Islamotopia: The First Hundred Years

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2116 — From the vantage point of one hundred years, we can see more clearly the achievements of the new island-nation known as Islamotopia.

Yes, the passage of a century has provided us with a fascinating and important real-time demonstration of the power of an alternative—an alternative path for Islam, based on non-zealotry, non-Jihadism, and, most crucially of all, non-violence.

In particular, as we study Islamotopia, we can gain valuable perspective by looking back at the long and successful reign of its first ruler, Queen Malala I.

Indeed, because Islamotopia has been so successful over the last century, it must count as a triumph for the West. Finally, in its long struggle—often characterized as a “Clash of Civilizations”—with Islamic extremism or, as it was sometimes called, Islamofascism, the West has finally succeeded in a political project.

Indeed, the enormous success of Islamotopia makes it all the more interesting to think back to those bleak days of a century ago, when a sense of extreme crisis, even hopelessness, weighed down on Western thinking about the question of Islam.

That crisis, which peaked in 2015, had three causes:

First, after more than a decade of costly attempts—costly in terms of both blood and treasure—it was obvious that the Western idea of representative democracy was not a good fit for the Arab and Muslim lands of the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan. That is, the populations of those countries were mostly hostile to the basic idea of democracy.

To be sure, the Muslim countries could deal with the idea of majority rule, because they were the majority, and they knew it. But these Muslim countries had no interest in the other core concepts of representative democracy, such as minority rights and the rule of law. For example, when told by Westerners that 51 percent of the population voting to murder the other 49 percent was not in keeping with the true ideal of democracy, the Muslim populations grew sullen and hostile; in their minds, over-elaborate democracy, with carefully delineated rights and responsibilities, was just a ploy, aimed at insinuating Western propaganda into Islam and thereby subverting the faith. And of course, in fairness to the Muslims, they had never asked the West to bring them democracy in the first place. Democracy was our idea, introduced for them after 9-11; the idea had no real roots in Islamic culture or tradition. So it shouldn’t have been any surprise that democracy was a hard, even impossible, sell to Muslim societies. 

A grim headline in The Washington Post late in 2015 seemed to say it all: “A year of Taliban gains shows that ‘we haven’t delivered,’ top Afghan official says.” And of course, the same headline could have capped most of the years of the early 21st century; the Taliban had, of course, been bouncing back since around 2002.

Second, the refugee influxes into the West were profoundly destabilizing to our societies. While Muslims, as we have seen, had little or no tradition of political freedom and tolerance, they also had no more desire to be killed than anyone else; they were attracted as well to the wealth—and generous social benefits—of the West. And so, especially in the decade of the 10s of the last century, millions of Muslims fled from war zones in Syria and Iraq, and millions more fled from the economic deprivation of countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. They wanted a better life in the West, and yes, it seemed nice that the “Christian Crusaders,” as they were commonly known, wanted to pay for it all.

In particular, it must be said, the rise of the Islamic State sent shock waves of fear and revulsion through the Muslim world. Yes, the Islamic State, sometimes known as ISIS or ISIL, had a base of support among Muslim populations—especially among young men of a military and Jihadi mindset—but for the most part, the vast majority of the Muslim population was apathetic, even hostile, to ISIS.

So they fled. And that meant that something had to be done, as millions of refugees and asylum-seekers made their way to Europe and, many of them hoped, to the United States.

Yet of course, even as the demand for western havens surged, the supply of such havens began to shrink radically. Popular support for pro-asylum policies fell to just about zero in the wake of the Paris terrorist massacre of November 2015 and the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre in December 2015. Indeed, although some leaders—notably, the failed President Barack Hussein Obama—were loath to see the new post-massacre political reality of immigration-restrictions, it was evident after 2015 that mass immigration into the West and the US was just not going to happen. That is, the native populations of the West were simply not going to stand for demographic inundation. As we might recall from those days, the smug assurances of the authorities that asylum-seekers could be adequately “vetted” were proven, repeatedly, to be hollow. And after the next wave of elections in the West—including the US presidential election of 2016—the issue was settled: There would be no more big movement of displaced Muslims into the West.

Third, despite all the frustration and tragedy of nation-building, on the one hand, and the impossibility of asylum-giving, on the other, thoughtful Westerners could still see that the status quo in Muslim societies was not acceptable. Yes, as a matter of both conscience and geopolitics, something had to change—something had to be done to improve life for deserving Muslims.

Most famously, in October 2012, the case of the Pakistani teenage girl Malala Yousafzai gained international attention: She was shot by the Taliban for the simple “crime” of wanting to go to school. Miraculously, even though she had been shot in the head at point-blank range, she survived and recovered fully. Understandably, for reasons of safety, she and her family moved to the United Kingdom, where she blossomed into a poised and persuasive spokesperson for the empowerment of all persons, although of girls and women in particular. Indeed, Malala came to epitomize a humane vision of Islam overall. For her efforts, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014; she was the youngest-ever recipient of that high honor.

Yet in those dark days, Malala was one of the lucky ones. In March 2015, a young Afghan woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, 27, was murdered in Kabul; her case seemed to share at least some outlines with Malala’s, although, to be sure, Farkhunda’s story ended tragically.

Like Malala, Farkhunda was outspoken in her advocacy of a Muslim form of “girl power.” While the circumstances of Farkhunda’s death are murky—some said she had burned a Koran, others said that she was protesting the sale of pagan amulets and Western Viagra at her local mosque—it’s readily apparent that she didn’t deserve to die. And yet she was killed by a mob of Afghan men, who clubbed her, stoned her, and then tried to set her body on fire—although her clothes wouldn’t burn because there was so much of her own blood on them. And all this happened as Western-paid Afghan police stood by and, according to some reports, actually joined in the lynching of the young woman.

Yet because this incident happened in the capital city of Kabul, under the attentive eye of the Western (mostly American) military—plus the Western media, plus any number of NGOs, the Afghan authorities felt that they had to take at least some judicial action. Nearly 50 Afghans were arrested in the case, and more than a dozen were sentenced either to the death penalty or to long prison terms. Yet as The New York Times reported in late 2015, under the headline, “Flawed Justice After a Mob Killed an Afghan Woman,” it took only a few months before the harsh sentences were reduced to nothing or almost nothing. Sadly, it was plain to all that the Afghan authorities just did not have their heart in the prosecutions; moreover, the Afghan population was solidly on the side of the lynch-mob.

This was a bitter pill for Western authorities to swallow. Not only did the sad fate of Farkhunda suggest that George W. Bush had been wrong when he said, in 2001, that “Islam is peace,” but also the case indicated that all the costly Western training of local Afghans had been for naught. As the Times noted,

The United States alone has spent more than $1 billion to train lawyers and judges and to improve legal protections for women; European countries have provided tens of millions more.But like so many other Western attempts to remake Afghanistan, the efforts have foundered.

The Afghan actress Leena Alam was moved to speak of Farkhunda in despairing terms:

If she gets justice, all women in Afghanistan who were harmed or killed or abused get justice. If she doesn’t, then all these years of the international community being here, all the support they gave, all the money, this whole war, means nothing. It all went to waste.

Yet there would be no justice for Farkhunda, at least not in Afghanistan. And so in 2015, Leena Alam’s despairing words about Afghanistan could be seen as summing up the despairing situation that many felt about the larger American mission in Afghanistan since 2001. Yes, in 14 years of fighting, America had proved that it could defeat the Taliban in open battle, but it had not proved that it had won over Afghan hearts and minds—just the opposite, in fact.

And of course, the tragedy of Farkhunda and the near-tragedy of Malala were hardly isolated incidents. The news from the region every day brought deeply disturbing reports about the plight of Christians, women, Yazidis, and others in the Middle East and Central Asia.

So thus we can see the three-part trap that Western policymakers had fallen into: first, the failure of the politico-military transformation in Muslim lands since 2001; second, the abundantly justified Western fear of Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers coming into the West; and third, the terrible injustices done to those who were vulnerable in the Muslim world—a world that had been destabilized, and perhaps worsened, by Western intervention. So yes, Western experts and others had a perfect right to be glum.

Yet as the cliche holds, it’s always darkest before the dawn. And so even in 2015, it was possible to see a few bright pinpoints of light in the gathering tapestry of darkness.

Indeed, the brightening actually began to become visible earlier, in 2013. In that year, Malala, the Muslim girl, seemed almost Hindu-like in some of her statements about the power of non-violence and forgiveness. In a remarkable speech to the UN General Assembly in 2013, she began by invoking her Muslim god, Allah, “The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful,”and yet it was immediately evident that her vision of Islam was far different from that of many, if not most, of her fellow believers. She recalled the moment that brought her to world attention:

Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala.

Then she went on to put forth a simple agenda that brought applause from her audience, as well as more than a few tears:

My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.

Yes, even the most hard-nosed Jacksonian could not fail to be moved by her human story and her gentle message of forgiveness and reconciliation. And even the most resolutely isolationist libertarian could not wish, at least a little, to help Malala in her mission of civilizing her fellow Muslims.

Continuing her speech, Malala described how she would feel if a Taliban terrorist were standing in front of her, aiming, once again, to kill her. As we read her words, we might note her ecumenical generosity; although she spoke as a Muslim, she freely cited the positive influence of other religious figures, including “Jesus Christ”—whom she was careful to describe by His full Christian title, as opposed to just “Jesus”—and also “Lord Buddha.” As she said,

Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohamed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.

She closed with the words,

So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.

As we can see, Malala had all the right ideas; her core values were our core values. She, too, believed in non-violence, education, and forgiveness.

But of course, there was still the problem of “tangibilizing” our affection for Malala and her message—that is, making it real and manifest. For all her potency in the media, Malala was, after all, just a girl living in exile from her home country; if she were to return to Pakistan, she would certainly be targeted once again for murder.

So what to do? What to do about Malala? And Farkhunda? And all the other sad cases in the Middle East, most of whom would never be known in the West?

And that’s when our policymakers had a flash of new insight—actually, an old insight brought into the 21st century. And that insight: It’s a big world. There’s plenty of room, on this globe, for different people to try different things. Different strokes, as Americans like to say.

Of course, there were a lot of people in the world in 2015: The planetary population was more than seven billion. Yet even so, a lot of empty land still was to be found on the planet. And so the solution of what to do with the Malalas of the world—how to keep her and her kind, however few, safe—began to announce itself.

In 2015, the seven billion people of the earth lived on a land-surface area of some 197 million square miles. To put those numbers another way, the average population density, across the whole surface of the planet, was about 35 people per square mile. Indeed, vast tracts of land—in Canada, Siberia, Africa, and Australia—were absolutely empty. Uninhabited.

And so as creative problem-solvers got to thinking about this, the idea came to them: Why not resettle peaceful Muslims, such as Malala, in some uninhabited part of the world? Why not settle them where they could be safe and flourish, which would be nice, and, from a strategic perspective, provide a powerful counter-weight to the violence and horror that is endemic to so many Muslim territories?

Yes, that was the idea: Just as the Americas had been a refuge for those fleeing the tyranny and oppression of Old Europe, why not create an ealim jadid—a New World—for Muslims?

It was immediately apparent that this effort would not be cheap. That is, the costs of transporting people and creating some sort of productive, or at least sustaining, economy would be expensive.

And yet of course, these costs had to be compared to what the West, in particular the US, had spent in its efforts to “nation-build” in the region: As of 2015, the cost of our intervention in Afghanistan had come to $686 billion, not to mention the more than 2,300 Americans killed. And Operation Iraqi Freedom had cost even more: Some $1.1 trillion, as well as 4,500 Americans killed and another 30,000 wounded.

And since, in 2015, those costs were far from ended—that is, we are still on the hook for billions, even trillions, more, as national honor, and national strategy, required us not to “bug out” of the region—the idea of a New World for Muslims, however much it cost, started to look like a bargain.

The thinking was that this idea of ealim jadid could be a sort of “demonstration project,” a chance for Muslims to show, if they could, that they could live peacefully and harmoniously. In particular, there was the real hope that Malala Yousafzai, the girl targeted for death by the Taliban, could emerge as a new kind of political and spiritual exemplar.

Indeed, as we have seen, Malala had developed a sort of Gandhian message—as in Mohandas Gandhi, the gentle leader of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s—of semi-socialist non-violence. Indeed, in a fascinating exercise in religious eclecticism, Malala linked together the ideas of Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, along with other Muslim figures, such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and also alongside Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, as well as, of course, Gandhi himself. So perhaps Islam could be given another chance to show its gentle and irenic side, under Malala’s guidance and leadership.

Yes, the idea of a New World for Muslims started to take hold: It would be a blank slate, a place without historical ghosts. It could be for Muslims what Zionism was for Jews—especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century when Zionist visionary Theodore Herzl entertained all manner of possible physical locations for a Jewish state, from Asia to Africa.

Indeed, in thinking about Malala in the 21st century, some planners thought even, briefly, of the idea of locating this ealim jadid in outer space; as was said at the time, if the world could afford to wait 30 or 40 years, this would be a fine project for such space visionaries as, say, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. But the world could not wait. The need was manifest in the early 21st century. And so a location had to be found on earth.

Of course, even though Malala was an intensely admirable figure, holding no violent instincts, she was still a Muslim. And the idea was to create a Muslim society on peaceful lines—and yet nobody knew for sure how that would work out. Thus idea was controversial; even those countries with vast tracts of uninhabited land—including Australia, Canada, and Russia—had no desire to open up their territories to Muslim refugees.

But all was not lost. A quick glance at a map of the Atlantic Ocean found a great many uninhabited islands, and a look at the Indian and Pacific Oceans found even more.

So it wasn’t hard to find an island that could play host to the new country. And although there were islands with literally no people, most of them were, for one reason another, hard to envision as hosts for a large population. Fortunately, an island was found with just a few residents, and these folks were easily enough enticed to go elsewhere.

And so Malala was free to set up her new island country, with about 10,000 fellow Muslims, carefully selected and screened. By acclaim, Malala was to be the leader: She would be the Malika—the Queen.

It was formally called Tubaa Jazirat Mahmiat fi Almuhit Alhadi—The Blessed Sanctuary Island in the Pacific Ocean. And although it was known to its residents by various abbreviations and acronyms, it was commonly known to the world as “Islamotopia”—because that’s what it was.

The new place would have police powers, but they were police powers of a very limited nature. By agreement with the sponsoring countries, notably, the US, the criminal justice system could mete out only very light punishments, say, a night or two in jail. Yet any greater crimes were not to be punished on Islamotopia at all—because the punishment would be actual banishment from the island. As Queen Malala said,

The worst punishment we Muslims can think of is that someone who commits a crime would be separated from his or her fellow Muslims—that is, be apart from the sacred Ummah, the community and fellowship of believers. So for those who misbehave in our land, that’s what we will do: We will send you away. Banishment: that’s the worse punishment that we can, or will, inflict on anyone.

Of course, for serious offenses, the authorities elsewhere could and would deal with them. And that indeed happened on a few occasions.

As for political considerations, the politics of Islamotopia were simple: People would live by the Koran—but not kill by the Koran.

Indeed, we might pause over the guiding quartet of ideas for the island. They were prosperity, technology, legacy, and anti-democracy. (You read that last item right: anti-democracy.)

We can look at each of these four in turn:

First, prosperity. Islamotopia would need to be prosperous. Fortunately, the sponsoring countries had plenty of money and could afford to be generous. As we have seen, the value of Islamotopia as an exemplar of a different path for Islam was worth more to the West than all the money invested in the new country.

Second, technology. Yes, Islamotopia was somewhat cut off from the world, out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and yet even so, because of telecommunications, including the Internet, it was closely connected to the intellectual and cultural currents in the Muslim world and the larger world. And so while residents felt safe there, they never felt cut off. Indeed, Malala was in constant contact with her fellow Muslims all over the Ummah, constantly urging them, and inspiring them, to find peaceful and harmonious ways of life. Thus she became an important spiritual and theological influence on the Muslim world.

Third, legacy. Islamotopia was undeniably Muslim. Women wore the hijab, covering their hair, and most men wore beards. This was an essentially non-negotiable aspect of life in Islamotopia; as noted, nobody had to live there. So yes, styles of dress and architecture were undeniably Islamic. Indeed, as Islamotopia took shape, and in particular, as the architecture arose to fill the needs of the population, it began to develop a substantial tourist trade. As travelers there liked to joke, “Islamotopia is one-half Arabian Nights, one-half Disneyland, and one-half Colonial Williamsburg for Muslims.”

Fourth, anti-democracy. Islamotopia was most definitely not a democracy. It was perfectly obvious that democracy was not what Muslims needed most. Instead, what they really needed was the fundamentals of a decent society—due process, safety from violence, minority rights, and so on.

Indeed, Queen Malala was the Malika of her country, no question about it. We might note that although she set up a council of advisers, there were no elections on Islamotopia. As she said, elections are inherently divisive, pitting one faction against another. In fact, echoing the political science of the great 18th-century conservative thinker Edmund Burke, she said, “I want to weigh opinions, not count them.” That is, she would make the final decisions. And of course, those who truly were not happy with the Malika’s reign were free to leave and go elsewhere.

And although some wondered how this political system would work out in practice, it quickly became apparent that what mattered most was the active rule of law, not the rote mechanics of democracy

But, some will say, what about democracy? That idea, so important to Westerners—and so unimportant to others—was not high on Queen Malala’s list of priorities. As she said,

Nowhere in the Koran does it tell us that the majority should rule. A majority can be a mob—and there’s nothing Godly about that. Instead, the Koran tells us that we should live a god-fearing life. And the same is true of the holy books of the Jews and the Christians.

So as the new country was being established, it took some unexpected directions. For example, it quickly became apparent to residents that the island was too small for the population, which had started growing steadily as Muslims flocked to come there.

And so, inspired by the Dutch reclaiming land from the Atlantic, over the last six centuries, as well as by the Chinese reclaiming land from the Pacific in the Spratly Islands early in the 21st century, the Islamotopians went to work, literally making their island bigger. In fact, land reclamation has been a major part of life in much of the world for centuries, and if it had fallen out of favor in the early 21st century thanks to the Greens—well, the Islamotopians weren’t Green. They had more important work: They had a nation, and a civilization, to build. To be sure, environmentalist zealots, as well as, of course, Muslim zealots, were horrified by Islamotopia—and in Queen Malala’s mind, there was nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, the island, with its ambitious plans for expansion, soon turned into a sort of laboratory for new technologies. The Silicon Valley startup Calera, for example, opened up a substantial operation on the island; its efforts were soon augmented by those of another company, based in Massachusetts, Novomer. Fortunately for the economic health of the island, there was no process of filing Environmental Impact Statements—a process typically used to block progress. As the Queen said, “Here, we are guided by common sense, not by bureaucracy.”

Moreover, the Islamotopians soon found a new way to expand their living-space: Their big breakthrough came with the introduction of giant trees, as in the 2009 movie Avatar. Pointing to the towering trees that gave the island nation its own unique skyline, Malala had exclaimed, “What a wonderful way to capture carbon. Surely, the hand of God has made this happen.”

And so with all this help and inspiration—and operating within the strictures and structures of Islamic tradition—Islamotopia has become a fascinating laboratory of both technological and social creativity; the country is now a high-tech hub, and it has also produced a rich and vibrant body of neoclassical Islamic art and literature. This Muslim Renaissance, as it has sometimes been called, has made Islamotopia into a vital crossroads of Islamic thought and culture.

Some cynics, of course, were skeptical that Muslims could truly change their violent and cruel ways. Islam was an inherently barbaric religion, they said. But this assertion had been disproven by some Muslims in the past: In the Middle Ages, the Ismaili sect had been extremely violent; the word “assassins” was first applied to the Ismailis. And yet over time, the Ismailis had mellowed; in the 20th century, they had been led, for example, by the Aga Khan, who was best known for marrying the Hollywood siren Rita Hayworth. So thus the lesson: religions can find new paths, and new ways of living and let live. In fact, the Muslims of Islamotopia were often compared to the Sufi Muslims, a gentle group of mystics.

Of course, the path was not always smooth. In the mid-21st century, Islamic radicals managed to infiltrate the island and attempted a coup. It took US forces—mostly robots and drones—to put it down. But in fact, US forces on the scene were a regular presence in Islamotopia—that was a key lesson to American policymakers: the importance of sticking by commitments.

Yet when Queen Malala was accused of being a collaborationist for the Crusaders, she had a ready answer: Islamotopia was, in fact, a genuinely Muslim place; they lived according to Muslim customs and traditions. So if Christians and Jews and others from the West wanted to help Islamotopia maintain its Islamic identity, well, that was fine. That answer seemed to satisfy the critics. And thus we can see the brilliance of Queen Malala’s determination to preserve the Islamic character of her country: It gave her ample credibility in her struggle to fend off criticism from Muslim purists.

Yet for the most part, overwhelmingly, Islamotopia has been peaceful. And thus it has fulfilled the hopes that its founders held out for it: It has been a non-violent beacon for Muslims the world over, and thus has had an impact well beyond its tiny size.

And so, finally, some true good could come out of the American interventions in the Muslim world. It might not have been what George W. Bush had in mind in 2001 or 2003, but it was, nonetheless, a good outcome.

Thus today, in 2116, the centennial year of the founding of Islamotopia, we can note that the granddaughter of Queen Malala I, Queen Malala III, is about to pay a state visit to Pakistan, the land of her grandmother’s birth. By all accounts, the vast majority of Pakistanis are eager to see her, to welcome her back to the homeland that she has never seen.

Yes, it’s a great time to be a Muslim in the world. Thanks be to Islamotopia.