Puritan Islam: The Geoexpansion of the Muslim World

Puritan Islam: The Geoexpansion of the Muslim World

by Barry A. Vann

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In this unique analysis of Muslim population shifts in the Western world, geographer Barry A. Vann provides fresh insights into the theological factors that play into these demographic trends. Vann examines the “imagined geographies” of Muslims with a puritan orientation. People with this mind-set are little inclined to accept a pluralistic, multicultural,… See more details below


In this unique analysis of Muslim population shifts in the Western world, geographer Barry A. Vann provides fresh insights into the theological factors that play into these demographic trends. Vann examines the “imagined geographies” of Muslims with a puritan orientation. People with this mind-set are little inclined to accept a pluralistic, multicultural, live-and-let-live concept of society. And conflicts between conflicting value systems are almost inevitable. 

Vann notes that this purist approach to Islam is certainly not universal among Muslims, and there are many varying interpretations that are more moderate in outlook. Nonetheless, the undeniable theological background of all Muslim communities colors their values and attitudes, and must be taken into consideration when attempting to understand the potential conflicts between contiguous Muslim and non-Muslim groups.

Given the fact that the population of Muslim immigrants is growing in traditionally Christian and increasingly secular countries of the Western world while the resident populations are either stagnant or declining, Vann’s insightful analysis of the ways in which Islam influences perceptions of community and geography is of great relevance.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this must-read book, the author gives a fascinating and lucid picture of the rapid geoexpansion of the Muslim world, driven by high levels of fertility and a puritanical theology."
—Moorthy Muthuswamy, Nuclear physicist and author of Defeating Political Islam: The New Cold War

"Dr. Vann makes a strong case that secularists and liberals should be concerned about fundamentalism, whether preached by puritan Muslims, Jews, or Christians. Using a thorough review of demographics, he also offers an in-depth view of the potential negative impact of fundamentalist Muslims immigrating to non-Muslim countries."
—Edward H. Davis, PhD, Professor of geography, Emory & Henry College

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The Geoexpansion of the Muslim World

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Barry Aron Vann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-518-7

Chapter One

An Emerging Muslim World


In certain American cities, the impact of recent immigrants on the urban landscape stands in contrast to the cultural impress of rural settlements spread out across the traditional American hinterland. Urban and suburban areas in the American heartland, Western places far removed from the sacred lands of Muhammad, are rapidly changing. From calls to prayer heard across public spaces in the suburban town of Hamtramck, Michigan, to prohibitions against carrying alcohol in taxi cabs driven by Muslims in Minneapolis, Minnesota, formerly secular spaces are now contested by new standards for religiously inspired behaviors. Other micro spaces are also being altered to accommodate the emerging Muslim population in the United States. In 2007, wash benches for Muslim taxi drivers were installed at the Kansas City International Airport. These benches enable drivers to clean their feet in preparation for prayers. Also, because Muslims must pray facing Mecca five times per day, international flights between countries like the United States and the United Kingdom now boast maps on airline movie screens that show the direction to Mecca. More recently, in 2008, Harvard University decided to set aside six hours of gym time for Muslim women in a move that could be construed as preferential treatment for one religious expression over all others. Clearly, some of the West's secular spaces are being contested by new religious meanings and uses. In light of these cultural changes, it is important to know that the economic and demographic processes shaping the West's future are already at work. Furthermore, there are few signs that the Near Eastern fountain of humanity—the birthplace of all non-Africans living throughout the world—is not drying up any time soon.

Because of a decline in births coupled with an aging population, the future does not bode well for secular Europe. Let us consider the changes that are occurring in the European population. There were 186 million people living in Western Europe in 2005, but, based on demographic trends, that number could potentially drop to 183 million by 2050. Southern Europe will also see a drop in population. The projected number of 141 million for 2050 reflects a 6.6 percent decline from 2005 figures. The situation is even worse in Eastern Europe. The present population of 297 million will drop to 232 million by the middle of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, in predominantly Muslim countries, the opposite trend is occurring. For instance, in southwestern Asia, where we find countries like Kuwait, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, the current population of 214 million will climb to 400 million. In North Africa, the 2005 population will climb from 193.8 million to 323.6 million by midcentury. Later, we will take a closer look at growth among all Muslim majority countries. Suffice it to say, these trends are nearly universal across the Muslim world.

What these statistics do not tell us is that the changes in population represent growth among some of the world's most disadvantaged people, while more affluent and better educated countries are aging and ultimately dying. Secularism, which characterizes the social environment of the latter, produces a declining demographic profile that acts like a cancer. It eats away at the most developed societies, creating a need to recruit foreign workers to fill less desirable employment niches.

Demographic and economic factors have indeed set the current migration scenario in motion. As Europe rebounded from the devastation leveled on it during World War II, economic expansion coupled with a decline in population over time in a number of countries created a labor shortage. By the 1960s, a number of Western European countries openly recruited guest workers from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Over time, as that supply of relatively cheap labor dried up and labor shortages continued to vex their economies, European companies began to recruit workers from the Muslim areas of Yugoslavia, Turkey, and North Africa. By the late 1970s, Western Europe contained eleven million foreign-born residents, representing about 5 percent of the population. The vast majority of Muslim immigrants settled into the older sections of existing urban centers like Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Before onset of the 1980s, Muslim populations in those cities were 16 percent, 12 percent, and 18 percent of the cities' totals, respectively. More recently in France, population data published in the mid 1990s show that 90 percent of the nation's population was at least nominally Roman Catholic and the Muslim population was less than 2 percent. By 2006, the Roman Catholic population had dropped to 83 percent while 10 percent of the population was reported as Muslim. In 2001, some 27 percent of London's population was born outside of the UK, and nearly one-third of Londoners were identified as nonwhite. In London, particularly in Newham and Tower Hamlets, there are sizable clustered settlements of Muslims.

Any surplus wealth in developing Muslim countries will be consumed to take care of the young and elderly or increase the wealth of the elites. These countries' economies will likely experience little, if any, expansion, or, more important, diversification. Their inability to employ more people will result in a steady stream of immigrants, first to Europe, and then, in a step-wise fashion, to the Americas—a process that is likely to continue for decades. In the absence of any major cultural transformation, which would necessarily have to radically change the role played by women in the workplace and the home, there is no end in sight to the increase in the number of Muslim people.

With fewer Europeans being born and able to fill employment niches to support their aging populations, there will be hardly any economic reasons to keep able-bodied workers out of their continent. There is, of course, no way of knowing who among the immigrants are, or will become, radical Muslims or followers of Islamism. Like the Romans before them, a good portion of modern-day Europeans who dismiss religion as an antiquated mindset, believe that immigrants will become imbued with secular ideas through contact with charter residents. Some social scientists and most multiculturalists, despite their recognition that modern societies are like ethnic salad bowls, subscribe to the possibility that some have called the melting pot model. This point deserves further explanation. The melting pot model includes diverse ethnic groups that merge together to form a larger identity and way of life. Multiculturalists embrace an imagined world or global society in which people share a common interest in celebrating diversity. If a puritan Muslim wanted to accomplish this, however, he would have to sacrifice his strongly-held beliefs articulating a path to "the right way," all for the sake of tolerance and mutual celebration. In other words, only the benign aspects of diversity—the material products of culture found in food, dress, and language—can be maintained. Multiculturalists often argue that when large ethnic groups fail to share in the prosperity and material products of the country, it is because these immigrant communities are victims of racist policies. In these situations, multiculturalists blame the immigrants' plight on macro forces such as economic structures, government attitudes, and institutionalized racism. The solution, which reveals a Marxist orientation, is to change society's opportunity structure to ensure a "level playing field." This notion, however, assumes that all cultures have the same values, family structures, life styles, and needs. If the outcomes or goals of life among diverse ethnicities are the same, where is the cultural diversity? In the long run, the multiculturalists' idea would lead to a melting pot society.

With respect to Muslim immigrants and their interest in assimilating into the broader culture, information is now becoming available. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2007 there were 2.35 million Muslims living in the United States. Other published estimates put the number higher, at nearly five million. While the Pew report portrays American Muslims as middle class and mostly mainstream, hence the report's title: "Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream," there are figures in the report that reveal that many of America's Muslims resist secular assimilation. According to the report, 1.53 million Muslims in the United States (some 65 percent of the total) were born outside of the country. Only 43 percent believe that they should adopt American customs. Of America's Muslims, some 117,500 of them have a favorable view of al Qaeda, and over 300,000 believe that suicide bombing to protect Islam is acceptable. The proportion of Muslims who support violent resistance to social and political change is stronger among those under the age of thirty. Indeed, one in four younger US Muslims truly believes that suicide bombing to protect Islam is acceptable. The report does not explore the idea that there are a number of opinions on what constitutes a threat to Islam.

According to Professors Barry A. Kosmin and Egon Mayer at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who reported data on American religious affiliation generated from surveys they conducted in 1995 and again in 2001, the Muslim population more than doubled in just six years. In 1995, there were approximately 527,000 Muslim Americans, but in 2001, there were 1,104,000. In other words, during each of those six years, the United States added an average of 96,166 new residents who claim adherence to Islam, which happens to approximate the population of the suburban town of Dearborn, Michigan, in 2006. However, since 2001, the Muslim population has grown by 207,666 people per year. That number is two times the size of Burbank, California, or Green Bay, Wisconsin, and somewhat larger than Iowa's capital city, Des Moines. If the doubling time continues at the current rate of six years, which is a valid demographic premise, by the year 2052 there will be over 300 million Muslims living in the United States, and, if they continue to live in ethnic enclaves, more American spaces will adopt laws inspired by the Islamic laws and codes of conduct, or sharia.

As the twenty-first century unfolds, more and more of non-US-born Muslims will live outside the mainstream. If nearly 50 percent of the current population of non-US-born Muslims wants to adopt American ways of life, it is uncertain how future immigrants will feel about assimilating into Western culture. Their opinions of American culture will likely be even lower because of their lack of marketable skills and position in the social hierarchy. (As we saw with the chain migration model, those with the most valuable skills lead the way in settling in new lands, making it easier to relocate for those who follow and have more humble vocational backgrounds.) As a result, these future immigrants will have a lower entry position in society, thereby filling lower positions in the social hierarchy. The socialization Muslim immigrants encounter in their new enclaves is not likely to foster favorable relations with charter residents.

Islam, like all religions, can serve to fill a psychological need of impoverished people who want to know why they are suffering and how they might improve their situation. Puritan Islam is no exception to that assumption. Few places today offer us a glimpse into this type of situation quite like Uzbekistan, a landlocked part of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) located in Central Asia. Made up of mostly non-Arab people, the country of twenty-six million souls is economically stressed. Once a land situated on the Silk Road connecting Asian suppliers with European markets, it has seen better times. With the advent of ocean-going commercial vessels, the area declined in economic power. In 1924, the region was absorbed, without the people's consent, into the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1990,

Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian countries, has a socio-economic environment favorable to the spread of the ideas of Islamism [militant Islam]: the decline of living standards resulting from the collapse of the relatively well-functioning state-centered economy and the lingering transition to a market economy ... a significant part of the population which formerly identified itself as the middle class suddenly found itself among the "new poor." Many of the new poor come from the impoverished intelligentsia, who may be more receptive to Islamist ideas than others.

For the time being, Uzbekistan shows few signs of anti-Western sentiments. This situation may change in the near future. Within thirty years, if current growth trends in the population continue, the number of Uzbeks will double to fifty-two million. Growth in its population is occurring simultaneously with an increasing economic dissimilarity across the landscape. Urban elites, who have taken over the economy, are focusing development on urban places. With traditional ways of life still maintained in the impoverished rural environs, population growth will continue to outpace what little, if any, economic wealth comes their way. As the country approaches the year 2050, urban secularists will no doubt witness an acceleration of highly religious people leaving rural settlements to relocate to urban areas. As early French sociologist Émile Durkheim witnessed in France during its Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, religion will be instrumental in providing these immigrants with a mental framework to bond with others of similar religious backgrounds.

Both domestic and international Islamist organizations are already at work in Uzbekistan. In addition to al Qaeda, Pakistani organizations like the warriors of Muhammad (Sepa-e Sahaba), the party of allies (Harakat-ul Ansor), the warriors of the healer (Sepa-e Tabibi), and the party of liberation (Hizb-ut-Tahrir), among others, are operating there. It is important to recall that although Pakistan is a nuclear-armed ally of the United States and at least publicly supports the war on terror, its western provinces are located along the border of Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 with some 115,000 troops, five million Afghans fled as refugees. Three million went to the highlands of western Pakistan and the remaining two million fled to the Shiite lands of Iran. By the mid-1990s, the high natural increase rate of population that characterized the refugee camps made the Afghan refugees' numbers rise and become a fertile source of recruits for those Islamist organizations, augmenting grass-roots efforts of the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan (IMU) and perhaps even al Qaeda.

It is also important to point out that contemporary Islamist movements, including the IMU, are affected by the theological teachings of an eighteenth-century evangelist named Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and late nineteenth-century reformers named Muhammad 'Abduh, Jamal-al-Din al Afghani, and Rashid Rida. Together, the movements created by these influential Muslims have created a desire for puritan Islam. Abd al-Wahhab founded a theological school called Wahhabism, which seeks to rid Islam of the corruptions that its followers believe have crept into the faith. Muhammad Abduh, al Afghani, and Rashid Rida founded a movement that teaches Muslims to follow the precedents set by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions (al-salaf al-salih). This theology is called Salafism. In their original forms, Wahhabism was less tolerant of diversity and Qur'anic interpretations than Salafism, yet the latter was founded by nationalists. Both theologies maintain imagined worlds in which Islam experienced a golden age, a time before tradition and jurists corrupted their religion. The founders and proponents of both movements have maintained that, on all matters, Muslims should return to the Qur'an and the precedent of the Prophet. Clearly, understanding what the Qur'an says about secular society is important to consider, for it is the primary source of the theologies that are flourishing among many young Muslims, including those who are migrating to more secular places.


Excerpted from PURITAN ISLAM by BARRY ARON VANN Copyright © 2011 by Barry Aron Vann. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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