Intelligence Failure

U.S. government officials were caught off guard by the recent rapid rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and its plan to establish a sharia-ruled caliphate state.

Either they weren’t getting enough intelligence from their agents in the field, or else they lacked the framework for processing the information. Since the American Embassy in Baghdad has some 15,000 employees and since we can assume that this includes a sizeable contingent of intelligence gatherers, a problem with the framework is the more likely explanation. The framework is built around the assumption that Islam is a religion of peace, and that the jihad threat is confined to al-Qaeda, which is “on the run.” The idea that jihad is an integral part of Islam—something we can expect to pop up almost anywhere in the Muslim world—doesn’t fit into the theory. Likewise, the framework is not sized to accommodate concepts such as sharia, caliphate, or religious motivation—let alone world conquest for the sake of Allah.

In fact, the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon are not even allowed to mention “Islam” and “jihad” in the same breath. Over two years ago, at the behest of Islamic activist groups, counterterrorism training manuals were purged of any “materials that portray Islam as a religion of violence or with a tendency towards violence.”

Like the U.S. government, the Catholic Church has also been caught off guard by the rapid spread of Islamic terrorism and the escalating persecution of Christians. Moreover, Church leaders have been surprised for much the same reason. Like our government, they are relying on an outdated paradigm to analyze what information they have. And, as with government intelligence agencies, the ruling paradigm sets bounds on what they are likely to notice.

The Catholic paradigm for understanding Islam was set in 1965 with the publication of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate and its two short paragraphs on the “Moslems.” Ironically, Nostra Aetate does not seem to have been intended as any sort of paradigm or template. Rather, it seems to have been meant as only a first step in the direction of improving Christian-Muslim relations. The task of the document was “to consider what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.” Accordingly, the Council Fathers listed a handful of beliefs and practices that Muslims and Christians share and which might serve as a basis for fellowship.

Unfortunately, in the years that followed, Nostra Aetate’s statement on “the Church’s relationship with the Moslems” came to be looked upon as the Church’s final word on Islam—in effect, all that one needs to know about Islam. The result was that generations of Catholics gained the impression that Islam was a religion not unlike their own—or, to put it another way, not something that one need worry too much about.

The Nostra Aetate paradigm was seized on by both liberal and conservative Catholics—by liberals because it dovetailed with their multicultural agenda; by conservatives because, if Islam was a close cousin of Catholicism, Muslims would make good partners in the culture wars. A number of prominent conservative Catholics began speaking in terms of an “ecumenical jihad” against secularism, with Muslims as “our natural allies.”

The new paradigm was especially popular with Catholic educators. After the shock of 9/11, they needed a way to explain the event to their students and, conveniently, the Catholic paradigm closely coincided with the secular one: Islam was a religion of peace (just like ours) that had been hijacked by a handful of misunderstanders. Courses on Islam sprang up in Catholic colleges across the country and, predictably, the starting point for almost every one was Nostra Aetate.

Catholic educators seem particularly enamored of the “Five Pillars of Islam.” I once administered a “knowledge of Islam” survey to a large group of Catholic university students and, although they knew very little about Islam in general, most of them were vaguely familiar with the five pillars.

What are the five pillars? They are the five primary obligations that each Muslim must fulfill in his or her lifetime:

  • Shahadah or profession of faith is the first pillar.
  • Salah or prayer is the second pillar. Muslims are expected to pray five times daily.
  • Zakat or almsgiving is the third pillar. Zakat is a duty to be charitable.
  • Sawm or fasting during the month of Ramadan is the fourth pillar.
  • Hajj or pilgrimage is the fifth pillar. For those who are able to make the journey, the pilgrimage to Mecca is a once-in-a-lifetime duty.

Why do Catholic educators emphasize the five pillars? Most probably because these five obligations fit nicely into the their-religion-is-just-like-ours paradigm. Catholics are also expected to make a profession of faith (the Creed), pray daily, practice charity, and fast at certain times. Although there is no obligation to go on pilgrimage, many Catholics do; and even those who don’t are perfectly comfortable with the idea. When judged by the criterion of strict religious observance, the Muslims seem more Catholic than the Catholics. As Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft somewhat generously puts it, “Islam has great and deep resources of morality and sanctity that should inspire us and shame us and prod us to admiration and imitation” (Between Allah and Jesus, p. 9).

For Catholics who are intent on finding common ground with Islam, however, the most convenient thing about the five pillars is that they make no mention of jihad, Islamic supremacism, the caliphate, apostasy laws, or any of a dozen other Islamic beliefs and practices that throw a monkey wrench into the common-ground paradigm.

Like the U.S. government, Catholic educators seem to be in jihad denial. Not that jihad is never mentioned, but when it is, many Catholics prefer the kinder, gentler definition of jihad as an inner struggle against temptation. That would make jihad roughly comparable to the Catholic notion of struggling with one’s conscience and, thus, a perfectly legitimate practice. This is more or less the interpretation of jihad that Catholic students are exposed to. For example, the Western civilization text used in one traditional Catholic college informs its readers that jihad means “striving in the way of the Lord to achieve personal betterment.” The author also takes pains to caution the reader that some people “misleadingly interpret” jihad as “holy war.” He is apparently unaware that some of the misguided “some people” include the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, along with the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, various editions of Webster’s Dictionary, the Dictionary of Islam, the Encyclopedia of Islam, and Reliance of the Traveller, the classic manual of Islamic law. Admittedly, some of the newer dictionary editions have added the “spiritual struggle” interpretation as a sop to political correctness. However, to better acquaint yourself with the standard definition, see the activities of ISIS in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines.

Catholic educators are not the only ones to focus on the positive aspects of the Islamic faith. Looking at the bright side of Islam seems to have become a reflexive habit for Catholic prelates, as well. Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg in which he made an allusion to Islam’s violent history was a departure from the norm and he quickly distanced himself from the offending statement. As a rule, when he spoke about Islam he stressed things like “mutual esteem” and “bonds of friendship and solidarity.” Pope John Paul II spoke to Muslim audiences on numerous occasions and never failed to stress the common beliefs and shared heritage of the two faiths. Of course, when you are addressing the young Muslims of Morocco or the Islamic leaders of Senegal, what else are you going to say except to emphasize the things you hold in common? It is generally understood that such occasions are not the right time or place for bringing up unpleasant disagreements. However, Pope Francis was under no such constraint when he issued Evangelii Gaudium and stated that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (253). This was more than an affirmation of the established paradigm, it was a rather gratuitous extension of it. The pope’s statement was reminiscent of the Department of Justice’s instruction to the FBI to purge its training manuals of “materials that portray Islam as a religion of violence or with a tendency toward violence.”

In his apostolic exhortation, the pope cautioned against making “hateful generalizations about Islam,” but is there also a danger in making overly optimistic generalizations? The paradigm that emerged in the wake of Nostra Aetate blurred the distinctions between Christianity and Islam and encouraged Catholics to project Christian beliefs, values, and hopes onto Islam. The post-conciliar framework, it was hoped, would facilitate the building of bridges to Islam. The pope’s bridge-building attempt, however, may have been a bridge too far—the triumph of framework over fact. Moreover, it came at a time when Islamic violence against Christians was ramping up. Didn’t the pope’s advisors know about the violence? Or, like the Obama administration, did they ignore the unpleasant facts which didn’t fit into the framework?

In military and intelligence gathering circles, the Church’s assessment of the Islamic threat would be regarded as an intelligence failure. For a closer-to-home example of missing the obvious, consider the interfaith dialogue activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB has been dialoguing with Islamic groups for over two decades—and, apparently, by rules of engagement which prevent them from taking a close look at their dialogue partners.

A perusal of the USCCB website reveals that their main dialogue partner is the ISNA—the Islamic Society of North America. What is the ISNA? Well, for one thing, it’s the very same group that was most instrumental in pressuring the U.S. government to purge counterterrorism materials of any negative reference to Islam. This suggests that a number of topics—such as jihad—may be off-limits for the Catholic dialogue participants. But that’s not all. The supposedly moderate ISNA seems to have links to radical associates and activities. A secret Muslim Brotherhood memorandum obtained by the FBI lists it as part of a network of Muslim Brotherhood organizations or allies in North America. In fact, it is number one on the list, a list which also includes another USCCB dialogue partner—the Islamic Circle of North America. In addition, in 2008 the ISNA was designated as an unindicted co-conspirator in a massive terrorist funding case—the Holy Land Foundation Trial. And there is little evidence of its having cleaned up its act in this regard. Last year, the Canadian Revenue Agency revoked the charitable status of the ISNA Development Foundation on charges that it was using zakat to provide support to terrorist groups.

The USCCB website describes the 2012 national dialogue as follows: “By listening, sharing stories, praying, and enjoying meals together during the National Plenary, Muslim and Catholic leaders answered the call of Nostra Aetate.” The Catholic leaders may have been answering the call of Nostra Aetate, but one is justified in suspecting that ISNA was answering to a different call. The Midwest Dialogue page of the USCCB site directs its readers to “Learn more about our dialogue partner, the Islamic Society of North America” and provides a link to ISNA’s own website. Well, that’s one way to find out about the ISNA. Another way is to check out the website of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and see what it has to say about ISNA. Bishops who would like to “learn more” about the people with whom they have been “sharing stories, praying, and enjoying meals” might profit from a little web browsing.

It’s not surprising, of course, that the bishops might be unaware of the dark side of ISNA. The paradigm which guides them discourages them from looking too deeply into certain matters. Indeed, if you are operating within the paradigm, you only see a small part of a much larger picture. You see those parts of Islam that fit into the common-ground narrative, but you miss many of the salient features—things like violent jihad, the caliphate, and world domination.

It’s time for a new paradigm.

William Kilpatrick

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William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com

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