A basic problem with the modern Islam is that it has simply been frozen in a state of no development for several centuries. In stark contrast many flavors of Christianity have evolved and changed considerably during the last centuries.
Christian churches have been forced to change because of the upheavals that have happened in their social environment, but they have changed, and most often for the better.
Unchanging Islam is just now holding back the societies under its rule and even dragging some of them back (as in the case of Iran) to a state of development which these societies had, in fact, passed a long time ago.
Islam now forces many societies back to live according to social values that have quite universally been discarded elsewhere a long time ago. Societies have just evolved and their needs have changed accordingly.
Especially the status of women has changed radically in societies outside the realm of Islam, but Islamic world tries stubbornly to hold on to medieval patriarchates’ patterns of conduct.
Quite universally Islam forces women to live in conditions that simply could not be tolerated in many other societies anymore.
The very basic problem is that Islam holds the values and the whole life-models of its adherents locked in a way that is already rare in the modern world.
In the developed western European and Asian societies religion has largely been transformed into a matter of personal conscience. Religion does not hold any kind of real power over arts, science or education almost anywhere outside Islam.
The collapsing power of religion is, in fact, the one single most decisive factor that has propelled the western world to its road to prosperity and social evolution which it has enjoyed in the past couple of centuries. Freedom of thought has to a great deal made possible the countless new discoveries and new ways of doing things that have propelled growth in these societies.
The technical and economic development has later fostered progress in all levels of these societies. The western societies have risen to a new level of achievement largely because the freedom of thought has facilitated unprecedented level of development in all fields of life.
Colonialism and western economic hegemony have played their part, but they would not have risen without the freedom of thinking that started to spread with the advent of Renaissance.
One must not forget that the same positive development has been going on also in the realms of some of the eastern world religions. Largely this is because these eastern religions do not try to stop all new thinking, as Islam really actively still does.
The mainstream religions of countries like Japan and Korea can currently be seen as ways of understanding the society and a mode of conduct. They are not an all-encompassing rulers of life and thinking that Islam did unfortunately evolve to be in the early medieval times.
The way religion holds down new thinking is enormously crucial to any society’s economic and social development. Economic growth clearly has a very close correlation with freedom of thought that the ruling religion or other strong ideology does permit in any society.
Modern science and the modern way of seeing fellow humans that is called humanism originated in Ancient Greece. The reason for this explosion of new ideas was in their religion or mostly the lack of it among the thinking people, at least.
This religion of the Greeks had one enormously important quality that made this phenomena possible. It did not interfere in thoughts of individuals, and it did not demand strict unity of thinking from its adherents. It was good enough to honor and respect these gods, but they did not care what their followers were doing and thinking in their spare time. And by Jove, think they did!
This fantastic development came to an abrupt end when extremely stiff and inflexible Christian state church came to power in the empire of Rome. The social and economic development of Christian western societies froze for centuries as freedom of thought was soon annihilated.
Only the advances in general freedom of thought that were brought about by advance of Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment did slowly remove these mental shackles of hte Christian religion in Europe.
Slowly the western societies could attain the state of development that had been already been reached thousand years ago in the Greek society, where there was real freedom of thought.
In this light, it is possible to see why the Islamic world is so badly and sadly left behind in the economic and sociological development. At the the same time the contrary development has made western societies the current economic powerhouses of the world.
Unfortunately the Islamic fundamentalist movements do now see westernization and rise of individualism as the prime cause of problems that their societies are now facing.
However, on the contrary, the basic problem in their societies is a lack of freedom and individual incentive that does drive the economic and social development forward in the western societies.
Any religion that prohibits free thought and new ways of doing things slows down the development of its own society. These societies will fall more and more behind in economic, social and cultural development if nothing is done.
Things are complicated by the fact that the undeniable economic and military supremacy of the West is now seen as a direct insult to Islam. Every human being just wants to be proud of his own country and his ideology.
As Islam was absolute ruler of very big portion of this planet not so long ago, the current state of affairs is quite understandably very difficult to accept in the Islamic world. It creates shame, which transforms into a rage that can erupt very violently.
Let’s take a little thought-experiment. Would United Stated have evolved to what it currently is, if it were governed according to the teachings of the Christian fundamentalist movements from day one?
The creators of United States were extremely secular folks and they very suspicious of any religious involvement in affairs of the government. This policy paid very soon handsome dividends, as the ensuing freedom of thought propelled United States among other things to its current trajectory of development and power.
I expect that a wave of development can be kick-started also in Muslim world, if just this religion could renounce its hold of secular power and society at large. This is a thing that the western and eastern state religions have already done for a good measure.
Christian churches or Japanese Shintoism have no secular power anymore. However, they do prosper in affluent societies that can take proper care also of the sick and elderly and do provide a safer environment for the spiritual growth of its members.
A similar development is always possible also in Islamic world. This religion needs not to be thrown completely overboard (even if that would be the ideal case), but I think it must adjust itself to the changing world. However, the one crucial thing that is missing just now is the ability of the religious leaders of Islam to accept the changes that have been taking place around them.
One should not forget that Islam has been a force of change of its own in the history. When Islam was young, it was a liberating force for millions who had been languishing under the iron rule of Christian state church in the Byzantine Empire. In those days Islam was new and undogmatic, and its conquests opened a tremendous opportunity for science and new thinking.
Most of all the teachings of Ancient Greece could be studied again in udenr the rule of the Islamic conquerors. Their books had been largely been hidden from the view by the early Christians rulers and accdordingly science made a tremendous leap forward in the Islamic world.
Those heydays of Islam are now nothing but a cherished memory, when Islam has evolved to be the most dogmatic and unchanging religion there is. However, history clearly shows that Islam can also be a force of change if there just is the will.
A fact of life is hat no West-European Christian church has such a hold of thinking and general way of life anymore, as Islam still has in its main areas of influence. The modern Catholic Italians or French will happily use contraceptives or have divorces, even if their 'spiritual leader' says no. Unfortunately, in many or even most Islamic countries the situation is quite different and the absurd religious restrictions are still widely taken quite seriously.
A big problem in changing Islam in any major way is that it has no central structure. Paradoxically the hundreds of different flavors of Islam make sure that no fast change is possible in it. In the western state-churches the centralized structure made it possible to implement extensive changes in a swell swoop as happened in the Reformation.
Islam is much more change-resistant because of its wide open and splintered nature. However, the problem is as every one of the cells adheres to similar central principles, even if details of the belief-systems do vary wildly.
The net result is that changing just one variety of Islam will not change the big picture much, as for example the ancient belief in superiority of man over women is quite similar in almost all flavors of Islam.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 9th of February 2012)