In his Sunday homily the week after the Boston Marathon bombing, Cardinal Sean O’Malley said that the action of the bombers was a “perversion of their religion.” We have grown accustomed to hearing such statements from prelates, as well as from presidents and prime ministers. Terrorist have “perverted” their religion or “distorted” it or “misinterpreted” it. But how accurate are such assessments?
On one occasion, Muhammad ordered the beheading of more than 700 Jews who had surrendered to him. On another occasion, when a severed head was tossed at his feet by one of his men, he exclaimed that it was “more acceptable to me than the choicest camel in Arabia.” On still another occasion he exulted, “I have been made victorious through terror.” Indeed, the Qur’an is full of admonitions to terrorize. Was Muhammad perverting the religion he founded? Was he a “misunderstander” of Islam?
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev felt obliged by their religion to wage jihad. A song on their YouTube playlist is titled “I will dedicate my life to jihad.” Had they misunderstood or perverted the meaning of jihad? Many of Islam’s official representatives in America would like us to think so. They tell us that jihad is simply an interior spiritual struggle or a quest for self-betterment. For example, the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago sponsors a bus ad campaign that presents a benign interpretation of jihad. Sample: a picture of a young Muslim woman wearing a gym outfit and a hijab accompanied by the caption, “My jihad is to keep fit despite my busy schedule. What’s yours?”
That’s one possible way to interpret jihad, but it’s not the main way that jihad has been understood in Islamic tradition throughout the centuries. When the Qur’an, the hadith, the sira, and the Islamic law manuals refer to jihad, they are almost always referring to the jihad of the sword. In Islam, the most commonly agreed-on definition of jihad is “war against non-Muslims.” The purpose of jihad is to establish, spread, and defend the religion of Islam. Although jihad is obligatory, not everyone is obliged to engage in battle. One can fulfill the obligation through financial support, moral support and, nowadays, through political activism, propaganda, and lawfare. The Qur’an, however, makes it quite clear that actual fighting is the preferred form of jihad—and certainly preferable to prayer in a mosque or to charitable works:
Do you pretend that he who gives a drink to the pilgrims and pays a visit to the Sacred Mosque is as worthy as the man who believes in God and the Last Day, and fights for God’s cause? These are not held equal by God…Those that have embraced the Faith, and left their homes, and fought for God’s cause with their wealth and with their persons are held in higher regard by God. (9: 19-20)
And they are held in high regard by many Muslims today, as indicated by the jubilation in the Muslim world following the 9/11 attack, the celebrations in Gaza after the Boston Marathon bombings, and the widespread mourning after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Two days before Cardinal O’Malley’s homily, Bishop Robert McManus of the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts gave an interview about the bombing in which he urged residents not to “allow differences to cause suspicion among us.” This was an echo of a statement the bishop gave two months earlier when he explained why he had cancelled Robert Spencer’s talk on Islam to a Catholic men’s conference. The bishop was concerned that Spencer’s talk might undermine “interreligious dialogue with devout Muslims and possibly generate suspicion and even fear of people who practice piously the religion of Islam.”
When Bishop McManus warns against generating “suspicion and fear” of pious practitioners of Islam, the implication is that pious Muslims are the ones least deserving of suspicion. It’s probably safe to assume that, for the bishop, more pious equals more peaceful. That’s a good assumption to make in regard to Catholicism and most other religions, but not necessarily in regard to Islam. As any number of national security experts can testify, piety in a Muslim is not incompatible with violence. For example, in his “Letter to America,” Osama Bin Laden, sounding like a Puritan divine, calls for Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling,” and instead to embrace “manners, principles, honor, and purity.”
Most pious Muslims don’t pose a danger to their fellow citizens, but that may be because many pious Muslims, like many pious Catholics, aren’t fully acquainted with the teachings of their faith. However, the combination of piety and knowledge one finds in people like Bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini can be a danger signal. Recall that Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood murderer, was both a very devout Muslim and a knowledgeable one. For example, a year before his rampage he delivered a detailed and accurate PowerPoint presentation on Islamic doctrine to his medical colleagues.
We don’t know exactly how well-versed Tamerlan Tsarnaev was about Islam, but by all accounts he was becoming more pious by the day in the months before the Boston bombing. According to his aunt, he had recently (two years ago) taken to praying five times a day instead of once a day. Moreover, he did not smoke or drink (“God said no alcohol”) and grew a long beard as a sign of piety (he shaved it off before the massacre to avoid attracting attention). According to a Boston Globe story he once admonished a friend: “Why don’t you become a better Muslim? Why don’t you pray? Why don’t you do your Islamic duties?”
Did Tsarnaev pervert his religion? One way to find out is to look at the place where Islam is primarily practiced and preached—the mosque. Between 1998 and 2011, four separate studies of US mosques found that approximately 80 percent of them were teaching Islamic supremacism, jihad, and contempt for Jews and Christians. About 80 percent had texts on site advocating violence, and one study revealed that in 84 percent of the mosques, texts supporting violence were recommended by the imam.
According to some reports, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was radicalized during trips to Russia but he could just as easily have been radicalized in an American mosque. Two of the 9/11 terrorists were mentored at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, as was Major Nidal Hasan. One of the leaders in that mosque was Anwar al Awlaki who, soon after leaving Virginia, became a terrorist leader in Yemen.
More to the point, serious questions have been raised about the leadership of the Islamic Society of Boston, which operates the two Islamic Centers—one in Cambridge and one in Boston—that the Tsarnaev brothers attended. One of ISB’s founders, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, is now in prison for his participation in an assassination plot. One of ISB’s original trustees, Imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; he once called the Holocaust a “divine punishment” of the Jews: “The last punishment was carried out by Hitler…Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.” In May of 2012, Imam Abdullah Faarooq, one of the senior leaders of ISB, told an assembly that they must “pick up the gun and the sword” in response to the arrest of two Boston-area terrorists. According to Americans for Peace and Tolerance, “APT’s extensive investigation shows that the mosque is a font of extremism—bringing in viciously anti-Jewish and anti-Christian speakers, and being headed by extremist leadership.” The mosque’s influence, says APT, “has resulted in terrorist charges or convictions for several individuals connected to the mosque, including the son of the mosque’s former vice-president.”
Nevertheless, the Islamic Society of Boston has found many enablers among non-Muslims, including the Mayor of Boston, who donated a valuable parcel of city land for the building of the Boston Islamic Center. In their efforts to protect Muslims from backlash, Catholic leaders need to take care that they don’t also become enablers of Islam’s radical agenda. As Cardinal O’Malley rightly observed in his homily, “The Tsarnaev brothers’ crimes should not be justification for prejudice against Muslims and immigrants.” But the cardinal also has an obligation to protect Catholics and other Christians from complacency about the threat from Islam. After all, as FBI statistics show, there has been little if any backlash against Muslims. On the other hand, Christians in Muslim lands are the victims of persecution on a massive scale. To say that the Brothers Tsarnaev were perverting their religion is to perpetuate a dangerous misunderstanding of Islam.
Undoubtedly, Catholic leaders will be able to point to the statements of their Muslim counterparts as proof that Islam is peacefully inclined. Muslim leaders in the US can be counted on to publicly deplore terrorism and the resulting carnage. Islam is a political religion and Islamic leaders are politically astute. They know what needs to be said to remain credible. Muslims are only a sliver of the population. What else are they going to say? To be sure, most of them do deplore the carnage, but just as surely most of them firmly believe in Islam’s right to dominate and subjugate. One of the reasons they may deplore the carnage is that they are quite confident that terror is not necessary in a society like ours, in which they can depend on naïve secular and religious enablers to smooth the path leading to Islamic domination.
This is not a call for Catholic leaders to adopt a hostile attitude toward Muslims in America (most of whom are far more moderate than their leadership), but to adopt a more critical stance toward Islam. Catholic bishops and dialoguers seem to be relying on outdated or simplistic beliefs about Islam that do not comport with the reality of Islamic texts and traditions, let alone with the facts on the ground in every Muslim-majority country.
Here’s an example of the kind of unexamined assumptions that are too prevalent among Christian leaders. In Scotland, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen now shares its premises with hundreds of Muslims praying five times a day because the local mosque was too small to accommodate them. According to the rector, “Praying is never wrong. My job is to encourage people to pray.” Praying is never wrong? This is precisely the kind of simplistic thinking that makes it probable that Scots will one day be dhimmis in their own land.
Praying is never wrong? Doesn’t it depend on what you’re praying for? Consider this prayer, issued from a loud speaker at the holiest shrine in Mecca:
O Allah, vanquish the unjust Christians and the criminal Jews…strike them with your wrath…drape them with endless despair, unrelenting pain, and unremitting ailment; fill their lives with sorrow and pain…this is our supplication; Allah, grant us our request!
Statements such as “praying is never wrong” or “terror is a perversion of Islam,” or the assumption that piety equals peacefulness, reflect an ethnocentric and outdated understanding of religion. They are redolent of a bygone era, when it looked like the only obstacles to universal harmony were a few misunderstandings among different cultures. It seems well past time for Christians to retire these 1960s clichés and update their thinking.
It is reported that one of the Tsarnaev brothers owned a Mercedes. Let that serve as a metaphor for the current situation. While the Islamic vanguard is driving circles around them with a high-powered and sophisticated disinformation machine, Christian leaders seem content to chug along with an understanding of Islam that is about as dependable as a 1965 Ford trying to make its way through 21st-century traffic.