Politics & Policy

Islamic Rites

Why Muslims need a pope.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference is wrapping up its meeting of the world’s 57 Muslim nations. Who among us has not slept more soundly knowing that these titans of world peace are on the job in Kuala Lumpur?

Alas, the conference floundered on the dagger-edged conundrum of whether blowing up children in pizza parlors constitutes terrorism. These heroes of history finally decided that, like that of the proverbial angels dancing on the head of a pin, this was simply too difficult and too pointless a question to answer. Ultimately, anything that hurts Israel, you see, must be seen in the “proper context.” In other words, it’s not terrorism if Israelis are the ones being terrorized.

The fact that such an organization exists in the first place illustrates the differences between the Islamic world and the West. Can you imagine George Bush attending a world conference of “Christian nations”? Okay, maybe some reflexive Bush-bashers can, but can you imagine it being an uncontroversial, bipartisan event? Try to picture the New York Times offering a small item on page A-14: “George W. Bush, the leader of the world’s most populous Christian nation, congratulated the new general secretary of the Christendom League — Gro Northwad, the prime minister of Finland, who promised to fight for the rights and interests of Christians around the world….”

This just isn’t the way we do things in the West. Sure, we do have this institution called the Catholic Church, which strives to be a universal organization (hence the word “Catholic”) and claims some level of moral — though not necessarily legal or political — authority over Christians around the world. But it hasn’t really worked in tandem with the governments of the West for quite some time — the claims by feminists in open-toed shoes with T-shirts reading “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries” notwithstanding.

This is an important point, missed by many Westerners and Muslims alike. In the Middle East, it is widely believed that the West sees itself in much the same way as the East sees it. That’s why so many Arabs ululated with righteous fury when President Bush accidentally used the word “crusade” when discussing the war on terrorism — and why most Americans barely noticed it. Indeed, most Westerners shrug off the almost-hourly references to “jihad” or “holy war” by Muslims around the world, even though Westerners suffered from jihads just as much as the Muslims suffered from the Crusades — if not more so (Jews, by the way, got it coming and going). Indeed, the only Americans, aside from some members of our Arab and Muslim community, who were reliably offended by Bush’s “crusade” comment were the knee-jerk liberals terrified we might offend a dues-paying member of the Coalition of the Oppressed.

But don’t get me started on how idiotic most people are when they refer to the Crusades. Still, if you think the Crusades were an attempt by angry white slave-holding men to abolish affirmative action and the living wage (the reigning understanding on many campuses, no doubt), I highly recommend Thomas Madden’s wonderful primer on what they were really about.


As I was saying, many in the Islamic world think the West is a euphemism for something like the Holy Roman Empire (bin Laden — still overwhelmingly popular in the Middle East — has declared war on “Crusaders and Jews”). Meanwhile, many in the West assume that the Middle East is simply suffering from something roughly equivalent to the Catholic Church’s rule prior to the Protestant Reformation.

In the often intellectually bankrupt (and morally impoverished) academic world of “Middle Eastern Studies,” there have been hopes for a “Muslim Martin Luther.” The dream is that such a hero would lead a liberalizing reformation. This triumph of hope over reality, it should be noted, rendered these “experts” about as useful as an accountant in the gladiators’ ring when it came to formulating Mideast policy. Martin Kramer’s devastating Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America describes how professors “were so preoccupied with ‘Muslim Martin Luthers’ that they never got around to producing a single serious analysis of bin Laden and his indictment of America.”

This assumption is actually very offensive for a few reasons. First, because all stupidity is objectionable save that of small children and puppies. It’s also insulting to Arabs and Muslims, in that it assumes their history and culture is merely an embryonic — i.e., undeveloped — form of our own. And, lastly, it suggests that the Catholic Church is something it is not.

But the main problem with the analysis is that the Arab world doesn’t need a Muslim Martin Luther; it needs a Muslim Catholic Church. Because liberals in America and Europe tend to see the Church as a hindrance to progress — i.e., a party pooper when it comes to today’s whatever-floats-your-boat hedonism — we also tend to assume it was ever and everywhere thus — which is simply wrong on all fronts. In fact, even today the Vatican serves as a liberalizing influence in much of the world.

Also, no offense to the Lutherans and other Protestants, but Martin Luther was a bit of a psycho. He was more anti-Semitic than the Catholic Church. Hell, he was more everything than the Catholic Church, if by “more” and “everything” you mean more rigid, more zealous, more likely to smack you on the knuckles with a ruler if he caught you smoking in the bathroom, etc.

I know Americans tend to think that being anti-authority means being liberal. But by almost every definition of the Left today — to the extent such definitions are applicable — the Protestant reformations and revolts were conservative events. Protestants were not rebelling against the oppressively theistic rules of the Church, they were rebelling against the Church’s worldly compromises in regard to those rules. (Think of the selling of indulgences — a modern-day liberal would love such soak-the-rich scams.) Martin Luther was motivated by piety, not by secular liberalism. The Catholic Church was burning books and heretics pretty selectively by the time of the Reformation. The Protestants adopted the practice wholesale.

If you travel around peace-loving Switzerland, for example, you’ll discover that a couple of centuries worth of art is simply missing, because Protestant iconoclasts burnt it in giant bonfires to fuel their fondue-pots of religious fervor. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has a very nice art collection, which includes depictions of lots of pretty-naked ladies and a few naked pretty ladies.

The same holds true for science. The Church — Galileo propaganda notwithstanding — was the main engine for science and learning through most of Western history. The Amish, the Shakers, the Puritans — God love ‘em — are a whole different story. (In fact, this column contains the famed “Amish computer virus,” which requires you to delete your files yourself.)

This is not to say that the Reformation was bad, or that there’s anything wrong with Protestants. But reformers without restraint are not reformers, they’re radicals.

Which brings me to Islam.

The fact is that the Arabs have had their Muslim Martin Luthers and John Calvins. One was the 18th-century Mohammed Wahhab, founder of Saudi Arabia’s austere version of Islam called Wahhabism. It’s funny — the press often refer to Wahhabism as “puritanical” without noting that the Puritans were, well, Protestants.

In the latest issue of The National Interest, Adam Garfinkle notes that “The Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam is neither traditional nor orthodox. It is a slightly attenuated fundamentalism that dates only from the end of 18th century. . . . [A]s recently as 50 years ago the large majority of Muslims considered Saudi Wahhabism to be exotic, marginal and austere to the point of neurotic.”

We all know that the Wahhabis, like their Taliban pupils, are fanatical iconoclasts. But it’s rarely noted that they have always been fanatical iconoclasts. In 1925 Ibn Saud, the patriarch of the current Saudi dynasty, ordered the destruction of all the tombs, monuments, and shrines in Mecca and Medina. Crowds of fanatics destroyed the graves of Mohammed’s family and even his house. Mosques were torched. Traditional Muslims barely stopped the Wahhabis from destroying Mohammed’s grave itself.

This runs completely against the stereotype of “conservative” Saudi Arabia, until you think of mobs of similar “reformers” burning Catholic churches and artwork all across Europe (though I can’t see Christians of any denomination seeking to destroy Christ’s tomb).


Wahhabism and similar movements arose in response to the decadence of the Ottoman Empire and the sense that Islam was being overtaken by the West because Muslims had “lost their way.” Obviously that’s a complicated and long story.

But the immediate point is that the Ottoman Empire was no Catholic Church, and Islam is not Christianity. Christianity had, from the beginning, an understanding of the distinction between what St. Augustine termed the City of God and the City of Man. Jesus himself declared that one should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Christianity also began as a persecuted religion; Islam was “born of the sword.” Imagine how different Christianity would be if Jesus had been a conquering general who beheaded his enemies and if the apostles had expanded his military victories into a far-flung empire. (In this sense Judaism and Islam have some similarities — all that Old Testament smiting and wrath — but Judaism learned some humility, thanks to 2,000 years of persecution.)

These are important differences, and one can recognize them with or without forming judgments about their comparative worth. But I think it’s fair to say that the Islamic world would benefit greatly from the equivalent of a Catholic Church. As a conservative, what I love about the Catholic Church is that it is old. Conservatives of all stripes should know intuitively what I mean. Old institutions, like old friends, cannot be created anew.

And — like old friends — old institutions are more, not less, flexible than new ones. Old friends understand when to forgive and when to draw a line. The Catholic Church predates democracy by more than a thousand years. It understands when it needs to lead people and when it is best to restrain them. Its timing isn’t always perfect, and it has failed on more occasions than any of us would like. But, like any lasting institution, it learned from its mistakes and has — more often than not — played an invaluable role as both moral pragmatist and moral conscience for Western civilization.

In the Islamic world, the Caliphate — a very poor analogy to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope — came to an end in 1924 with Kemal Ataturk and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (one year before the Wahhabis tried to destroy Mohammed’s grave). Until then, the Caliphs or their surrogates could speak with one voice for much of the Islamic world. With them gone, the Islamic world has spun off into a wild orbit, in which nations without a mature notion of civil society also lack an outside moral authority like the Catholic Church. Hence, today every fanatic and murderer can “shop around” for a cleric willing to issue a fatwah condoning almost any crime or atrocity, like an addict looking for a corrupt doctor to scribble some prescriptions.

Too many of these retail Islamic Martin Luthers compete with each other to be more devout, more angry, more willing to deflect the anxieties and shame of their societies onto outside forces, be they “crusaders” or “Jews.” That’s why the Organization of the Islamic Conference can’t even figure out that using women and children to blow up other women and children is terrorism. And that’s why the Islamic world doesn’t need any more Martin Luthers. It needs a pope.


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