In response to Paddy’s thought-provoking suggestion that a secularized Western culture is doomed to fall before committed barbarians, permit me to start with a statement that might shock: Secular humanism defeated radical Islam centuries ago. Everything we’re doing now, essentially, is mop-up.
The story began when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first European printing press with movable type, one of the most important events in the arc of modern history, if not the most important. Before Gutenberg, the marginal utility of acquiring skills such as reading and writing was low, because the cost of books, laboriously copied by hand, was high. The price of a single Bible could easily exceeded the economic value of a village.
His invention loosed a revolution. Literacy exploded, followed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The last came not a moment too soon. The Ottoman Turks had been on a torrid winning streak, seizing territory hand-over-fist in Eastern Europe and Spain. Then came the cataclysmic Battle of Vienna, where the tides of war changed, and the previously superior Muslim forces were handed a defeat from which they never recovered.
Long before Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha’s disastrous foray into Europe, Muslim scholars had sat atop the pinnacle of human knowledge, providing important contributions to algebra, geometry, architecture, astronomy, and medicine. They translated works from antiquity and advanced classical ideas. Intellectual disaster struck in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when adherents of the Ash’arite philosophy seized the reins of Muslim society from Mu’tazilite thinkers. With Asharism came a wholesale rejection of rationalism and an embrace of fundamentalism. The Ottoman Empire’s immense momentum and superior organization allowed it to wash up on Europe’s shores — to the point of massive overreach — centuries after the passing of Islam’s day as a leading force in the arts and sciences.
The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were irrevocable changes in trajectory of Western Civilization, just as the trajectory of Muslim society was forever changed by the collapse of Mu’tazilah philosophy. Europeans rapidly embraced rationalism as a means to improve their living conditions. Material explanations of and solutions to vexatious problems displaced explanations previously offered by religious authorities, with immensely positive economic consequences. European per capita GDP zoomed upward, along with standards of living. Muslim societies were left in the dust. This has taken place over nearly half a millennium. It should thus come as no surprise that when Westerners envision the average Muslim nation, they envision a 14th-century basket-case — because in many cases, that’s absolutely true. No similar improvement has transpired in that nation in the past 1,000 years.
Most of the nations of the world where Islam is dominant would rightly be described as third-world hellholes. The exceptions are nations that have immense mineral wealth (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait), and the larger nations at the edges of the Ummah (Turkey, Indonesia). But as a rule, if your country has been under the thumb of Islam for a thousand years, it’s now a hellhole.
The differences are not limited to the economic. There’s evidence that the improved economic success of Western European nations has had an impact upon the intelligence of its citizens. The Flynn Effect is the term used to describe a steady uptick in intelligence scores worldwide in the past century, especially in nations where the public not only values such things as infectious-disease prevention, childhood nutrition, and education, but pursues them in a fashion sufficiently rational as to obtain them.
Poor nations that lack the resources to improve their human capital are further hampered by centuries of ingrained backwardness. Still worse, 50 percent of their citizens — the female ones — are relegated to the status of chattel slaves and breeding stock, where they’re hardly apt to contribute productively. So these nations continue to fall ever further behind. A heartbreaking illustration is the hampering of efforts to eradicate polio by Islamic radicals who insist vaccination is a plot to sterilize them.
Western civilization and the Muslim world inhabit two different planets. On one is a relatively peaceful, prosperous Europe and the Anglosphere. On the other are nations dominated by people whose thoughts do not necessarily dwell upon the evils of Western civilization and their burning need to destroy it. More often, they are urgently consumed by their struggle for day-to-day survival. Their own governments, or sheer chaos, pose a much more immediate threat.
We are no more at risk of being overrun by them than we are at risk of being overrun by ants. It’s true that the insect biomass could be roughly equivalent to that of all human beings, and that if ants decided en masse to attack us, we’d have to rush down to Home Depot. But ants are not a serious threat. Ants spend more time defending their colonies than they do conquering neighboring ones.
What we face is in some ways harder to accept. The mass murder of European tourists on Tunisian beaches makes the headlines, but the vast majority of the victims of Islamist violence live in the Muslim world. We don’t yet know exactly how many people have died in the Syrian conflict, but I’m sure historians will one day find the numbers staggering. Perhaps it will not be as high as the toll of the Khmer Rouge. Perhaps it will be close.
What can we do? Unfortunately, the only thing we can do, realistically, is wait it out. The radicals can’t win forever, and they employ only the simplest of tactics to incite terror. Obviously, we need to try to limit the damage they inflict upon us, because a hornet can sting painfully in its death throes. But we are at no risk of losing our society to Muslims scaling the walls, nor are we in any danger of losing a war of ideas. We could certainly lose our sense of security if they’re lucky enough to land a sucker punch and bloody our noses. But as people worldwide are exposed to the idea that there can be a better life, they will want it. They will be willing to fight and die for it. This might take centuries — after all, we didn’t get here overnight — but happen it will.
The only question is how much worse will it get for them, and for us, before it starts to get better?