How do I jump into this? Well, I'll start by saying that feel a mix of amusement and appallment from the verbal backlash that results in the denigration of a faith, any faith. In current times, Islam is the one faith that has suffered the most from these actions. This also reminds me of certain individuals I know who may hold the same views, even if it is to the slightest extent. Views such as "The Islamic faith is backwards..." or "Islam has been left behind while other faiths have progressed from their medieval past..." To be clear, I am not a Muslim. I have no affiliation or obligations towards the Muslim faith, other than respecting it as I do with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. So, I decided to do a little bit of digging around, uncover a little history of (what I believe) is a misunderstood faith and perhaps give a modern perspective as to why we see such violence and despicable acts overtake the faith. Here goes:
From what I have read, the assertions that Islam has failed to "grow up" like other faiths or is stuck in the Dark Ages are, from a historical perspective, false. During the Dark Ages (when Christianity was on its path of conquest, or violence, depending on who you ask), Islam was pretty much cool with almost everything. "Under the medieval caliphate, and again under the Persian and Turkish dynasties, the empire of Islam was the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened region in the world..." (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/11/19/011119fa_FACT2?currentPage=2) Islam was actually pretty tolerant of other religions, even more so than Christianity was of Judaism and other types of Christianity: "In the lands under Muslim rule, Islamic law required that Jews and Christians be allowed to practice their religions and run their own affairs, subject to certain disabilities, the most important being a poll tax that they were required to pay. In modern parlance, Jews and Christians in the classical Islamic state were what we would call second-class citizens, but second-class citizenship, established by law and the Koran and recognized by public opinion, was far better than the total lack of citizenship that was the fate of non-Christians and even of some deviant Christians in the West." (same link)
For those of you who enjoy the modern lifestyle (which I'd bet is all of you), take this moment to give a "Thank You" shout out to Islam. The fact of the matter is that, in medieval times, Islamic lands were ridiculously advanced when compared to their European brethren. Intellectuals from Islamic lands contributed many scientific and philosophical works that helped shape the modern world while the Christendom was reeling from the repercussions of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Islamic astronomers were one of the first to realize that the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian model of the universe doesn't fully stand up to observations of celestial motion. Astronomy had an integral role in the Islamic faith. Muslims should pray 5 times a day at prescribed times. How do you do that without a watch? Look up towards the heavens. The Islamic calendar is lunar based, which means accurate observations and predictions of lunar motion were needed so that the calendar maintains its integrity even if the moon can't be observed. And, when praying, Muslims are supposed to face the direction of Mecca. How many of you can do that if I gave you a compass and a map? Guess what? The Islamic astronomers were so good that they could do it simply by, again, looking up. These efforts resulted in the accumulation of a wealth of astronomical information.
But let's move out of the realm of astronomy. How about math? Unless you think its better to do math problems using Roman numerals, better thank the Islamic mathematicians, because without the Hindu-Arabic numeral system there is no base 10 system that our society uses for practically anything and everything. The foundation of modern medicine? Look up a guy named Avicenna, considered the father of modern medicine and clinical pharmacology, particularly for his discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases, the introduction of quarantine to limit the spread of contagious diseases, the introduction of experimental medicine, evidence-based medicine, clinical trials, randomized controlled trials, efficacy tests, clinical pharmacology, neuropsychiatry, the idea of the syndrome, and the importance of dietetics and the influence of climate and environment on health (Quick note: generally I do not approve of Wikipedia as a reliable source when writing a formal paper for any subject. But this is not a formal paper, so I feel at peace with breaking that rule). If any of you ever bothered watching the History Channel special "The Dark Ages," the ending mentions the effect of the Crusades in helping to bring about the Enlightenment in Europe. Specifically, it was contact with Islam that brought about this revolution. With contact, not only were new trade routes opened which brought economic prosperity, but the flow of ideas that originated from Islamic scholars gave their European counterparts a basis on which they could build new science and philosophy, ushering Europe into the modern age.
So, what happened? Well, it wasn't until the 1950s that fundamentalist Islam started gaining influence. That's when the ideas of 18th century scholar Mohammed Al Wahab began to resonate. Supporters of Wahab's views wanted to take Islam back to basics, which apparently meant a past where all the progress of the past centuries never happened. Wahabi Muslim thinkers like Sayyid Qutb started to urge total separation between Islam and the West, arguing that the outside world had nothing else to give humanity. I think you can see where this is going... a "Screw the West" mentality began to take hold in Middle Eastern society.
Unfortunately this anti-Western mentality got a helpful boost... by the West. Israel is an example of how Western actions manage to infuriate and empower radicals in the region, but I'll give another one: Afghanistan. During the Cold War, from 1979-1989, the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan to set up a Marxist government. Their opponents? A lovely bunch of fellows called the Mujahideen Resistance. One of the guys fighting alongside the Mujahideen? A certain person named... Osama bin Laden. And guess who provided a lot of support in the forms of funding and weaponry? If you guessed the United States, you're correct (look up Charlie Wilson's War for more info). With the aid of the U.S., and other anti-communist powers such as the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt, the Soviets were successfully pushed back and out of Afghanistan. And with that, the U.S. simply left. In the process of getting rid of the "Evil Empire," the U.S. left a broken country that needed its help to get back on its feet. Charlie Wilson, the man who was central to the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, has himself stated "We fucked up the endgame." The people of Afghanistan felt abandoned by an ally who, it appeared, was more focused on fighting communism than actually helping a country with its freedom. In this post-war void the anti-American sentiments grew and gained popularity until Wahabi's views were the ones dominating society, many years after he first preached them. A country was destroyed in order to fight an evil empire, but was never rebuilt. And that's kind of how a Western enemy is born.
To summarize, the assertion that Islam is a backwards religion or has been left behind is, I feel, blatantly wrong. Islam has been far more integral in the creation of the modern world that the words and actions of radical fundamentalists would suggest. Every religion has gone through its phases of evolution and devolution, and every religion cannot be understood or generalized by the actions of extreme factions, no matter how powerful they may seem. The generalization of Islam as a faith, and culture, that condones violence and jihad against other faiths and societies is about as fair as me generalizing that all Catholics condone pedophilia. Its incredibly unfair, and its downright despicable. And, when examining the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, its propagation of violence, and the reactions of some, it appears that many have forgotten, or do not understand, the issue at hand. To say that Islam is the root of all these problems is plain wrong. The West had a hand in creating its own demon. Political decisions, made in the heat of the moment, have lead to unimaginably horrible consequences that we must now face. It is a grim lesson that anybody in power must learn: your actions have repercussions. Think of those repercussions very carefully before doing anything. The failure to do so is what has gotten us into this mess. And, as the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.