In my last column, I promised to propose an alternative to the Church’s current policy toward Islam. The main question I raised then can be put this way: If there is something in Islam itself that is conducive to violence, should Church leaders say so, or should they, for prudential reasons, keep echoing the secular mantra that Islamic violence has nothing to do with Islam?
The prudential consideration actually cuts both ways. By taking a more forthright stand, you risk offending moderate Muslims and possibly endangering Christians who live in Muslim lands. On the other hand, by rushing to the defense of the Islamic faith, you risk confusing Christians and lulling them into complacency at a time when they need to be on their toes.
The pope’s recent comments about the Muhammad-mocking Charlie Hebdo cartoons illustrate the dilemma. After insisting that “you cannot kill in the name of God,” he added, “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith.” “We have an obligation to speak freely,” said Francis, “but without offending.”
There’s the rub. What if the ideology or religion you wish to talk freely about has an infinite capacity for being offended? What if all discussion is out-of-bounds? Not just ribald and deliberately offensive cartoons, but calm and reasoned analysis of religious texts and teachings? As Pope Francis says, it’s not a good idea to gratuitously provoke others, but what’s missing from his observation is an understanding of the current context surrounding discussions of free speech.
The larger context is that Islam wants to shut down any speech critical of Islam in any way. By “Islam,” I don’t mean every Muslim in the world. But how about the OIC—the Organization of Islamic Cooperation? Comprised of fifty-seven Muslim-majority nations and the Palestinian Authority, it’s the largest Islamic body in the world and also the largest bloc at the UN. What’s the chief project of the OIC? According to one observer, “For more than a decade, ‘the collective voice of the Muslim world’ has spread the belief that any insult directed against the Muslim faith or its prophet demands absolute suppression.” The OIC has relentlessly pushed its agenda in the UN by lobbying and by passing resolutions to prohibit the defamation of religion. Unfortunately, the OIC’s idea of what constitutes an insult is considerably broader than the pope’s. So is the penalty for insult. Whereas the pope will merely reproach you, the OIC wants to put you in jail. Its goal is to criminalize criticism of Islam and to punish Islamophobia with prison.
Not only is this a convenient way to silence people, it’s also an effective way of squelching any investigation of radical Muslim activities. Fear of being thought offensive has already put a crimp on national security measures to combat terrorism. As just one example, the NYPD’s very effective surveillance program of Islamist gathering sites was attacked as Islamophobic and was subsequently shut down. The brave new world envisioned by the OIC is not conducive either to free speech or security. It’s not just that you won’t be able to say that the emperor has no clothes, you won’t be able to point out that he’s carrying an AK-47 and a rocket launcher and has plans for an imminent attack on unbelievers.
Church leaders have to consider that saying the wrong thing might endanger Christians living in Muslim-controlled territories. They also need to consider that not saying anything carries the risk that the whole world will become a Muslim-controlled territory. It’s a risk that some bishops seem willing to take. On a number of occasions, Catholic experts on the Islamist threat have been blocked from speaking to Catholic audiences. In Europe, a Catholic archbishop has forbidden Catholics to participate in anti-Islamization groups. According to some intelligence analysts, terrorist sleeper cells in the West are now under orders to activate themselves. Catholics, it seems, are under orders to stay asleep.
This tamping down of any critical views of Islam might still be the prudent thing to do, but only if you make the assumption that Islam has no interest in expanding its power. If, as Father James Schall recently observed, one of the main thrusts of the Islamic faith is to bring the House of War (non-Muslims) under the control of the House of Islam, then the prudent thing would be to acknowledge as much and act accordingly.
Once again, it’s a matter of grasping the larger context. What kind of situation are we in? Is it still a business-as-usual world—the kind of world in which we can afford to give priority to concerns about sensitivity and inclusivity? Or have we entered a new age—a new age not unlike those old ages of long ago when Christianity had to fight for its life? If we are seeing the beginning of a worldwide attack on Christianity, then the first duty of bishops is not to preserve Muslims from offense, but to preserve Christianity.
So let’s consider an alternative and, hopefully, more realistic strategy. The strategy is based on the assumption that Islam, not just radical Islam, is a threat to Christianity. The Muslim world can go through periods of quiescence in which Islam itself recedes into the background, but radicalism is part of the genetic structure of Islam. Any true “reform” of Islam is going to be of the “operation-was-successful-but-the-patient-died” variety. That is, if you were to eliminate all the violent, supremacist, and misogynist elements in Islam’s basic texts you wouldn’t have much left.
In a sense, the reformation of Islam has come and gone. During much of the last century, Islam was honored more in the breach than in the observance. Partly because of Westernization and partly because secular leaders kept a lid on Islam’s aggressive side, Muslims were able to develop a more moderate practice of Islam. But, as many observers have noted, this more moderate Islam really amounted to a loss of faith in Islam. Muslims began to think of themselves primarily in terms of their national or ethnic identity rather than as Muslims. Egyptians, for example, typically took more pride in the pyramids than in Muhammad’s conquests. As a former Iraqi cabinet minister put it, “It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world.”
To put it bluntly (although for prudential reasons you might want to blunt your bluntness) Church policy should be aimed at weakening faith in Islam. This is the reverse of the current policy, which is built on the assumption that there is a good (authentic) Islam and a bad (inauthentic) Islam and we should therefore reinforce Muslims’ faith in “true” Islam and encourage them to go deeper into it. This, as I’ve argued before, is an impossible project. “Good” Islam and “bad” Islam are as intimately related as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde always predominates in the end.
Put another way, we should work at discrediting Islam just as Western leaders, clergy, and intellectuals once worked to discredit other totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and communism. Jihad for the sake of Allah is not some unfortunate deviation from the true faith, it’s an integral part of that faith. As long as the faith is taken seriously, jihad will be taken seriously. The jihad won’t stop until the belief system that inspires it is undermined and dismantled. It is greatly in our interest that Muslims begin to take their faith less seriously. Thus, it is necessary to undertake the difficult and subtle work of discrediting Islam. Among other things, this discrediting process would involve questioning the authenticity of Muhammad’s revelation, questioning his character and reliability, and even questioning his existence.
Naturally, such an approach would provoke anger among many Muslims, so before adopting it it’s important to think about ways to implement it that would minimize the fallout. One thing to consider is the question of who should bell the cat. As I’ve said elsewhere, the pope and prominent bishops are probably not the best ones to deliver the message. Were the pope to publicly question the moral authority of Muhammad, the result would likely be mass rioting and murder. On the other hand, if some Catholic layman were to do it via some satellite program beamed to the Arab world, the blasphemy charge couldn’t be pinned on Catholics in general.
In fact, someone has been doing just what I describe, and he has been highly successful in converting Muslims to Christianity. However, he’s not Catholic and he’s not a layman. Father Zakaria Botros is an elderly Coptic priest whose Arabic-language TV show is broadcast from the U.S. to the Middle East. Fr. Botros says he wants to help reasonable Muslims who are searching for the truth to wake up to the truth about Islam. He does it by referring mainly to Islamic sources because, as he puts it, “Muslims have no greater enemy than their own scriptures…which constantly scandalize and embarrass Muslims.” It also helps that he’s able to make his points in a very engaging manner. According to Islam cleric Ahmed al-Qatani, six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Fr. Botros’ public ministry.
A hundred Fr. Botroses could do a lot to change Muslim minds without providing mobs an excuse to burn down the nearest church. A thousand would be even better. Not that every one of them needs to be an Arabic-speaking televangelist. David Wood is a Christian whose website, Answering Muslims, features short fireside chat-type videos aimed at English speaking Muslims. Wood is thoroughly versed in Islamic theology, and he has a low-key “inquiring-minds-want-to-know” style which is hard to resist. His many informative and often entertaining videos are readily available on his site or on YouTube. Catholic apologists are matchless when it comes to discussing what’s wrong with secularism, but they might want to check out Answering Muslims for some pointers on discussing what’s wrong with Islam.
The point is, the task of truth-telling should be outsourced so that the Vatican doesn’t become the focus of manufactured mob rage. The Vatican can still work behind the scenes to encourage Catholics to cast a more critical eye on Islam. In addition, Rome should give tacit permission for theologians and laymen to move beyond the limited horizons of “together-with-us-they-worship-the-same-God” thinking. Of course there will be risks, but one of the advantages of a widely dispersed critique of Islam is that the risks are spread out. Moreover, theological and historical discussions, whether in print or on video, are not as eye-catching to Muslim mobs as intentionally offensive cartoons.
What I am recommending is not an in-your-face Charlie Hebdo frontal assault on everything Muslims hold dear, but rather a slow process of desensitization by which Muslims get used to the idea of Islam being subject to criticism. Some of Fr. Botros’ effectiveness lies in his ability to cite Islamic sources to which his Muslim audiences cannot very well object. But much of it resides in his ability to condition them to accept criticism of Muhammad. The first time a Muslim hears the flaws of Muhammad discussed, he might well be angry. But how about the third time? The twentieth time?
The desensitization approach can be very effective—as Catholics should know. Every year around Christmas and Easter, we are treated to subtle and not-so-subtle media attempts to undermine faith in Christianity. I can’t recall the actual titles of all those Time and Newsweek cover stories or all those holiday special TV reports, but they go something like this: “The Hidden Gospels,” “The Real Jesus,” “The Secret Life of Mary Magdalene.” These “exposés” are meant to instill doubts, and they do. It might strike Christians as unfair to employ the same techniques against Islam. And it would be if Christians had to resort to using the same dishonest tactics. But whereas the tissue-thin evidence presented by the media relies on dubious sources, the case against Islam is, as Fr. Botros points out, embedded in mainstream Islamic sources. An article about the many wives (and concubines) of Muhammad might be offensive, but it would have the advantage of being factual. Or, for a somewhat less sensitive subject, how about a piece on the growing archaeological evidence that the story of Islam’s “Golden Age” is considerably exaggerated?
Fortunately, some in the mainstream media have begun to question the established narrative about Islam. Coincidentally, many of them happen to be Catholic—Michael Coren of the Sun News TV network, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Megyn Kelly, and Jeanine Pirro of Fox News. They have begun to ask the essential questions: Are Muslim apologists telling the truth? Is Islam really a peaceful religion? Does the problem lie only with a handful of radicals or is there something wrong with Islam itself? The drip-drip-drip effect of raising these questions night after night should not be underestimated. If enough people in the West were to engage in low-confrontational (“I’m only raising the question”) examination of Islamic tenets and do it often enough, the doubt level could be raised considerably.
And that is what we should aim at doing. The objective is not to make Muslims angry, but to make them uncomfortable with their faith. If enough questions are raised, some, at least, will begin to ask the same questions. To reiterate the main point, our aim should not be to separate Muslims from radical manifestations of their faith, but to separate them from their faith—albeit gradually. The former is an impossible task because Islam is essentially a radical religion. For proof, look at Saudi Arabia, the quintessential Islamic state. It’s the most Islamic nation in the Muslim world and also the most radical. Although the Saudi government knows enough to publicly condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo, it does not hesitate to imprison its own blasphemers. While the Saudi Ambassador was marching in the “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris, back in the home country a young blogger, Raif Badawi, was receiving the first 50-lash installment of his 1000-lash sentence for “insulting Islam.” Saudi Arabia also conducts amputations (for thieves) and beheadings (for apostates) on a weekly basis in public squares. Moreover, bibles, rosaries, and churches are strictly forbidden. When you encourage Muslims to go deeper into their faith, what you get is places like Saudi Arabia. Or, in the Shia Muslim world, places like the Islamic Republic of Iran.
If all of the above still seems too confrontational toward Muslims to suit ecclesiastical tastes, then Church policy should at least be redirected toward telling the truth to fellow Catholics. Right now, Catholics are being seriously misled about the nature of Islam. Popes and prelates don’t have to go around poking holes in the Islamic narrative, but neither should they be reinforcing it. The bishops don’t necessarily have to censure Islam, but they also don’t have to talk about their esteem for it, or to dwell on its (supposed) similarities to Christianity. You can express your respect for Muslims, but do you really want to express your respect for Islam?
Christians can be put in danger if Muslims are overly antagonized, but they can also be endangered by being fed sleep-inducing bromides. Many Catholics are just now waking up to the fact that there really is such a thing as sharia law and that it’s spreading fast. Other Catholics are discovering that, contrary to what they learned in Catholic schools and colleges, jihad is not an interior spiritual struggle but something far more ominous. Other Catholics are still asleep. When the Caliph comes knocking at the door to collect the jizya, will they even know what a caliph is or what jizya means?
The untenable situation that so many Christians now find themselves in is due in part to the Church’s failure to give them a fuller account of Islam. If bishops had been more attuned to the dangers, Christians might have been better prepared for them. But precisely because the Church did take an “official” position on Islam, and because that position was one-sided and simplistic, Catholics were left much further behind the curve than they might otherwise have been.
I don’t pretend to know the climate that prevailed in the Nigerian Church prior to Boko Haram, or in the Church in Iraq prior to the advent of ISIS, but my guess is that, because the Church is universal, the local bishops would have conveyed to their people more or less the same message that was conveyed to them from Rome. In other words, “Don’t worry, Muslims worship the same God that we do; the tiny minority of extremists that make trouble for us don’t represent the true Islam.” This reassuring narrative (“Islam means peace”) is not the only problem. The general lack of preparedness has been compounded by another one-size-fits-all explanation of events. Many in the Church have been overly concentrated on another narrative—the one that says that the Arab-Israeli conflict is at the root of Muslim discontent. Since this was the same explanation being offered by many secular experts, it seemed a reasonable supposition. The result, however, was that many Church leaders failed to take note of the dynamics within Islam itself that lead to violence.
The time has come to consider a new policy—one that alerts Christians to the dangers while at the same time sowing the seeds of doubt about Islam in the minds of Muslims. The policy calls for the dangerous work of discrediting Islam, but it is nevertheless the safer alternative. A continuation of the current policy is likely to prove much more dangerous. The proposed approach is based on the simple principle that honesty—even though it should be tempered with tactfulness—is still the best policy. In the next and last installment of this series, I’ll suggest some concrete ways for the Church to implement a more sensible strategy in regard to Islam.