John Derbyshire recently had a debate with Robert Spencer on Pajamas Media after his review of Spencer's Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t. In part, it was the old divergence between the indifferent and the committed. In the latter corner, Spencer is convinced that Islam, and not just Jidadism, is a present and increasing threat to the West. In the other corner, Derbyshire is no friend of Islam, but will not condemn it root and branch. It just doesn't make sense to do so.
This is mostly because, for him who belongs to none, it is not that different to any other religion, so he hasn't got the energy to enter into fierce debate about which is better, Christianity or Islam. He doesn't believe that all religions are equally good, or equally bad. But I suspect he would rather they were all like the Church of England: there for those who need that sort of thing, but not getting in the way of everyone else.
More than this, there is the historical record, and here I entirely agree with him.
It is none the less true that Islam, whatever its failings, is an ancient and respectable religion that comforts and sustains hundreds of millions of souls, and has provided one of the organizing principles for numerous substantial civilizations. Possibly those civilizations weren’t to your taste. They probably wouldn’t have been to mine, either. If you have ever thought seriously and imaginatively about what life is like in a state of barbarism, though, you will acknowledge that even not-to-your-taste civilizations are a vast improvement on the other thing.
But then he moves onto another point, one that makes me pause. Islam is accused of being culturally "arid", of being static and unable to develop. That may be true, but if so, it is true of almost every civilisation.
The ancient Egyptians and Persians, the Maurya and Gupta dynasties of India; the Japanese; the Mesoamerican civilizations, the old Mesopotamian empires — there was not a lick of progress in any of them across their entire existences, compared with what happened in any hundred years of European civilization.
[All right, a slight exaggeration - there were leaps forward in all of these that I know anything about (the old Mesopotamian empires created the city, the first written laws that we know about, writing), but they were flashes in a long half-light.]
The exceptions, the strangest ones, are us, the post-Renaissance West picking up from the Greeks and Romans. It is we who expect change, who egg it on, demand it when faced with even the smallest dissatisfaction, all the while whingeing about what we've left behind. The old are bores about the Old Days in the West precisely because the Old Days were different. In Ancient Egypt, the Old Days were the same as today and indistinguishable from tomorrow.
Yet the quasi-universality of static cultures make it unsurprising that people still long for something similar. Not just in the traditional cultures that Modern life undermines and then destroys, but even in the vanguard of this creative distruction we call 'modern life', the nostalgia for what has been lost never goes away. I wonder if that partly accounts for the guilt that Westerners feel and the cultural self-hate that possesses some of them: the knowledge of change desired, achieved and irrevocable, and the certainty that, even if there could be another moment of decision, a second forking of the ways, we would make exactly the same choice, and feel exacly the same regret.