Imagine that you live in the strongest military power in the world.
Your society leads in science, education and art.
A storm of religious fundamentalism begins to sweep through the region, undermining the “secular” elements of the community, imposing the primacy of scriptural tradition. Belief in science begins to be questioned, art becomes more focused on spiritual correctness and education emphasizes conformity with religious orthodoxy.
At about the same time your primary geopolitical opponents are making tentative steps to diminish the influence of religious institutions that have dominated daily life for centuries. As your edge in art, education and science begins to fade your rivals’ progress in these areas gains momentum while the influence and control of their ecclesiastical class goes into decline.
In the process the increased development of your challengers’ scientific progress bolsters their economic and military might while your own, increasingly controlled by a theocratic power structure, is diminished.
How would you react?
Of course, such a scenario is purely theoretical and rather far-fetched at that, right?
Well, actually, no.
During the middle ages the Islamic Caliphate drove the crusaders out of the holy land. At the time they were far advanced over Europe in science and mathematics. A brief and very readable summary of the rise and decline of Islamic rationalism and its subsequent subjugation by religious fundamentalism can be found in The New Atlantic in an article titled “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science” by Hillel Ofek.
In a concurrent time frame Europe was emerging from the dark ages and entering the Renaissance with the rebirth of science and art and the beginning of the decline of the church as a controlling influence.
Arabic science, during its “golden age” even began to develop a theory of biological evolution centuries before Darwin.
In the zoology field of biology, Muslim biologists developed theories on evolution which were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools. John William Draper, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, considered the "Mohammedan theory of evolution" to be developed "much farther than we are disposed to do, extending them even to inorganic or mineral things." According to al-Khazini, ideas on evolution were widespread among "common people" in the Islamic world by the 12th century.
The first biologist to develop a theory on evolution was al-Jahiz (781-869). He wrote on the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and he first described the struggle for existence. Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains, and was also an early adherent of environmental determinism, arguing that the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community and that the origins of different human skin colors is the result of the environment.
In recent decades we have begun to see a repetition of this historical pattern. However, it is going in the opposite geographic direction.
What were once regarded as rural fringe groups characterized as the con man archetype portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film Elmer Gantry gained prominence and political influence in the 1980’s as “the Moral Majority” initiated by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Despite scandals in the intervening thirty years, no one could deny the increasing influence of the “people of faith” movement, especially in the Republican Party.
The movement has not only aggressively developed and promoted its own institutions of higher learning, they have also fought to institutionalize acceptance of their religious convictions as deserving of equal treatment in pre-collegiate educational systems at the state level. They have cultivated a philosophy of false equivalency of their scripturally founded beliefs with scientific theory and fact.
We have seen this recently in our own community with a citizen advocating the teaching of creationism as an alternative to theories of evolution and those who would propound the demonstrably false premise that America was founded as a “Christian Nation”.
While these forces have gained ground in America and other western countries, dissident forces in the Islamic world have been fomenting a counter-revolutionary movement against the dominance of clerical leaders with strong support among the young and more secular elements of society. Much of the increasing extremism among Islamic fundamentalists stems not merely from a hatred of the west, but a concern of losing their control of affairs in their own society.
Dismiss these emerging cultural trends as you will at your peril. As Santayanna noted, “Those who cannot learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them”.