Politics & Policy

Religion is Not the Enemy

Don't look at bin Laden and see Islam.

Last week, the Upper Sharia Court in Gwadabawa, Sokoto State, in northern Nigeria sentenced a 30-year-old pregnant woman to be stoned for premarital sex. Human-rights organizations immediately protested the sentence. The human-rights problems in imposing a 1,000-year-old codification of law are not confined to tribalistic Nigeria. Muslims and non-Muslims alike suffer under some of the extreme provisions of the Sharia (Islamic law) applied, directly or indirectly, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and other areas. But these actions are not the essentialist Islam. In fact, most contemporary fundamentalist impositions do not even observe the strict procedural protections the Sharia provided, and under which few if any of today’s attacks on human rights could be accomplished. They violate the provisions of the very law they claim to be following. Furthermore, today’s application of the criminal provisions of the Sharia are as ahistorical as they are problematical for human rights. The Islamic empire in its various forms more often substituted its own criminal courts and criminal decrees for that of the qadi (judge), leaving the criminal-law provisions of the Sharia among the least developed areas of classical Islamic law.

The legalistic element of Islam spans wide variations. Not all wish to impose the Sharia in all its archaic details. Many call for a new ijtihad, or redevelopment of the law from its sources to meet modern conditions. Nor is legalism the sole voice of Islam: From the beginning, rationalist, theological, and mystical traditions have vied with it. I believe that, like Christians and Jews, most Muslims crave a moral space in which to worship God and obtain forgiveness and salvation. The imposition of all the elements of a 1,000-year-old code of law would close up that space.

Yet as offensive to human rights and dignity as the stoning of a woman for an act of sexual immorality is, it is not the same as flying a plane into a building to kill thousands of innocent civilians. It is not the same as training thousands to destroy societies and impose political control over millions of people. Mass terror is a different and qualitatively more egregious form of evil. It is outside of even militant Islamic fundamentalism.

War Against Islam

Over the past few weeks, I have argued that Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies represent a perversion of Islam and are engaged in a campaign to change Islam itself — to define the faith politically, and not primarily legally or theologically. The evidence, I believe, is unequivocal: His war is as much against Islam as it is against the West. I have written that Islam is a multivocal religion, that from its start it has debated within itself the nature of its identity. And I have noted that among all its varied traditions, one thing remains clear: The acts of the terrorists of September 11, and the justification of them by Osama bin Laden, replicate in modern guise a violent faction, the Kharajites, that Islam found totally anathema to the faith early in its history. In other writings, I have asserted that This form of extremism has been inspired by the writings of influential modernist radicals, such as Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, who believe that virtually all Islam is in a state of unbelief and needs to be reconquered. Thus, in its modern form, bin Laden’s kind of extremism has much more in common with Stalin, Hitler, and Mao than it does with Islamic tradition. Like those state terrorists, bin Laden is at war with his own people. And finally, I have baldly asserted that bin Laden and his extremists are evil, pure and simple, and Islam is not. Since these opinions have been aired, I have received many letters, telephone calls, and e-mails. Without exception, Muslims who have contacted me have been grateful for my views. They have been relieved to hear how a Christian and Westerner is explaining to Americans the true nature of their religion. They have thanked me for my understanding of Islam. They agree with my characterization of bin Laden and al Qaeda.

But, Muslim opinion notwithstanding, some American columnists have insisted that I misunderstand Islam. Andrew Sullivan and Franklin Foer report that my views are mere “bromides” or a “simplification.” Sullivan thinks I do not realize the danger of fundamentalism — or of monotheism, for that matter. Foer regards me as a faith-based partisan (as is, in his opinion, our simplistic president). But their errors, I fear, go beyond editorial misjudgments. Their views are historically flawed, deeply misleading, and may increase the distance between us and the Muslim world.

There are, among contemporary observers of the current crisis, respected commentators: Bernard Lewis, Paul Johnson, and Daniel Pipes, for example, who have differing perspectives or emphases from mine. They are more critical of the character, history, and traditions of Islam. I welcome a civil and open exchange on the issues. Civilizations may hang on what policy America pursues, so it is vital that we get things right. All who have made a serious study of Islam should be brought into the discussion.

There are, however, some commentators who have a different agenda. They seek to turn the response to bin Laden into a campaign against religion itself.

At bottom, Andrew Sullivan thinks that bin Laden is much closer to the real Islam than I make him out to be. He accepts bin Laden’s premise: We are in a religious war. More accurately, Sullivan wants us to be in a religious war, because Sullivan himself wants to make war on religion until it learns to believe less in itself.

Sullivan has two themes. The first is that legalistic Islam, the Islam of the fundamentalists, has been making dramatic headway in the Muslim world. There’s nothing new there. But his corollary — that bin Laden is only a prominent example of the fundamentalist movement (indeed, of all religious fundamentalism) — is dangerously awry.

Sullivan’s claim is that religious “fundamentalism” of any sort is the same, and he makes the astonishing assertion that monotheistic religion has been a primary source of evil in the last few centuries. For Sullivan, it is religion itself we should be wary of, unless it be cordoned off in a tame corner by the state.

The Enemy of My Enemy

There is no doubt that the militant edge of Islamic fundamentalism has expanded in recent decades. Many scholars of Islam have delineated, in meticulous detail, the particular movements and leaders in various countries of the Muslim world. They have provided us, if we would but listen, with the knowledge by which to develop policies that can support genuinely religiously based reformist movements, free of the hate that is capable of undermining world peace and stability. What’s been missing from recent discussion is an acknowledgement that over the past decade, the United States has done little to discourage Islamic governments from appeasing radical Islamist movements within their nations. On the contrary, a kind of patronizing attitude towards Muslims — a view that Islam is dangerous, militant, and narrow-minded — was not uncommon in our government’s attitude, and particularly in our relations with countries such as the Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In another forum, I noted three critical effects of that policy:

‐If we don’t believe in protecting people from religious persecution, we must be the materialist, bankrupt culture the Islamic radicals claim we are.

‐If we allow, for reasons of state, that it’s all right with us that Islamic governments give in to the radicals’ tyrannical agenda, we acknowledge that radical Islam is a legitimate force in the world.

‐If we in effect say that these issues are not human-rights problems, that they are “a Muslim problem,” we treat our genuine Islamic friends with a patronizing indifference.

Such attitudes have only given the radicals more validation, increasing Muslims’ contempt for the West. Those beliefs have largely reflected the views of religion in general held by the secular elites whose views Foer and Sullivan clearly espouse. Fortunately for America and the world, theirs is an attitude President Bush does not share.

Sullivan calls particular attention to the Saudi spread of its puritanical Wahhabist sect and its embrace of the most rigorous and narrow legal school in Islam. In addition, he points to Saudi support of madrasas, which he rightly describes as being often mere schools of hate, which do not advance prospects of peace and mutual acceptance.

But Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam is different even from Wahhabism. And it certainly is different from more moderate forms of Islamic fundamentalism, let alone traditional Islam. Bin Laden’s Islam has even gone beyond being a religious sect. It has become, like the Leninism it in significant ways replicates, a political ideology. Even his calls to action are political war cries: the crusades, the land of the two holy mosques, the 80-year-old political betrayal of the Arabs. He would, and has, killed Muslims who disagree with his beliefs — or rather, with his need for control. He joyfully makes war on innocent civilians, war even the most passionate partisans of the Sharia have difficulty justifying. It is both ironic and revealing that Osama bin Laden, who makes use of the products of these Wahhabist schools, seeks to overthrow the Saudi regime itself.

Without being blind to the dangers of militant fundamentalism, we must remain aware of the moral distinction between sects like the Wahhabis and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad. It is a difference that the majority of Muslims, including many of those sympathetic to fundamentalism, are capable of affirming. However timorous Muslim spokesmen may salt their condemnation of the terrorists with formulaic denunciations of Israel, they all are aware of one truth: Bin Laden hates them and means to do them in. What we must do, at all costs, is to prevent bin Laden’s call to arms from bringing Islamic fundamentalists into his extremist ranks and into his political battle. And our starting point must be a respect for the distinctions between the great varieties of Islamic tradition and the perversions of them.

Those in the West who suggest that bin Laden is being true to Islam cede him the ground of his ambition. This is not the first time that Western pundits have failed to observe such things with moral clarity. During the Cold War, some on the Left saw Communism as “simply another way of reaching the same ends we all share.” Some on the Right failed to distinguish between the dangers of domestic socialism and the evils of international Communism. Fortunately, free-world leaders like Truman, Reagan, and Thatcher saw the evil of Communism for what it was and eventually reduced it to rubble. But now, commentators like Andrew Sullivan commit a comparable error by failing to distinguish between homicidal revolutionaries like bin Laden and traditional Muslim believers. Such distinctions can lead us to policies that will help the West in its battle against terrorism, and preserve traditional Islam as well.

In sum, most Muslims and most Muslim leaders know emphatically what America’s leaders and intellectuals must know: that extremists like bin Laden do not represent historic or mainstream Islam, not even in its most problematic forms. Bin Laden’s extremism is meant to establish a brand of Islam after the pattern of Afghanistan. It follows the example of the extremist government of Sudan, which inflicts a terrorist war upon millions of Christians within its own borders. It undermines and attacks legal values most Muslims hold to be part of Islamic law. And it mocks any semblance of the toleration and peaceful coexistence that have marked much of Islamic history.

Perversely, by treating Islam as a religion of terror, Sullivan plays into bin Laden’s strategy of presenting himself as a religious hero. The more accurate course is to brand bin Laden for what he is — an enemy to the peaceful and tolerant (and even some of the less-tolerant) traditions of Islam — and so isolate him from the faith of the multitudes he seeks to win over. If American policy were based on Sullivan’s analysis, it would be grounded in a patronizing and distorted view of Islam (and religious faith in general), and raise a front of Muslim nations against the West into the bargain. War with the entire Islamic religion is as unnecessary as it is grossly imprudent. More importantly, by continuing to maintain that moral bright line between terrorism and Islam, we help to legitimate all the varied and peaceful traditions of Islam — including those that oppose fundamentalism. This permits us to precisely isolate and destroy the terrorists, while working on a multifaceted program to blunt and reduce militant fundamentalism within Islam.

But, as noted, Sullivan’s game actually has little to do with the fight against Islamist terrorism. Rather, he seizes on the events of September 11 to try to deprecate all traditional religious faiths. This requires him to ignore distinctions of the most profound importance. As a Catholic, Sullivan surely knows that, however often Catholics have failed to live up the tenets of their faith, one of the things it directly forbids is the intentional killing of innocent human beings. Catholic “absolutism,” far from creating a risk that terrorism could be justified, strictly forbids such acts against innocents under any and all circumstances.

And then what about the genocidal crimes of the various forms of secularism? What occurred in the 20th century when, as Nietzsche declared, God was dead? When he considers Hitler, Stalin, and Mao — when he faced with the fact that more people have been killed in the name of atheism than under any religious banner — Sullivan shrugs: That’s “fundamentalism” too, he says. It doesn’t wash. It’s secular state power that has committed the most heinous crimes, not a derivative form of religious fundamentalism. Even many of the persecutions done in the name of religion were often accompanied, or even instigated, by a grasping for worldly power. It was local bishops who opposed King Ferdinand’s extension of the Inquisition. King Henry VIII killed thousands — Catholics and others — who opposed his centralization of power. The same secular elements can be seen in the Albigensian crusade, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the later pogroms, and the Byzantine persecution of the Copts. This does not, of course, relieve any religious agents of their moral culpability. To pay honest respect to history, we must acknowledge, as the Pope has done, the grave sins committed by people of religion and in the name of religion. At the same time, however, we must also acknowledge this larger truth: that people of religion have been a main source of opposition to crimes against humanity committed by the state — and have often been the main victims as well.

There’s element of truth in what Sullivan says: Bin Laden has much in common with secularist ideologies like fascism and Communism. But, by the same token, he also has little in common with Catholicism, evangelical or other traditional forms of Protestantism, Mormonism, orthodox or other forms of Judaism, or Islam itself. What drives bin Laden is not religious faith of any traditional kind; it is, rather, the all-too-familiar phenomenon of murderous revolutionary ideology politicizing religion for its own purposes.

Sullivan should be credited for openly laying out our fundamentally differing points of departure. He thinks that religion — monotheistic religion in particular — has been the source of our greatest evils. I believe religion — despite the failures of many religious people and even religious leaders — is the repository of what is forever good. I hold with Julian Benda that because of the affirmation of transcendent truths, “humanity did evil for 2000 years, but worshipped good.” It was a “contradiction,” he noted, but one that “was an honor to the human species and formed the rift by which civilization slipped into the world.”

Sullivan wants religion to be placed in a holding pen. Bin Laden wants to use religion for revolutionary purposes. I say let religion be religion. Let it lead its own life. It needn’t be put in a pen. And it certainly shouldn’t be perverted into a mask for 21st-century Leninism.

Franklin Foer notes that I wish religion to be given greater respect and honor in the public square than it currently enjoys. (He also denigrates the president for having similar views.) I gladly admit the charge. The fact is that where faith in a loving God is restored, freedom will be better secured — for religion calls people to that which is greater and better than any state can provide. True, the state should not champion any one faith, but it should acknowledge and celebrate a society in which faith posits norms higher than itself. We should do this for ourselves, and we should so respect other religious cultures as well. It has been the American way.

The three great Abrahamic religions spawned great civilizations. They also stand for this one great spiritual and political truth, which reverberates through our present discontents: that all persons are equal in the eyes of God, and that equality, if made manifest, can secure peace, freedom, and representative government. Standing on its own, secularism cannot secure those inestimable goods.

Secularism, uninformed by spiritual values, doesn’t know what to do with evil. It even has trouble determining what it is. When we stared at the falling World Trade Center towers, it was our religious values that told us something profoundly wicked had taken place — something that could not be explained simply in terms of material substances and causes. Where did the intuitive grasp of the matter drive most of us? Did the crowds flock to the Capitol for comfort? Did they camp on the steps of the Supreme Court? No. They went their places of worship. They lit candles. They had neighborhood prayer meetings. They repaired to the source of all good.

By recognizing bin Laden’s evil for what it is, Muslims have the opportunity for self-reflection on what their religion truly means. By recognizing bin Laden’s evil for what it is, Americans can begin a process of engagement with the vast populations of the Muslim world. And by recognizing bin Laden’s evil for what it is, we can better recognize what is good in our own society, as well as in other societies, and begin to nurture it.

Policy pieces are necessarily pointed, brief, and oversimplified. Further views of this comparativist on Islam and Islamic law can been seen in “A Faith in Debate,” WSJ, September 28, 2001, and in the essays collected in my volume Studies in Islamic Law. Finally (and anticlimactically), I must issue — once again — some disclaimers I made to Franklin Foer but which he chose to ignore. I am not an adviser to the president, on Islam or anything else. Neither am I the president’s “Catholic ghost writer,” in Andrew Sullivan’s arch phrase. The words were the president’s, as was his policy of distinguishing the extremists from Islam. My writings noted that both ancient and contemporary history validated what was his policy from the beginning. And in that, we both were correct.


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