In reaction to the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a statement last week strongly condemning the militants. The statement also called on religious leaders, “especially Muslims,” to condemn the crimes and denounce “the use of religion to justify them.” “If not,” it asks, “what credibility will religions, their followers, and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?”
On the one hand, the statement is a positive sign. The veil of illusion about Islam, it appears, may at last be lifting. Since the Council for Interreligious Dialogue has probably done more than any other Catholic organization to keep alive the illusion that the Islamic faith is just like ours, it’s significant that they are calling on their Muslim counterparts to take a stand against Islamist aggression. Up until now, the Pontifical Council has been excessively concerned with the sensibilities of Islamic religious leaders. The new tone suggests a recognition that they also have a responsibility for the lives of Christians who are threatened by Islamists. With its detailed list of unacceptable Islamist practices, the statement indicates a willingness to take a more realistic view of Islam.
On the other hand, there are a few indications that illusions die hard. The statement is hedged with language which suggests that the bishops still don’t get it—“it” being a clear understanding of Islamic faith, tradition, and history. The main thing to grasp is that Islam is a political religion. It’s as much about power as about piety. Indeed, exercising your power over others is considered to be a valid expression of piety—as in the music videos on Al-Aqsa TV, which proclaim that “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.”
In several places, the statement calls on Islamic leaders to “condemn the use of religion as a false justification for terrorism.” “No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity,” says the document. That’s true if you equate “religion” with Christianity, but the religion of Islam can and does justify barbarity—although, from the Islamic point of view, what Allah commands is not barbarity, but simple justice.
The statement calls on “followers of all religions” to condemn a list of outrages committed by the Islamic State. It’s not clear, however, if the authors of the statement fully realize what they are asking. A devoted follower of the prophet can’t very well condemn these practices because most of them belong to the warp and woof of Islam. A Muslim who rejects them tears at the very fabric of the faith.
Take the first item on the list: “the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation.” It seems that all reasonable people could unite in condemning that one, but, as it turns out, the Koran contains numerous passages justifying the slaying of unbelievers simply because they are non-Muslims (e.g. 9:5, 9:29, 8:39, 9:123). Next on the list is “the despicable practice of beheading, crucifying, and hanging bodies in public places.” Yet verse 47:4 of the Koran says, “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads,” and Muhammad himself ordered the beheading of between 700 and 900 members of a Jewish tribe of Medina that had surrendered to his forces. Crucifixion? According to verse 5:33, “Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land.”
The third item of condemnation is “the choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax (jizya), or forced exile.” In July, the Islamic State offered an ultimatum to Northern Iraq’s dwindling Christian population: “We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract—involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” Once again, this is no idiosyncratic interpretation invented by ISIS, but a well-established Islamic practice. Verse 9:29 of the Koran exhorts Muslims to fight Christians until they pay the jizya and feel themselves subdued, and the triple choice is spelled out in detail in one of the Hadith (the words and sayings of Muhammad):
When you meet your enemies who are polytheists [which includes Christians], invite them to three courses of action … [accept] Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them.… If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them. (Sahih Muslim 19:4294)
In reporting on the ultimatum, the Reuters story notes that the “dhimma contract” is “a historic practice under which non-Muslims were protected in Muslim lands in return for a special levy known as ‘jizya.’” In fact, the basis of the contract is the Pact of Omar, which was purportedly drawn up by Omar bin al-Khattab, a companion of Muhammad and the second caliph to follow him. In other words, the Pontifical Council is condemning a practice which has for centuries been standard operating procedure in the Muslim world.
The fifth outrage cited by the Pontifical Council is “the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war (sabaya).” Again, there’s nothing innovative here on the part of ISIS. Sex slavery in times of war is standard Islamic practice. Numerous passages in the Koran and the Hadith refer to the legitimacy of sexual relations with those “whom your right hand possesses” (i.e. captured women and/or slave girls). Muhammad explicitly gave his soldiers permission to rape captured women, and all the four major Sunni schools of sharia law agree that Muslims may have sexual relations with slaves taken in war. Moreover, sex slavery is still endorsed by Muslim clerics, and it is practiced not only in Iraq and Nigeria but also in such unlikely places as Great Britain, where a recent study titled “Easy Meat: Multiculturalism, Islam, and Child Sex Slavery” concluded that at least 10,000 girls are kept as virtual sex slaves at any one time by Muslim gangs in England (some sources say the number is 20,000). The Muslim gang members consider themselves at war with the infidels of England, and thus they look upon their “slaves” as legitimate spoils of war.
Of the eleven items on the list, at least ten are strongly attested to in Islamic scripture and have been widely practiced throughout the history of Islam. No doubt there are a great many Muslims who find these practices repellent. Perhaps they are unaware of the harsher mandates of Islam or perhaps they have chosen to ignore them. Very likely they have also been influenced by Western and Christian ideas. These are the people we think of as moderate Muslims. But whether or not they are good Muslims is another question.
The point is that asking Muslims to “unequivocally” condemn the barbarities of the Islamic State is tantamount to asking them to renounce some of the central tenets of their faith. The authors of the Pontifical Council statement don’t seem to fully comprehend this, because they are still locked into a true Islam/false Islam dichotomy that is widely shared by others in the secular West. But this imaginary dichotomy results largely from a projection of Western/Christian values and assumptions onto Islam. According to this view, the true Islam is a religion of peace and justice that shares much in common with Christianity. Therefore, when groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State engage in savagery, they are being untrue to Islam. They are in common parlance “misunderstanders of Islam.” The trouble is, the number of misunderstanders is now legion, and the number of “true” Muslims who are willing to stand up to them is few. You will still hear a lot of nonsense spoken about Islam, but nowadays you are less likely to hear the once-common assertion that the extremists comprise only a handful.
Although Muslim leaders here and there are willing to condemn the acts of ISIS and other terrorists, it is almost always done in an ambiguous fashion. Statements condemning ISIS, for example, invariably distance ISIS from Islam. For example, Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, denounced the “forced deportation under the threat of execution” of Christians, calling it “a crime that cannot be tolerated.” At the same time, he said the actions of ISIS “have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, kindness, fairness, freedom of faith, and coexistence.” Leaving aside the question of how an organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” and quotes copiously from Islamic scripture can “have nothing to do with Islam,” there is something disingenuous about casting the principles of Islam in modern human rights language. I haven’t memorized the Koran, but I’m fairly sure you won’t find terms such as “freedom of faith” and “coexistence” therein. There is one passage in the Koran which avers that “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and it is quoted ad nauseum by Muslim and non-Muslim apologists for Islam. But in the Muslim world, “no compulsion” seems to be understood in the broad sense. If you’re a Christian living in Northern Iraq and an ISIS soldier comes knocking at the door to offer you the triple choice, you can remind him that there is no compulsion in religion and hope that he’ll say, “Oh, sorry, I forgot”—or you can make sure that you and your family will be far away when the visit occurs.
Secretary General Madani also refers to the Islamic principle of “coexistence” but forgets to mention that for most of Islamic history, Christians and other minorities were only allowed to “coexist” as long as they agreed to abide by the terms of the “dhimma contract” which, as the Reuters report reminds us, is “a historic practice under which non-Muslims were protected … in return for a special levy known as ‘jizya.’” But protected from whom? In reality, the jizya was little different from the “protection” money that small business owners were forced to pay to the Mafia. Surely the Secretary General knows all this. And surely he knows that the dhimma tradition came to an end because it was outlawed by colonial powers and by the secular strongmen who succeeded them. His shock at the crimes of ISIS is reminiscent of the (faux) shock that Captain Renault expresses upon discovering gambling in Rick’s Café.
Not to sound too cynical, but there is likely another reason for Secretary General Madani’s choice of words. The word “coexistence” did not roll readily off the lips of seventh-century Arabian warriors, but it is ever on the lips of today’s statesmen and religious leaders. It is the kind of word one uses to appeal to a certain sensibility. For example, after condemning the Islamic State, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue statement goes on to tell us that “we cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together—it is true with ups and downs—over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud.” Well, yes, but once again, that “peaceful coexistence” was conditional on the Christians accepting the dhimmi code and literally prostrating themselves before the local ruler as they paid the jizya tax. And it wasn’t always so peaceful. There were many occasions when, for whatever reason, the Muslim overlords decided to no longer honor the contract. Take just two examples from modern times. Between 1915 and 1918, the Ottoman government exterminated between 1 and 1.5 million Armenian Christians living in Turkey. In August of 1933, the Iraqi army massacred 3,000 Assyrian Christians in the town of Simmele and surrounding villages. According to one account, “Girls were raped… Pregnant women were bayonetted. Children were flung in the air and pierced on to the points of bayonets.” The “ups and downs” of Christian-Muslim coexistence is a rather mild way of expressing the actual situation of Christians living under the dhimma contract.
The Council statement concludes with a call for a unanimous condemnation of the crimes of the Islamic State and a denouncement of “the use of religion to justify them.” “If not,” says the document, “what credibility will religions, their followers, and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?” It’s a good question—one that Robert Spencer and I and a number of other Catholic critics of the Church’s pursuit of common ground with Islam have asked. By linking the Church so closely with Islam and by repeatedly insisting on the shared beliefs, values, and interests of Muslims and Catholics, the interreligious dialoguers do indeed risk undermining not only their own credibility but the credibility of the entire Church.
Of course, Church leaders are not responsible for what ISIS does, or for the actions of Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Nusra, Lashkar e-Taiba, Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, or any of the three dozen other Islamic terrorist groups that are currently active. But they do have some responsibility for alerting their worldwide flock that what has happened over and over in the history of Islam might just happen again. Instead, many Christian leaders, especially those involved in interreligious dialogue, have managed to convey the impression that we have nothing to fear from Islam. Nothing in the bland and reassuring past statements issued by the Church’s various interreligious dialogue conferences would have prepared Christians for the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab. The recent, strongly worded statement by the Pontifical Council may be a sign that they are at last waking up to their responsibility.