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Piracy, Islam, and the Modern Age

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.  The prophets of secularization were absolutely certain that religious belief would recede in the modern age.  As they saw the new age coming, they were confident that religious belief — or at least any strong form of belief – would burn away like the morning mist as modernity took shape.

As Peter L. Berger explained in “Secularization Falsified” [First Things, February 2008]: “Ever since the Enlightenment, intellectuals of every stripe have believed that the inevitable consequence of modernity is the decline of religion. The reason was supposed to be the progress of science and its concomitant rationality, replacing the irrationality and superstition of religion.”

But the new age did not turn out to be so secular after all.  Berger comments:

It has been more than a century since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. The prophecy was widely accepted as referring to an alleged fact about increasing disbelief in religion, both by those who rejoiced in it and those who deplored it. As the twentieth century proceeded, however, the alleged fact became increasingly dubious. And it is very dubious indeed as a description of our point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Religion has not been declining. On the contrary, in much of the world there has been a veritable explosion of religious faith.

Peter Berger is one of the most authoritative voices in modern sociology.  He understands better than most that the prophets of secularization were too hasty in writing religion off as a major force in the world.  Looking back at the very figures who helped shape the modern world, he comments,  “Not to put too fine a point on it, they were mistaken.”

In his own way, Stephen Prothero makes the same point.  In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal, Prothero argues that one cannot understand the current crisis of piracy off the coast of Somalia without understanding the religious roots of this resurgence.

Prothero serves as chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University (where Professor Berger also taught for many years).  He is also author of Religious Literacy:  What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.  When it comes to religious literacy, a bit of knowledge would serve the foreign policy elites, the military, and the media when it comes to the revival of piracy.

As Prothero explains in “Muhammad of the High Seas:”

The late spate of piracy off the coast of Somalia has been analyzed so far almost entirely in political and economic terms: Somalia is lawless and impoverished, so Somali men are taking world trade for a ride. Religion comes up in this analysis only in terms of fears about potential ties between Somali pirates and Islamist groups such as al Qaeda and al Shabab.

But according to Boston University’s World Religion Database, the Somali population is 99% Muslim, and the last time the U.S. was menaced by piracy, in the late 18th century, the so-called Barbary pirates of north Africa also operated out of Muslim havens. For those who know something about Muhammad and the origins of Islam, more than coincidence is at work: Religion, it turns out, should be factored into the piracy problem.

“Factored into” the problem might be an understatement.  Prothero is careful to put the issue of Islam and piracy into its historical context.  As Muhammad and his followers left Mecca for Medina in the early seventh century, they needed income.  As Prothero explains, “Muhammad turned to the longstanding Arabian practice of the ghazu, or bounty raid.”  Muhammad’s raids were on land, but the practice of sea-based piracy by Muslims follows the same logic.

Prothero makes that logic very clear:

All this might be of purely antiquarian concern except for the fact that Muslims today regard Muhammad not only as God’s final prophet but also as the human being par excellence. The Hadith, an Islamic scripture second in authority only to the Quran, records thousands of instances of Muhammad’s beliefs and actions, so Muslims can follow his example on matters as detailed as the cut of his beard. If Christians ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” Muslims ask, “What Would Muhammad Do?

Islam is a worldview, and many of its most central presuppositions run counter to Western ideals.  At the same time, Western intellectual elites seem still committed to the basic idea of secularization and the irrelevance of religious belief.  At the popular level, most Americans wouldn’t know the difference between the Barbary pirates and a Disney movie.

All this does not necessarily point to any specific policy proposal or military response.  It does, however, remind us that beliefs really do matter.  Just ask those shipping crews looking warily across the Gulf of Aden.