Conservative Catholics have been faring badly in the fight against militant secularism, so it’s understandable that they would be looking for allies to stand alongside them in the culture wars.
Some Catholic intellectuals seem to think that Muslims are our natural allies in this struggle because they supposedly share similar values and because, like Catholics, they are opposed to adultery, pornography, and homosexual behavior.
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, for example, has championed what he calls an “ecumenical jihad” against secularism, while Catholics as diverse as Dinesh D’Souza, E. Michael Jones, and Timothy Cardinal Dolan have emphasized the common moral ground shared by Catholics and Muslims.
The most recent addition to the list is Princeton professor Robert George. In a piece for First Things entitled “Muslims, Our Natural Allies,” he argues that Muslims are our natural confederates because most of them believe in “modesty, chastity, and piety.”
The particular occasion for the piece was the celebration of World Hijab Day on February 1 and, in fact, the article is accompanied by a short video in which an attractive, articulate and, shall we say, “with it” young woman in a hijab makes the case for wearing the hijab as an expression of freedom and modesty. For example, “Does it bother you that I have control over what I choose to show and withhold from the world?” (A customer alert may be in order here. One of the reasons that the young lady is so adept at promoting the hijab is that selling hijabs is her business. She is the founder and owner of Pearl-Daisy, an online hijab and clothing store in the UK.)
Even if they agree with him on the “allies” issue, regular readers of Professor George may be disappointed in this piece. In contrast to his usual lucid and cogent analysis of social and constitutional issues, this piece relies largely on subjective arguments. For example, much of the piece is taken up with praising George’s many close Muslim friends, all of whom seem to be model citizens:
I have met hundreds of religiously observant Muslims over the past several years and many are now my close friends…They are among the finest people I know … they work, as we do, to inculcate in their children the virtues of honesty, integrity, self-respect, and respect for others, hard work, courage, modesty, chastity, and self-control…. They thank God for the freedom they enjoy in the United States….
This tells us a lot about the quality of the company he keeps, but it doesn’t tell us much about the Muslim faith. We are left, however, with the impression that only a fine belief system could produce such fine people. But, of course, it’s not always wise to judge a belief system according to the character of those who believe in it. Sometimes, people manage to rise above whatever belief system they embrace or have been born into. For example, when I was growing up, one of our family friends was a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. (until he left it to join a still more radical communist organization). Yet he was the soul of kindness and gentleness. I doubt very much that he would ever have raised a hand against a fellow human being. But, for all that, he devoutly believed in an ideology that was responsible for the oppression of millions.
More to the point, if personal acquaintance is going to be the measure for deciding issues, I am also acquainted with a former Muslim who is a very fine person, but who felt compelled to leave Islam because of its cruel and oppressive nature. Her name is Nonie Darwish, and anyone who has read her book Cruel and Usual Punishment would not come away with the impression that Islamic sexual morality is similar to Christian sexual morality.
Do Catholics Share a Common Morality with Muslims?
Nevertheless, Professor George, along with Kreeft, D’Souza (now apparently an ex-Catholic), Jones, and others, holds that Catholics share a common morality with Muslims. One example of this, says George, is that both stand opposed to the objectification and de-personalization of women that we see in advertising, entertainment and fashion. He asks, “Is there an actress in all of Hollywood who, when appearing at one of those absurd award shows dressed in a see-through gown … can compare with the beautiful young Muslim woman in the video I posted?” Personally, I’d vote for the Muslim woman, but what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?—or, in this case, the reality of Islamic beliefs and practices? The question is not whether modest looks and dress are becoming, but whether or not the young woman’s argument is true of Muslims in general.
She makes the case that wearing the hijab is a matter of personal choice. Sometimes, it is, of course, but there is compelling evidence that the majority of Muslim women wear the hijab because they have to. In Iran, for instance, the wearing of the hijab in public is a legal requirement—as it is even in Aceh Province in supposedly moderate Indonesia. Where the hijab is not legally required it is often socially mandated. By “socially mandated,” I don’t mean that it is worn out of fear that one’s maiden aunt will cluck her tongue, but out of fear of physical harm. For example, this from The New Yorker magazine:
More often those girls were under orders from their fathers and uncles and brothers, and even their male classmates…. Girls who did not conform were excoriated, or chased, or beaten by fanatical young men meting out Islamic justice. Sometimes girls were gang-raped.
That’s not a description of some tribal village in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It’s an account of conditions in the Muslim suburbs surrounding Paris. According to Serge Trifkovic, “Many French-born Arab girls in the ghetto resort to wearing hijab as the only protection against face-slashing and gang-rapes” (p. 69). Is wearing the hijab a matter of personal choice? In some places, yes. But according to a survey conducted in 2003, 77 percent of French girls who wore the hijab said they did so because of physical threats (Global Post, March 2, 2010).
Of course, people eventually become accustomed to whatever reality they have to live with. Under such intense social pressure, it is understandable that many Muslim girls and women will come to accept the hijab, or even the burqa, as just part of life. It can become psychologically intolerable to constantly chafe about conditions over which one has no control and about which one must not complain. Indeed, it is a common observation that people often feel the need to justify the situations they must endure. No doubt, many Muslim women have convinced themselves that wearing the hijab (or the burqa as the case may be) is the good and proper thing to do, but this is not quite the same as the Catholic ideal, which is that modesty and chastity are freely chosen virtues that reflect an interior disposition rather than a socially enforced requirement.
George also makes a point of contrasting Muslim modesty with Western cultural pressure to objectify and even “pornify” women. In doing so, however, he tends to gloss over the much greater objectification of women that occurs in traditional Muslim cultures. It may be true, as he says, that the typical American male looking at the sexy Hollywood actress will be tempted to de-personalize her so that “who she actually is as a person is utterly submerged,” but what of the women in the niqab or burqa? The niqab has openings for the eyes only. The burqa completely hides a woman’s features. Isn’t that also a situation in which the personality of the woman is utterly submerged?
And it’s not just a matter of clothing. The objectification runs much deeper than that. Anyone who has read Nonie Darwish’s account of growing up in Egypt, or Wafa Sultan’s remembrance of her life in Syria, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s description of her childhood in Somali will realize that the objectification of women in Muslim societies is several orders of magnitude greater than it is in the U.S. or Europe. In fact, it is written into sharia law that women are second-class citizens with second-class rights. For example, Reliance of the Traveler, a widely consulted manual of Islamic law stipulates that women must stand behind men and boys in prayer (f 12. 32), that the testimony of a man is equal to the testimony of two women (o 24. 10), and that the indemnity to be paid for the death or injury of a woman is one-half the indemnity paid for a man (o 4. 9). Moreover, although a man can divorce his wife at will, a woman cannot divorce without her husband’s permission (n 1.1, n 3.2, n 3.3).
For more personal accounts of how this legally and/or socially sanctioned view of women works in practice, read Darwish’s account of first seeing a church wedding in an old Hollywood movie and her amazement at “the way a Christian woman was honored and elevated by her husband and society” (p. 80). Or read Sultan’s account of how her grandfather in Syria forced her grandmother to solicit a young woman to be his new bride (p. 13). And no, it hasn’t gotten better for women since then. In much of the Muslim world, the situation for women has worsened.
Professor George is also concerned—as we all should be—about “the sexualization of children at younger and younger ages” in our culture. However, this sexualization of children, bad as it is, takes place in our culture largely on the level of advertising, entertainment, and grade-school sex education. In Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Northern Nigeria, it manifests itself in the soul-destroying institution of child marriage. In Iran, for example, lawmakers are trying to lower the marriageable age for girls from thirteen back to nine (where it stood during the reign of Khomeini). Mohammad Ali Isfenani, chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, called the current minimum age of thirteen “un-Islamic.” Moreover, the Iranian Parliament recently passed a bill that would allow a man to marry his adopted daughter. In his essay, Professor George contrasts the “upright life” esteemed by Muslims with the debased ethics of Hollywood, but in some respects, Islamic ethics more closely resemble the ethics of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski than those espoused by the Catholic Church.
Although George does acknowledge that in some Muslim cultures, “the covering of women is taken to an extreme and reflects a very real subjugation,” he does not seem to realize just how widespread this subjugation is. His perspective is what is generally taken to be the broad, cosmopolitan view, but it seems to reflect an acquaintance with only a very narrow subset of the Muslim world. It is highly likely, for instance, that the “religiously observant” Muslims in his circle are ignoring many of the rules they are supposed to follow as good Muslims.
Perhaps the people he knows would make good allies in the struggle for religious liberty and against secularism, but the notion that “the piety and moral convictions” of traditional Muslims “make them natural allies of social conservatives” is a stretch. To bolster his point about social conservatism among Muslims, George points to the fact that a majority of American Muslims voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. He neglects to mention, however, that according to a poll conducted by the American-Muslim Task Force, 89 percent of Muslims voted for Barack Obama, the pro-abortion candidate in 2008. Moreover, according to a 2012 poll conducted by Wenzel Strategies, not every American Muslim is a champion of religious liberty and free speech. Fifty-eight percent of the Muslim-American respondents believed that criticism of Islam or Muhammad should not be allowed under the U.S. Constitution. Forty-six percent said that Americans who criticize or parody Islam should face criminal charges, while one in eight respondents felt that such crimes merit the death penalty.
Fundamental Faith Differences Should Not Be Ignored
Muslims, our natural allies? Some Muslims may prove to be good allies to Catholics in the struggle against secular forces. But conservative Catholics ought to think twice about the “natural” part. The word implies that Islamic beliefs, ethics, and practices are closer to the Catholic ideal than they really are. Too many Catholics are looking at the surface similarities and ignoring the deep differences between the two faiths.
What sort of differences? Well, there’s the matter of Islamic supremacism—a concept which is expressed not only in Islamic scripture but also occasionally by prominent American Muslims. For example, Omar Ahmad, the co-founder of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) told a Muslim audience in California in 1998, “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”
That’s the kind of statement we might expect from an ayatollah in Iran or a mufti in Arabia, and it calls into question the degree of commitment that some Muslim-American leaders have to religious liberty. Just as importantly, it ought to raise questions about which Muslim groups conservative Catholics plan to ally themselves with. CAIR has long been accepted by the media and the government as the face of moderate Muslims in America, however the evidence suggests it is anything but. According to David Gaubatz and Paul Sperry’s Muslim Mafia, CAIR operates more like a criminal underworld conspiracy than a civil rights organization. Likewise, numerous other “moderate Muslim” organizations have questionable connections. Most of the groups that purport to represent Muslim-Americans—such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Student Association, and so forth—are closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The links were established in the landmark Holy Land Foundation Trial in 2008—the largest terrorist funding trial in U.S. history.
In short, finding the proper Muslim allies would require a lot of discernment—far more discernment than the Catholic leadership in America has thus far been able to muster. For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated representatives of three of these Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups (ISNA, ICNA, and the Fiqh Council of North America) as their main dialogue partners in their ongoing series of Catholic-Muslim dialogues. The Muslim Brotherhood, lest we forget, is the group most responsible for the recent widespread persecution of Christians in Egypt. So, before Catholics talk about Catholic-Muslim alliances, they ought to reflect on the American Church’s inability to distinguish friends from enemies. The Canadian Revenue Service recently revoked the charitable status of ISNA because of its ties to terrorism, yet the American Catholic bishops continue to meet and greet and dialogue with its members.
Catholics and Muslims have worked together toward common goals in the past, most notably at the World Population Conference in 1994. But a lot has transpired since then in the Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have considerably more influence now, and moderate Muslims have considerably less. Catholics can still work together with Muslims, but they need to think carefully about what Muslim groups they will ally themselves with and they need to find a more reliable principle to guide them than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Finally, just as Professor George says that Christians should reject the unjust identification of all Muslims with terrorists, they should not go to the opposite extreme of concluding that violence has nothing to do with Islam. Because some Muslims lead exemplary lives is no reason to suppose that “justice” and “moral values” have the same meaning in Islam as in Catholicism. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis cautioned against “hateful generalizations about Islam.” By the same token, Catholics should avoid making overly optimistic generalizations about Islam. Catholics are not currently in danger of taking a too vigilant attitude toward Islam; they are in danger of taking a far too relaxed attitude about it.
Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of a bombed Iraqi Christian church from 2013.