Politics & Policy

On Islamic Literal-Mindedness

When they’re taken as the literal and eternal truth, words can lead to beheadings.

Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, but even before he beheaded one co-worker at a food-distribution center in central Oklahoma last week, then began stabbing another, presumably someone had considered that Alton Nolen was . . . off.

Nolen — whose attack last Thursday at the workplace of his ex-employer, Vaughan Foods, seemed more suited to Mosul, Iraq, than Moore, Okla. — was not your garden-variety felon recently out of prison. Following his conversion to Islam while in prison, he was a fiery Facebook presence, writing under his Muslim name, Jah’Keem Yisrael. Sample prose:

SHALOM ALHAKEIUM (O YE MUSLIMS) ALLAH (sWT) SAYS IN THE LAST DAYS “PEOPLE WILL BE LOVERS OF THEMSELVES, PROUD AND UNHOLY”. SO TO ALL OF U THAT’S MASTURBATING WHICH I THINK IS 80% OF THE WORLD AND FOR WHATEVER THE DESIRE IT IS IN YOUR HEART THAT U DOING IT FOR-U CAN GET! (WARNING) THIS IS THE LAST DAYS . . . 2ND TIMOTHY 3:2 ****InfoFromAMuslim****

There’s much more of that, supplemented by arguments about the finer points of Muslim doctrine in the comments. For Islamic Facebook evangelism, Nolen is, in part, what one might expect: He prophesies coming judgment; he declares that Sharia will sweep over the world; he castigates women of loose morals. But Nolen also takes the opportunity to declare that hunting and paying taxes are sinful, to rail against paper money, and to warn about the Illuminati. His posts are regularly accompanied by cartoon graphics — clipart, screenshots from Aladdin, the Star of David outlined against the all-seeing eye. He also posts photographs — of the Twin Towers burning and Islamic militants holding grenade launchers, but also of Katie Holmes (in garb that is decidedly haraam).

From this hodgepodge, one might conclude that Nolen is something less than a hardened homegrown terrorist, though still much more than, as MSNBC declared, just another perpetrator of “workplace violence.” He is the pliable mind and eager convert who can declare, as he did last December, “I Understand Everything About My religion.” It is no coincidence that this religion is Islam.

In his 2005 National Review essay, “The Meaning of Beheading,” Theodore Dalrymple remarked, with regard to the debate about the legality of beheading among Islamic scholars:

The very terms of the debate are the most significant thing about it. . . . For the assumption behind the debate is that the answer to the question . . . is to be found somewhere in the Koran or the Hadith, and nowhere else. Original thought is unnecessary, since the answer to every question has already been given, if only we are diligent enough to find it in irreproachable texts. If the Koran or the Hadith says that such beheading is right, it is right; if it says it is wrong, it is wrong. If Mohammed says we can cut off people’s heads whenever we choose, then we can; if he doesn’t, then we can’t.

That this characterizes the debate not only on the “Muslim street” but also within circles of Islamic scholarship is striking. Even among the most extreme fringe of Christians, one would be hard-pressed to find this degree of literal-mindedness. It points to, says Dalrymple, “the lack of, as well as the burning need for, an Islamic Enlightenment.”

But institutional enlightenment is hard, slow-going, and often unattractive to both the faithful and those outside the religion. The maturation of Christianity afforded by challengers such as Luther, Voltaire, and Nietzsche has deepened the religion while also complicating it. Christianity still proclaims certain pure, uncomplicated truths, but if one scrapes past the surface, complexities abound. A complex faith, with its caveats and open questions, does not lend itself to extremism.

Simple-minded adherence to supposedly eternal dictates does. Cults are notorious for their facile, all-encompassing answers that exorcise doubt and thereby drive extremism. Consider the number of people who followed Jim Jones and David Koresh — followed them all the way to their deaths. More than a few people were willing to commit murder on the orders of Charles Manson. Moderation, it would seem, is for the doubtful. When you have all the answers, why not go big?

Christianity’s contest with, and integration of, external and internal philosophical developments tempered many of its claims. Those who today read Jesus’s declaration that he “did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and rush off to polish their rapiers are not likely to find widespread support in the pews. Christianity still attracts a fair share of holy rollers, but their wilder inclinations are reined in by the restraint characteristic of the church at large.

By contrast, Islam, on the whole, remains remarkably literal in its approach to its sacred text, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Islamic jihadism is anything other than that same literal-mindedness at its most impervious. For those like Nolen, then — impressionable and eager for unimpeachable answers — Islam is inviting. And it will no doubt remain so as long as Islamic doctrine is viewed less as a matter for thoughtful consideration than as an airtight handbook for apotheosis.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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