Father Schall on the Fragility of Islam

Fr. James V. Schall S.J. remains at the age of 83 an indispensable voice in foreign policy, combining theological depth and strategic acuity. “The Fragility of Islam” is the subject of his latest pronouncement at the Catholic Thing blog. Western analysts tend to accept the narrative of Muslim triumphalism, the assertion that the strong faith of the Islamic world will overwhelm the temporizing and vacillating West. Not so, Fr. Schall argues: Islam itself is “as fragile as communism.” He writes:


The major change Islam looks to is not modernization or objective truth but, in a stable world, the submission to Allah of all men under a caliphate wherein no non-believers are found.

We still look back at communism, at least the non-oriental variety, with some astonishment in this regard. Almost no one thought it could “fall” without a major military encounter. That it disintegrated so quickly and so completely seems incomprehensible to anyone but a John Paul II. He understood its frailty, its failure to understand the human soul and its origins….

Religion or faith, even in Islam through Averroes, has been conceived as a myth designed to keep the people quiet. The scholars could quietly let the caliphs and the imams rule if the intelligentsia were left free to pursue philosophy, which was conceived to be anti-Koranic in the sense that the Koran did not hold up under scrutiny about its claims.

The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.

A tiny minority of analysts, this writer included, have argued instead that Islam cannot be reformed or situated in democratic institutions; its militancy, rather, stems from the realization that it cannot survive modernity. “Koranic criticism yet may turn out to be the worm in the foundation of radical Islam,” I wrote in 2003. Much of the Muslim world is repeating the West’s transition out of traditional society, but in lapsed time.

That is the subject of my forthcoming book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too).

An index of Islam’s loss of faith is the unprecedented collapse of fertility in many Muslim countries, most notably Iran. The average Iranian has six siblings, but will have 1.5 children. The Persian nation will not survive this demographic collapse. There are seven working-age Iranians to care for each set of parents; in the next generation there will be one and a half. That is an impossible tax even for industrial nations whose per capita GDP exceeds $30,000, and an unimaginable problem for a country with a per capita GDP of only $6,000. Iran is going to die.

Why so few children? Just as Fr. Schall suggests, we will find when we poke through the rubble that Muslims are as rare in today’s Iran as Communists in the Russia of the 1980s. According to a BBC account Iran has the lowest mosque attendance of any Muslim country at just 2%.

The problem that the West confronts is not engagement with Islam, or reform of Islam, or democratization of Muslim countries, but the utter and final ruin of some of the most important Muslim nations. Turkey’s problems are just as severe: the fertility rate of native Turkish speakers is just 1.5, the same as Iran’s, while Kurdish fertility is around 4.5 — which means that the Kurds will comprise about half the country’s population a generation from now, in contrast to just under 20% today.

Much of the Muslim world remains rooted in traditional society, to be sure; 44% of Egyptians are illiterate and more than 90% of Egyptian women are subject to genital mutilation. But that model also has crashed and burned: a country immured in backwardness cannot survive in the globalized world. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, and Chinese pigs will eat before the Egyptian poor.

The central issue in the Muslim world is its crisis of faith, as Fr. Schall instructs us. The clarity of his formulation stands in contrast to the timid, apologetic stance of many Western Christians toward Islam. Typical of the defeatist view among Catholic intellectuals was a 2009 cover story in First Things magazine by Robert Louis Wilken entitled “Christianity Face to Face with Islam.” Wilken, a Church historian at the University of Virginia, wrote:

The vast geographical extent of the Muslim world offers an exceptionally sturdy base of piety, learning, and culture for expansion. It is often said that the great story of the twenty-first century will be the conflict between Christianity and Islam. From the partial view of these first few years in the century, that certainly seems true. But if the Islam we imagine is the one that makes the morning headlines or the evening news, our sight will be as constricted as that of the Christian inhabitants of Byzantine Syria when the Muslims began to construct a new civilization in their midst. Only if we move to a higher elevation to view Islam on a large historical and geographical panorama will we have the vision to take the measure of the determination, strength, and resources Muslims are likely to display in the decades to come.

The question for Wilken is how Christians are to survive within a triumphant Islam. Fr. Schall, with greater acuity, observes that the emperor has no clothes (I would add that the empire has no tailors, either).

It is a blessing to have Fr. Schall still with us, and I wish him many more years in which to share his wisdom.


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