In a speech to Egypt’s top Islamic authorities, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for a “religious revolution.” Why? Because he believes that Islam has problems: “That corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries … is antagonizing the entire world.” He continued: “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants…?” He then warned the assembled imams not to “remain trapped within this mindset” but to “reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.”
However you interpret el-Sisi’s remarks, it’s clear that he believes the problems of Islam are not the fault of a tiny minority. He seems to think that a great many are to blame, and he particularly singles out Islamic religious leaders, whom he holds “responsible before Allah” on “Judgment Day.” And, most tellingly, he refuses to indulge in the this-has-nothing-to-do-with-Islam excuse favored by Western leaders. Rather, he states that “the entire umma [Islamic world]” is “a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world” because of “the thinking that we hold most sacred.”
By contrast, after his visit to Turkey, Pope Francis compared Islamic fundamentalists to Christian fundamentalists and said that “in all religions there are these little groups.” A little over a year ago in his apostolic exhortation, he joined the ranks of those who say that terror has nothing to do with Islam by observing that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
So the leader of the largest Muslim country in the Arab world thinks that the entire Islamic world is suffused with dangerous and destructive thinking, and the leader of the Catholic Church thinks terror is the work of a few misunderstanders of Islam.
Or does he?
It’s very likely that when world leaders say that terror has nothing to do with Islam, many of them do so for reasons of state. In other words, they are afraid that if they say anything else they will provoke more violence.
Is this the case with the Pope? My guess is probably not. The Pope does not seem the type to dissemble. He, along with many of the bishops, seems to genuinely believe that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked for nefarious purposes.
Still, even if many prelates do entertain doubts about the peaceful nature of Islam, it can be argued that the present policy of saying positive things about Islam makes sense from a strategic point of view. A great many Christians live as minorities in Muslim lands, and the wrong word might put them in danger. After Pope Benedict’s Regensburg reference to the violent nature of Islam, Muslims took out their anger on Christians living in their midst. And things have worsened since then. Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, and elsewhere already live at peril of their lives. Why make it any worse for them?
There’s another argument for this power-of-positive-thinking approach, although it’s an argument that’s best left unsaid. One of the unspoken hopes of Church and secular leaders is, undoubtedly, that such an approach will set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep saying that Islam is a religion of peace and eventually even the Islamists will believe it and begin to act peacefully.
Of course, jihadists aren’t the main target of this strategy. Even if hardcore Islamists remain unmoved by this flattering of their faith, the tactic will—or so it is supposed—have the merit of reinforcing moderate Muslims in their moderation. If Catholic prelates were to start criticizing Islam itself instead of the terrorist “betrayers” of Islam, they would risk alienating peaceful Muslims. A hardline policy might even have the effect of pushing moderates into the radical camp. Better, from a strategic point of view, to stress our commonalities with Muslims. If they see us as a brother religion, they are more likely to protect the Christians in their midst.
Whether or not this is the reasoning at the Vatican, I don’t know. But such a strategy is not without merit. In Islam, blasphemy and slander are taken quite seriously and any criticism of Islam or its prophet can be construed as blasphemous. Slander is defined even more loosely. One of the most authoritative sharia law books defines it as “saying anything about a person that he would dislike.” That covers a lot of territory. So the argument that drawing attention to the violent side of Islam will only incite further violence is a compelling one.
On the other hand, there are good reasons for questioning the Church’s accommodative approach. The primary and most practical one is that it doesn’t seem to have worked. The let’s-be-friends approach has been in place even since Vatican II, but other than dialoguers congratulating themselves on the friendships they have made, it hasn’t yielded much in the way of results. Christians in Muslim lands are less safe than they have been for centuries. So, for that matter, are Muslims themselves.
What’s wrong with the diplomatic approach? Well, look at it first from the Islamic point of view. Islam is a religion that respects strength. It was spread mainly by the sword. To say that it is a peaceful religion might elicit reassuring responses from those Muslims who, like their Western counterparts, are constrained by diplomatic protocols, but from others it elicits scorn. The Ayatollah Khomeini put it this way: “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those are witless.”
Muslims of Khomeini’s ilk don’t care whether or not others think of Islam as peaceful, they only care whether God is on their side. A weak response from the enemy, whether on the battlefield or from the pulpit proves that he is. Appeasement on the part of prelates reinforces the conviction held by many Muslims that Christianity is an inferior religion, not worthy of respect. By the same token, it reinforces the belief that Islam is the superior religion, deserving of special respect. “Allahu akbar” doesn’t mean “let’s dialogue”; it means “God is greater” and its specific meaning to Muslims is that their God is greater than your god. Duke University recently reversed its decision to allow the Muslim Student Association to chant the call to prayer from the massive chapel bell tower, but if the decision had held it would not have been seen as a sign of Duke’s commitment to cultural diversity but as a sign that it is on the road to submission. Duke was founded by Methodist Episcopalians and was originally called Trinity College. The Muslim call to prayer includes the words “Allahu akbar,” and the Allah they call upon is decidedly not a Trinity.
Islam, which considers itself to be the best religion on the planet, is also the touchiest religion on the planet. The way you show Islam respect is not by treating it as an equal but by treating it with deference. Not doing or saying anything to offend Muslims might seem like a wise strategy, but once you adopt it, you’re already on a slippery slope. Islam has an insatiable appetite for deference, and there is no end to the things that offend Muslims. The word “Islam,” after all, means submission, and that, ultimately, is how non-Muslims are expected to show respect. Catholics who are worried about offending Islam might note that in Saudi Arabia the mere presence of a Catholic church is considered offensive. Will the wearing of a cross by a Christian student at Duke someday be considered intolerably offensive to the Muslim students? How much of your weekly salary would you be willing to wager against that eventuality?
Of course there are many Muslims who are tolerant and open-minded, but in much of the Muslim world they keep their open-mindedness to themselves. What about them? The Church’s current “diplomatic” policy runs the risk of increasing their sense of hopelessness. Islam is an oppressive religious and social system. Many Muslims feel trapped by it. President el-Sisi acknowledged as much when he urged Egypt’s imams not to “remain trapped within this mindset.” When Christian leaders won’t acknowledge the oppression, it reinforces the “trapped” Muslim’s belief that he has nowhere to turn. The problem is compounded when Church leaders insist on expressing their respect for Islam and their solidarity with Islamic religious leaders. Muslims who are disaffected from Islam aren’t likely to convert to another religion which proudly proclaims its commonality with the faith they would love to leave.
The current approach is unlikely to win over many Muslims. At the same time, it’s likely to alienate a lot of Christians. For one thing, it does a disservice to Christian victims of Islamic persecution. As I observed in a previous column:
Such an approach also tends to devalue the sacrifices of those Christians in Muslim lands who have had the courage to resist submission to Islam. It must be highly discouraging to be told that the religion in whose name your friends and relatives have been slaughtered is prized and esteemed by the Church.
That’s not to say that Church leaders shouldn’t exercise discretion in what they say. During World War II, Vatican officials understood that saying the wrong thing about the Nazis could result in retaliation against both Jews and Catholics. On the other hand, they did not go out of their way to express their esteem and respect for Nazis and thus risk demoralizing Christians who lived under Nazi control. In order to protect Christians and Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and later in Communist-controlled Eastern Europe, the Vatican did exercise a degree of diplomatic caution. But that diplomacy was based on an accurate understanding of Nazi and Communist ideology. It’s not at all clear that today’s Church leaders possess a correspondingly clear-eyed understanding of Islamic theology/ideology. The current outreach to Islam seems to be based more on wishful thinking than on fact. And, as Pope Francis himself observed in Evangelii Gaudium, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232).
“Ideas disconnected from realities” is a good way to describe the Church’s Islam policy. That policy does not seem to have done much to prevent persecution of Christians in Muslim lands. How about Catholics who do not live in the danger zones? Catholics who live in the West and rely on the Church for their understanding of Islam can be forgiven if they still remain complacent about the Islamic threat. That’s because there is absolutely nothing in recent official Church statements that would lead them to think that there is anything to worry about. Lumen Gentium? Nostra Aetate? The Catechism of the Catholic Church? Evangelii Gaudium? All discuss Islam, but not in a way that would raise the slightest concern. The Catholic who wonders what to think about Islamic terrorism and then consults his Catechism only to find that “together with us they adore the one, merciful God” will likely conclude that terrorists are distorting and misinterpreting their religion. Confident that the Church has spoken definitively on the matter, he’ll roll over and go back to sleep.
Conversely, Catholics who do not rely strictly on the Church for their assessment of Islam are in for a bout of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, they know what the Church says. On the other hand, they can read the news and note the obvious discrepancy. As time goes by and as car bombings and beheadings occur at more frequent intervals in the West, dissonance is likely to be replaced by disrespect. Church officials who keep repeating the one-sided narrative about “authentic” Islam will lose credibility. Catholics won’t necessarily lose their faith, but it will be sorely tested. At the least, they will stop trusting their bishops on this issue. The trouble with “ideas disconnected from realities” is that they eventually do bump up against realities, and when they do, the bearers of those ideas lose respect. A good case can be made that Catholic leaders should pursue a policy geared toward weakening Muslims’ faith in Islam (a proposition I will discuss in the next installment), but the current policy seems more likely to undermine the faith that Catholics have in their shepherds. It’s ironic that a Catholic can get a better grasp of the Islamic threat by listening to a short speech by President el-Sisi than by listening to a hundred reassuring statements from Catholic bishops.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply criticize the Church’s current policy without proposing a viable alternative option. That’s something I propose to do in my next column.
Editor’s note: In the image above, Pope Francis meets with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul Rahmi Yaran during his three day state visit to Turkey last November.