The Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm has remarked that the remaining question about the future of Europe is this: “Will it be an Islamized Europe, or a Europeanized Islam?” The formulation is a persuasive one, and much will depend on the answer.
But the West also has some advantages, the most important of which are knowledge and freedom. The appeal of genuine modern knowledge in a society which, in the more distant past, had a long record of scientific and scholarly achievement is obvious. Presentday Muslims are keenly and painfully aware of their relative backwardness compared with both their own past and their rivals’ present, and many would welcome the opportunity to rectify it.
Less obvious but also powerful is the appeal of freedom. In the past, in the Islamic world the word freedom was not used in a political sense. Freedom was a legal concept. One was free if one was not a slave. Muslims did not use freedom and slavery as a metaphor for good and bad government, as we have done for a long time in the Western world. The terms they used to denote good and bad government are justice and injustice. A good government is a just government, one in which the Holy Law, including its limitations on sovereign authority , is strictly enforced. The Islamic tradition, in theory and, until the onset of modernization, to a large degree in practice, emphatically rejects despotic and arbitrary government. The modern style of dictatorship that flourishes in many Muslim countries is an innovation, and to a large extent an importation from Europe—first, without any ill intent through the process of modernization, strengthening the central authority and weakening those elements in society that had previously constrained it; second, through the successive phases of Nazi and Soviet influence and example.
Living under justice, in the traditional scale of values, is the nearest approach to what the West would call freedom. But with the spread of European-style dictatorship, the idea of freedom in its Western interpretation is also making headway in the Islamic world. It is becoming better understood, more widely appreciated, and more ardently desired. It is perhaps in the long run our best hope, perhaps even our only hope, of surviving this latest stage—in some respects the most dangerous stage—of a fourteen-century-old struggle.