Partying Like It’s 1648: Why Muslims Are So Different

“The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648,” one of the agreements that sealed the Peace of Westphalia. Painting (1648) by Gerard ter Borch. (Public domain)

Depending on who you listen to, Muslims in the U.S. either want Sharia law to the be the law of the land here, or they don’t. They are either seeking to transform North America into the next caliphate, or they’re not. They either want to impose on us a culture that seemingly hasn’t progressed much beyond a medieval mindset, or they don’t.

Seemingly endless arguments abound on the Internet over whether it’s possible to practice Sharia as simply part of one’s religion, and keep it entirely private, or entirely confined to Muslim religious communities, or whether Sharia is by definition a legal code that must eventually become the legal standard for a whole society, and perhaps someday for the whole world. It seems that one has to become an expert in all the nuances of Islamic thought, Muslim history and culture, and current Muslim polling information, to even begin to sort through all the arguments and counter-arguments.

There is only one poll of which I am aware that was conducted by a widely-recognized organization and which asked Muslims whether they favor making Sharia the law of the land. Unfortunately, none of the Muslims polled in this case were in North America.

Back in 2013, the Pew Foundation released the results from 38 countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa where this question was asked.1 In the Middle East and North Africa, from which the U.S. has received a significant number of immigrants, those who answered “Yes” to this question ranged from 29 percent of the population (in Lebanon) to 91 percent (in Iraq). In this group of seven countries, Egypt fell in the median, with 74 percent saying that they wanted Sharia to be the law of the land. The statistics from Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are even more chilling.

On the other hand, I have seen many videos of random street interviews with Muslims in the U.S. who openly admit that they would rather live in a country that practices Sharia law, but I can’t recall any of them saying that they want to transform American jurisprudence into a Sharia-based system. The implication was that if they had the chance to move to a Sharia-based country, they would. Perhaps they realize the infeasibility of the notion that the U.S. will convert to Islam in their lifetimes. Or perhaps they’re afraid to speak their whole minds. But we do know that other Muslims are actively working toward that very goal.

Is Resistance Futile?

All this has sobering implications regarding those who have immigrated to the U.S. from Muslim nations, and it leads naturally to the question of whether our Muslim population will ever truly assimilate into American culture, and, most importantly, whether they will adopt our society’s views on the relationship (or lack thereof) between church and state. This is not the first group of people about whom that question has been asked. About a century ago, journalists and others openly wondered whether Jews would be able to fully assimilate here. Prior to that, it was widely believed that Roman Catholics could never be full-blooded Americans because of their allegiance to the Pope, who was seen as not merely a religious leader, but someone who presumed to have authority over national governments. As recently as 1960, Mr. Positive Thinking himself, Norman Vincent Peale, publicly opposed the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy because he was Catholic. Obviously, the vast majority of us think quite differently about the role of Jews and Catholics in society today.

So, we’ve been unduly pessimistic about this type of thing before. However, it’s one thing to talk about Jewish and Roman Catholic immigrants, all of whom came here from Europe, a continent which provided the Greco-Roman basis for much of our own culture, and even our language, and quite another to talk about immigrants who do not share much of their language, history, or cultural norms with us. It’s also one thing to wonder whether we can assimilate a particular group of people, and quite another thing to know that many of them want to assimilate us! No Jewish immigrants ever conspired to turn the U.S. into a Jewish state (despite the sadistic propaganda of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion), and no Roman Catholic immigrants ever tried to install the Pope in the White House. But it’s no secret that the U.S. chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood has been working for quite some time to convert America to Islam, and they fully expect to succeed through planning and patience.2

Now, some may point out that missionaries have been trying to convert the entire world to Christianity for centuries, and continue to do so today, and that is true. But living in a country where Christian missionaries have largely accomplished their goal does not involve the risk of being machine gunned to death for drawing a picture of Jesus, even a sacrilegious one.3 Nor does it involve turning back the clock several centuries with respect to slavery, women’s rights, and penalties for misdemeanors (like having a hand amputated). Even though Muslims have engaged in active commerce with Europeans over many centuries, sharing common borders and trading territories back and forth between them, 1,438 Islamic years after Muhammad fled Mecca for Medina,4 millions of Muslims still appear to have a cultural outlook more in keeping with the Western world of the Middle Ages than with the one we know today. At times members of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam seem to hate each other even more than they hate Christians. The idea that our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might be brought up in a Muslim society, where AK-47’s and suicide vests are considered acceptable means for settling religious disputes, is not very appealing to most of us.

Why Haven’t They Changed?

Frankly, this is the wrong question. Down through the centuries human societies have tended to conserve their traditions and guard the status quo rather than pursue radical change. The old is familiar and safe; the new is strange and risky. When they have come, major changes have usually been imposed from the outside. While cultural change often comes through borrowing from other cultures, or from technological innovation, and these can bring big unexpected shifts, left completely to themselves cultures usually seek to perpetuate and make the best of what they inherit.

So, the real question is: why have we changed? Why, for instance, are we now comfortable with the idea that people of completely different religious views can live as equal citizens in the same country, when just a few hundred years ago that idea was considered bizarre and radical?

On the timescale of world civilizations, it was not all that long ago that values like equality were unheard of, freedom was a rare blessing, and laws were enforced with pervasive cruelty, including laws that sought to eliminate religious freedom and diversity. The dramatic transformation of Western civilization into the comparative utopia we now enjoy has occurred only in the past four centuries or so. How did it happen?

But it’s not just that we value freedom and equality. We have become so obsessed with them that various factions in our society constantly battle to gain more of each. When our gaze turns inward to focus on our culture’s circumstances and problems, these are the two cultural fronts where we fight each other: freedom and equality. Some want more of the first; others want more of the second. But the more freedom we grant to the individual, the less overall equality we see, which angers those who make equality their highest value, who in turn accuse the freedom-lovers of voracious greed. And the more equality we create in society, the less freedom the individual enjoys, which angers those who make freedom their highest value, who in turn accuse the equality-lovers of obsessive envy. These are where most of the cultural battles being fought today, within our borders, and they have been making both sides angrier and angrier in recent years.

Does tracing the roots of this conflict of ours help us to understand our differences with the Muslim world?

The French Revolution

For the source of this cultural tension we have to look back to the French Revolution of 1789, with its slogan of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” (French: liberté, égalité, fraternité). Sure, another revolution had been fought using similar concepts over a dozen years earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, but North America was still a primitive backwater in the 18th century. Only when those same concepts dragged the head of the half-millennium-old House of Bourbon from his throne to the guillotine, thereby relieving him of his own head, were those concepts exposed as a powerful engine for change in the Western world.

“The Storming of the Bastille,” July 14, 1789, by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735–1813). (Public domain)

Not that the average Westerner would have enjoyed living in France during the decade of convulsions that began in 1789. The tyranny of the crown was replaced by the tyranny of the crowd, which led to the Reign of Terror, which yielded to the repressions of the Directory, which was deposed by the dictatorship of Napoleon. Not a whole lot of liberty, equality, or brotherhood was on display in those days, but like a snowball rolling down a high mountain those ideals gained momentum throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

So, it is tempting to see the French Revolution as the watershed event that made the West so different from the Muslim world, especially with respect to the role of religion in society. But that would be quite incorrect. The West had already been profoundly transformed in its outlook on religious disputes by a far bloodier, more devastating conflict. If that conflict had not happened, the philosophical Enlightenment movement, which invented the whole “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” thing, would have never happened. And without the Enlightenment, there would have never been a French Revolution.

So the French Revolution was the kind of conflict that the Muslim world could never have experienced, because they had not first experienced the thing that made it possible. And just what was that thing for us?

The Thirty-Years War

Imagine being thrown off the top of a seven-story building and living to talk about it. Every once in a while, a major war is sparked by some peculiar incident which, if you were responsible for it, you wouldn’t want your grandkids to know about it.

On May 23, 1618, a group of Protestants threw three Roman Catholics out of a window at the Prague Castle in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). Fortunately, 69 feet below the window, the ground broke their fall—at least, as far as we know. When Catholics told the story, angels caught them. When Protestants told it, they landed on a manure pile. Either way, they survived. But that didn’t keep the new King of Bohemia from going to war over it, because he had sent them.

The incident was not caused simply by hatred between Protestants and Catholics. The Protestant Reformation was just over a century old, and even though the Bohemian kings had been Catholics while their subjects had been largely Protestant, for quite some time the kings had been tolerant of Protestantism in their realm. Things didn’t seem all that bad—at least up until now. The new king, Ferdinand II, was a son of the Counter-Reformation, trained by Jesuits, and he began opposing Protestant influence in Bohemia soon after his reign began. Given recent events elsewhere in Europe, the Protestants were sure that they were now engaged in a fight for their religious freedom, and probably their very lives, and so they made the first (albeit mostly symbolic) move in what they believed was an inevitable conflict. And what a conflict it was!

“The miseries of war; No. 11, ‘The Hanging'” (1632) by Jacques Callot. A scene from the Thirty Years War. (Public domain)

The Thirty Years War actually ended up being a series of conflicts that began in 1618 and ended in 1648, drawing in more than 20 countries (even the Muslim Ottoman Empire got involved!) and leaving 8 million dead by the time it ended, around 5 million of them Germans. It killed far more Germans than the 14th century bubonic plague had. Entire German-speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire were depopulated, not only because of the fighting, but because of the diseases and famines that the fighting brought. Partially as a result of this cataclysm, Germany would not emerge as a single nation-state until 1871, and by then many Germans would come to believe that their country had been cheated out of the kind of colonial empire that Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and even the Dutch had been able to build in the intervening centuries. The resulting German brand of envy that played a large role in lighting the fuse that detonated two world wars in the 20th century was another legacy of the Thirty Years War.

There had been religious wars in Europe before the Thirty Years War, but this one was the biggest, and would be the last. Religious violence continued for a few more years in the British Isles, and some other unresolved conflicts on the Continent continued for a few more years, but the settlement that concluded the Thirty Years War would not only set the tone for how all of Europe would come to deal with future religious conflicts, but lead to far-reaching changes in the role of religion throughout Western nations.

The Peace of Westphalia and Its Aftermath

Just as the Thirty Years War was a series of conflicts rooted in religious differences, so the Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years War. There was no clear winner, so it had not only been one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, but also one the most futile. The treaties would change the geopolitical and religious landscape, but the biggest changes, especially for our purposes, were the introduction of freedom for private worship and the agreement to not allow religious conflicts to serve as a basis for wars. Thus, religion gradually began to fade into the background of European politics and governance.

Not only that, but as religion’s secular powers faded, a new force began to emerge that slowly remolded our culture: religious doubt. Pervasive doubt itself was, in fact, the basis of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Everything, not only religious dogmas, but everything was to be doubted and then submitted to the tests that reason imposed. Consequently, whereas once it was risky to publicly self-identify as an agnostic or atheist, eventually it would become a matter of indifference. Thus for all the damage it did to the cause of Christianity, including pacifist Christianity, the Enlightenment also became one more force pushing Western society toward ever-increasing religious tolerance.

The Islamic world never had anything like this. It never had the kind of “eureka” moment where a huge and otiose body count made it finally dawn on them that it made more sense to erase religion from the list of reasons for going to war than it did to keep on killing people for believing and worshiping differently than them. Islam never came to the point where its whole culture finally saw the pointlessness of religious warfare, and it never saw how the state enforcement of religion contributes to senseless repression and violence. So, Muslim civilization never went through the process of gradually decoupling the powers of the church (or mosque) from the power of the state. It never experienced the kind of gradual transformation into a secular society that the West experienced.

Instead, the phenomenon of secular governments in the Muslim world is a 20th century invention, a pragmatic and largely unwelcome attempt to imitate the success of the secularized West. It was thrust suddenly upon vast Muslim populations that were not afforded the luxury of gradual cultural adjustment, and so the cultural resistance to secularism has been constant from the beginning.

Perhaps groups like ISIS are changing that. If there was ever an army that seems to duplicate the horrors of the Thirty Years War, even outdoing them, to the point where even Muslims recoil from the idea of being ruled by them, it is ISIS. One can only hope.

For Better and for Worse

We in the West can only remember a time when church and state were co-equal powers in our society from reading our history books. For countless Muslims, that memory was handed to them by their grandparents and great-grandparents, and it is remembered as a loss borne with great resentment.

Meanwhile, it has been nearly 370 years since Western culture abandoned the notion that it is normal and proper to enforce religious decrees with the power of the sword, removing it to the dust of the West’s cultural attic along with the Inquisition and witch-burning.

The same cultural aspects of Islam that look so medievally-barbaric to us, are familiar and even comforting to them. Not all of them, of course. For better and for worse, the tree of secularism has been planted in the Muslim world, and it is struggling to survive. Perhaps we will see its roots and branches begin to spread soon. But few cultures have made a quick transition from medievalism to modernity without in some way becoming a problem to their neighbors (Japan comes to mind here).

In the meantime, for Christians, the opportunity for evangelizing Muslims has never been as good as it is now. God has a purpose for all of history, including the history we are now witnessing and experiencing, and that purpose is summarized in His relentless pursuit of lost sinners. It is not a time to cower I fear, but a time to stand boldly for our faith.Ω


© 2017, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.


  1. “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, Chapter 1: Beliefs About Sharia.” Pew Research Center, Religion & Public Life, April 30, 2013; http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-beliefs-about-sharia/
  2. “A rare look at secretive Brotherhood in America,” by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Sam Roe and Laurie Cohen, Chicago Tribune, September 19, 2004; http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/chi-0409190261sep19-story.html.
  3. Charlie Hebdo shooting, Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo_shooting.
  4. Since Islamic years are based on its lunar calendar and our years are based on a solar calendar, for us there have only been 1, 395 years, going back to AD 622.

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