Noah Smith: Sunni Islam is Failing


In the wake of the terrorist attacks, a lot of predictable Muslim-bashing is coming out of the American right wing. This needs to stop. Muslims are just normal human beings, subject to the same incentives and pressures as the rest of us. The refugees pouring out of Syria are fleeing an unfortunate situation - the violent collapse of their society and the atrocities of the Islamic State. They deserve our help, not our scorn.

But the rise of ISIS, and the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Pakistan are the symptom of something big, bad, and important that is happening to the Islamic world. Basically, Sunni Islam is failing at its core mission.

That’s a dramatic, big claim to make. It’s based on a book I read. “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes,” by Tamim Ansary makes the case that Sunni Islam is not quite like other religions.

In fact, the word “religion” is a catch-all term that we apply to a bunch of different social institutions, but Buddhism is not like Christianity, which is not like Judaism, etc. Ansary makes the case that Sunni Islam was conceived primarily not as a spiritual institution, but as a temporal one. Instead of establishing connections between humans and God, Sunni Islam was expressly about creating a just, peaceful society here on Earth.

The Arabian peninsula in the 600s was a place of perpetual tribal and city-state violence. Islam, according to Ansary, was conceived as a way to end the violence and unite the world under a peaceful umbrella. A religious judiciary would derive laws from Islam’s founding texts (the Quran and Hadith), which would then have divine authority. Using this divinely authorized jurisprudence, Islamic courts would then create a stable, orderly, peaceful and moral society. Meanwhile, temporal rulers would use military power to expand the zone of Islamic peace. In fact, early Islamic judges declared that the world was divided into the “House of Islam”, under which peace and justice would (ideally) reign, and the “House of War,” which was the rest of the world.

So Sunni Islam was more of a political force than a spiritual one - a replacement for traditional empires like Persia and Rome. For a while, the dream worked - the early caliphates were stable and prosperous, with conflict only at the borders, where conquest was ongoing. But as Islamic conquest bogged down and was halted in Europe, India, and Africa, war turned inward. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown and the Abbasid dynasty replaced it, then soon fractured into competing emirates and alternative caliphates.

In later centuries, the dream of Islamic peace was again realized in a number of places. The Ottoman Empire, an unusually long-lived and stable regime, united vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Even after its breakup, societies that embraced traditional Islam - most importantly, Saudi Arabia - had low rates of crime and violence while maintaining traditional values. As long as its armies prevailed in the field, Islam was still doing its “job”.

But something has changed. Throughout much of the Islamic world (with the notable exceptions of Bangladesh and Indonesia), violent conflict now prevails. Here, via Wikipedia, is a list of the world’s ongoing major conflicts:

All four of the world’s major wars are mostly Muslims fighting other Muslims. A large percentage of the smaller wars on Wikipedia’s list - about half, by my count - are also primarily Muslims fighting Muslims.

NOT Muslims fighting non-Muslims. Samuel Huntington, author of “The Clash of Civilizations,” declared that Islam has “bloody borders.” That was true in the 600s and 700s, but now it is not Islam’s borders that are bloody. A few conflicts - Kashmir, unrest in Malaysia, the Israel-Palestine conflict, or Islamist terrorism in the West - do feature non-Muslims fighting Muslims, but these are dwarfed in number and size by the wars in which Muslims are fighting and killing each other.

The same is true of Islamist terrorism. Despite operating globally, al Qaeda killed many times as many Muslims as non-Muslims. The same is currently true of Islamist terrorism in general.

In other words, the House of Islam is now the House of War, and it is the rest of the world where peace prevails. If Tamim Ansary is right about Sunni Islam’s core mission, then Sunni Islam is failing dramatically at that mission.

Why is this happening? Obviously, most Muslims - like most humans - are peaceful people who have absolutely no desire for violent conflict. And yet here is the reality that millions in the core Islamic countries of the Greater Middle East, through no fault of their own, are now being forced to live with what you see at the top of this post.

Nor is the culprit the precepts of Islam itself. The current wars in the Islamic world are NOT at all similar to the conquests of Islam’s early empire, which were directed outward.

One reason might be the Resource Curse. The vast oil wealth of the Arabian peninsula, channeled by Saudi moneymen to fundamentalist madrassas around the world, has stoked the growth of a radical Islam. But although countries like Russia and Iran also suffer from the Resource Curse, and have also engaged in some violence, they have not done with Orthodox Christianity and Shia Islam what Saudi Arabia has done with Sunni Islam.

A deeper reason may be modernity. Disruptive technologies overturn established power hierarchies. The information revolution and international migration tend to break down the barriers of closed societies. These changes have proven very stressful for most modern nation-states, and adjustment has often been difficult. But Sunni Islam, which is a much older political system than the modern nation-state, may simply be less flexible with respect to the disruptions of modernity.

Sex culture, transmitted through the internet and migration, places huge strains on traditional morality. The service industry and the global women’s liberation movement make traditional gender roles incredibly hard to maintain. Science challenges religious authorities, while modern capitalism requires a secular legal system that cannot easily derive its principles from the Quran or Hadith.

In other words, Sunni Islam as a system of law and governance may simply be badly adapted for dealing with the pressures of modern technology and economics. The breakdown of the social stability created by traditional Islamic jurisprudence may be behind the rise of increasingly extreme and radical violent extremist elements like al Qaeda and ISIS.

It’s very interesting to note that Shia Islam has not suffered nearly such severe and violent extremism. The Iranian Revolution produced a violent, revisionist regime, but despite abundant oil, Iran is now a stable nation-state whose proxy militias - Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen - are not nearly as religiously extreme, and which have not (recently) attacked the West like al Qaeda and now ISIS have done. This may be luck, or it may be because Shia Islam relies less on the kind of distributed network of religious judges that forms the basis of the Sunni social system. In other words, because theological authority in Shia Islam is more centralized, the Ayatollahs at the center may be able to adapt Shia Islam better to changing circumstances than Sunni Islam has managed. Shia Islam also may have turned itself into something less like a substitute for the state, and more like a standard “religion” analogous to Christianity or Buddhism.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the upshot is that the victims of the Paris terror attacks were not victims of a “clash of civilizations” or an Islamic jihad against the West. They were collateral damage from the collapse of someone else’s civilization - the Sunni Islamic civilization of the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and Pakistan.

So how should Sunni Islam respond? How should it adjust in order to make itself no longer the House of War? Personally, I think it should think about separating church and state, limiting the scope of religious jurisprudence, and ceding more authority to temporal rulers. In other words, it should become more of a spiritual and moral religion, and less of a social system.