From time to time, readers of my articles will ask: “What do you want to do—go to war with 1.7 billion Muslims?” The question implies that any criticism of Islam will force the members of this “peaceful religion” to respond with massive violence.
More or less the same argument was used during the Cold War. A great many people, including some of my relatives, took the view that we (the U.S.) shouldn’t say or do anything to upset the Soviets, otherwise all hell would break loose. Yet when one president challenged the Soviets over Cuba, and another challenged them to tear down the Berlin Wall, the end result was not the end of the world but the end of the Soviet Union.
For the record, I have never advocated going to war with 1.7 billion Muslims, although I have from time to time stressed the importance of having a strong military and being willing to use it if necessary, and—of equal importance—conveying that willingness to potential enemies.
For the most part, however, my emphasis has been on winning the culture war with Islam using cultural rather than military weapons. If Islam wins the culture wars—and currently it is winning—it won’t need AK-47s, mortars, and nuclear warheads. There aren’t any Islamic armies in Europe, but many parts of Europe are slowly submitting to Islam precisely because post-modern Europeans lack cultural confidence. Lacking it, they lack the will to resist.
How do you fight a culture war? Well, primarily with the conviction that you’re right and they’re wrong. This doesn’t require chest-thumping and flag-waving, but it does require firmness, resolution, and will-power. It also requires a willingness to undermine your opponent’s convictions. The Cold War victory came about in large part because Communists lost faith in their own ideology. They also lost it, in part, because of various economic and diplomatic pressures applied by the West.
In a similar way, the West and its non-Western allies should aim to weaken the faith of Muslims. This may sound like a cruel thing to do, and if, as some say, Islam is the moral equivalent of Christianity and Judaism, then it would be a cruel thing. However, if Islam is a cruel and oppressive system, then a weakening of the system would benefit many, if not most, Muslims.
Inducing a loss of faith in Islam? This might seem to belong in the “impossible dream” category. It may seem impossible, but consider that it has already happened—and not that long ago.
Historian Raymond Ibrahim provides a lucid account of the Muslim world’s loss of faith. It was never a complete loss, but due to the influence of European colonial powers, many Muslims lost their confidence in the Islamic way. It began, writes Ibrahim, with the invasion and subjugation of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. Subsequent conquests and colonization by European powers convinced many Muslims that Islam was no match for the West. The obvious military, technological, economical, educational, and political superiority of the West created doubts about Islam’s claim to be the supreme way of life. Thus:
Muslims … began to emulate the West in everything from politics and government to everyday dress and etiquette. The Islamic way, the Sharia, was the old, failed way. Thus during the colonial era and into the mid-twentieth century, all things distinctly 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.
Yet, just when it appeared that Muslims were finally breaking free of Islam, Islam came back with a vengeance. Like that last lash of the Balrog’s whip which drew Gandalf back into the monster’s realm, Muslims were drawn back into fundamentalist sharia Islam.
However, that’s another story for another time. Let’s focus instead on the earlier lapse of faith when Islam was losing its hold on the Muslim world. Are there any lessons for us? Can Islam be defanged again? The essential point to keep in mind is that the Islamic world has already suffered a loss of faith. It’s not far-fetched to think that it can happen again. On the other hand, those who think it impossible to induce a loss of faith among Muslims will never try. This also holds for those who think such a strategy is too dangerous or too politically incorrect. They will gain nothing because they will venture nothing.
Let’s address the objection that it’s futile to hope for such a profound transformation in belief. Many people believe that deeply rooted beliefs are nearly impossible to change, but, in fact, history is full of examples to the contrary. For instance, in a relatively short period of time, the Civil Rights movement managed to overturn what were thought to be deeply held racial prejudices. Although prejudices still linger in America, practically no American today would accept the legitimacy of segregated buses, water fountains, and lunch counters that was once taken for granted in the Jim Crow South.
Another example? Forty years ago, Ireland was often cited as one of the most Catholic countries on the planet. The faith seemed as deeply rooted in Ireland as a faith could be. Yet, in recent years, the Irish have decisively voted against the Church on the issues of homosexual “marriage” and abortion. In short, a great many Irish appear to have jettisoned their “deeply-rooted” faith.
Therefore, it’s not inevitable that the Muslim world must remain deeply committed to Islam. As the history of the past century demonstrates, Turks, Egyptians and Iraqis are just as capable as the Irish of watering down their deeply held beliefs.
Having established that it can be done, the next question is “should it be done? Do we have any right to attempt to undermine deeply held beliefs? This is probably the key question for many in the West. After decades of immersion in relativism, multiculturalism, and moral equivalence, many adults are afraid to challenge the shallowly held beliefs of their three-year-olds, let alone the deeply held beliefs of the “sacred” other. If the only value you admire is tolerance, then it will be practically impossible to challenge and resist Islamic beliefs and practices that run counter to Western values. Yet, at the present moment, “challenge and resist” is exactly what we must do.
Why can’t we just take a “live-and-let-live” attitude to other religions? Well, in the case of most religions, this is probably best. The trouble is, Islam is not a live-and-let-live type of religion. It’s more of a convert-or-die type (or, to be completely accurate, convert, pay the jizya, or die).
The reason we can’t take a relaxed view of Islam is that Islam is an aggressive religion. However James Bond-ish it may sound, the mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah, but—to reiterate a point that is often missed—not necessarily by force. I can’t remember the exact figure, but the Saudi government has spent a staggering sum over the last few decades on the building of mosques and madrassas all over the world, and on the preparation of imams and teachers to staff them.
Islamic mosques, schools, activist organizations, websites, and governments (Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are the best examples) are working 24/7 to spread Islam. As a simple matter of self-defense, non-Muslim societies ought to work to counter this forward momentum—if not by calling Islamic beliefs into question, at least by making the case for their own.
Fortunately, almost no one is a complete relativist. Most people could see the importance of undermining Nazi ideology during World War II. Likewise, most of us feel that it’s legitimate to challenge the deeply held beliefs of racists. During the Cold War, our government, in collaboration with other governments, sought to discredit Communist ideology, and the Vatican at various times has challenged both Nazi and Communist ideology.
How to Undermine Belief in Islam
Assuming that one is willing to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of one’s opponents, the next question is how does one do it? Although fundamental changes can sometimes occur as a result of slow “evolutionary” processes, it’s usually the case that someone is working hard to create the changes. The rapid erosion of faith in Ireland was not the result of random mutations and natural selection. It was the result of a deliberate campaign to undercut the influence of the Catholic Church (aided, admittedly, by a series of scandals within the Church in Ireland). Likewise, the secularization and Westernization of Muslim countries in the last century was not a matter of chance. For example, Ataturk in Turkey, and the Shah in Iran launched highly successful campaigns for minimizing the influence of Islam on the populace.
Obviously, the West has no direct control over any Muslin nation as did Ataturk and the Shah. On the other hand, the West had no direct control over the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite countries, yet it managed to wage a successful campaign to discredit Soviet communism.
Embarking on such a campaign requires planning, and planning requires thinking. During the later stages of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II worked together to undermine communism. Both men had thought long and hard about communism, so that both had a clear sense of their opponents’ weakness, and a clear sense of what had to be done and how far they could go.
That clarity was missing during the Obama administration in regard to Islam, but there are signs that it is now returning. On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a positively Reaganesque speech on Iran policy at—where else?—the Reagan Library. Speaking to an audience that included many members of the Iranian-American community, he outlined a plan to “deny the Iranian leadership the resources, the wealth, the funds, the capacity to continue to foment terrorism around the world and to deny the people inside of Iran the freedom they so richly deserve.”
Significantly, he used the word “campaign” six times—twice to describe the Iranian regime’s “campaign of ideologically motivated violence,” and four times to describe the administration’s “diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction.”
Again, significantly, he also indicated that the desired changes need not take forever: “I always remind those who think it’s not possible or think the time horizon will be measured in centuries not hours, I always remind them that things change.” Moreover, he pointed out that people with a plan will know how to take advantage of “disjunctive moments … when things happen that are unexpected, unanticipated.”
Pompeo’s address shows a thorough understanding of Muslim/Middle-Eastern respect for strength, but it goes beyond that. While the campaign he outlines is mostly diplomatic and financial in nature, he also pays attention to ideology. His talk has a cultural/religious component—one that takes particular advantage of Iranian dissatisfaction with the mullahs and ayatollahs. During the recent mass protests in Iran, a number of slogans were aimed at religious leaders—for example, “The people are paupers, while the mullahs live like gods.” In his speech, Pompeo refers to “intolerant, black-robed enforcers.” He also reveals that a number of ayatollah’s (who “seem more concerned with riches than religion”) have become fabulously wealthy. For example, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei “has his own personal off-the-books hedge fund…worth $95 billion, with a B.”
This is not a direct criticism of Islam, but it does serve to weaken trust in the guardians of the religion which, in turn, often leads to a weakening of faith in the religion itself. Catholics have some experience of this phenomenon. Studies have shown that the fall-off in church attendance following the revelation of the priestly sex abuse scandals was greatest in those areas hardest hit by the scandals (e.g., Massachusetts and Ireland). But, if one cared to make an issue of it, anecdotal evidence suggests that imams and mullahs are far more prone to abusive behavior than Catholic priests.
In my next article, I’ll talk some more about how the West can undermine the ideological convictions that fuel jihad. My focus will be on the fragility of the Koran, and why Catholics are especially well-situated to expose it.
(Photo credit: Secretary of State Pompeo at Reagan Foundation, July 22, 2018 / VOA.)