World leaders and Church leaders keep insisting that terrorism is a betrayal of real Islam, which, as Secretary of State John Kerry recently assured us, is “a peaceful religion based on the dignity of all human beings.”
The notion that Islam is a religion of peace is becoming less credible by the day. Islam’s Western apologists might do better to simply note that most Muslims, like most people everywhere, are not inclined to violence. Muhammad himself acknowledged the normal inclination toward peaceful living in the Koran:
Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you know not. (2:216)
As the passage suggests, religious faith often requires us to act against our natural inclinations. This sometimes results in a change for the better, and sometimes in a change for the worse. In a recent column, Daniel Greenfield notes that neighbors often recollect how nice and normal “Jihad Joe” or “Jihad Jane” was before they went to Syria and joined the Islamic State. He comments:
While there are some converts attracted to Islam for its violence, the Muslim convert usually doesn’t convert for the killing, he kills because he converted…The nice Muslim jihadist next door might well be moderate by inclination and immoderate by faith.
Religion changes people, but not always for the better. It depends on the content of the faith, and on how assiduously one practices it. A Christian who takes to heart the injunction to love his neighbor can overcome a belligerent temperament, while a Muslim who takes to heart the command to subjugate non-Muslims can overcome a peaceful temperament.
Fortunately, many Muslims ignore or are ignorant of the violent injunctions in the Koran (or interpret them in non-violent ways, whether coherently or not), and are quite willing to live and let live. Westerners tend to think of such people as moderate Muslims, but from the point of view of traditional, historical, and textual Islam, they are not good Muslims and can even be considered as heretics or apostates.
In this respect, the moderate Muslim resembles the “cafeteria Catholic.” He picks and chooses those aspects of the faith that are in line with his own inclinations and ignores or even rejects the rest. Many Catholics reject church teaching on abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, and a surprisingly large number don’t even accept the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist—although it is a central tenet of the Catholic faith. While Catholic leaders may be reluctant to condemn these lax Catholics, they don’t ordinarily hold them up as examples of “good Catholics.” Yet when the Muslim counterpart of the cafeteria Catholic takes a casual attitude about the teachings of his faith, Catholic leaders think of him as a “good Muslim.” But judged by traditional and Islamic criteria, he is anything but.
In other words, the “true Islam” that Western leaders extol is an imaginary Islam made in the image and likeness of Christianity—at least a more liberal, “progressive” form of Christianity. We assume that the observant, mosque-going Muslim will undergo a positive transformation, just as we assume the observant, church-going Christian will be changed for the better. That’s not to say that devout Muslims never change for the better. God does hear prayers, after all, and there’s no reason to think that He can’t use a Muslim’s prayers, when offered in the right spirit, to effect a positive soul-change.
There’s good reason to doubt, however, that increased prayer and diligent study of the Koran is a reliable path to moderation. Moviemakers love to suggest a connection between excessive Bible-reading and violence, as in the psychopathic character whose body is tattooed with Bible verses in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear; but in the real world you’d be wiser to keep your eye on the diligent Koran reader. If you follow the careers of terrorists and would-be terrorists, you quickly learn that they are quite a bit more conversant with the Koran than the average moderate Muslim. Umar Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” was president of the Islamic Society of University College, London, and in high school he was known as “the scholar” for his extensive knowledge of Islam. Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, once gave a PowerPoint presentation to his medical colleagues that was peppered with quotations from the Koran and Islamic authorities. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies. And the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose Iranian Revolution put militant Islam back on the world stage, was a renowned Islamic scholar.
If jihadists are “misunderstanders of Islam” as is so often claimed, they are, at least, very well-informed misunderstanders. It’s too bad a quiz show match-up couldn’t be arranged between the jihadists and such world-renowned Islamic experts as John Kerry, Barack Obama, and David Cameron. The topic would be “knowledge of Islam,” and in recognition of the pickle that Kerry and company have got us into, the show could be called “Jeopardy” or “Double or Nothing”—or, my personal favorite, “You Bet Your Life.”
This is not to say that a thorough understanding of Islam invariably leads one to jump off the deep end and commit to jihad. Firsthand knowledge of Islam convinced a number of twentieth-century Muslim leaders that Islam needed to be thoroughly contained and constrained. Take the case of Turkey. For most of the last hundred years, Westerners have held up Turkey as a model of moderation—the chief example of the proposition that there is no incompatibility between Islam and Western principles of democracy and tolerance. Yet a central element in the moderation and modernization of Turkey was a conscious rejection of Islamic supremacism. After the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, the new Turkish government under Kemal Ataturk moved to suppress public displays of Islamic culture such as beards, veils, turbans, and long robes. The Kemalists wanted to establish a secular civil society similar to those that existed in Europe. But to do so, it was necessary to get rid of sharia and to stifle Islamic supremacist ambitions. According to national security expert Andrew McCarthy, “the government assumed supervision of the country’s 80,000 mosques, vetted the imams, controlled the content of sermons and literature, and aggressively monitored Islamic charities.”
In short, the much-vaunted Turkish moderation was accomplished in spite of Islam, not because of it. In other parts of the Middle East, the combination of colonial rule followed by the rule of secular strongmen had a similar moderating effect. In the fifties and sixties, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt were not model democracies, but they were more secular and tolerant than they are today, and in general they were safer places for Christians and other minorities.
The relatively more moderate Islam of the period now appears to be an historical aberration made possible by tight government controls. However, it was during that period of Islamic quiescence that the Second Vatican Council was convened, and it was during that time that many of today’s Church leaders formed their favorable impressions of Islam. Cordial encounters with government-vetted imams made it easy enough to conclude that Islam was solidly within the Abrahamic fold and headed in the right direction.
Thus, in a 2012 keynote address to a USCCB-sponsored Muslim-Catholic dialogue, Fr. Tom Michel, S.J., still relying on the earlier paradigm, could say:
Muslims must glory in the prophethood of Muhammad and the Qur’anic message that he brought, just as Christians must glory in the cross of Jesus Christ.
In a similar vein, Pope Francis assured a group of Christian and Muslim refugees that “the faith that your parents instilled in you will always help you move on.” He also encouraged the refugees to “expel the illness within our hearts…Those that are Christians, with the Bible, and those that are Muslims, with the Qur’an.”
Such advice assumes, however, that the content of the two faiths is more or less the same. If that’s not the case, then telling Muslims to go deeper into their faith may not be a good idea. If the goal is to encourage Muslims to become more moderate and peaceful, then deeper-into-the-faith is not the way to go. The evidence suggests that individual Muslims become more moderate to the extent that they practice a more diluted form of their faith. Likewise, Muslim societies become more moderate to the extent that their governments create conditions which allow them to approach their religion as they would a buffet table.
Catholic leaders are right to expect their flocks to rise above the level of the “cafeteria Catholic.” On the other hand, Catholics the world over would be freer to practice their faith in safety if Muslims could be encouraged to adopt a cafeteria approach to Islam.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!