|NONZERO THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY By ROBERT WRIGHT|
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND
PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE
PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
[Published in Slate, Oct. 27, 2001]
In a recent appraisal of the ongoing argument over Islam, Slate's
Seth Stevenson notes in
passing that Christian and Jewish scriptures aren't devoid of
belligerence either. He wasn't kidding. Here is some guidance offered in
the book of Deuteronomy.
When you draw near to a
city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer
to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found
in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes
no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its
males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and
everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for
Granted, the Judeo-Christian God—unlike the Muslim hijackers—here
seems to favor sparing women and children. But this treatment is
reserved for "cities which are very far from you." In nearer
cities, "the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives
you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but
you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the
Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the
Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according
to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of
their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God." In contrast,
the Quran—as interpreted not by Mohamed Atta but by Mohammed, who was
something of an authority on it—counsels sparing women and children,
even in a holy war.
I'm not saying that Islam is irrelevant to what happened on Sept. 11.
In fact, I buy much of Sullivan's argument—that understanding
contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, as distinguished from moderate
strands of Islam, helps illuminate our predicament. But I am saying that
this whole business of mining the Quran for incendiary quotes is
essentially pointless. Religions evolve, and there is usually enough
ambiguity in their founding scriptures to let them evolve in any
direction. If Osama Bin Laden were a Christian, and he still wanted to
destroy the World Trade Center, he would cite Jesus' rampage against the
money-changers. If he didn't want to destroy the World Trade Center, he
could stress the Sermon on the Mount.
To some of Islam's critics, this evolutionary view of religion seems
only to strengthen their indictment of the faith. Why, they ask, hasn't
Islam done what other faiths have done—use the leeway offered by
scriptural ambiguity to evolve away from truculent intolerance?
Whereas during the crusades Muslims and European Christians were equally
bent on slaughtering infidels (i.e., each other), European Christians
today seem to accept religious diversity in a way that millions of
Muslims don't. Why is that?
To me, the answer seems simple: The predominately Christian nations
have become more economically advanced, more globalized, which naturally
leads to a more cosmopolitan outlook. It's impossible to do business
with people while slaughtering them, and it's pretty hard to do business
with them while telling them that they'll burn in hell forever. Modern
global capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn't one of
In this view, the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists is a
reflection not of scripture laid down 1,400 years ago, but of their
sociological circumstances in recent decades. In Pakistan, alongside
millions of insular and mostly poor fundamentalists, are wealthier,
worldlier, and more moderate Muslims. Marxists may get most things
wrong, but when they view religion as "superstructure"—a
product of deeper economic and political dynamics—they're onto
Some who acknowledge that modernization saved Christianity from rabid
intolerance would like to turn even this into an indictment of Islam.
Why, they ask suspiciously, didn't the Islamic world modernize readily?
Why did Christian Europe beat Islamic civilization to the
industrial revolution? Mightn't there be something inherently oppressive
and economically stultifying about Islam? Wasn't some Christian emphasis
on personal liberty the key to Europe's industrial-age success?
There are several things I dislike about this line of thought: 1) Its
incompatibility with the great intellectual and economic
accomplishment of Islamic civilization during much of the Middle
Ages; 2) its incompatibility with the intense authoritarianism of some
leading Christians before the industrial revolution (Calvin ruled Geneva
roughly as Stalin ruled Russia); 3) its incompatibility with my own
favorite theory about why Europe industrialized before either China or
Islamic civilization, both of which had earlier been on the leading edge
of commerce and technology.
theory stresses the lack of effective empire—of firm
centralized rule—in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the early
modern era. Because Europe was politically fragmented, there were lots
of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic
organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more
experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning
formula—such as the combination of political and economic liberty that
was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th
century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this
formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and
their Christianity evolved accordingly.
The magic formula of political and economic liberty has since spread
across much of the world. Eventually, I'm sure, it will prevail even in
currently repressive Islamic states.
Unfortunately, the transition could be wrenching. Though
globalization is the long-run hope for Islamic society, it is the
short-run threat. Yes, market economies are the only lasting cure for
poverty. But the first step in the cure often strains the bonds of
tradition by moving people from rural, kin-based communities into cities
or shantytowns. And even decades after this initial dislocation, when
families have been pulled safely out of poverty, modernization can still
threaten the values of the deeply religious. Hence the paradox of the
two types of 9/11 hijackers: the poor, uneducated ones, and the
middle-class but alienated ones.
There is obviously a sense in which the blame-Islam-first crowd is
right, and Islam is part of the problem. The attitude of
Islamic fundamentalists—an abhorrence of the non-Islamic
world—conflicts with the logic of globalization, and, sooner or later,
something has to give. But if history is any guide, what will give in
the end is reactionary religion, not technological progress. And the
result will be, as it has been in the past, the evolution of a more
humane, tolerant faith. There is no timeless, immutable essence of
Islam, rooted in the Quran, that condemns it to a medieval morality.
The truth is depressing enough: We have to fight poverty and
ignorance, yet the surest cure for these things—economic
modernization—carries intense short-run dangers. We don't need to
further depress ourselves by forgetting that most of the world's
prosperous Christian lands once had the same mindset as today's
fundamentalist Muslims. They were mired in a pre-modern belief
system—and there but for the grace of a few quirks of history they
might still be.