The Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the reactions to them, have brought the spotlight on to the place that free speech and religion have in society, and how people arrive at different points of view.
An excellent article by a learned Muslim recently pointed out how science and Islam at one time went hand-in-hand; what has changed is that the faith has been hijacked by - in effect - a multitude of tyrants over the centuries, who decided to use "Islam" as a way to control society, by peddling the temptation of forty virgins, for instance. I mean what educated person, of any faith, could take such things seriously?
While it has always been argued by atheists that religion has been a weapon to control society with, it was also true that, in the early years of Islam, Islamic countries were much more progressive and innovative in their relation to science compared to Christian nations of the time. The Islamic world invented astronomy, for example, at a time when Christian Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages. What changed was not about the nature of the religion in itself, but in the situation on the ground, and how respective societies were run.
The "renaissance" was a breakthrough for the Christian West, but this happened around the same time that large parts of the Islamic world were overrun by the Mongol Empire. In the case of Baghdad, one of Islam's and the Middle East's key cities of learning, the city was destroyed and its population massacred. While no one event can be blamed, in the same way that the ideas of the "renaissance" occurred gradually over many decades, the same can be said of Islam's turning away from science and free-thinking. The evolution of the West into a free-thinking, democratic society was due to a series of events and factors; the same can be said of how the Islamic world became engulfed in scientific and innovative lethargy, which, sadly, exists to the present day. The question is:why?
If all else fails, rule by fear
To reiterate the point, it was not inevitable that Islamic countries would become more socially and economically backwards: it was the result of historical factors, and the decisions of those in power.
The Middle East, Islam's core heartland, has been fought over for centuries; that said, so has Europe (most recently in the first half of the 20th century). In the excellent book, "Why Nations Fail" (more on that here), one of the key factors the authors explain is responsible for poverty and lack of innovation in a society is the elite's fear of creative destruction. In a traditional tyranny (or a modern-day dictatorship), the elite rules by fear, and uses a system of corruption and amoral use of force to maintain their hold on power.
In short, if a clever innovator has an idea that might improve society, the elite would rather discredit and destroy the inventor than have the risk that the innovation might make life better for others, which could make other people rich, and thus, more powerful. It is a simple, if purely malicious, rationale. There are many examples of this throughout history, as well as today, explained in the book mentioned - including the Middle East.
The reason why the West is rich is because decisions were taken at different points in the past that led to a "virtuous" circle of events, whereby more and more freedom was given to society, which led to more opportunities for innovation and technological and scientific progress.
In this way, what has happened in the Islamic world since those bright, innovative early years is a type of "vicious circle". After the Mongol Empire overrun parts of the Middle East, it appears that science and innovation declined to insignificance, along with the various tyrants that ran the region as their own personal fiefdoms. This led to them being overrun by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. But science and innovation didn't improve under the Ottomans either; for instance, while the West began printing books on a large scale by the start of the sixteenth century; the Ottomans only allowed this to happen in the nineteenth century. This was not because printing was "against Islam" ; it was because it appeared to be against the ruling elite's interests. It was surely for this reason that while levels of literacy in England in 1800 were at around half the population, in the Ottoman Empire - the most powerful Islamic state in the world - levels of literacy were at most 3 per cent.
Likewise, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established after the First World War, was not pre-ordained or instinctive that the country should be a theocratic, ultra-conservative state: it became like this due to the king seeking the support of the local imams, in order to give the king and his elite a solid support base, and a moral code to control society with. The British also went along with this, for their own, self-interested, reasons. The Arabs of "Saudi Arabia", and the other Arab monarchs, such as the Hashemites of Jordan, relied on tribal support, and prior to the First World War hadn't known anything like a properly-organised Arab polity (let alone innovation and free thinking) for around six hundred years. So the fact that they used their religion as a basis for building support and maintaining power is unsurprising.
"Not In Our Name"?
The resurgence in Islamic extremism historically ties in with this. I wrote previously about how Islamic extremism emerged on to the world stage thirty-five years ago, and how the Charlie Hebdo attacks are another indication of its mutation into a force against "Western decadence". While the number of moderate Muslims far outnumbers the extremists, it does appear that there are more extremists than there were previously, and certainly are far more "active" in displaying their views compared to any other contemporary world religion. It is not surprising that some in the West are content to play to the extremists' game by saying that there is a de facto "clash of civilsations".
The closer truth is that the moderates are losing the "war" against the extremists in their faith. While some say this is the fault of the religion itself, it might be better to say that, quite simply, the moderates are too scared to say anything publicly (though if this amounts to the same thing is another point).
You might think that in a normal situation, moderate Muslims would be so horrified and angered by the extremists' actions said in their name that they would be all on the street in their thousands angrily protesting against them (e.g. like the "Not In My Name" anti-war Iraq protests). There are a few, but they are few and far between. The moderates may well not do this because they are simply too scared of the possible consequences; in contrast, usually the only Muslims you see protesting are the very "extremists" calling for tyrannical actions against non-Muslims.
Likewise, there have been calls by the British government for the Muslim elders to get more involved in preventing the radicalisation of their youth. Unfortunately, for one, there may be a "generational gap" that is dividing younger from older Muslims in the West. Like the classic case of a teenager who complains that their parents "don't understand them", the same many be true of today's radicalised young Muslims. They are getting most of their information, and indoctrination, from the internet. This is how the "elders" are being cut out of the loop. So for all the British government's good intentions, it may well be aiming for the wrong target.
In other words, Islamic extremism is on the rise in the West because, for wont of a better word, it feels "cool" (read some of the lingo of the kids who go to Syria, and you'll get how close to the mark this really appears!) and thus appeals to insecure young people in need of a "cause"; extremism is strong in the Middle East because it is a useful weapon and diversionary tactic to control society (while blaming the West for Arab poverty).
But this use of power is as old as the hills.