The Middle East -- no different world
-- Abdullah al-Qasemi, Saudi Arabian atheist
Part of the reason Westerners often find the Middle East (including North Africa for purposes of this discussion) hard to understand is that we have been taught to think of it as something alien and other, a place on the far side of an Alice-in-Wonderland mirror where everything is different and incomprehensible, where familiar rules do not apply. As a result, we fail to see commonalities between trends and events there and here, and we judge them by different standards.
In fact, European and Middle Eastern civilization have common roots in the great Classical (Greco-Roman-Persian) cultures and in the even earlier societies such as Babylon and Egypt from which the Classical world itself developed. The history of the whole super-region has followed the same overall pattern -- the catastrophic rise of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam) followed by the long struggle between those who were utterly in thrall to those religions and those who kept fighting to rebuild and advance civilization, often under Classical inspiration. As I put it here:
The beginning of the Dark Ages was marked by the destruction of the remnants of the Classical civilization by Christianity (and by Islam, in the east and south of the old Classical world). The wreckage of that pagan civilization, warped and polluted by Christian taboos and dogmas, eventually evolved into Western culture as we know it today (again, in the east and south, a parallel development happened under the "occupation" of Islam).
The trajectory of the struggle naturally was somewhat different in different areas. The lands under Muslim rule initially did a better job of preserving and translating Hellenistic philosophy and science (perhaps because most of the Hellenistic civilization had been in lands which later fell to Islam), leading to the great "Islamic civilization" of the 7th through 11th centuries, which Ibn Warraq correctly explains was not Islamic at all but a Hellenistic revival under Islamic rule, eventually suffocated by the rigid theologians who had been working against it from the beginning. Under western Christianity the collapse was almost total, followed by a long slow recovery until the dramatic revival of the Classical-inspired Renaissance, a "rebirth" which has been bitterly resisted by Christianity at every step from Galileo to Darwin to stem-cell research. The struggles in the two areas were and are more alike than different -- the forces of enlightenment in both were broadly similar, the forces of religious reaction and obscurantism were broadly similar.
The very concept of splitting the old common realm into two halves, a "Christian world" and an "Islamic world", is itself a lie, a trick, a way in which the enemy has imposed its own paradigm as part of our world-view. Unfortunately it has worked.
The commonalities in the present struggle against fundamentalist Christianity and militant Islam seem impossible to ignore, yet people caught up in the smaller-scale dynamics of the left-vs-right conflict with American society often seen unable to escape the categories imposed by that conflict and to see the real situation. (I'm more of a big-picture guy myself -- leaders and political parties and even countries come and go, but the broader patterns of civilizational struggle remain what they are.) To them, the Middle East is not a complex region engaged in the same kind of internal struggle as our own society is. It's a secondary arena in the internal American left-vs-right battle, to be paid attention only insofar as what happens there can be interpreted to score points in this argument here at home. It's an inchoate mass of "Muslims", one more group to be plugged into the existing paradigm of internal American or European arguments about racism, immigration, discrimination, etc.
(I'm not only singling out liberals here. The right wing is just as wrong in embracing a Huntingdonian "clash of civilizations" model when the real clash is not between civilizations but within them.)
For example, vocal criticism of Islam sometimes results in accusations of racism, as if the Islamic religion and Middle Eastern people were a single, inseparable entity. It would never occur to those who make such accusations to think that similar criticism of Christianity somehow constituted racism. American liberals fighting against fundamentalist Christianity would never mistake fundamentalism for the sum total of authentic American identity; they know that it's just one element, and a very dangerous and reactionary one, contending for power within a hugely diverse American culture. But they don't seem to be able to see Islam in the same kind of role within Middle Eastern society. In America, "Muslim" gets plugged into the same kind of slot as "black', "Latino", "gay", etc., and all hope of actual understanding evaporates.
Try to put that paradigm aside for a moment and look at the Middle East as a complex society in its own right, locked in a prolonged internal conflict between theocracy and secular enlightenment as the West is, and if you do so with a genuinely open mind, you'll be startled at how much more sense it all makes. Huntingdon had things exactly wrong. The demarcation of "we" vs "they" is not the false border the enemy drew down the middle of the Mediterranean. "We" are the forces of secularism, modernity, and individual freedom in Iran or Tunisia as much as in the US or France; "they" are the theocrats and reactionaries in Riyadh, Tehran, Raqqah, the US Republican party, the alphabet soup of theocratic hate groups fighting tooth and nail to keep gays and atheists down -- and, yes, the Islamic extremists in Europe as well. It's all the same war.
(As an aside, I don't know how the whole "racism" angle got started. Over the years I've known people from Iran and Arab countries and seen pictures of thousands more in news stories. They sure look "white" to me.)
But isn't the Middle East genuinely more religious than the US? On the whole it probably is (as the US is more religious than Europe), and certainly the forces of militant religion there are more violent and able to intimidate secular people into keeping quiet. But look more closely and a different picture emerges. This recent report on atheism in Arab countries, for example, reveals an ongoing secularization similar to what is happening in the West -- about 5% of people in Saudi Arabia call themselves "convinced atheists" (not publicly, of course), comparable to the figure in the US, and much higher percentages in various countries acknowledge being non-religious even if not quite ready to embrace the A-word. The rise of unbelief is being driven by the same forces as in the West -- education, exposure to cultural diversity via the internet, and access to the writings of "New Atheist" giants like Dawkins. Islamic behavioral rules in some areas, such as pre-marital sex and alcohol use, are quietly becoming more relaxed. Fiercely-repressive religion-based laws, and the willingness of Islamist thugs to use violence when they see disapproved behavior, keep these changes less visible, but they are nevertheless happening.
Of course, you can find people in the Middle East who do indeed claim that being a Muslim is an essential part of being a proper Arab or Afghani or whatever. But you can also find Americans who think you're not a "real American" if you're not Christian. Such knuckle-draggers cannot be allowed to define anyone else's identity.
Christopher Hitchens once spoke of his experiences doing book-signings in towns in the American South and being met with large crowds of people, all of whom had thought themselves the only atheist in the town and were startled at how many others there were. How many towns and cities from Mazâr-e-Sharîf to Marrakesh are gradually building toward the same kind of critical mass, when I'm the only one becomes Hey, there are a lot of us!
Treating Islam as a monolith and as an "oppressed" group, even when the issue is terrorist attacks on free expression, is an insult to all the courageous people in the Middle East who are fighting against the brutal oppression Islam imposes. It's just like calling American fundamentalist Christians "oppressed" or "persecuted" when their relentless bullying of gays and atheists runs into some pushback -- a meme the fundies have indeed been trotting out lately, though it doesn't seem to fool many liberals when they do it.
Nothing could be more absurd than letting the oppressor claim to be the authentic voice of the oppressed. Don't be tricked. Apartheid did not speak for South Africa. Communism did not speak for the Russian people. Christianity does not speak for America. And Islam does not speak for the Middle East.