Taking the Islamic Challenge Seriously

When Muslims commit acts of terror, it is standard operating procedure for some authority or other to assure the populace that “this has nothing to do with Islam.” This is said so frequently as to induce a boy-who-cried-wolf reaction in anyone with an ounce of contrariness. Nowadays, if there’s a fender bender on the next block or a glitch in our computer, we automatically assume that it probably has something to do with Islam. So it’s refreshing to finally hear a world leader (in this case, a former world leader) admit that global Islamic terror actually does have something to do with Islam.

In a keynote address in April at Bloomberg Headquarters in London, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described radical Islam as the single biggest threat facing the world today.  He went on to criticize Western commentators who “go to extraordinary lengths” to avoid linking terrorism with Islam.  “It is bizarre,” he said, “to ignore the fact that the principal actors in all situations express themselves through the medium of religious identity.”

Although Blair suggested that radical Islamic ideology “distorts and warps Islam’s true message,” he nevertheless emphasized that this extremist movement is based in religious belief.  He added that we in the West can gain a better understanding of the Islamist ideology by remembering “the experience of revolutionary communism and fascism.”  His main message?  The “defeating of this ideology” should be at the top of the global agenda.  In short, Blair is calling for ideological warfare against “Islamism” (his term for radical Islam).

During the Second World War and during the Cold War that followed, we didn’t hesitate to engage in ideological warfare first with Nazism, and then with communism.  It was considered perfectly legitimate to go after the ideas which lay at the base of these totalitarian systems as a way of weakening belief in them.  And we didn’t particularly worry about who might take offense.  But what if the ideology that threatens you comes wrapped in the cloak of religion?  Blair calls for the defeat of the “Islamist” ideology, but how can you engage in ideological warfare if criticism of the enemy ideology is off-limits?


In our multicultural times, it is considered extremely bad manners to criticize a religion other than one’s own. Respect for other people’s deeply held convictions—no matter how different from our own—is considered to be the hallmark of civility and tolerance.  Thus, while we feel free to talk about the evils of Nazism, communism, secularism, and capitalism, very few would even consider talking about the evils of Islam.  It is taboo.  As a result, when bad things are done in the name of Islam, our “commentators” (as Blair calls them) are quick to absolve Islam itself.  The formula “this has nothing to do with Islam” is just one way of ignoring the religious dimension of terror.

Yet, when jihadists explain their motivations they almost invariably cite the words and example of Muhammad as found in the Koran and Hadith—two sources with which they appear to be quite familiar.  That the average jihadist knows the Koran better than the average Christian knows the New Testament should tell us something, but apparently it hasn’t.  Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist, said that the first rule of warfare is to know your enemy, but in general we refuse to acknowledge what our Islamist enemies consider to be the most salient fact about themselves.  This reluctance to identify the enemy’s major motivation puts us at a considerable disadvantage—one that we didn’t labor under in previous wars.  Consider that our involvement in the Iraqi War lasted roughly twice as long as our war with Nazi Germany even though we were fighting a much less powerful opponent.  Our ongoing engagement with tribal warriors in Afghanistan has lasted longer still.

Still and all, the West would probably prevail if the struggle with Islam were confined to armed combat.  But our civilizational struggle with Islam goes far beyond that.  For example, the gradual Islamic takeover of Europe is being accomplished by cultural jihad rather than armed jihad.  In Europe, the spread of Islam doesn’t require fighting in the streets; it only requires that Europeans get used to burqas in the shopping malls, streets closed for prayer, cancellation of talks critical of Islam, naked anti-Semitism, and the establishment of religious and cultural ghettos in major cities.  We could add the Islamization of schools to the list.  In his speech, Blair alluded to a recently uncovered plot by Muslims to take over more than twenty schools in the Birmingham area.  The Muslim code name for the plot was “Trojan Horse.”

The point is, we have very little defense against the Trojan-horse type of jihad.  It’s not just that we are hindered by a multicultural ideology that demands that we be tolerant unto death, it’s also that the cultural jihadists are well aware of this weakness in our armor.  They know that we dare not criticize a non-Christian religion, and they know how to take advantage of our reluctance.  Criticize anything Muslim or Islamic and charges of religious bigotry and Islamophobia will soon come your way—and maybe a lawsuit as well.

The beauty of this from an Islamist point of view is that hardly anyone in the West dares to take advantage of Islam’s weakest point—its theology.  Theologically, Islam is a house of cards.  It could never withstand the kind of scholarly examination that Christianity has been subject to.  For example, the Koran is a primitive patchwork of borrowed ideas, half-told stories, and endlessly repeated curses.  It’s arranged arbitrarily by length of chapter because, as one of its translators admitted, “a strictly chronological arrangement is impossible” (The Koran, Penguin Books, 2000, p. x). Historian Thomas Carlyle was even less charitable.  Although he considered Muhammad to be one of the great men of history, he described the Koran as “a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite—insupportable stupidity, in short” (On Heroes and Hero Worship).

The world is full of poorly written books, but this particular one is supposed to have been written by God himself. One would think that God could have done a better job.  The point is that anyone who has read the Koran and has even a passing knowledge of scripture studies will realize that Islam’s “holy book” would not meet the tests of critical and historical evidence we apply to the Christian revelation.  The further point is that such tests constitute potent weapons in our ideological arsenal—if we are willing to use them.

In past ideological struggles we sought ideological victory—the discrediting of the belief system that inspired our enemies.  If we don’t do something similar in our global civilizational struggle with Islam (or, if you prefer, “Islamism”), we need to face the very real possibility that we will lose the war—both militarily and culturally.  As I wrote two years ago:

Ordinarily one keeps one’s reservations about another’s religion to oneself.  But if we are in a fight to the death with Islamic ideology/theology, why wouldn’t we want to examine it more carefully?  Why wouldn’t we want to call into question the revelation on which it is all based?  And, further why not seek ways to disillusion and demoralize the proponents of that ideology? In short, why shouldn’t we want Islam to fail? (Christianity, Islam, and Atheism, p. 211)

It can be argued that such an approach is unfair, uncivil, offensive, and insensitive.  Maybe so.  But thirty years hence, how would you like to be the one to explain to your burqa-wearing granddaughter as she is married off to a man thrice her age that we lost the culture war against Islam because it would have been insensitive to fight back?

Another, more practical argument against attacking the ideological basis of Islamism and thus undermining the faith of the jihadists is that it won’t work.  Many take it for granted that a deeply held faith cannot be easily shaken by criticism, and Islamic beliefs seem as unshakable as they come.  Given that assumption, it would be a waste of time to try to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of true believers.  But deeply rooted beliefs are not always as deeply rooted as they appear. For instance, thirty-five years ago it seemed that the Catholic faith was deeply rooted in Ireland, but Ireland, like many other once solidly Catholic societies, has since experienced a significant decline in faith.

More to the point, Islam has also suffered a crisis of faith—and not that long ago.  By the early 1970s the majority of Iranian, Iraqi, and Egyptian women had abandoned their traditional garb for Western-style clothing, and Western entertainment was all the rage. Muslims continued to observe their religion, but they did so in more or less the same fashion as a lukewarm Christian does—that is, more as a social obligation than a religious one. In the Muslim world, for most of the twentieth century, Islam could hardly be called a deeply rooted faith.  According to Islam scholar Raymond Ibrahim:

During the Colonial era and into the mid-twentieth century, all things distinctively Islamic—from Islam’s clerics to the woman’s ‘hijab,’ or headscarf—were increasingly seen by Muslims as relics of a backward age to be shunned.  Most Muslims were Muslim in name only. (Crucified Again, p. 10)

The radical Islamist movements of the twentieth century, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were formed for the purpose of renewing the faith that was slipping away.  And they were largely successful in doing so.  The point to keep in mind, however, is that the “deeply rooted belief” we now see in the Muslim world is of fairly recent vintage.  Moreover, that deeply rooted belief rests on the very shaky foundation of the Koran.  Jihadists do what they do because they believe that God commands them to do it.  They also believe they will be richly rewarded for their endeavors in paradise.  But what if the Koran was not written by God?  What if it is a man-made fabrication—the invention of a self-serving schemer?  Who wants to blow himself up in a suicide attack if the promised reward is nothing more than a clever recruitment tool made up for the purpose of replacing warriors lost in battle some 1400 years ago?

Did Muhammad actually receive a revelation? Was the Koran written by God? These seem like fairly central questions. And seeing that countless lives hang upon the answers, one would think that more people would be asking them. It’s not as though these are strictly personal, private questions for the individual conscience to ponder. They are also, as with all publicly proclaimed religions, a matter for general discussion. Jihadists don’t hide their lamp under a bushel. Muhammad-doubters, then, should not be reluctant to blow it out. One might even say that they have a public duty to try and extinguish it.

As long as Muslims believe that Muhammad received his marching orders from God, the Islamic jihad will continue. If we want to put a stop to the jihad, we need to put a dent in that belief. As we have seen time after time in history, even deeply rooted beliefs are susceptible to change. If enough non-Muslims start asking certain questions and ask them insistently, there is a decent chance that Muslims can be returned to that state of doubt about Islam that prevailed in the Muslim world a mere sixty years ago.

William Kilpatrick


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