How to respond to discussions about the decline of Islam?

Lately, in the global English-speaking near-Islamic space, speeches about the «decline of Islam» in the form of the growing popularity of secularism or even atheism in the Muslim community are getting louder.

The article by British-Bangladeshi author Ed Husain, which was retweeted by Prince Zayed al-Nahyan, the current ruler of the UAE, has received considerable attention. The article is remarkable in that its main theme — the need for Arab-Israeli reconciliation, which is controversial in itself — is placed in the context of an even more controversial theme — the bankruptcy of «Islamism» in the Arab world, according to the author.

Such a presentation of the material, which shifts the focus from the initially declared theme to its justification, helps to sideline the thesis itself, which is presented as indisputable.

In reality, however, those who have at least some knowledge of the subject are well aware that «Islamism» was historically not the cause of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict, but its consequence, namely the result of the disillusionment of the Arab and Muslim masses with the inability of secular forces to solve this problem, taking into account even the minimal interests of the Palestinians.

After all, the Palestine Liberation Organization has always positioned itself as a national rather than a religious movement, and even Hamas, despite its Muslim self-identification, acts within the logic of a national resistance movement rooted in the Muslim population itself. The «secular» solution to the conflict is proposed to its participants by a large part of the international community, including European countries — the creation of two states, Jewish and Palestinian, the division of Jerusalem between them, and the dismantling of Jewish settlements.

And for several years now, the obstacle in its way has not been the Islamic Palestinian forces, who have agreed in principle to accept these principles, but precisely the opposite side — the ultra-right Zionist government with a significant role of religious, Jewish fundamentalist circles. And, by the way, we do not see any criticism of Jewish fundamentalism as an obstacle to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict by the author of this article, or by Prince Zayed, or by their like-minded people…

Moreover, the main apologetic of this article focuses on the fact that the populations of Arab countries are beginning to turn away from «Islamist» parties.

Ed Husain uses this idea to show how all is well in the UAE, which is not only actively developing in social and economic relations, but is also opening synagogues, Catholic churches and Hindu temples, demonstrating an example of a tolerant society.

But while Ed Husain stops at the image of a good «tolerant Islam» as an alternative to bad «Islamism,» another well-known English-speaking author, the Turkish Mustafa Akyol, goes further in his article «A New Secularism is Emerging in Islam» ( A proponent of the secularization of the Islamic world according to the same model that was previously applied to the Christian world, he provides data from surveys in recent years that speak of a decline in religiosity in Muslim countries and societies, a decrease in identification with religion, and a growth in secularism and even outright atheism.

The problem is that anti-Islamic critics may dismiss all of this as enemy propaganda. But unfortunately, the problem is real and is already being recognized by Islamic leaders and intellectuals in various countries who are beginning to sound the alarm on the issue.

As studies show, a turning point in these sentiments occurred after the so-called Arab Spring, or rather, its failure. More specifically, many point out that the main reason for people, mostly young people, to turn away from or reject Islam was the activities of the so-called ISIS*, which claimed to be a consistent embodiment of Islam.

Unfortunately, for many, this led to a rejection not only of the specific group against which older, more experienced Islamic movements had originally fought and warned of its outcome and consequences, but also of all those involved in politics from Islamic positions, and even of Islam itself.

Yet, as the same data show, there is no clear connection between disillusionment with Islam or a weakening of its practice and the specific political structure in which it occurs. This process took place in areas under the rule of ISIS, but it also takes place in the tolerant countries praised in the first article, as well as in countries with conditional religious rule, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and in secular Turkey, and in the Sunni world, as well as in Shiite Iran under the rule of the «Ayatollah».

Advocates of simplistic solutions, who do not understand how the modern world is organized, believe that aggressive atheist propaganda is to blame, which Islamic scholars and intellectuals must counter. But the problem is — there is no specific atheist propaganda, unlike, for example, Protestant Christian missionary work in the Islamic world, which receives tens of millions of dollars, establishes TV and radio stations, publishes a lot of literature, etc., with limited success.

The main problem with this situation is that the «old generation» of the Islamic movement not only does not know how to counteract it, but in some cases refuses to acknowledge the problem itself. Many of these people either began their activities in an atmosphere of sentiments such as «the future belongs to Islam,» «Islam is the solution,» etc., or were shaped by such individuals and therefore refuse to acknowledge that the process is now moving in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, the enemies of the Islamic world should not celebrate too soon. It has experienced sharp crises in the past and has risen from them even when it was considered «finally» buried, including at the beginning of the last century. Moreover, it does not withstand criticism and its general global secularist «optimism» that religion, which «interferes with people’s enjoyment of life,» is a thing of the past.

This brings us back to the first of the two articles mentioned, in which the author celebrates the decline of «Islamism», which supposedly stands in the way of Arab-Israeli reconciliation, but ignores the rise of an openly religious ultra-right Zionism.

Politicians who have come to power in recent years in key countries of the world, who are by no means Islamic — Donald Trump in the USA, Narendra Modi in India, Matteo Salvini in Italy, right-wing forces in Austria, Poland and Hungary — have done so by actively exploiting the religious factor and religious values. They are also appealing to the ruling circles of Putin’s Russia, which, no matter how we perceive it, must be reckoned with as a political and military factor.

And isn’t the system in the second most important country in the world — China — essentially religious? After all, communism is a quasi-religious doctrine, and a totalitarian one at that. And if it seemed for a few years that China was getting rid of this ideology, leaving it as a decoration, it is now reintroducing it en masse, using all the means at its disposal — from total control of the population to re-education camps for the «non-compliant».

Whether secular utopians like Akyol like it or not, the world, even if we were to leave aside its Islamic component, is far from the utopia of a relaxed, irreligious society that they preach. In the real world, periods of disillusionment and relaxation are followed by periods of fanaticism and mobilization. Not only does «reaction» replace «progress,» but it is often the other way around, and the «free-thinking» youth in whom they place their hopes as an alternative to the authoritarian regimes in their respective countries may spend decades protesting against them without noticing how they themselves are turning into «old people.»

Nevertheless, Muslims should not dismiss all of this as mere enemy propaganda. Yes, the battle, which will continue until the Day of Judgment, is not yet lost for believers, as atheists believe, but there is still a recognized problem. To a large extent, it is indeed a problem similar to the one the Western world has already faced and continues to face. And this means that it is necessary to take into account the experiences, both negative and positive, of the preservation of religious positions in various countries and their ability to stage a counterattack.

Therefore, it is necessary for Muslims who are thinking and concerned about the position of their religion not to dismiss the predictions and claims of their enemies, but to take them very seriously and begin to reflect on the new realities in which they will have to fight for their faith and community.

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