We often hear it said that it is simply wrong to insult the faith of 1.3 billion Muslims. Why, then, isn’t it wrong to insult the faith of 2.2 billion Christians? It’s done every day, and sometimes the insults are hard to take. Christians are understandably upset when art exhibits feature crucifixes immersed in urine or portraits of Mary covered with dung.
It doesn’t require a Ph.D. to figure out why the secular word condemns insults to Muslims but countenances insults to Christians. It’s because the latter won’t come after you with machetes and assault rifles. If Islam were truly a religion of peace, it’s likely that most secularists wouldn’t give a fig about Muslim sensitivities.
Still, having themselves been the target of religious insults, Christians can sympathize with Muslims when their religious sensibilities are assaulted. It follows that many Christians will have scant sympathy for the organizers of the recent Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in Garland, Texas. Christians wouldn’t like it if atheists exhibited unflattering cartoons of Christ. To be consistent, they should also protest when the founder of Islam is similarly caricatured. That seems to be the general line of argument advanced by critics of the exhibit.
Looked at in a larger context, however, there are good reasons to argue that the event organizers did the world a service—and that includes the Muslim world. Granted, the cartoons will offend many Muslims. Judging by a sample on the Internet, some are of questionable taste. On the other hand, several of the cartoons are well-executed and make valid points about Muhammad.
But what is the context that could possibly justify subjecting Islam’s prophet to the same kind of treatment that is administered daily by political cartoonists to various political figures? Well, for one thing, Muhammad is also a political figure. More accurately, he is a military political leader. I use the word “is” advisedly. For many Muslims, he is as present now as he was to his seventh-century followers. In Islam, he is considered to be a man for all time—the most perfect man who ever lived. Muslims of every generation are expected to model their behavior on his. And for the last ten years of his life, Muhammad’s main preoccupation was warfare. For many Muslims, he is not just their prophet, he is also their commander-in-chief.
According to Islamic scholars, the world is divided into two spheres: the House of Islam and the House of War (all territory that is not controlled by Islam). Islamic tradition holds that peace will only be achieved when the House of War is brought under the rule of Islam. Thus warfare or the support of warfare is a perpetual obligation—although the obligation can be temporarily suspended when Islam is militarily weak.
The larger context in which the Muhammad art exhibit must be evaluated is that Islam is at war with us. Not every Muslim is, of course. Many Muslims, like many Christians, simply ignore those religious obligations they find inconvenient. However, because a great many Muslims do take the warfare obligation seriously, so should we. The reason we don’t is that we are still locked into the sixties-era belief that war is always optional. Back then, it was considered the height of sophistication to ask, “What if they gave a war and no one came?” But a much more pertinent question is this: “What if they gave a war and only one side showed up?” The answer is that the side that shows up usually becomes the winning side.
The same applies to ideological wars. The side that fails to realize that one is in progress ends up the loser. The event in Garland was essentially a battle in an ideological war—one that we are losing because we are scarcely aware of its existence. In places where Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, the preferred method of warfare is the stealth operation: the gradual and piecemeal acquisition of power and influence. In Europe, the UK, and the U.S., Islamist groups apply steady pressure on local communities to accept first this and then that aspect of Islamic culture and sharia law. The initial requests seem moderate enough: halal menus in schools, Islam-friendly textbooks, hijabs in hospitals, and sharia courts to adjudicate Muslim family matters. And then suddenly, after the softening-up process is well-advanced, it’s “You must comply with our laws about depicting a prophet.”
This is the battle that the organizers of the cartoon event are fighting. Ultimately, it’s a question of whether or not sharia law will be allowed to trump the First Amendment. And “ultimately” is not that far in the future. In Europe and the UK, the courts, the media, the churches, and public officials have already self-censored themselves into a state of semi-dhimmitude.
The keynote speaker at the Garland event was Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament. Wilders, who has been under police protection for eleven years, has firsthand knowledge of the culture wars in Europe. His key message is that Islam is winning because Western cultures are cooperating in their own overthrow—particularly by silencing those who dare to speak out about Islamization. He is one of numerous Europeans who have been dragged through the court system (for many years in his case) for the crime of defaming Islam.
Wilders began his talk with the observation that “Islam has declared war on us, on our Judeo-Christian civilization. Islam wants to rob us of our freedoms and liberties.” If you don’t agree with that, then the rest of what he said will seem unnecessarily harsh. Here are some excerpts:
If we fail, we will be enslaved. So the only option is to defend our freedom with all the energy we have.
Let us de-Islamize our societies!
Fortunately, there are Muslims who do not live according to Islamic commands. But there is no moderate Islam.
The less Islam, the better!
You can see why Wilders lives in a safe house and is accompanied by a Dutch security detail wherever he goes. But if he is correct about the current situation—the ideological war against Judeo-Christian civilization—then his recommendations make perfect sense. If it is in the nature of Islam to wage war against non-Muslims, then it stands to reason that if you’re not Islamic, you should want to reverse the Islamization process.
“The less Islam, the better” is one of those unthinkable thoughts that we need to start thinking about. It’s not an expression of animosity toward Muslims (Wilders has been clear on this), but rather a recognition that Muhammad’s law will always be a threat to freedom until, as Churchill put it, “the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.” A world without Islam does not mean a world without Egyptians or Saudis or Iranians. But if we are at war with a dangerous ideology, why wouldn’t we want it to fail—that is, to lose its power as a motivating force?
Because Islam has consistently proven itself to be an enemy of Christianity, “less Islam” is an idea that Catholics need to seriously consider. Catholics have been conditioned to unthinkingly celebrate the world’s “rich” diversity of beliefs. They should also recognize that there are dangerous diversities that ought to be discredited. As I wrote in a previous column, “Church policy toward Islam should be geared toward … undercutting Islam’s faith in itself.” In other words, it’s very much in our interest—and in the best interests of many Muslims—to sow the seeds of doubt about Islam in the minds of Muslims. The place to start is with Muhammad—the man from whom jihadists draw their inspiration.
How do you undercut faith in Muhammad? As I suggested in my series on Church policy toward Islam, the best method is desensitization. Muslims need to get used to the idea that their prophet can be criticized (and Western opinion-makers need to learn the same lesson). Because of who he was and what he did, Muhammad cannot stand up to too much exposure—which may be the underlying reason why it is forbidden to depict him.
That was an essential element of Wilders’ talk. “Depicting Muhammad,” he said, “is an act of liberation:”
Let us hold similar exhibitions all over the free world. From Canada, to Australia, to Europe … So let us expose Muhammad. Let us show the world what Islam truly is. And let us support Muslims like Bosch [Bosch Fawstin, the winner of the cartoon contest], who wish to leave Islam and liberate themselves from fear.
I’m not saying that cartoons are the best method of going about the desensitization process. As I said in my previous pieces on the subject, I would prefer approaches that are less confrontational. But the cartoonists have done us a favor. By breaking the ice, they make it easier for others to follow up with more exposure of Muhammad. This could be done with books, articles, documentary films, TV specials, and, yes, pictorial representations of Muhammad. If you want “less Islam,” you want more pictures of Muhammad and more discussion about him. Cartoon contests may not be the ideal way to open the discussion, but if Islam and its prophet are put beyond discussion, we are all put in danger.
We can take some lessons on desensitization from the various media attempts to undermine faith in Christ. They do it, not with cartoons, but with supposedly disinterested investigative reports aimed at raising doubts: How much do we really know about Jesus? What do the Hidden Gospels reveal? Have archaeologists found the tomb of Jesus? And so forth.
I’m not suggesting that we use dishonest and underhanded tactics. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to resort to sly innuendo when asking questions about Muhammad. That’s because all the bad news about him is recorded in detail in the standard Islamic sources—the Koran, the Sira, and the Hadith. Many Muslims have only a scant acquaintance with these sources, but they know that they can’t discount them as unreliable. As Muslims find out more about the life of Muhammad, many will become disenchanted. And, as Islam scholar Raymond Ibrahim has observed, disillusionment about Muhammad is one of the main reasons that Muslims leave Islam.
One of the chief obstacles to initiating a campaign of desensitization is the Church’s semi-official stance on Islam. Church leaders are so committed to the path of genteel dialogue and discussion that they can’t seem to imagine any other approach. And whereas Wilders believes that Islam is an enemy of Judeo-Christian civilization, many Catholics seem to be acting on the assumption that Islam is a part of Judeo-Christian civilization—as though an attack on it is an attack on us.
For example, following the shooting in Garland, Texas, L’Osservatore Romano decried the event as “blasphemous.” Blasphemous? The last time I checked, Muhammad was not one of our prophets. Why is the Vatican newspaper running interference for him? And why did they do the same in 1989 after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s unflattering portrayal of Muhammad in The Satanic Verses?
Do Catholics have a vested interest in protecting Muhammad’s reputation? In shielding Islam from criticism? In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said that the right way to respond to “episodes of violent fundamentalism” is to remember that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Statements like this are well-intentioned, but they have the effect of letting Islam off the hook whenever violence is committed in its name. Why do Catholics have this habit of taking the side of Islam whenever its honor is called into question?
The answer, I think, is that Church authorities are working under the assumption that religion is on the whole a good thing, and therefore Islam must, on the whole, be a good thing. In line with this assumption, theologians and catechists tend to focus on those aspects of Islam that resemble Christian beliefs and practices. By the same token, beliefs and practices that diverge significantly from Christian ones are dismissed as unrepresentative aberrations. Ever since Vatican II, the Church’s policy has been to emphasize the things it supposedly holds in common with Islam—belief in one God, veneration of Jesus and Mary, a shared moral code, and the like.
This may prove to be a formula for disaster. Consider some of the downside. The more the Church identifies with Islam, the more it will be identified with Islam in the eyes of the world. Does the Church really want to be identified with a religion that assigns an inferior status to women, that kills apostates, and countenances female genital mutilation and honor violence?
Declarations of solidarity with Islam need to be reconsidered. So also should the notion that we must respect other people’s religious beliefs. Up to a point, yes, we should respect other faiths. But there are many aspects of Islam that go beyond that point. Islam was founded by a man who murdered, raped, enslaved, and pillaged. Why should we respect him or refrain from depicting him? If we respect and abide by that Islamic prohibition, then, as radio host Rush Limbaugh asked the other day, “why wouldn’t Americans have to respect and obey Islam’s laws and punishments regarding gays and women?”
As I wrote in a recent piece, the attempt to avoid those things that provoke Islam puts us on a slippery slope. The people killed inside the Lindt Chocolat Café in Sydney weren’t drawing cartoons, they were simply unbelievers. The Jews killed inside the kosher market in Paris had done nothing to provoke Islam—except for being Jews. More to the point, numerous Catholic beliefs and practices are provocative to Muslims, and are severely curtailed or forbidden in Muslim countries. Meanwhile, thousands of Christians have been killed simply for the provocation of being Christian.
The Church needs to reexamine its relationship with Islam. Instead of looking for opportunities to express esteem and respect for Islam, it may be time for the Church to look for opportunities to distance itself from Islam. Instead of looking for ways to be less provocative, the Church needs to be more proactive in proclaiming the message of Christ and doing what it can to undermine the destructive message of Muhammad. Catholics should strive to do this in a non-confrontational manner, but this will not always be possible.