The Naimisha Journal




The Spiritual Bankruptcy of Islam and the West

David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)


The Clash Between Islam and the West

             The recent Islamic terrorist attack on America highlights the current clash of civilizations between the western and Islamic worlds, which is happening on many levels. What is perhaps most striking about this conflict—which is usually overlooked by both sides—is that it has nothing to do with real spirituality. Both Islamic and western civilization lack spiritual depth. What they call spirituality is usually only organized religion with its beliefs, dogmas and rituals and, above all, its vested interests in the political, social and military realms. Both western and Islamic civilization have little concern for any internal spirituality in which outer values, including the demands of organized religion, are given up for the pursuit of self-realization on an individual level, as in the yogic traditions of India.

            The clash between Islam and the West is a clash between the modern western secular materialist world order, on one hand, and the medieval Islamic fundamentalist world order, on the other. Both groups seek hegemony and domination. Both are monopolistic systems that co-opt, subordinate or destroy diversity. Wherever either has gone native traditions, local cultures and non-monotheistic beliefs get marginalized or eliminated.

The political humanism of the West and the religious piety of Islam are but a thin veneer for the pursuit of power and cultural supremacy. While western tolerance gives the guise of supporting freedom and diversity, this is true only on an outer level. Inwardly the West hides a spiritual poverty and is promoting a commercial culture worldwide to the detriment of deeper cultures and spiritual traditions everywhere. Islamic piety similarly masks unspiritual ambitions, aggressions and efforts to advance the Islamic community over all others.

            This struggle between secularism and fundamentalism, however, is nothing new. It is a repeat of an earlier struggle that occurred within western civilization itself between its own secular and fundamentalist sides—the battle between science and organized religion—a struggle that is also not over. Though western secular culture took the lead over western religious fundamentalism that dominated the Middle Ages, western religious fundamentalism still remains a significant minority, with perhaps as many as ¼ the population of the USA—the supposedly most secular culture in the world—still believes in the literal truth of the Bible. While Christian fundamentalism is less threatening than Islamic fundamentalism, it shows a similar failure to create a real internal form of spirituality. What real spirituality exists in the West has occurred mainly through the influence of Eastern yogic and dharmic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that have become popular over the past thirty years. Even Christian groups have tried to adapt eastern spiritual practices like yoga and meditation to make their religions more appealing to the growing number of spiritual-minded people in the West.


The West’s Concerns

             The West’s main concern relative to Islamic terrorism—which is its most overt challenge from Islamic fundamentalism—remains protecting oil resources in the Islamic countries of the Middle East, which apart from religion are little more than client states of the West. Helping the Islamic world to develop healthy economies, democracies or human rights—which is sometimes brought out as another supposed concern—is at best peripheral for the West, easily set aside and so far not really developed anywhere. Helping Islamic countries give up their fundamentalism by encouraging dissent and criticism of Islam is generally avoided, even when there is sympathy for it, assuring that fundamentalism in one form or another remains the main force throughout the Islamic world.

            The West has learned to accommodate Islamic fundamentalism that supports it on the level of foreign policy. The US is happy with Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic police state, if it provides the US with cheap oil, military bases and no overt challenge to American hegemony in the region. The US has not fostered or created a single real democracy in the Islamic world, nor a single healthy balanced economy in any Islamic country. Islamic countries are run by military or religious rule and based on oil, drugs and weapons as their main driving economic forces, all of which the US has been closely connected to, either ignoring, seeking to profit from or tolerating these within certain limits.

            Similarly the Islamic world is not taking any great leap forwards either. In fact ,what fundamentalist Muslims want is a great leap backward to the seventh century as the ideal era for humanity. We cannot entirely blame the West for the failure of Islamic society to modernize. Few Muslims have taken up the challenge either. Muslims have ruined their own countries and possible economic development by promoting backward religious beliefs instead. Any dissent that arises in Islamic countries is brutally crushed. Any attempts to challenge fundamentalist Islam with a more spiritual or secular cultural order are not allowed. Whether it is Salmon Rushdie, Taslima Nazreen, Ibn Warraq or Anwar Sheikh, Muslim-born intellectuals who criticize Islam must fear for their lives.


Fundamentalist Islam

             The tenets of fundamentalist Islam seem totally archaic in the modern world, like the ghosts of a by-gone era. Islamic warriors in Palestine and Afghanistan, as throughout much of the Islamic world, still expect to go to Paradise and receive the reward of seventy-virgins for their martyrdom for Allah should they be killed in war, even as suicide bombers massacring innocent men, women and children. Such an Islamic warrior often appears to be the highest level of Islamic striving today, the ideal of Islamic thought and the one most widely adulated. An Osama Bin Laden has captured the mind of the Islamic youth today worldwide like a Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Sylvester Stallone all wrapped up in one as the ultimate fantasy hero. While such a fantasy seems absurd to any rational non-Muslim today, the sad fact is that many Muslims still believe it, just as most fundamentalist Christians today still believe in an eternal heaven for the believers and an eternal hell for non-Christians and are waiting for an impending Armageddon and end of the world followed by the return of Jesus!

The persistence of such medieval fantasies highlights a colossal failure of education not only in Islamic society but also the West’s failure to influence or counter Islamic education. The West thought it could change the Islamic world through modern education, which would naturally and painlessly over time reduce the influence of fundamentalism. This is clearly not the case. Even western educated Muslims often maintain such fantasies.

The Islamic world is still looking to the Koran for the answers to modern problems, including those of an economic, scientific or political nature. It takes the Koran literally as God’s last and most perfect word. Not only in Afghanistan but also in much of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the supposed allies of the West, children mainly learn the Koran, or at least learn it first as the foundation of anything else they gain. And their learning of the Koran is literal to take as the final truth, not as a symbolic document requiring interpretation. This means that when the Koran exhorts its followers to Jihad against unbelievers, they take it to mean a real war against non-Muslims. Even Muslims who live in the West send their children to Islamic schools where such beliefs are at least sympathized with in order to make sure that their Islamic education, with its ties to fundamentalism, remain in tact.

            The West also thought that it could use the global news media and information technology to overcome Islamic fundamentalism just as it did with communism, which eventually fell owing to the exposure of its people to communication with the non-communist world. This strategy has similarly failed miserably. In fact, the Islamic world now uses the media, with its daily clashes of Palestinian youths and Israeli police, to fire up fundamentalist sympathies throughout the Islamic world. The West has obliged further by using the global media to project a single Islamic warrior, Osama Bin Laden, as capable of striking fear into the entire western world. This makes him greater than life and turns him into the role model for Islamic youth, particularly the poor and uneducated, particular those trained in Islamic schools.

            We must remember in all this that the Islamic world has yet to undergo the liberalization and secularlization phase that the West experienced through its Reformation and Enlightenment through the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, which had several bloody religious and civil wars as part of the process of removing religious rule from politics. While outwardly much of the Islamic world has joined the twentieth century with the use of cars, planes, phones and televisions, the Islamic mind is still largely a product of the dark age of religious dictatorship. The Sharia or Islamic law in force in most Islamic countries still has laws forbidding criticism of Islam or preventing Muslims from converting to other religions, which laws were thrown out in the West centuries ago and would not be tolerated in any western country today. This means that moderate, tolerant or liberal Muslims have no means of gaining influence in their societies. America’s definition of moderate and fundamentalist Islamic states only refers to whether they are friendly or hostile to America’s overseas interests. For example, Saudi is actually a more fundamentalist state than Iraq, if we look at its degree of religious tolerance.

            Comparing this to Christian history, it would be as if medieval Christianity of the Inquisition was still alive and in power today fed by massive oil revenues and able to maintain the rule of the church, with the suppression of heretics and arming of the military for crusades. If Italy today were like Saudi Arabia, no Protestant churches, much less non-Christian churches would be allowed in the country, which would still be Catholic religious state. Of course Muslims still see Christians, even secular westerners, as crusaders. This is because much of the Islamic world still lives and thinks in that era.

            While Christian religious fundamentalists seldom resort to violence they are also trying to perpetuate the Middle Ages. American evangelical Christians still believe that the theory of evolution is false, which they want either removed or restricted from being taught in the schools. They reject the view of the universe of modern science, even though they are quite willing to use the tools of technology created by it, like television and the internet, to promote their backward views through worldwide missionary efforts. Similarly, Islamic terrorists use modern information and weapons technology while believing in the unquestionable and final truth of a seventh century religious document!


The Dangers Ahead

            The dangers ahead are quite extreme. The current generation of Muslims throughout most of the world is even more fundamentalist than their parents, even though they have adapted aspects of western culture and may have modern jobs in business, science or high tech. Their minds and hearts remain in the seventh century. A significant number could join the terrorist movements if they have the opportunity or if they feel provoked.

            This problem is complicated by the poverty and inequality in the Islamic world, which the West has tolerated, if not contributed to. But the problem goes deeper to Islamic education that bases itself on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Islamic schools are turning out would be Islamic warriors in great numbers, whose main potential battlefield is terrorism. They have no other real jobs or place in the modern world. Until this Islamic educational system is changed, the problems will go on, with terrorism only a symptom of a greater unrest within Islamic society.

To justify its stand, Islamic groups point out the lack of religion in western civilization, which is almost totally secular in nature, and a resultant immorality. They do have their valid points. Clearly Islam is right in questioning the religious and spiritual bankruptcy of the West, whose affluence is that of a culture of materialism, sensuality and corruption. The West today can resemble the old Roman Empire with its television, movies, sports stadiums and fast food taking the place of Rome’s bread, circuses and arenas.

The United States in particular has so far failed its spiritual challenge as the world’s sole superpower. It has not promoted responsible action in the global arena in terms of environmental protection, arms control, or conservation of natural resources. The US continues to use a large portion of the world’s resources as if the globe belonged to it alone. It has continued to promote its commercial culture worldwide to the detriment of various local and regional cultures, not only Islamic but also Hindu, Buddhist, Native American and African.

However, Islam itself is also spiritually bankrupt. Its fundamentalism is devoid of true spirituality, which is the pursuit of self-knowledge and enlightenment through the practice of yoga and meditation. Islamic terrorists chant Islamic prayers as if they were being pious, not understanding that killing others, even in the name of God, is wrong both in the eyes of God and of man. Such Islamists only want to replace the covert and somewhat benign dominance of the West with a more overt, intolerant and repressive domination of Islam. Islamists are promoting a religion of war and have turned Allah into a war god that requires regular blood sacrifices.

            Even the Sufis, the so-called Islamic mystics, have either been marginalized (sometimes killed) or coopted to the fundamentalist agenda. Current major Sufi orders like the Naqshbandi, Qadiri and Chishti have become proponents of fundamentalist Wahhabi and Deobandi Islam and have been active in Islamic militant causes worldwide.


The Way Out

             Obviously humanity needs a spiritual alternative to this crisis, to this war between secular materialism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other hand. This is where India and its yogic, dharmic and spiritual traditions becomes important. India has preserved a spiritual science of self-realization along with a technology of yoga, even though otherwise there are many problems and inequities in the country.

            Yogic spirituality is based on a view of the universe beyond the dichotomy of either secular materialism or religious fundamentalism. It treats religion as a spiritual science, an inner way of knowledge beyond any restrictions of faith, dogma, authority or revelation. Similarly its sees the science and technology as an important means of improving our outer life that must yield to an inner vision in order to be truly uplifting.

            Neither consumerism nor fundamentalist religious practices are sufficient to bring happiness, truth or peace to the world. These are like the two sides of the same human error, which is to seek happiness in the external world or to turn spirituality into an external political assertion.

            Unfortunately the leftist secularists of India look upon yogic spirituality as a fundamentalism like that of Islam. While some in the West admire it, mainstream western academia still denigrates it as something backward. Muslims look upon it as a religious threat. Yet if we look at the main proponents of yogic spirituality in the modern world, notably Sri Aurobindo, we see a futuristic and universal vision not tied to any religious dogma, any cult of salvation, or any need for hegemony. Perhaps we can value the words of such sages more in light of the present crisis

            Even if the West defeats or subordinates Islamic fundamentalism as it did previously with Christian fundamentalism, which it probably will, the same problems of materialistic and the commercial culture remain. Unfortunately, the need to address the terrorist military threat has covered over the need to address the deeper problems of the coming century, our destruction of the natural environment and our global failure to promote a meaningful spirituality beyond any religious dogmas or vested interests. These more sensitive and less overt issues are among the real casualties of the recent terrorist action. If humanity does not return to Dharma, then it is likely the coming century will be quite difficult, not only in terms of human conflict but in terms of environmental and natural disasters, however the current conflict ends up. This is not the pronouncement of any fundamentalist belief but the inevitable outcome of a world order without the proper spiritual foundation, a world out of balance as the Native Americans say.