"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, non-believers". 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
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
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
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.