In his recent piece in The Times, Matt Ridley speaks of how Muslims are “turning away from Islam.” In a scathing and passionate article, he chastises jihadism and militant Islam and suggests humanism and secularism as antidotes to the same. I stand with Mr. Ridley in rebuking all forms of extremism and violent jihad and share his views that these must be seriously tackled. However, I take issue with the manner in which Mr. Ridley seems to paint 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide with the same brush. His powerful narrative places militant Islamism concomitant with Islam, effectively disenfranchising the more than a billion moderate Muslim voices worldwide – that not only condemn terrorism but are in fact victims of it.
Let’s put Mr. Ridley’s claims in perspective. He argues that, “The fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief,” adding that the, “humanists are winning, even against Islam.” The gest of his arguments runs something like this: that atheism is on the rise globally, with an increasing number of people turning away from religion, in particular Islam; that this phenomenon is panning out in spite of the fact that atheists do not proselytise; that estimates forecast a decline in fertility rates amongst Muslim populations that have until now determined their increased market share; that atheists are persecuted in Muslim-majority lands; that jihadists are inspired by a desire, “to prevent the Muslim diaspora [from] sliding into western secularism” and that secularism can ultimately win against jihadism.
Mr. Ridley either intentionally or unintentionally indulges in classic “othering” discourse – the “them” against “us” approach – “Islam” against the “West.” His account is a quintessential example of partisan scholarship – one that entrenches misplaced stereotypes within society and paves the way towards a civilisational divide. There is no informed or reasoned analysis on the causes of terrorism, the geopolitical factors that have shaped its trajectory and importantly how Muslims, too, are victims of extremism. Is terrorism really a religious cult? Why do people like Mr. Ridley forget that the Taliban were really a creation of the Americans, known as freedom fighters at the time, and engaged to fight the Soviets during the Soviet War in Afghanistan – something Hilary Clinton has admitted on national television. Clinton sums it up quite well – you harvest what you sow. Moreover, it is also an open secret that the so-called Islamic State, who took responsibility for the recent attacks in Paris, was a creation of the Iraq War. As such, the motivations of terrorists are not quite religious as Mr. Ridley contends; they are more political than anything else. The Paris assassins shouted how France should not have gone into Syria, as they carried out their cold-blooded acts of murder. Karen Armstrong, in her recent talk at Saint Anthony’s College Oxford, outlined how each of the two British men who went to fight in Syria recently, ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon. This alone, makes a travesty of the claim that extremists hold intensely religious passions.
Furthermore, Mr. Ridley’s predictions that atheism will ultimately overtake Islam must be taken with a pinch of salt. His assertions sit in contradiction with a report published earlier this year by the Pew Research Center that reveals how by 2050 Islam is forecasted to be the fastest growing religion – the Muslim population estimated to increase by 73% in the next 35 years. It states how Muslims will grow from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.76 billion in 2050, with Islam being the only religion to surpass the global rate of population expansion. It would also place Islam for the first time at par with Christianity in numbers. By contrast, the study suggests that while the number of non-believers including atheists and agnostics will rise in countries such as the United States and France, the total rise in non-believers is estimated at a 100 million – rising merely from 1.1 billion in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2050 – and by those numbers, this would actually mean a drop in the total population of atheists – from 16% of the total population in 2010 to 13% of the total population globally in 2050.
While I celebrate the secular values of democracy and the rule of law, these ideals do not suffice on their own if their overriding premise is not justice. Secular jurisprudence testifies to this, John Rawls arguing for example that, “legitimacy is only the minimal standard of political acceptability; a political order can be legitimate without being just,” adding that it is justice that provides, “the maximum moral standard: the full description of how a society’s main institutions should be ordered.” If secular ideals were sufficient on their own, we would not have lost 60 million people in the mass destruction of the Second World War – a war that was clearly not fought for any religious reasons. Hence, I am not convinced that secularism is as sacred as Mr. Ridley makes it out to be. Such overly simplistic, lop sided rhetoric reduce his scholarship to the ranting of an angry man, which does not behoove a person of Mr. Ridley’s intellect and educational background. When extremists kill, humanity suffers – not a particular cultural or religious demographic. Since 2003, in Pakistan alone, more than 20,000 civilians have perished in terrorism related violence. Similarly, thousands have lost their lives in Nigeria in terrorist attacks carried out by Boko Haram, a group claimed to be deadlier than ISIS. Even still, people like Mr. Ridley continue to assert that extremists are somehow more of a threat to the West than they are to the rest of the world. If anything, Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of extremism, and unless we unite against terrorism by considering it a global problem, it will only fuel more extremists on both sides of the religious and political spectra. And if secularism – the long championed beacon of liberty cannot unite us in this cause, then it is as dogmatic as radical ideology.