SITTING IN THE CAPITAL of the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a metal arrow on the ceiling of my hotel room pointing to Mecca, I feel impelled to write about our troubles with Islam. Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which were perpetrated in the name of Allah, most people in what we still loosely call the West would agree that we do have troubles with Islam.
Why? What's the nub of the problem? Here are six different views often heard in the West but also, it's important to add, in Muslim countries such as Iran. As you go down the list, consider which one matches your opinion.
This is a view held by many highly educated people in the post-Christian West, especially in Western Europe. If translated directly into a political prescription, it has the drawback of requiring that 3 billion to 5 billion men and women abandon their fundamental beliefs. Nor has the track record of purely secular regimes over the last 100 years been altogether inspiring.
Two objections to this widespread view are that it encourages monolithic thinking about Islam and that it is based too much in Western terms (Middle Ages, Reformation). If we mean by Islam "what people calling themselves Muslim actually think, say and do," there is a huge spectrum of different realities.
This is the view promulgated by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. But then, they're not going to insult millions of Muslim voters and the countries that the West relies on for oil. Do they really believe it? Put them on a truth serum, and I bet they'd be closer to No. 2. On the other hand, this analysis is made with learning and force by distinguished specialists on the Muslim world.
Indeed, there are democracies with Muslim majorities — Turkey, Mali. Columbia University political scientist Alfred Stepan has suggested that, in the democracy stakes, non-Arab Muslim countries have fared roughly as well as non-Muslim countries at a comparable level of economic development. But even in a traditionally anti-Arab country such as Iran, very few people think the trouble is just with Arabia.
Even if this simplistic version of history were entirely true, we couldn't change the past. But we could acknowledge the historical damage for which we are genuinely responsible. And we could do more to create a free and law-abiding Palestine next to a secure Israel.
I wish I could find some compelling evidence against this account. Even if we were to assist at the birth of a free Palestine and pull out of Iraq tomorrow, this problem would remain.
Now, to which of the six views do you subscribe? What we call Islam is a mirror in which we see ourselves. Tell me your Islam and I will tell you who you are.