“My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives,” United States President Barack Obama told an Arabic television channel on January 26. Really? What are their names? Word has come to the West of no extraordinary Muslim thinker since the 12th century. There is one first-rank Arab writer working today who tries to explain why there are no extraordinary Muslims – but on that more below.
By “extraordinary,” to be sure, Obama means no more than Garrison Keillor meant in saying that the children of Lake Wobegon all are above average. There is no “there” in Obama’s “patchwork,” as he characterized America in his inaugural address. America is all patches and no quilt, arranged in no particular order, as in his remark in the same interview that America is “a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, nonbelievers.” Everyone is ordinary, or maybe extraordinary – whatever. If Obama had said that “the Muslim world is filled with ordinary people, etc.,” his meaning would have been clearer.
It’s worth holding Obama to his words, though. In the real world, the ordinary depends on the extraordinary, for it is the extraordinary citizens of a nation who set a mark for the aspirations of ordinary people. Cultures that can’t produce extraordinary individuals can’t survive. That bears on the other half of the president’s assertion. It is true that most Muslims simply want a better life, and the two or three million American Muslims mostly are well-educated economic immigrants who value prosperity over tradition.
But it also is true that among the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world there are tens of millions who would rather kill and die than endure what they perceive as an intolerable humiliation. The majority of Muslims will be content to eat crumbs from the table of the West and conform to the misery of their circumstances. It is the substantial minority that will not be content that should worry Obama.
The failsafe definition of an “extraordinary person” is what an ambitious mother will tell her feckless children, “Work hard and you might grow up to be like him (or her).” Successful cultures produce people whose contributions resonate through the world – scientists, poets, musicians, entrepreneurs, or philosophers. Just one great individual can transform a nation, by setting an example for ambitious youth. Thanks to the composer Jan Sibelius, Finland with just 5 million people became a force in the world of classical music. But woe unto cultures whence comes no contribution to the rest of humanity. Where are the Muslim scientists, novelists, entrepreneurs, athletes and musicians?
Apart from political leaders, a reasonably diligent reader of a quality newspaper in the West will not be able to name a single Muslim distinguished in any field of human endeavor. Excluding the politically awarded Peace Prize, Muslims have won only three Nobel prizes since their inception more than a century ago, or one for every 450 million Muslims alive today. By contrast, there have been 169 Jewish Nobel Laureates (excluding the Peace Prize), or about one for every 89,000 Jews alive today. During the past century, a Jew was 5,000 times more likely to win the Nobel than a Muslim.
The last native of a Muslim country to receive the Nobel was the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, a secular critic of his native country now living in New York City in virtual exile, unable to return to Istanbul in safety. I favorably reviewed his last novel Snow. Only one Muslim writer today is mentioned as a frontrunner for the literature prize today: the Syrian poet Adonis (the pen-name of Ali Ahmad Sa’id), whom I profiled (Are the Arabs already extinct? Asia Times Online, May 8, 2007).
Adonis is a man whom the world should know better. Almost singlehanded, he created a modernist poetic style in Arabic that vividly conveys the terror of the Muslim encounter with the modern world.
Adonis calls his work an obituary for the Arabs. “We have become extinct,” he told Dubai television on March 11, 2007. “We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world … The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct.”
Islam itself destroys the creative of Muslims, Adonis argues: “Because Islam – the last message sent by God to mankind – has placed the final seal on the Divine Word, successive words are incapable of bringing humankind anything new. A new message would imply that the Islamic message did not say everything, that it is imperfect.” The most melancholy Slav sounds like Jerry Seinfeld next to this poet of despair.
The blame for Islamic backwardness, Adonis claims, lies in the concept of “oneness,” or tawhid, of Allah. “Oneness” conveys not just monotheism, but exclusionary comprehensiveness; it refers more to totality than to unity. As the leading European Islamist Tariq Ramadan explains tawhid, for a right-thinking Muslim, it is literally inconceivable to raise doubts about God. A Muslim, Ramadan explains, might forget, but he cannot doubt.
The trouble with a religion that permits no doubt – unlike Christianity, of which Pope Benedict XVI said that “doubt is the handmaiden of faith” – is that it becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Either Islam regulates the totality of life and thought, such that questioning may intrude within its magic circle, or it becomes nothing. Islam is inseparable from the traditional life of subject peoples; it cannot find roots in the thin soil of modernity.
Measuring modernity is difficult, especially because its onset in the Muslim world is sudden, but there is one unerring gauge of social transformation that shows how quickly Muslim societies are changing. That is population.
Thrust into the modern world, Muslims are overtaking the West only in one dimension: they are aging, and aging faster than any other part of the world. Iran is the fastest-aging country on the globe. The developed world today has a median age of almost 40, the sad result of two generations of demographic decline, while the largest Muslim countries have a median age of 25. But by the middle of the century, according to United Nations projections, the average age of the largest Muslim countries will be 47, converging on the aging industrial world.
Only with extreme difficulty will the developed countries manage the burden of a rapidly aging population. It is hard to envisage how the much-poorer Muslim world will manage it at all. The potential for civil as well as regional instability will continue to rise. Increasingly, the Muslims find themselves with the worst of both worlds, that is, with the same dependency profile as the populations of the West, but without the wealth or the capacity to generate wealth that gives the West some wiggle room.
Japan may have a declining population, but it is a wealthy land with enormous inventiveness and the capacity to substitute capital for labor. Excepting Turkey, no Muslim country has a single industrial company that can compete on world markets. The Muslim world thus far has failed to produce the sort of extraordinary men and women who can innovate and adapt.
Shrinking resources and growing need are a formula for social and regional instability. Iran’s insistence on acquiring nuclear weapons stems from more than a paranoid antipathy to the state of Israel. Iran looks wistfully towards the far shore of the Persian Gulf where Saudi Shi’ites dominate the monarchy’s main oil-producing regions. Fifty million aging Persians, for that matter, might be more concerned about 175 million young Pakistanis to their east than about Israel.
Most Muslims want to better their lives, as Obama said, but their lives are getting worse rather than better, and nothing they know can make things better. In theory, there might be a future state of the world in which the Islamic world could live in peace and prosperity, but today’s Muslims cannot get there from here.
In dozens of essays during the past five years, I excoriated former president George W. Bush for imaging that he could fix the problems of the Muslim world by promoting American-style democracy. If Obama spends more time reassuring, and less time trying to fix the Muslim world, he will do better, by default. America’s policy towards the incurables should be to live and let die.