Islam’s Problem Has Nothing to do with Islam

I second John’s question and raise him a question. What am I missing about Islam that has so many people acting like Muslims are like United Methodists? I don’t mean to imply that all Muslims are terrorists any more than all Methodists follow John Wesley. But for Never Trumpers to argue about Islamophobia as if fears of Muslims are irrational — precisely forty years into various forms of Islamic terrorism, and while ISIS has been a major source of news coverage — is well nigh extraordinary.

Did anyone remember, for instance, when Graeme Wood wrote a piece not in the American Spectator but in Atlantic Monthly about ISIS’ Islamic convictions?

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Now if you want to distance the Muslim Brotherhood from terrorism, fine. But that doesn’t get you the faculty of Harvard University:

It’s fine to think that the Muslim Brotherhood is bad, terrible, authoritarian, or illiberal (in my book on the Egyptian and Jordanian Brotherhoods from the 1980s till today, I highlight the group’s illiberal nature at length). Eric Trager, who I have disagreed with quite strongly on matters relating to the Brotherhood, has called it more akin to a “hate group.” But even he has written against designation. The Brotherhood’s badness, one way or the other, has no bearing on whether or not it is a terrorist organization. Being a terrorist organization involves, among other things, ordering your members to commit terrorist attacks, something no one argues the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is doing.

Even promotional copy for events featuring two of the most western friendly and thoughtful interpreters of Islam, Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid, notice that Muslim societies are not places where Washington Post editors send their children for university:

Predominantly Muslim societies suffer from low levels of political, economic, and civil liberties. Authoritarian political regimes, rigid social structures, and radical religious movements that suppress human liberty in the name of God loom large in the Muslim world. Is this liberty deficit due to a “dark age” of Islam, which can be overcome with reform and a different religious interpretation? Can Islam make its peace with liberal democracy, as Christianity and other religions did after their own illiberal ages? Or is there something different about Islam, making it inherently incompatible with a secular government and a free society? Mustafa Akyol, a longtime defender of “Islamic liberalism,” is optimistic. Shadi Hamid is more pessimistic, arguing that Islam is “exceptional,” in the sense of being essentially resistant to liberalism.

Maybe you want to claim that it’s all a matter of interpretation — some truth there — but that still leaves you having to distinguish better from worse versions of Islam according western liberal standards, which in and of itself means Islam is not United Methodism.

For that reason, it’s a little rich when Michael Schulson writes as if the problems of perception that surround Islam are really the constructions of President Trump and his advisers:

It is difficult to think of a definition of religion that does not include Islam — an ancient tradition with practitioners who believe in one God, pray and try to live their lives in accordance with a scripture.

So why has this particular canard taken off?

Wajahat Ali, a writer, attorney, and the lead author of “Fear, Inc.,” a report on American Islamophobia, traces the idea’s recent surge to anti-Islam activists David Yerushalmi and Frank Gaffney. In 2010, Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy published a report, “Shariah: The Threat to America,” arguing that Muslim religious law, or sharia, was actually a dangerous political ideology that a cabal of Muslims hoped to impose on the United States.

“Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a ‘religious’ code in the Western sense,” the report argued. It also suggested banning “immigration of those who adhere to shariah … as was previously done with adherents to the seditious ideology of communism.”

“They misdefine sharia in a way which is not recognizable to any practicing Muslim,” Ali said. But the idea was influential. By the summer of 2011, more than two dozen states were considering anti-sharia legislation. More recently, Gaffney reportedly advised Trump’s transition team.

For many Americans, confusion about religious law, political ideology and sharia may reflect a distinctly Christian, and especially Protestant, way of thinking about the nature of religion.

“It’s hard to talk about this sometimes because there is no equivalent of sharia in the Christian tradition,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” “Even when you’re talking to well-intentioned, well-meaning people who really want to understand, explaining sharia is very challenging because there’s nothing in Christianity that’s quite like it.”

Actually, Christianity does have its equivalent. The mainstream media has called them theocons and Damon Linker, who wrote a book by that title, copped the plea:

Bannon and the intellectuals Neuhaus regularly published in First Things share the conviction that, at a fundamental level, the United States is a Christian nation — not just in the sense that an overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians, but also in the sense that the country’s highest ideals and convictions (above all, about individual rights and innate human dignity) derive from a Catholic-Christian inheritance the vitality of which must be actively fostered and promoted by the culture. The two groups also tend to view the threat posed by Islamic terrorism in terms of a civilizational clash between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West (or “Christendom”).

But that’s where the continuities end.

At their best, the original theocons followed a tradition of Christian political reflection that insisted on placing the nation under the guidance and judgment of a transcendent God (and his extra-political Church) that stands apart from all this-worldly communities. That was in fact the theme of Neuhaus’ final book, published shortly after his death from cancer in early 2009.

Bannon, by contrast, tends to treat religious affiliation wholly as a function of ethno-national identity: “We” in the West must affirm our Christian identity or we will be overrun by dangerous outsiders (Islamists) who will impose a different identity upon us. In this respect, Bannon’s position is closer to Eastern Orthodoxy (and Russian Orthodoxy in particular), with its sanctioning of an official ethno-national church that mediates between individual believers and the Godhead.

Yet, to Linker’s credit, he can tell the difference between a good theocon and a fear-inspiring one, unlike many social justice types who think the campus of Princeton University is just like Ferguson, Missouri. I do wonder, though, if he remembers how his editors at Doubleday trumped up his book?

Do you believe the Catholic Church should be actively intervening in American politics on the side of the Republican Party?

Do you believe the federal government should be channeling billions of tax dollars a year to churches and other religious organizations?

Do you believe a microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish possesses the same rights that you possess?

Do you believe a doctor who performs abortions — and a woman who chooses to have an abortion — should be arrested and charged with murder?

Do you believe the public schools should actively teach children to doubt the scientific theory of evolution?

Do you believe legally available contraception is producing a “culture of death” in the United States?

Do you believe that the United States should be a Christian nation?

Do you fear Christians because you don’t fear Muslims?

No reason to fear Islam, no not one. Just think professional boxing and the NBA:

Can we imagine an America without Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer? In 1964, Clay defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad as Muhammad Ali.

When he was reclassified as eligible for induction into the draft for the Vietnam War, Ali refused on the grounds of his new Muslim religious beliefs. Famously, reflecting on the racism he had experienced in America, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me ni**er.” His conscientious objector status was rooted in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, as Elijah Muhammad had earlier been jailed for his refusal to enter the draft in the Second World War.

. . . Or think of my other great hero, another American Muslim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The greatest basketball coach ever, the late John R. Wooden, thought that Kareem was the greatest basketball player ever. In his three years of eligibility under Coach Wooden at UCLA, Kareem was three-time player of the year, three-time finals MVP, and three-time NCAA champion. In other words, he had three perfect seasons while he earned his degree. He lost the same number of games at UCLA—two—that he did in high school.

Kareem converted to Islam in 1971, and excelled in the pros just as much as he did in college or high school. All in all, he won six NBA championships and six NBA MVP awards, was a nineteen-time all-star, and remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Combine that pro record with his three NCAA championships, and I don’t know how you can make the case for anyone else as the greatest basketball player of all time.

Winning?

A war that won’t end:

Thus neither side won the Twenty Years’ War. Victory would mean achieving core aims at an acceptable cost relative to the benefits. Al-Qaeda did meet some of its goals: With limited resources, bin Laden gained incredible notoriety and inflicted enormous damage on a great power. In 2003, U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia—the key goal outlined in the 1996 manifesto. In 2004, bin Laden released a video that compared the costs of the 9/11 attacks to al-Qaeda versus the United States: “Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost—according to the lowest estimate—more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”

But in a broader analysis, bin Laden failed. Yes, U.S. forces left Saudi Arabia, but they did so voluntarily, after Saddam was toppled. Crucially, al-Qaeda was unable to mobilize Muslims around a strict Islamist identity that transcended other loyalties. As Charles Kurzman showed in his book The Missing Martyrs, after 9/11, fewer than one in every 100,000 Muslims became jihadist terrorists. The vast majority of Muslims completely reject bin Laden’s ideology. And national, tribal, and other local identities remain profoundly important from the Palestinians to the Pakistanis. From 2003-2011, confidence in bin Laden collapsed in many Muslim-majority countries, falling from 59 percent to 26 percent in Indonesia, and from 56 percent to 13 percent in Jordan. In a 2013 poll taken in 11 Muslim countries, a median of just 13 percent had a favorable view of al-Qaeda, whereas 57 percent had an unfavorable view.

Al-Qaeda’s loss is not U.S. gain:

Let’s turn first to the United States on offense: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Recounting the costs is numbing: over 7,000 Americans killed, tens of thousands of soldiers seriously wounded, trillions of dollars expended, and over 100,000 civilian deaths in Iraq alone. And there’s the wider impact of spending on America’s debt, of enhanced interrogation and torture on the U.S. global image and ethical standing, and of seemingly endless quagmires on domestic political unity.

In an interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, told me, “The Iraq War was unnecessary, self-damaging, demoralizing, delegitimizing, and governed primarily by simplistic military assumptions that didn’t take into account the regional mosaic in which Iraq operates and the internal mosaic inside Iraq.”

The eclipse of al-Qaeda by ISIS is a loss for al-Qaeda but not a gain for the United States. ISIS is an even more ruthless and capable adversary.

Does idealism hurt the United States (and are believers responsible for imbuing America with too many ideas?)?

But the main combatants in the struggle lost for similar reasons: They were hobbled by ideology. Al-Qaeda’s vision of austere Wahhabi Islam and endless global jihad is profoundly unappealing to the vast majority of Muslims. But ideology also shaped U.S. strategy, sometimes in dangerous ways. American idealism is one of the country’s most attractive qualities, central to its moral standing and “soft power.” But idealism also helped to frame the Twenty Years’ War as a struggle between good and evil, which required grandiose goals to topple regimes and build beacons of freedom in the Middle East. It also encouraged Americans to lump terrorists and rogue states together into a big bucket of bad guys. At the same time, Americans are also hostile to the whole notion of nation-building, often seeing stabilization missions as a kind of big-government welfarism, and not something that the country’s warriors should be doing. In a recent foreign-policy speech, Donald Trump said, “ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president,” but at the same time, the United States will be “getting out of the nation-building business.” This combination of beliefs is as American as apple pie.

As a result, the United States is an impatient crusader: eager to smite tyrants and terrorists but unwilling to invest the time and resources needed to win the peace.

Why I Love the Modern State

It helps me keep straight the difference between the city of God and the city of man, at a time when so many Christians want Christianity to define “ALL of me.”

Mark Oppenheimer thinks it possible to distinguish Christian as a noun and adjective:

And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.

For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.

And what about James Bratt’s suggestion that politicized evangelicals should own the moniker, “Christianist“?

Whatever the label, believers have trouble (without the help of modern politics) sorting out their Christian and non-Christian aspects. Just consider the confusion in this response to yesterday’s bombings in Belgium:

I’ll leave it to people who know what they’re talking about to expound further on the radical nature of what Christ is demanding of us when he says this. Suffice it to say for now that it’s clear and direct and we don’t have any choice if we call ourselves Christians: we have to forgive our enemies.

And that includes the terrorists who killed 34 people in Brussels on Tuesday. We have to forgive them.

BUT…But…but it is also written, “thou shalt not kill.” And that means that we need to kill all the other terrorists who are still out there.

Why? Because justice and reason and the teaching of the Church. The Fifth Commandment (don’t kill) imparts on Christians a duty to protect and defend innocent human life. Sooooo…it is morally just to use lethal force to prevent the killing of innocent people. Self-defense, just war, etc. etc. etc.

So kill ISIS.

First, I thought God through the ministry of the church forgives sins. It’s not up to me to forgive people who have not wronged me. Do I even have authority as an elder to forgive sins that are crimes against humanity? The Book of Church Order doesn’t say so.

Second, I don’t have the power to kill anyone legally unless I become part of the executive branch of our constitutional order. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I could legitimately kill someone. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I am also carrying out orders of someone else. As a Christian policeman, executioner, or solder I am carrying out the duties of my vocation. But I am not acting “merely” as a Christian since non-Christian police and soldiers carry out similar orders.

So as a 2k Christian I don’t have to forgive or kill. I defer to those with higher pay grades, which includes — piety alert! — praying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Locating Islam on the Map of the West

Sometimes Crux, though, registered a provocative take on Christianity in the West. In a piece on the Vatican’s diplomacy with Iran, Crux observed that Roman Catholicism is to the Christian world what Shia is to Islam:

Iranian writer Vali Nasr, author of the 2006 book “The Shia Revival,” argues that the divide between Sunni and Shia bears comparison to that between Protestants and Catholics, with Shia being the branch closer to Catholicism.

Among those points of contact are:

A strong emphasis on clerical authority

An approach to the Quran accenting both scripture and tradition

A deep mystical streak

Devotion to a holy family (in the case of Shiites, the blood relatives of Mohammad) and to saints (the Twelve Imams)

A theology of sacrifice and atonement through the death of Hussain, grandson of Mohammad and the first imam of Shia Islam

Belief in free will (as opposed to the Sunni doctrine of pre-destination)

Holy days, pilgrimages, and healing shrines

Intercessory prayer

Strongly emotional forms of popular devotion, especially the festival of Ashoura commemorating Hussain’s death

If only ISIS could find its inner Pope Francis:

Pope Francis apologized for Catholic mistreatment of other Christian traditions Monday, and called on Catholics to forgive followers of those traditions for any offenses of “today and in the past,” as a step toward deeper unity.

“As Bishop of Rome and Shepherd of the Catholic Church, I plead for mercy and forgiveness for non-evangelical behaviors by Catholics against Christians of other churches,” Francis said, referring to conduct not in keeping with the Gospel of Christ.

“We cannot undo what was done in the past, but we don’t want to allow the weight of past sins to pollute our relationships,” he said. “The mercy of God will renew our relations.”

Those Were Also the Days

Is it bad form to compare ISIS to Europe’s religious wars after the Reformation?

This Protestant versus Catholic division – our version of Islam’s Sunni versus Shia – was replicated all over Europe. In Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany, what started as disagreement and protest later morphed into religious persecution and then, often enough, into civil war. Only when these conflicts came to an end in the mid-1600s was this nightmare, which lasted 140 years, brought to a close.

What Syria is going through at this time is no worse than what Germany experienced in the Thirty Years War that ended in 1648. The historian Norman Davies describes the post-war scene thus: “Germany lay desolate. The population had fallen from 21 million to perhaps 13 million. Between a third and half of the people were dead. Whole cities like Magdeburg stood in ruins. Whole districts lay stripped of their inhabitants, their livestock, and their supplies. Trade had virtually ceased.”

Nor is the Syrian calamity any more disastrous than the English Civil War, which petered out in 1651. Read what the Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, has to say about the conflict: “The Civil War was the most lethal conflict England had suffered since the Conquest. A recent estimate suggests around 86,000 killed in combat, nearly all soldiers; another 129,000, mostly civilians, succumbed to the diseases that accompanied war; and infant mortality reached the highest level ever recorded. These losses, in a population of 4-5 million, are proportionately much higher than those England suffered in the First World War.”

I should add that neither the Thirty Years War nor the English Civil War was caused solely by religious hostility. The former was part of a Continental power struggle, as well as being a contest between Catholics and Protestants. On the latter, Tombs comments that: “Religion was the clearest dividing line, but even that does not explain everything.” But then religion is not the sole generator of Middle East conflict.

Sure, as a committed (or soon to be committed) Protestant, I’d prefer not to be compared to religious terrorists. And when I think about the start of the Civil War I’d like to think (in the neo-conservative part of me) that this was oh so different from the American War for Independence. But can Western Christians really avoid noticing certain parallels between their own past and Islam?

David Robertson, never one to miss a chance to send a missive to a newspaper, thinks we can refuse the analogies by rebranding Presbyterians as — get this — “freedom fighters”:

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of ISIS.

How pastor Robertson describes the “freedom fighters” that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a rebellion foreign policy initiative that helped to create ISIS, is a question that may be answered the next time someone in the British newspapers traces the American revolution to Scottish Presbyterianism.