Obstreperous Islam

Bill Evans head shot

[This article originally appeared on The Aquila Report in September 2012.  It was written in the context of the so-called “Arab Spring” and related events, and thus it does not address the current brutal persecution of Christians and other religious minorities–involving mass executions, forced conversions, beheadings, and crucifixions–by ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  I have resisted the urge to rewrite the article in light of more recent events (in part because it is difficult to write analytically rather than viscerally in the face of such genocidal horror), although its relevance for understanding the broader historical context of current events should be obvious.]

Recent events—the wave of demonstrations and violence in the Islamic world prompted at least in part by news of alleged religious insults from the West, ongoing threats by the Islamic government in Iran to destroy the state of Israel, and the emerging pattern in the wake of the so-called “Arab spring” of replacing authoritarian governments with rule by overtly religious parties that seek the implementation of Sharia law—have underscored what some of us already knew.  Islam in its political expression, in contrast to the personal warmth that I have experienced from many Muslims both in this country and when I have traveled in the Middle East, can be obstreperous.  It is difficult to deal with.  It refuses to be domesticated or confined by conventional Western categories.  There are reasons for this, some of them theological, which many contemporary Western leaders are ignoring to their peril.

The first is that Islam is a religio-cultural-political package.  There is no ultimate distinction in Islam between the sacred and the secular, and thus none between mosque and state.  All of life is understood as a matter of submission to Allah.  For this reason, while there has sometimes been religious toleration under Islamic governments, there can be no real religious pluralism in the practical political sense of the term.  That is to say, adherents of other religions will not be viewed as equal members of society in a context governed by Islamic principles.

Second, the history of Islam has been characterized by periods of militant expansionism in the name of religion.  As historian Efraim Karsh has noted in his recent Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale, 2006), the great Mohammed himself provided the model of the “warrior prophet,” and a concern to unify the world religiously and politically under Islamic auspices seems to be hardwired into the Muslim consciousness.  The Islamic ideal is of a humanity unified by a single religion, and the lessons of history suggest that while this ideal has seemingly gone dormant under certain political circumstances it repeatedly reemerges.

Third, there is the Muslim understanding of jihad, or holy war.  All three great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have traditions of holy warfare in their scriptures, but in both Judaism and Christianity these notions were largely spiritualized and eschatologized.    After the bitter experience of the Jewish wars against Rome in the first and second centuries, the Jews realized that holy warfare was a dead end and they decided to wait for the messiah to set things right.  Likewise, Christians have tended to interpret biblical holy warfare language as a metaphor for spiritual struggle or to project it into the future when Jesus returns to judge the world.  Though there is some evidence of similar spiritualization in the Qur’an, on balance the Muslim notion of jihad retains a decidedly this worldly and overtly political edge.  Reasons for this are complicated and have to do with both theological and historical factors.     Nevertheless, in contrast to the other great monotheisms, the conception of holy warfare has followed a strikingly different path in Islam.

Along with this there is the attendant religious incentivizing of violent struggle.  According to the Qur’an, those who engage in warfare on behalf of Islam will be rewarded (see, e.g., Surahs 4:959:38-3911148:17).  And of course, when eternal religious rewards are offered for temporal violence in the name of religion, unfortunate things tend to happen.  To be sure, Christians have occasionally fallen into this trap as well.  Here we think of Pope Urban II, who declared a plenary indulgence (i.e., go straight to heaven with no stop in purgatory) for those who went on the First Crusade.  But such instances are more the exception than the rule, and Christianity contains within itself notable safeguards against them such as the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus himself.

Finally, there is the hermeneutical tradition of Islam.  Here we are referring to the way that Muslims themselves read the Qur’an.  Many in the West today hear conciliatory passages from the Qur’an and conclude that Islam is a “religion of peace.”  But as my late academic colleague W. H. F. Kuykendall (who read Middle Eastern history at Johns Hopkins) often pointed out, the interpretation of the Qur’an is very much a “tale of two cities.”  The Qur’an is a collection of the records of visionary revelations that Mohammed claimed to receive, and they date to two strikingly different contexts—his earlier time in Mecca and the later period in Medina.  The Meccan surahs (chapters) reflect a period when Mohammed was trying to win people over to his cause, and here the emphasis is on persuasion and kindness.  The Medinan surahs present a more militant version of Islam as Mohammed was trying to expand his influence and take over Mecca by force.

But how does one reconcile these two perspectives?  A common answer given by Muslim scholars is that where there is conflict or contradiction the later surahs abrogate or set aside the earlier.  In fact, the roots of this principle of abrogation are found within the Qur’an itself (see, e.g., Surahs 2:10616:101).  While for obvious political reasons this notion of abrogation is denied by some Muslims today, it is nevertheless well attested in the Islamic interpretive tradition.

There is nothing particularly complicated about all this.  But why do secular Western liberals seem to be so clueless?  What blinds so many in the West to these realities?  Here we think, for example, of Barack Obama’s astonishing 2007 assertion that upon his inauguration as President the Muslim world would look at America differently simply because he had lived in a Muslim country and has relatives who are Muslims.   There are at least three reasons.

First, Western secular liberal democracy no longer takes the question of religious truth seriously.   In fact, it largely lacks even the vocabulary to discuss religious truth claims, and this places it at a distinct disadvantage when deals with groups for whom such truth claims are central.  We in the West are the heirs of the post-Enlightenment fact/value dichotomy—on the one hand there are empirical, scientific facts; on the other hand there are values which cannot be rationally confirmed.  Such values are matters of opinion, and religious beliefs and convictions are, on this reading of things, merely values.  Along with this comes the inevitable privatization of religion.  Religious belief is simply a matter of personal opinion that is acceptable only so long as it remains private and unobtrusive.

The public square, as the late Richard John Neuhaus aptly observed, has thus become “naked” or stripped of religious expression.  When Barack Obama claims that Muslims will have a different opinion of America because he “understands their point of view,” Muslims know full well that he is not taking them as believers or their truth claims seriously, and they are not impressed.   But we really cannot expect a Western secularist like Obama to respond in any other way, and hence the persistent disconnect between Islam and the West.

Second, in the absence of a transcendent frame of reference there is the reduction of political process in Western secular liberal democracies to matters of economic wellbeing, tolerance, and personal autonomy.  This means that many in liberal democracies not only do not understand what is at stake in this struggle, but they will also often seek compromise with militant Islamists in order to maintain economic stability and preserve lifestyle.  This has been the story in Western Europe, and there are indications that the same process is beginning here in America as well.  The irony here is that, having opposed the religious truth claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition by denying the reality of objective religious truth itself, secular liberalism now finds itself with little in the way of resources to deploy against a zealous and confident religious opponent that will not be distracted by such ideological games.

Finally, there is the multicultural fixation of secular liberalism.  Having used the presence of other religions such as Islam in the West as leverage against the supposed cultural hegemony of Christianity, secularists cannot very well now turn around and condemn Islam without embarrassment.  This no doubt helps to account for the deafening silence of many secular liberals when they are confronted by Islamic intolerance and violent excesses.

The West is now locked in a political and cultural struggle with Islam, and no amount of sentimental claptrap about “mutual understanding” will change that.  The real question is whether the West will have a robust and principled position from which to oppose Islamic religious, cultural, and military aggression.  Such a principled stance will need to take religious truth claims seriously.  At the same time it also needs to provide a basis for defending what is good and right about the West as well as a position from which to oppose Islamic violence and intolerance.  That is a tall order.   At least one thing is now clear—the solution is unlikely to come from an intellectually spent secular liberalism.