According to the history of Islam, around the year 610 A.D., in a cave in the Arabian city of Mecca, a young orphan named Muhammad heard a voice ordering him to recite revelations that would be dictated to him. Over a period of 22 years, Muhammad acted as a “transmitter” for the words of God, or “Allah,” which were recorded in writing and are collectively known as the Qur’an. Islam is based on the belief that the Qur’an is the direct word of God. Muslims, people who follow the Islamic faith, must observe the “five pillars” of Islam: the profession of faith in God and in the prophet Muhammad, prayer conducted five times a day, giving alms to the poor, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and undertaking the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca. In addition, the Shari‘ah, Islam’s legal-ethical system, provides Muslims with a blueprint for human conduct regarding matters such as family life and money.
The second-largest religion in existence (behind Christianity) and the dominant religion in more than twenty countries, Islam is believed to be practiced by over onefifth of the world’s population. As Islam’s influence continues to grow throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and in the West—where some say it is the fastest-growing religion— scholars of diverse nations and faiths have offered their perspectives about the impact of this development. One of the most controversial opinions has come from American professor Samuel P. Huntington, author of the 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Huntington proposes that Islam and the West are embroiled in a “clash of civilizations” in which “dedicated Islamic militants exploit the open societies of the West and plant car bombs at selected targets [and] Western military professionals exploit the open skies of Islam and drop smart bombs at selected targets.” In Huntington’s view, this conflict between Islam and the West promises to end in violence.
Those who agree with Huntington maintain that the values of Islam and the West are inherently incompatible. For example, unlike Western societies, which tend toward secular governments, many societies in which Muslims are the majority support the integration of religion and government— a philosophy that is often referred to as “political Islam.” Some Westerners regard political Islam as a dangerous movement whose goal is to gain power, dismantle other religions, and suppress human rights—as illustrated by Afghanistan, where self-proclaimed Islamic rulers have denied women basic rights such as access to health care; and Algeria and Sudan, where Christians have suffered persecution. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, contends that political Islam is by nature undemocratic and power-seeking:
To build a new Muslim society, fundamentalists proclaim their intent to do whatever they must; they openly flaunt an extremist sensibility. . . . If that means destruction and death for the enemies of true Islam, so be it. . . . Seeing Islam as the basis of a political system touching every aspect of life, fundamentalists are totalitarian. Whatever the problem, “Islam is the solution.” . . . Fundamentalists are revolutionary in outlook, extremist in behavior, totalitarian in ambition. . . . Like communism and fascism, [Islam] offers a vanguard ideology; a complete program to improve man and create a new society; complete control over that society; and cadres, ready, even eager, to spill blood.
On the other side of the debate are Graham E. Fuller and Ian O. Lesser, authors of A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West, who challenge the notion that Islam is an “ideology.” They maintain that, just as the West reflects a vast diversity of beliefs and values, “Islam [cannot] be treated as a single, cohesive, coherent, comprehensive, monolithic entity.” Those who agree with Fuller and Lesser argue that ominous claims such as those offered by Huntington and Pipes only serve to reemphasize prevalent stereotypes of Muslims as religious “fanatics”—stereotypes that lead to incidents of anti-Arab violence in Western countries—and encourage non-Muslims to adopt an “us-versus-them” attitude toward Islam. In reality, asserts Muslim activist Amira Elazhary Sonbol, “Anyone looking for [old-fashioned] American values can find them in Islam. It stresses family unity, caring for your mother and father, as well as bringing up children in the faith.”
Still, both Muslims and non-Muslims agree that some radical groups operating in the name of Islam have instigated acts of terrorism against Western nations. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian millionaire and supporter of radical Islamic groups, is suspected to be the mastermind and financier behind countless acts of anti-Western terrorism, including the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Oliver B. Revell, former senior FBI official in charge of counter-terrorist investigations, warns that Islamic militants “are ultimately committed to waging holy war, both in the Middle East and the world at large against all of their opposition. And that means us.”
However, claims Middle East scholar Antony T. Sullivan, many Westerners neglect to consider what drives Islamic terrorism in the first place. If some Muslims are hostile toward the West, he contends, that hostility “has much to do with Western policy before and during the Gulf War, as well as long-standing American policy toward Israel and Lebanon.” In fact, in the view of many Muslims—including Muslim-Americans—the United States pursues foreign policies that either neglect or antagonize followers of Islam. For example, U.S. attacks on Iraq, which were viewed by many Americans as necessary to counter dictator Saddam Hussein, were seen by Muslims as an attack on innocent Muslim civilians.
Differing perspectives about an event’s significance are common in the debate over how the religion of Islam is changing social and political systems throughout the world. In Islam: Opposing Viewpoints, an array of scholars, political analysts, and journalists offer contrasting views about Islam in the following chapters: Are the Values of Islam and the West in Conflict? What Is the Status of Women Under Islam? Does Islam Promote Terrorism? and What Policies Should the U.S. Take Toward Islam? The authors in this anthology examine conflicting perceptions of Islam’s values and consider how these values affect Muslim societies and the West.