It is the question at the back of many people's minds as they absorb the frightening details of the terror plot in Britain. Yes, we understand that many Muslims are angry—about the Iraq War, about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the usual list of grievances. But there are many people, in many different societies and cultures, who are angry about many things. Would any other culture or religion produce a group of doctors and professionals who apparently deemed it morally correct to kill innocent people in large numbers? Has something gone wrong with Islam itself, or at least the culture it has produced?
To merely pose that question, of course, is to play with political dynamite. But it must be asked. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that "a death cult" …"has taken root" in Islam, "feeding off it like a cancerous tumor." The conservative commentator Cal Thomas also used a cancer metaphor in comments that provoked an outcry from the U.S. Muslim community in recent days. "How much longer should we allow people from certain lands, with certain beliefs to come to Britain and America and build their mosques, teach hate, and plot to kill us?" Thomas asked. "OK, let's have the required disclaimer: Not all Muslims from the Middle East and Southeast Asia want to kill us, but those who do blend in with those who don't. Would anyone tolerate a slow-spreading cancer because it wasn't fast-spreading? Probably not. You'd want it removed."
Even in the United States, where Muslims are far more assimilated into Western society than they are in Great Britain or Europe, 26 percent of younger Muslims say suicide bombing can be justified under some circumstances, according to a Pew Research survey released in May. The question of whether modern Islam has been contaminated, or twisted out of shape, is even on the minds of some Arab leaders. "We used to talk about the extremists coming from the poor or desperate people," says a high-ranking Muslim diplomat. "Then, after 9/11, we had to face the fact that it was middle-class Arab men, too. Now with this British plot it's not just middle class but also doctors. It's very strange. I don't know where this will take us." Indeed, it is fair to ask: how many sensitive, intelligent scions of cultured families might have been stopped in their tracks if the Islamic social culture that nurtured them had vehemently said "no" to the direction they were headed in?
The Muslim communities in both Britain and America have vociferously denounced the U.K. plot. "These people are not from us and we are not from them," said a statement by the Association of Muslim Health Professionals. And it bears mention: homicidal rage of the kind we see in the British case is still very much a rare phenomenon in the Muslim world. Nor is the Koran or Islamic teaching uniquely permissive of violence; the Jewish and Christian God of the Old Testament is, let's face it, a bloody-minded dictator, inflicting wholesale destruction of cities and other cruel and unusual punishments. Finally, over the long run Islamic history has been dominated more by relative peace and prosperity than by jihad. "When I look back at Islamic history over the last few centuries, there was a long period of comparative stability from 1400 onward, in which there was a kind of understanding that Islam deplored anarchy," says Richard Bulliet, a noted scholar of the Arab world at Columbia University.
In fact, there is an argument to be made that "death cult" Islam is a relatively modern illness. Its genesis goes back to the 19th century, but it really took off in the latter part of the 20th century with the Wahhabist-influenced jihad movement in Afghanistan, and the advent of the Saudi petrodollar, which helped spread this extreme puritanical version of Islam. Even suicide bombing, the Muslim diplomat points out, was taboo only a few decades ago: Khalid Islambouli, who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, didn't dare kill himself because "it was a big sin in Islam."
The irony is that this virulent strain began with the removal of Islam from public life during the "modernization" of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, when Western legal structures and armies were created. That led to "the devalidation of Islamic education and Islamic law, the marginalization of Islamic scholars," who until then had collectively acted as counterbalance to tyranny and extremism, Bulliet says. Instead of modernization, what ensued was what Muslim clerics had long feared: tyranny. "You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, removed from public life, tyranny will increase," says Bulliet. "By the 1960s that prophecy was fulfilled. You had dictatorships in most of the Islamic world." Egypt's Gamel Nasser, Syria's Hafez Assad and others came in the guise of Arab nationalists, but they were nothing more than tyrants.
Yet there was no longer a legitimate force to oppose this trend. In the place of traditional Islamic learning—which had encouraged science and advancement in medieval times—there was nothing. The old religious authorities had been hounded out of public life, back into the mosque. The Ottoman Empire had been destroyed in World War I, and the caliphate was abolished. Arrogant autocrats ruled the political sphere. There was, in other words, no legitimate authority of any kind. Into that vacuum roared a fundamentalist reaction led by brilliant but aberrant amateurs like Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, the founding philosopher of Ayman Zawahiri's brand of Islamic radicalism (he was hanged by Nasser), and later, Osama bin Laden, who grew up infected by the Saudis' extreme version of Wahhabism.
Wahhabism itself was more a cult than a significant school in Islam. Even the creator of Wahhabism, the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was considered outside the mainstream in his time. Notorious for demanding the death of anyone who disagreed with him, he was "denounced" by theologians across the Islamic world for his "doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy," as the scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb writes in "Islam and its Discontents." But Wahhabism had the good fortune—bad, for the rest of us—to meet up with the family of Saud, which, since the 18th century, had used this form of fundamentalism to justify conquest. In the mid-to-late-20th century, the Saudis grew filthy rich off oil. As a result, Wahhabism's fast growth in the late 20th century was a function of Saudi petrodollars underwriting Wahhabist mosques and clerics throughout the Arab world (and elsewhere, including America). Indeed, the elites in Egypt and other Arab countries still tend to mock the Saudis as déclassé Bedouins who would have stayed that way if it were not for oil. "It's as if Jimmy Swaggert had come into hundreds of billions of dollars and taken over the Catholic Church," one Arab official said. The hellish culmination of this modern trend occurred in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s and '90s, when extremist Wahhabism, in the person of bin Laden, was married to Qutb's Egyptian Islamism, in the person of Zawahiri, who became bin Laden's deputy.
Arab anger against the West is a relatively recent phenomenon as well. At least until the Iraq War, most present-day Arabs didn't think in the stark clash-of-civilization terms preferred by scholars such as Bernard Lewis, a closet neoconserative. Modern Arab anger and frustration is also less than a hundred years old. It stems from the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, in which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948, and finally, in recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo. The Al Qaeda phenomenon was born of an Islam misshapen by modern political developments—many of them emanating from Western influences, outright invasion by British, French and Italian colonialists, and finally the U.S.-Soviet clash that helped create the mujahadeen jihad in Afghanistan.
Is there hope? Bulliet argues that over the longer reach of history, Islam and the West have been far more culturally integrated than most people realized; there is a far better case for "Islamo-Christian civilization" than there is for the clash of civilizations. "There are two narratives here," says Fawaz Gerges, an intellectual ally of Bulliet's at Sarah Lawrence University. "One is Bernard Lewis. But the other narrative is that in historical terms, there have been so many inter-alliances between the world of Islam and the West. There has never been a Muslim umma, or community, except for 23 years during the time of Mohammed. Except in the theoretical minds of the jihadists, the Muslim world was always split." It remains so today, as we have seen most tragicially in the bloodbath between Sunni and Shia in Iraq. These schisms have prevented the greater healing—for example a pan-Islamic declaration opposing the use of terrorism against innocents—that must occur within Islam as a whole. Muslims must find a way to remove this modern cancer—this fundamentalist death cult—that has infected their religion. None of us on the outside can do it for them.