One of the interesting aspects of Fr. James Schall’s refreshing collection of essays, On Islam, is that it provides a chronological record. The first essay appeared in 2003, the last in 2018. This allows the reader to see how our understanding of Islam has changed over those years.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed much at all. In 2003, we understood next to nothing about Islam, and in 2018 it’s still next to nothing.
One of Fr. Schall’s main themes is that we must try to understand Islam as Muslims understand it, and not as we would like it to be. Instead of adjusting our theories to fit the accumulating facts, we keep trying to force the facts to fit our theory. This, says Schall, is the main reason we have failed to stem the tide of terrorism. We still assume that Islam is a religion like our own and that terrorism is a misunderstanding of genuine Islam.
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On the contrary, writes Schall, terrorists are arguably more faithful to the essence of Islam than peaceful Muslims. As he puts it:
The terrorists themselves do claim with considerable historical and doctrinal evidence, on Qur`anic grounds, that they are in fact the true interpreters of Islam.
I don’t mean to oversimplify Fr. Schall’s argument. His essays are chock full of solid philosophical, theological, and historical evidence for his conclusions. But one of his conclusions is that:
advocates of the Islamic State are Muslims who faithfully follow what this religion allows and encourages them to do… To look on them as heretics or aberrations results in policies that only make the Islamic State’s success more likely.
Our insistence on seeing Islam through Western eyes, says Schall, means that we will be blind to the larger picture. Thus, “each bombing, shooting, knifing, or truck-crashing incident” is treated “as an individual problem of some usually ‘fanatical’ or otherwise confused youth acting on his own.” The authorities can’t bring themselves to admit that each incident is part of a pattern—that these actions are motivated by a world view that is shaped by the Koran and the example of Muhammad.
Likewise, the West’s leaders will fail to understand Muslim migration:
The trouble is that such large numbers of young and mostly male Muslims in every Western country are not there simply because they are poor or have been expelled…They are there to expand Islam.
“The purpose of Muslim expansion,” he continues, “is not to assimilate into a new nation and culture but rather to change it so that it conforms to Muslim ways.”
And what is the overall purpose of the expansion? Schall answers with refreshing candor: “Briefly, the assigned mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah.” But this simple truth about Islam flies in the face of politically correct and religiously correct notions that all religions are peaceful and opposed to violence. To conquer the world for Allah? Religious people, we assume, just don’t think like that. Thus, we convince ourselves that terrorist acts committed in the name of Allah, have “nothing to do with Islam.” “Dealing with Islam,” writes Schall, “is a function of understanding Islam,” and until we admit some very basic facts about Islam we will be unable to meet the challenge of Islam. The result? “I think it very possible, if not likely,” he writes, “that Islam will successfully establish itself in many areas of Europe and America.”
As might be expected, Fr. Schall also addresses the Church’s role vis-à-vis Islam. In an essay on dialoguing with Islam, he suggests that Church leaders, like secular leaders, fail to see Islam for what it is. Instead, they prefer to look at it through Catholic eyes and have therefore convinced themselves that the two faiths have very much in common. But, says Schall, “What Islam and the Bible have in common is very little when it comes to doctrine … only with the greatest stretch of the imagination can we say that Muslims believe in the same God as Christians and Jews.” As a result, the dialogue is without resolution because there is precious little common ground. For example, when Muslim and Catholic dialoguers use the word “peace,” they mean entirely different things. According to Islamic tenets, true “peace” will only come when all the world is Muslim.
Quite obviously, Schall’s position on Islam is at odds with the policies pursued by many in the Church leadership. He asserts that Islam is not a religion of peace, but of conquest. He maintains that terrorists are not misunderstanders of Islam, but are faithful to the plain meaning of the Koran. Moreover, he suggests that many Muslim immigrants to the West are not coming simply to find jobs or escape violence, but to convert the world to Islam.
What, then, does he suggest as an alternative policy? His general prescription is to replace the utopian view of Islam with a more realistic one. A viable Islam policy must be based not on what we wish Islam was, but on what it actually is. Otherwise, things will continue as they have, and we must face the real prospect of a world converted to Islam.
Among other things, getting real means that Christians must insist that the Koran is not of divine origin. Moreover, they should do what they can to cast doubt about the Koran in the minds of Muslims. Why? Because the Koran is the key motivating force for jihad. The terrorism and the warfare will continue because that is what the Koran commands. The remedy, then, is not to assert that terrorists have misunderstood the Koran, but to assert that the book they follow is not from God:
The first step needed, then, is the affirmation, from the Christian side, that these views are as such false. They cannot be divine revelations.
As long as Muslims continue to believe that the Koran is the direct word of God, then the bloodshed will continue. It should therefore be the aim of Christians to disabuse them of this notion by means either subtle or direct. “What has never really been faced, even by the Church,” says the author, “is the truth content, or lack of it, in the Muslim world view…”
In the context of most current thinking about Islam, what Fr. Schall proposes here is quite radical. On the other hand, it also seems quite realistic. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium, “Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism” (232). Unfortunately, the ideas that many Catholic leaders, including Francis, hold regarding Islam seem to be based more on fantasy than reality.
In an essay entitled “On the Fragility of Islam,” Fr. Schall points out that the Koran is Islam’s weakest link. It’s authenticity as a direct revelation from God rests solely on the testimony of Muhammad. There is no other corroborating evidence. To the normal observer, says Schall, the Koran borrows heavily from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: “Yet, if this historical origin is shown, then the Qur`an is merely the product of a confused effort to rewrite the Scriptures already in existence.”
Fr. Schall hopes that the eventual publication of a critical edition of the Koran by German scholars will make many of these problems evident. Possibly so, but there is already sufficient evidence in any standard edition of the Koran to cast doubt on the authenticity of the revelation. The Koran is almost completely lacking in chronology, continuity, and structure. At the same time it is full of mind-numbing repetition and formulaic prose. It strains credulity to believe that it was written—as Muslim scholars claim—by the Author of Creation.
Fr. Schall’s hope is that when all the many contradictions and incoherencies of the Koran become clear, “Islam may be as fragile as communism”:
Can we expect, as it were, a John Paul II effect, which saw a seemingly unbreakable communism suddenly collapse because its ideas were finally recognized as incoherent and evil?
Schall realizes that Islam is far older than communism and more resilient, and he admits that its fall is unlikely to come as quickly. Nevertheless, there is hope. Until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there was a good deal of evidence that Islam was losing its hold on the Muslim world. Turkey had become a secular state, and many in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and other Muslim nations found Western values more attractive than Islamic ones. Sadly, this laxity of faith was the catalyst that spurred the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaida, and other groups dedicated to returning Islam to its original zeal.
But memories of better, less-Islamic times remain. Recent events give hope that what has happened once can happen again. In the last several months there have been numerous large demonstrations throughout Iran calling for an end to the theocratic regime. And last week in Paris, 100,000 people participated in a “Free Iran” rally. One minor news story is also telling. A recent study of thirty three deradicalization programs in the UK showed that all but two were either ineffective or counter-productive. The two effective initiatives were “one defying political correctness and tackling difficult issues head-on and the other directly addressing extremism in religious [Islamic] texts.”
The effective initiatives sound rather like the approach Fr. Schall advocates: tell the truth about Islam, and challenge Muslims to look more closely at the problems of the Koran. The ineffective initiatives resemble the ones the Church leadership has been pursuing; No one can accuse them of tackling difficult issues head-on. Indeed the only issues they tackle with gusto are Islam-approved ones such as the anti-Islamophobia initiative. If Western leaders and Church leaders keep insisting that Islam is fine just the way it is, there will be very little incentive for Muslims to reform their faith or—if it is irreformable—to leave it.
If and when Church leaders come to the conclusion that their current approach to Islam is both ineffective and counter-productive, they will find in Fr. Schall’s gem of a book a clear guide to a more promising direction.
(Photo credit: Islamic State / VOA)