The truck slaughter in Barcelona on August 17 brings up a question that the North Koreans must be pondering. Attacks with trucks receive as much world attention as nuclear weapons; they are also far less expensive. Surely, the ISIS method of getting world attention is much cheaper and more effective than the furious North Korean effort to produce and deliver nuclear weapons on target. Indeed, we see ISIS’s hold of its formally controlled areas in Iraq and Syria becoming more and more tenuous. But it does not follow that we will see a corresponding lessening of jihadist activity elsewhere. It may well increase. Ideas and “divine” missions do not always need a safe place to be effective.
The drawback in this comparison with ISIS is that North Korea is overwhelmingly matched. If it decided to use its nuclear devices, it would mean its own destruction. The North Koreans are not daft. They know the potential consequences to themselves. The Muslim jihadists don’t care about death. They have the tactical advantage, month after month, of actually killing perceived enemies. They are not afraid to die for their cause, while the North Koreans only cautiously threaten.
Besides, potential Muslim violent incidents can and do happen anywhere in the world at any time. Almost the whole planet is now set up with various screenings and searches to protect from random Muslim jihadists. With massive recent Muslim immigration into Europe and America, however, few places in these areas are really safe. Western law and custom often work to the advantage of the jihadists. A new fear has become the norm in all societies in which citizens were once able to move about in their own cities and towns without worry.
Muslims of all kinds, as noted, are everywhere, while the North Koreans are largely confined to North Korea, an out-of-the-way corner of the world. There are twenty-five million North Koreans, but we count some billion or more Muslims of various origins, persuasions, and sects. North Korea cannot hope to take over the world or make it Korean. It can only disrupt or destroy parts of it to obtain what it wants.
The Muslims have played their cards well. They have already succeeded in significantly expanding into Europe and America, where they quickly establish their own exclusive enclaves. They have mostly reached the goal of eliminating all significant non-Muslim presence from what are claimed to be exclusively Muslim areas in the mid-East. All branches of Islam, moreover, think the world ought to be Muslim. The only controversy, and not a very vigorous one at the moment, concerns what means to use for this purpose: war, numbers, or both—and both are sanctioned by the Qur’an. These means can be used separately or in coordination.
In his 1933 book on St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton remarked on St. Francis’ failed efforts to convert Muslims in Francis’ lifetime (1181-1220). Chesterton added that in Francis’ view “it was better to create Christians (by conversion) than to destroy Muslims. If Islam had been converted, the world would have been immeasurably more united and happier; for one thing, three-quarters of the wars of modern history would never have taken place.” Francis met the Sultan and even seems to have proposed a trial by fire as to the truth of either religion. “Indeed, throwing himself into the fire was hardly more desperate, in any case, than throwing himself among the weapons and tools of torture of a horde of fanatical Mahomedans and asking them to renounce Mahomet” (293). In many cases, to propose that one renounce his Muslim faith is itself sufficient to cause the death of the one who proposes it.
What interests me in these remarks of Chesterton on Francis of Assisi, however, is the theme of conversion as the only real way of dealing with the long-term issue of Islam. This topic is not wholly unmindful of the famous Donatist heresy in Augustine’s time. The central issue then came down to the futility of reasonable efforts to counteract Donatist violence short of forced conversion. Chesterton noted the failure to “build bridges” between these religions and the resulting consequences that separated peoples from one another. The fact is that some positions are incompatible with each other. This fact would seem to result a pragmatic consequence. Differing but incompatible cultures live separately side-by-side but rely on some Hobbesian all-powerful state apparatus that ruthlessly suppresses any manifestations of violence. This latter view assumed that the state apparatus was not itself in control of the jihadists.
Certainly, in principle, Islam itself sees the solution to the modern project as the conversion of the world to Allah. This aim is a powerful motivation. It inspires millions to take whatever steps are needed to achieve it, including war and terror. Most of the areas that are now Muslim were once populated by Christians. Their conversion was, in one way or another, usually by force or social pressure. It should not surprise us today that the most popular baby boy’s name in London is said to be “Mohammed”. In many ways, from a betting angle based on today’s estimates, the conversion of the world to Islam is, in the long run, more likely than its conversion to Christianity. Aside from the Reconquista in Spain and some similar moves in the Balkans, there has been no real success of Christians to convert Islam. The Crusaders were ultimately defeated. As a result of this seemingly impossible project of converting Islam, several Christian thinkers have developed dubious theories that see the Qur’an and its observance to be “salvific” in Christian terms.
The cause of turmoil coming from Islam cannot, as many seek to do, be attributed to poverty, development, politics, nationalism, or any other motivation. The basic cause is a religious belief in the truth of the Muslim mission as set down in the Qur’an. Until that motivation is taken seriously and taken for what it is, we will not understand what is happening, and has been happening since Islam’s foundation in the world in the seventh century. Many cannot or will not believe that such abiding motivation over time is possible. They thus propose other causes that must be, so they hold, the “real” cause of Muslim aggression. But in fact, in its own terms it is a religious motivation. It can only be met if we begin with that truth. The question then becomes, as it should have been all along, whether this religion is true or not.
Islam presents itself, in spite of its jihadist elements or perhaps because of them, as a religion of peace. The string of bombings and truck caused deaths that we have seen in the past decade seems at first to belie this affirmation. The Qur’an itself certainly gives sufficient reason to make every effort to expand Islam, by violent jihad if opportune or necessary. But in most Islamic thought, peace can only happen after the world is converted to Allah. Until that time, the world is divided into areas of peace, that is, areas under Muslim control, and areas of war, areas in which it is not. Technically, all those not in the sphere of Islam are enemies and at war with Islam. When the suicide bomber kills any enemy, the question of any guilt over a crime against the innocent does not come up. There are no innocent people in the zone of war. So if one is killed while killing enemies, he, not the enemy, is the martyr.
As long as the Qur’an is carefully and authoritatively read and believed by new generations, this expansive mission will be alive in the world. It is forever in the Book. If we maintain that the Qur’an is the word of Allah, if it blasphemous to change it, if it teaches that all individuals and societies are to be ruled by Allah, then we will never rid ourselves of its dynamism until we can show that its sources and practices are not and cannot be valid or true.
In its voluntarist option, Islam has sought protect itself from the severe criticism that arises from reason, especially against its practical denial of the principle of contradiction. As there are many inaccuracies and contradictions in the Qur’an, Muslim thinkers early on recognized that they faced a serious problem, a problem intrinsic to their dealing with Greek philosophy. As Aquinas noted in the Summa Contra Gentiles, many profound attempts by Averroes and Avicenna in particular were made to deal with the relation between Muslim revelation and reason.
The result in general went with al-Ghazali that the basis of things was not logos but voluntas. This meant that Allah could say one thing one day and another thing the next. If Allah were limited to reason, it was thought, he would not be all powerful; he would not be the master of both good and evil. The result of this line of thinking was to place the will of Allah at the center of things, both moral and physical. Every existing thing could at any time be otherwise. The only law was Allah’s changeable will. Each thing could be its opposite, if Allah so willed. The only proper attitude to such a god was not to try to make sense of his decrees and demands but to submit to them no matter what they held. Anything less was considered blasphemous and would be punished as such.
The formal rejection of any basic element in the Qur’an, like the call for jihad, would imply that we can reject the original text as handed down from Allah. The Qur’an’s claim to its own truth demands that its text and teaching remain the same. In Muslim teaching, only Allah can change his teaching, which he has done. That is why contradictory elements are found in the Qur’an. When any change happens, the last change is what counts. The words of the Qur’an come directly from Allah; to undermine either their meaning or their connection with Allah is, in effect, to deny any truth claim that might exist in the Qur’an. This principle is why we cannot change Islam into something else that it is not. It must either be as it is or not at all.
When the Qur’an talks of peace, it does not mean the co-existence of various traditions or religions under one roof. If it has to live under such a varied system, it does so under coercion until such time as it can gain the upper hand by force, or by political or demographic means. Peace means the condition of the world when every part of the world is submissive to Islam. Until that time, Islam is, in one way or another, at war with what is not yet under its authority. We may not like to hear this view. The Muslims may not like it. The issue, however, is what does the religion advocate. A loyal believer will follow who has no means to appeal to the primacy of reason what it teaches.
This attitude to be obedient to what the Qur’an says is why we must not hesitate to acknowledge that jihadists and other promoters of the expansion of Islam are in principle pious believers, more so than those who know what the Qur’an says but do not have the courage to pursue it. It is why there is a struggle within Islam itself over its true meaning. The one thing that cannot be done without undermining the very premises of the religion itself, however, is to claim that its text can be “reformed” to eliminate what it says about world conquest.
In conclusion, to return to the theme of conversion, I would argue that, 1) even if the incoherence of voluntarism in Islam can be demonstrated, or 2) if critically the text of the Qur’an can be shown not to have come directly from the hands of Allah, the only real way to eliminate the historic aggressiveness of Islam is to convert its believers. Of course, in theory, they might be converted to anything. If Islam cannot or will not be converted to the truth, it is probably best to let it be and do what is possible to deter it.
Islam stands as a judgment on the nations. It also stands as a judgment on thought itself. Once any culture including our own abandons as the basis of its legal, political, philosophical, or religious thought the central role of the principle of non-contradiction, almost anything can follow. Islam, ironically, stands as the great teacher of mankind. It teaches it at least one of the things that happen when we keep our faith but reject the guidance of our reason.