The Sunni kind is mainly Wahhabi, a radical version of Islam that first appeared in the remote district of Najd in Arabia in the eighteenth century. Among the converts to Wahhabism were the House of Saud, the local tribal chiefs. With the Saudi conquest of the Hijaz in the mid-1920s and the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom, what was previously an extremist fringe in a marginal country became a major force in all the lands of Islam and beyond. Wahhabism has benefited greatly from the prestige and influence and power of the House of Saud as controllers of the holy places of Islam, of the annual pilgrimage, and of the enormous wealth that oil has placed at their disposal.
The Iranian revolution is something different. The term revolution is much used in the Middle East. It is virtually the only generally accepted title of legitimacy. But the Iranian revolution was a real revolution in the sense in which we use that term of the French and Russian revolutions. Like the French and Russian revolutions intheir day, it has had an enormous impact in the whole area with which the Iranians share a common universe of discourse—that is to say, in the entire Islamic world, Shi‘a and Sunni, in the Middle East and far beyond.
Another question much discussed nowadays is that of assimilation. How far is it possible for Muslim migrants who have settled in Europe, in North America, and elsewhere, to become part of the countries in which they settle, in the way that so many other waves of immigrants have done?
There are several points which need to be considered. One of them is the basic differences in what precisely is intended and understood by assimilation. Here there is an immediate and obvious contrast between the European and the American situations. For an immigrant to become an American means a change of political allegiance. For an immigrant to become a Frenchman or a German means a change of ethnic identity. Changing political allegiance is certainly easier and more practical than changing ethnic identity, either in one’s own feelings or in one’s measure of acceptance. For a long time, England had it both ways. A naturalized immigrant became British but did not become English.
I mentioned earlier the important difference in what one means by religion. For Muslims, it covers a whole range of different things, usually designated as the laws of personal status; marriage, divorce, and inheritance are the most obvious examples. Since antiquity, in the Western world many of these have been secular matters. The distinction between church and state, spiritual and temporal, ecclesiastical and lay , is a Christian concept which has no place in Islamic history and therefore is difficult to explain to Muslims, even at the present day. Until modern times they did not even have a vocabulary to express it. They have one now.
What are the European responses to this situation? In Europe, as in the United States, a frequent response is what is variously known as multiculturalism and political correctness. In the Muslim world there are no such inhibitions. They are very conscious of their identity . They know who they are and what they want, a quality which many in the West seem to a very large extent to have lost. This is a source of strength in the one, of weakness in the other.
Another popular Western response is what is sometimes called constructive engagement—Let’s talk to them, let’s get together and see what we can do. This approach dates back to early times. When Saladin reconquered Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land, he allowed the Christian merchants from Europe to stay in the seaports where they had established themselves under Crusader rule. He apparently felt the need to justify this, and he wrote a letter to the caliph in Baghdad explaining his action. The merchants, he said, were useful since “there is not one among them that does not bring and sell us weapons of war, to their detriment and to our advantage.” This continued during the Crusades and after. Even as the Ottoman armies were advancing into the heart of Europe, they could always find European merchants willing to sell them weapons, and European bankers willing to finance their purchases. The modern purveyors of advanced weaponry to Saddam Hussein yesterday and to the rulers of Iran today continue the tradition. Constructive engagement has a long history .