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John Micklethwait is Editor-in-Chief of The Economist. Before that he edited the US section of the newspaper (1999 - 2006) and ran the New York Bureau for two years, having[…]

The prospects for a peaceful Islam are not realistic in the short term.

Question: What are the trends in mainstream Islam?

Micklethwait:    Islam is a difficult issue.  On the one hand, you have… you know, the big question about Islam is will it have some version… and they hate this word of sort of reformation or enlightenment or some version of that and the kind of negative answer on that is it’s extremely difficult because if you look at the number of the genuine kind of real reformers in Islam or the sort of people who Westerners, rightly or wrongly, might think of was reformers as sort of people who might allow women to say much more in services, all the tough stuff, that’s a tiny, tiny portion of the whole… and the main argument is the reformed tradition of Islam is actually arguing that we should look at things 300 years after the prophet, rather than the prophet’s time.  It’s all based on quite elderly arguments and there’s additional structural reasons why Islam might find it difficult to move.  One is that, when you look at the Koran, the Koran is a literal word of God, you know, it is not like the Bible which is essentially reportage, if you can base it in that way, the Bible is a collection of stories about something people describing what happened, it’s easier, much easier to reinterpret the Bible than it is to change the Koran.  The Koran… most Muslims insist that it has to be in Arabic because this is actually what he said and it’s much more difficult for religion to find ways in which to adapt to modernity that way.  But secondly also on top of that, they have the problem of who they were.  Jesus Christ was a sort of form of special social difficulty, he was causing… he was an outcast, a bit of a… he was described in the old days, a sort of a community organizer, you know, he was causing trouble.  Mohammad by contrast was… the prophet, he was a rule giver, he was handing out laws on how you live.  Again, that makes it harder to change.  Of all those reasons, Islam is harder to change, against that, look around the world, it’s based on what we look at.  America is an area where you have a large amount of Muslims living actually very successfully.  In Europe, again, you have people entering a pluralistic society and again doing pretty well.  You have the experiments now at Turkey and particularly in Indonesia, I think, is really interesting.  All those areas strike me as areas where Muslims will come back and say, we need to… we need to be more tolerant, at least, of other religions.  I mean, if you have a system where there’s anyone who converts away from Islam is immediately under, in some places, is under really severe punishment, that’s really the acid test of the modernity of a religion, how tolerant is it about how people being able to choose what they want and that is a bit which Islam finds particularly difficult.  But within the main heartlands, there isn’t much sign of change but I would be quite optimistic actually about what in the end will come out of European Islam and actually particularly what would come out of American Islam.  And if you want a parallel, there is actually one is that the 2nd Vatican council is actually pushed particularly by an American Catholic who put across… we’ve got to face up to what’s happening around the world and he went back to Rome persuaded then Pope to do it.  And that’s… there is some degree of unprecedented… but I’m not… nobody should expect this to happen immediately.

Question: What impact is Islam having on Africa?

Micklethwait:    I think the most… I think there’s 2 bits.  I think from the point of view of where is the, sort of, faith taking off in China, I think, is fascinating.  I think from the point of view of where is it dangerous, where do you actually see the repercussions of this beginning, perhaps to cause real trouble. I would give example of Africa where to be very crude and basic about it, you have Fundamentalist Islam pushing down and you have Evangelical Christianity pushing up.  And in the book, I went to the frontline in Nigeria between these 2 towns of Kano and Jos.  It is as you drive along it, you’ll find mosques, mosques, church, church, and they’re battling almost all the way and sadly, in many cases, it does spill over into violence, 20,000… oh sorry, 30,000 people, I think, have been killed in the last 20 years there and to have these epic battles is quite normal and it does have some degree of tribalness underneath.  The difficulty of religion is once it gets in a dispute, it makes it much, much harder to solve, a classic example being the Middle East and the Holy Land.  When the Israeli and Palestinian thing was primarily a secular affair which certainly was to begin with, then it’s easier to say, here’s a border where they’re divided,  you know, most people sort of know what the eventual solution is or should be, but actually you… it’s much, much harder to do it if both sides claimed that God gave them the whole thing ‘cause once it involved fundamental truth, as perceived, when you see it a bit, with a life a bit here, with the abortion debate here, it’s the same thing, you cannot compromise, you cannot give way.  I think the answer is you possibly can give way a bit more than what people have done. You could see the Hamas have been talking about this idea, of course, the land would always be Islam but they’re prepared to let Israel occupy as a sort of temporary lease which is a bizarre way of looking at it.  But underneath it, there is a struggle, repeated struggle between religious people and once religion gets back into politics, that makes a huge difference and in many ways what we’re living through, I think, in terms of the world as we see it.  And America has got one gigantic thing right, it’s got the basic division of church and state, which both encourages religion and on the other hand, provides a way in which religion can foster within a political system.  The bit in which the Americans didn’t get right was foreign policy, they… whereas the Europeans, I think, were always much more scared about what was happening within religion, Americans just certainly weren’t, they didn’t want to think and this goes right the way through to Bush as well.  I mean, it goes back earlier, you look back at Iran, when the Iranian revolution was in preparation, somebody at the CIA produced a report saying that there’s actually a lot of religion in this and easily dismissed as mere sociology which is about as rude as you can get inside the CIA.  When Hisbola emerged, again, the American political establishment tried to save it in terms of left and right and where it worked with the Russians and so on, its name is the party of God.  There was a basic refusal to see this as part of the argument and actually even going through Bush despite that all that sort of God blubbering aspect of Bush, Iraq, it took him a long time to understand the [pseudo-sheer] split, that was absolutely crucial and again and again and again, you find these examples of people, I think America [far from this sanctions] is still very secular in that respect and now it’s beginning to learn and why is that important?  Because you never ever get solutions without bringing the sort of… the people of faith into it, you want to… one example where people have done that is Northern Ireland, people went out and they bought in people from both sides, you have priests, Catholic priests, Boston writers, sitting there and each time there is an atrocity in both sides they stood together and they condemned both sides, if there was a post scenario it was condemned as well as in the Catholic area, transposed the Israeli-Palestinians dispute, you just… it happens occasionally but virtually never… it’s not like each time a rocket lands on a Palestinian house and a lot of people are killed, you do not see a Rabbi and an Imam standing together saying this is… you know, this is deplorable nor do you say it when a suicide bomber goes the other way and that… that… until you get that, it’s going to be very, very difficult for everlasting peace to come through.