Al Qaeda (of which Islamic State is a breakaway faction) and the Taliban were both covertly supported by the CIA in the 1980s as a way of undermining Russian rule in Afghanistan.
A preference for manipulation at a distance and the fighting of proxy wars has given way to increasing levels of direct intervention, beginning with the first Iraq War in 1991. On the third level down we see an explanation for why these conflicts have escalated in the past 25 years. We are starting to hit a number of hard ecological limits and these are biting in the Middle East in various ways. The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies. In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access.
At the same time the processes of climate change have worked alongside the ravages of sanctions and war to impoverish large parts of the populations of countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Displaced farmers and rural workers have moved to the cities, escaping drought and joining throngs of urban unemployed. These populations become hotbeds of dissent, attracting the wrath of dictatorial rulers. A good deal of their anger is directed inwards, but some is also directed outwards towards the West as the US and its allies are seen as responsible for many of the problems they experience. The further resulting breakdown in these countries is not necessarily an accidental by-product of Western intervention - Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that the creation of weak and divided governments in oil-rich states serves US interests by removing barriers to oil wealth.
At the deepest level, what are the illusions that sustain this mutually destructive behaviour? I would suggest there are two. One is our absolutisation of our cultures, nations and "ways of life". The Middle East and the West are in a symbiotic relationship over oil, reinforcing the mutual delusion that our economies and technologies can continue as they are. We all know they can't, we are already bumping up against their limits, but we keep trying to eke out the current patterns for as long as possible, despite the damage they do, because they are making our elites rich.
Our rejection of the necessary fundamental changes - changes in technology, in wealth distribution, in food production - leads us instead to foster illusions about ourselves. For us Westerners, it is an illusion about the present - our image of ourselves as enlightened and democratic. This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.
On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State. There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic ideal.
Neither the causes nor the remedies for complex global issues are ever simple. My description oversimplifies and glosses over many things, but if I'm right it provides a framework within which we can begin to understand not only the day to day realities, but the bedrock of questions which underlie them. It is not simply a matter of defeating Islam, nor even of defeating radical Islam, because so much of the problem lies within ourselves.