Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, addressed the question "Is Islam Globally Waxing or Waning?" in a Middle East Forum webinar (video) on April 10.
Spencer began by recounting the following:
Sometime ago ... a Muslim leader arose who claimed that the Islamic authorities were corrupt and had strayed from authentic Islam. His group gained control of some territory, and he proclaimed himself the leader of all the Muslims. In its domains, his group instituted strict observance of Islamic law, Sharia, including the sexual enslavement of infidel women, and oppressed the non-Muslims.
This description, he explained, could equally apply to both ISIS and the Almohads (Arabic for monotheists), a movement that took power in North Africa in 1147 and over the next 25 years seized much of what is now Spain, known in Arabic as Al-Andalus. "[W]e see this phenomenon throughout Islamic history ... periods in which the influence of Islamic teachings is paramount and supreme, and periods in which that interest wanes."
"The Quran teaches that if you obey Allah, you will prosper in this world, and that if you do not obey Allah, you will be punished in this world, as well as, of course, in the next," explained Spencer. "So this has led throughout Islamic history to various kinds of misfortunes being ascribed to a lack of piety, and to the rise of revivalist movements that promise to turn away Allah's wrath by restoring the people to the proper and full observance of Islamic regulations." However, "human nature is everywhere the same, and the great majority of Muslims don't want to live under Sharia [Islamic law] any more than anybody else does," so "when Sharia restrictions become too onerous, they're relaxed ... and a period of moderation follows, until some misfortune triggers a new revival movement that ascribes the troubles, once again, to a lack of Islamic rigor."
Today, according to Spencer, one can find both phases of this wax/wane cycle in the Islamic world. In Iran, people have lived under Sharia for four decades and are "tired of living this way," with growing numbers calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. By contrast, in Turkey, coming off of decades of secularism after the fall of the Ottoman empire, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan "is working hard to dismantle Turkish secularism and even to restore the Ottoman caliphate."
"Is Islam globally waxing or waning? Yes."
So long as "the fundamental principles of Islam remain the same, particularly in regard to the punishment in this world for disobedience," this cycle will persist. So the answer to the question "Is Islam globally waxing or waning?" according to Spencer, is "yes."
Asked about the influence of ethnicity, Spencer noted that non-Arab Islamic revivalists "tend to become even more fanatical than the Arabs":
Islam is in many ways a vehicle for Arab supremacism. If you convert to Islam, you generally take an Arabic name, you have to pray in Arabic. The leading figures are of course Arabs, the Caliph of the Muslims and Sunni theology has to be a member of the Quraysh Arab tribe, and so on, and so on. So if you're a Pakistani non-Arab, or an Iranian, there's a tendency to try to out-Arab the Arabs, by being even more Islamic than they are. And this is I think, one reason why we see such a virulence in Islamic practice in Pakistan in particular, as well as in some other areas that are not Arab, like Afghanistan as well as Iran.
At the same time, non-Arab counter-revivalists tend to be more fervent than their Arab counterparts because they can draw upon stronger pre-Islamic historical, cultural, and religious traditions:
[B]ecause the Persians had a great history before the advent of Islam, and increasingly as the Islamic Republic continues to fail and grow more unpopular, more and more Iranians are harking back to that history, including converting to Zoroastrianism, which was largely driven out of Iran centuries ago by the Muslims. ... If you are an Arabian Arab, you don't really have anything but Islam to a form part of your cultural heritage.
Asked about "moderate Islam," Spencer replied,
There are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam. ... The unfortunate reality, of the Quran and Sunna, as they have been interpreted over 1400 years, among all the sects and schools of jurisprudence, is that they all teach warfare against unbelievers, and the necessity to subjugate those unbelievers under the rule of Islamic law. ... There is no traditional form of Islam that does not contain the elements mandating this jihad imperative against unbelievers.
That doesn't mean all Muslims are committed to jihad, however. "The reality of the individual observance of any particular Muslim is informed by a great many things besides Islam ... a variety of perspectives, a variety of priorities, a variety of influences," he explained. "And so there are plenty of Muslims around the world who have no intention of waging jihad against unbelievers and never will. And for that, of course we can all be glad."