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The West must not underestimate Islam's internal problems

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 4 June 2004


Are we making too much of an "Islamic threat" to the West? This suggests that there is a united Islamic world getting ready to attack the Western world. But it is not that simple.

We made the same mistake in the Cold War when Western politicians said that there was a "united red threat" from Berlin to Beijing. We now know that the communist world had many internal problems. But we were too focussed on their weapons and not their internal problems. We missed the signs of the impending communist collapse.

The 20th century saw a resurgence of Islam. It is now a fast-growing religion. It consists of about one billion people (about one sixth of the total world population).

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But it has immense internal problems. It is important not to exaggerate the unity of the Islamic world. First, the Koran is not an easy book to read. It is unclear in about 20 per cent of the text. Even in Arabic - its official language - there are passages that modern scholars cannot work out. This helps explain the various different interpretations of it (such as "jihad").

Second, there are differences of Islamic opinion over the application of Islamic law. In some Islamic countries there is a reaction against the imposition of strict Islamic law (such as stoning to death). Indonesia - the world's most populous Islamic country - has many easy-going tolerant Muslims who do not want strict Islamic law. Similarly, the Malaysian government is well aware that its influx of foreign investment requires an easy-going approach. Strict Islamic law would deter foreign investors.

Third, women want more say. It is notable that the Americans in Afghanistan have been insisting that women have a greater say in how the country is governed - but this is clearly contrary to some of the traditional viewpoints of conservative Islamic leaders. (By the way, thanks to American pressure, Afghanistan now has, in percentage terms, more national women politicians than there are in the US Congress or the Australian Parliament).

The greater recognition for human rights for women has already changed life in Western countries, such as in politics. Last month was the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's coming to power in Britain - and she was the longest -serving British Prime Minister for 150 years.

Ironically, some Islamic countries have a better reputation than Western countries for having women as rulers (such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey). But other Islamic countries (such as those in the Arab world and Iran) are appalled at women having such a high level of responsibility.

Tough. The fact is women are now demanding a greater role - and the old men who run conservative, medieval Islamic societies are going to be forced to cope with this.

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Fourth, Islamic children want consumer goods. Hollywood makes the best dreams. Young people in most countries have similar tastes for pop music, clothes, and videos.

This thirst helped erode the power of the old men who ran the Soviet Union. I noticed on my trips behind the Iron Curtain that young people wanted Western goods. They may have been militarily loyal to Moscow but their hearts were in Hollywood and New York.

They wanted American fast food, jeans and soft drink. Revolutions go better with Coke.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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