Islamophobia

With an admitted abundance of irony, I find myself phobic about the use of any word that ends in “phobic”, largely because the word is usually used to shut down sensible sustained debate, and functions as a kind of rhetorical club in the hands of ideological bullies. Take the popular word “homophobic” for example. The word is used as a label to denounce and silence anyone arguing that homosexual practice is sinful. Those in favour of the moral legitimacy of homosexual practice now do not need to effectively reply to arguments that it is sinful. They need only denounce the opponent as “homophobic” and that is the end of it. The vanquished homophobe is supposed to slink away and vanish into the mists of history, taking his place alongside Nazis, White Supremacists, and those asserting that the world is flat. It is nonsense, of course, and I suppose that anyone can play the game. I might coin the term “Christianophobic” (unless someone has beat me to it?) to describe anyone opposing Christian dogma and history, and use the label to defend everything that was ever done by the Church. Do you deny that Jesus is divine? How Christianophobic of you. Tempting, I suppose, except that our commitment to truth means we are also committed to civil and reasoned debate, and to deciding every argument on the basis of its actual merits. No ad hominem shortcuts allowed, however useful.

So, I find that I approach the word “Islamophobia” with some trepidation, but current events require some sort of response from Christian teachers, and one cannot talk about what is going on without recourse to the word. I refer especially to Mr. Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that America ban future entry of all Muslims “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”. This last bit seems a bit vague, but I suppose it means something like “until our country’s representatives can be sure that no Muslim seeking entry will ever act violently”. Given the amount of non-Islamic violence sweeping America and making the news, this seems to set the bar unfairly high for Muslims, but that is not my point here. The larger issue, pushed to the fore by Mr. Trump, is the question of whether or not Islam is inherently violent, and we must address the issue on its own merits. Sometimes Muslims, feeling that they are under attack, react with the single response, “You’re being Islamophobic!” and try thereby to shut down the discussion. I can understand such a defensive response, especially when Muslims are indeed sometimes victims of real prejudice, but we still need to keep the dialogue going.

In examining this question, it is crucial to distinguish several things. I would therefore like to distinguish between:

  1. Muhammad’s practice and the text of his Qur’an;
  2. the history of subsequent Islamic expansion in the decades and centuries following his death in 632;
  3. the practice of Muslims throughout the Islamic Empire and in the Middle East;
  4. liberal Muslims today; and
  5. Islamists.

Unless these five things are distinguished, we cannot get very far in understanding our Muslim neighbours and making sense of the world today. Of course if one’s aim is not to work with complexities but simply to inflame voters, then such understanding is not required. In beginning to examine the question of violence in Islam, we begin with:

  1. Muhammad’s practice and the text of his Qur’an. It seems clear enough that Muhammad had no problem with using violence and warfare to protect, sustain, and expand the progress of his new religion, especially after his flight to Medina. We think of his slaughter and decapitation of about 700 prisoners of the Jewish tribe of the Bani Quraiza. One could multiply examples, but no one disputes Muhammad’s use of warfare and violence to spread his religion. This acceptance of violence in the service of religion is found in the Qur’an also.   Take, for example, surah 2:190f: “Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. Allah does not love the aggressors. Kill them wherever you find them. Idolatry is worse than carnage. But do not fight them within the precincts of the Holy Mosque unless they attack you there; if they attack you, put them to the sword…Fight against them until idolatry is no more and Allah’s religion reigns supreme. But if they mend their ways, fight none except the evil-doers.” Or, take another example, surah 9:123: “O believers, fight the unbelievers who dwell around you and let them find hardness in you. Know that Allah is with the righteous.”

Some modern liberal Muslims contextualize these verses and assert that they have relevance only to the time of Muhammad when his young religion was under threat, and should not be applied today. That is certainly one way to read those verses, and in fairness, that is how we Christians read the verses in the Book of Joshua about (for example) the slaughter of the people of Jericho in Joshua chapter 6. Joshua and his armies engaged in violence and genocide, but no one today regards these historical facts as setting a precedent which would allow modern Christians (or Jews) to spread their faith with the sword. The question is therefore whether or not Muhammad’s example and his Qur’anic verses offer a paradigm for Muslims in later ages, or whether they should be regarded solely as an historical “one-off”. The question may be partially answered by looking at:

  1. The history of subsequent Islamic expansion.   When we examine the history of Islam in the years, decades, and centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. we see that his followers did indeed seem to regard both his personal example and the Qur’anic verses about warfare (or jihad) to be paradigmatic. His successor Omar conquered Damascus in 635, and Jerusalem in 638. The great city of Alexandria was conquered in 640 and Muslim armies continued their outward military push, entering Spain in 711. The year 732 brought them almost to the gates of Paris, where they were repelled by Charles Martel. Sicily was invaded in 827 and finally conquered in 902. Constantinople was repeatedly assaulted, although it did not fall until 1453. By no stretch of the imagination can these wars be considered as merely defensive. If Islam in the years following Muhammad’s death regarded his example merely as historical (as Christians regard the wars of Joshua) why did they continue to follow his example? We come now to:
  1. The practice of Muslims in the Islamic Empire and the Middle East, and here we do indeed see a measure of comparative tolerance. But only a measure, regardless of what Islamic apologists (both Muslim and Western) might suggest, for the non-Muslim populations of Islamic lands were still distinctly second-class. The official designation for such enforced second-class status was dhimmi—they were “a protected people”, and ostensibly free from harm so long as they kept to their place and paid the required tax. The practice of treating non-Muslim inhabitants in this way was justified by the Qur’an, surah 9:29: “Fight against such who do not believe in Allah even if they are People of the Book [i.e. Christians or Jews] until they pay the tribute [Arabic jizya] with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”

Though the Islamic tolerance shown to religious minorities did not approach modern standards of pluralism, it must nonetheless be judged by the standards of its own time, not by ours. Tolerance of religious minorities did not thrive much anywhere in Europe either, as our Jewish friends are quick to remind us, and between the practices of the Islamic Empire and Christendom there was perhaps not much to choose. Yet even in these debased circumstances, Christians and Jews still could find social advancement in Muslim societies—the father of St. John of Damascus, for example, served in the civil administration of the Caliph in Damascus. And prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Muslims, Christians and Jews managed to coexist peacefully in the land of Palestine. Evidently an empire is a big thing to run, and Muslim rulers discovered that a certain amount of diplomacy and tolerance was necessary to grease the Imperial wheels and keep things running smoothly. As the heirs to this fragile tradition of co-existence we find many Muslims today for whom Islam is indeed a religion of peace and who are quite happy to practice their faith within a pluralistic Western setting. These people I refer to as:

  1. Liberal Muslims. Some suggest that these Muslims are not so much liberal as Westernized, and that the liberalism and tolerance they profess come not from their Qur’an as from an adoption of western Enlightenment values. They would disagree, and point to such Qur’anic verses as surah 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. They also point to such classical Islamic teachers as Averroes (the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd) who promoted a twelfth century defense of Aristotle and the supremacy of reason. Muslims like Bassam Tibi (in his invaluable work Islamism and Islam) certainly assert that one can be authentically Islamic while still embracing the values of a liberal democracy. But whether their tolerance, pluralism, and genuine love for democratic values spring from Islam or from the West, there is no doubt that many millions of them share the values of our liberal western democracy. The problem with asserting that all Islam is inherently violent and (for example) forcing all American Muslims to be registered is that this would penalize those peaceful fellow-citizens for the sins of others. Such penalizing would ironically reduce Muslims in America to the debased status of a dhimmi, so that non-Muslim Americans would reproduce the very social realities they criticize in classical Islam. The religion many American Muslims practise is clearly a religion of peace. Is it our place as non-Muslims to define Islam for them? These liberal Muslims are to be distinguished from what are sometimes called:
  1. Islamists. All Islamists are Muslims, but most Muslims are not Islamists. An Islamist is defined by his or her desire to establish an Islamic State, wherein a re-invented form of sharia law allows the state to function as a new totalitarianism. This is forcibly argued by Bassam Tibi (in his book mentioned above). In Islamist thought, the Jews are responsible everything terrible in the world (including, believe it or not, the Crusades), and are waging war against a besieged Islam. In this delusional world the infamous Protocols of Zion, which outline a global Jewish conspiracy, are accepted as genuinely historical. The Islamists declare that Islam is under global threat, and so must defend itself. Some Islamists openly advocate terrorism (as a redefined jihad); other Islamists renounce terrorism, striving to establish the Islamic State through the mechanisms of democracy and the ballot box. Their methods differ, but their goal is identical, and after the totalitarian Islamic State is established, all Islamists agree that free elections will be a thing of the past, having been replaced by sharia, which they consider as the reign of God on earth. Politically-correct assertions that terrorists as “non-Islamic” or as “anti-Islam” are nonsensical, for the Islamists are motivated by genuinely religious motives. Saying that Islamists are “not Islamic” is like saying that Nazism was “not German”.

In this Islamist vision of the world, Islamism equals Islam, and true Islam contains all the violent and totalitarian features of Islamism. This is why the Islamophobia promoted by Mr. Trump is genuinely dangerous, for here he agrees with the Islamists that Islam equals Islamism, and is thereby pushing liberal Muslims into the Islamist fold. The Islamists contend that Islam is under threat from the West, and that true Muslims should renounce the values of liberal democracy as un-Islamic. What better way to prove their point than by persecuting western Muslims? The liberal Muslims regard themselves as full partners in western democracy and their practice of Islam as fully consonant with this. They distinguish their version of Islam from that of the Islamists. If America demonizes Islam by denouncing it as always inherently violent, refuses entry to all Muslims worldwide, or makes moves to register its Muslim citizens, what could liberal Muslims conclude but that the Islamists were right all along? Mr. Trump would prove himself to be the greatest radicalizer of Muslims in all the world. What Islamist propagandists could not do, Mr. Trump would do for them. A better path would be to welcome the liberal Muslims as our best partners in dialogue and to share the full fruits of citizenship with them. Part of this dialogue of course will involve unmasking Islamism in all its forms for what it really is.

The question “Is Islam inherently violent?” must be answered with another question, “Which Islam?” The Islam of Muhammad and his early successors was certainly violent. The Islam of the Islamists is certainly violent. The Islam of many liberal Muslims today is not. Which kind of Islam will become predominate in the Muslim world in the future is a question only the Muslims themselves can answer. The West would be well advised to help the liberal Muslims of the world push for a transformation of classical Islam so that it is their peaceful and pluralist version of Islam which wins the Islamic day.

The take-away for Christians is this: the Muslim down the street is our neighbour and a soul for whom Christ died. That means that we must love him and affirm the truth that he has, as well as sharing humbly the truth of Christ that he does not yet possess. St. Paul did this with the pagans of his day, and won them for the Lord. We must do the same with our Muslim neighbours today.

 

 

10 comments:

  1. May I ask if I’m right in assuming that most Moslems these days would not like to be subjects of Caliphates? My small amount of reading in this period of conquest suggests that the Jews and Christians had taxes to pay for the privilege of not being eradicated or expelled from their cities, which were centuries old, but Muslims were also taxed if they were not in the higher reaches of government or the bureacracy. Import and Export taxes for instance. I read a book which told of some of the original founders having been merchants with various estates within the Roman Empire who would have been familiar with a regime of taxation which stifled trade. At least that’s what I think it said. I can see that many Muslims will not be comfortable with a Caliphate unless they have visions of grandeur for themselves and their families.

  2. As I understand it, most Muslims in America and Canada are happy to be living in a pluralistic liberal democracy. My own reading suggests most Muslims living in such sharia-controlled places as Iran are unhappy about the totalitarian level of government control.

  3. Dear Father Lawrence,
    Father, Bless,

    I won’t categorically reject Father Lawrence’s discussion of Islam which makes true points. But I do have a question: Is his argument the equivalent of Muslims saying about Christians, pointing to Liberal Episcopalians, for example, “but not all Christians blaspheme Allah by believing in the divinity of Christ, just because the Orthodox, Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics, do”? They would be right that self-described “Christians” do not agree on this subject, but they would also be right to say, however, “that FROM THE BEGINNING, Christians HAVE believed this, at least those who won the mantle of ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Catholic’ for many centuries did so, and even if some, many do not now do so. Therefore, Christians are not necessarily blasphemers, so, if we allow ‘Christians’ into our midst, maybe we can admit the ones who do not affirm this ‘incarnation.’ ” We, Orthodox, would answer, “no, this is the true Faith, and anyone concerned about the truth who is a professed Christian is not free to deny this, and therefore, “Liberal Christian” is an oxymoron. My question to Father Lawrence is this: Aren’t we saying that Muslims can be loyal Americans, ONLY IF they renounce the teachings and examples of their “prophet,” Muhammad, and that of his successors for centuries afterward. Aren’t we saying, in effect, “sure, we like Muslims, but only inauthentic ones”?

    Kissing your right hand,
    With love in Christ,

    Andrew

    1. God bless you Andrew! Yes, I am implying that Muslims can function as full and fruitful partners in a liberal democracy only if their practice of Islam diverges from the historical practice of Muhammad with its commitment to treating non-Muslims as part of a second-class dhimmi. The Orthodox confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries (absent in Islam, from what I can figure out, hence the early Shia schism) makes me reluctant to see in my proposed refashioning of Islam an exact parallel to our own Christian liberals. I would prefer to let the Muslims themselves define what is or is not an authentic practice of Islam. But I agree with you that apart from such a refashioning/ reformation Islam is opposed to the values of a liberal democracy.

  4. Father, religions, if they are to have any lasting hold on people, must be based on something other than wishful thinking. Islam, as a matter of historical fact, is based on your 1, 2, and 3 above, which means that, among Muslims, many, in every generation, will fall inevitably into your 5.

    Our problem is that we can’t tell your 4s from your 5s. In fact, Muslims themselves often can’t tell who among them will side with the secular West, wishing Islam to be a religion of peace, or start taking their own Muslim heritage seriously and act on it.

    What to do? The secular West cannot condemn Islam without violating its own fallacious Enlightenment principles; it can only preach Islam as a religion of peace in the hope of converting 5s to 4s. But is that what an Orthodox priest should be doing? Evangelizing on behalf of peaceful Islam? And shaming those who point out publicly that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Islam?

    Why not preach the truth of 1, 2, and 3 to shame 4s into abandoning their heritage and becoming Christians, and to force the secularists among us to admit that all religions are not created equally, that one actually is a religion of peace?

    You can do that and also preach love for one’s enemies. Here, with your talk of two Islams, you’re only confusing things.

  5. Father bless

    I take your point in this article.

    So what is the difference between Islamists and the right wing ‘Christians’ and right wing white extremists in this country, and the Christians who believe in this country that gun is the way,

    My faith does not teach me that sin is in gradients or levels of severity. Sin is sin.

    Christ calls love as the greatest commandment of all, asking us ‘to love thy neighbor as thy self’. He also expounds on the sin that spews from the mouth… , when challenged about his life/food style. He expounds of who is rejected from the kingdom of God, the one who does not feed, clothe, house, welcome…. and He does so without qualification on who is eligible.

    While Muslims might have a history of violence in their relegion, at least in this country my fellow Christians, well at least some of them, are aiming very hard trying to achieve the same status.

    I cringe every time I hear about the War on Christianity: where they are not expousing the attack on Christian values taught by Christ (which they are blatantly ignoring it while blaspheming and blaming others), but meaningless outward exhibitions that seem to have more value than the true faith . I cringe every time they use their supposed Christian faith to justify hate, bigotry and lack of love and charity.

    I cannot also forget, Christianity has a history of violence in the Crusades, in the apartheid, in the slave trade, in the overrunning and destruction of native people’s of this country and south America. In the violence used for conversions. In India (my state has a 54 AD church) and other places Catholics destroyed ancient Christian faiths as they were not part of Rome. Ams all these were contradictory to Christ teachings.

    To acknowledge Islamic violence while ignoring today’s Christian ‘violence’ is our greatest sin: picking a speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the the rod in ours.

  6. Father,

    Thank you so much for such a thoughtful analysis and a reminder that Truth is more important than winning.

    I am curious whether you would see value in seeking to know, while not all Muslims are Islamist, whether the “majority” (or a plurality, or most or whatever categorization would be meaningful) of Muslims around the world are Islamist.

    The message in the USA for the past 15 years (since 9/11) has been that the Islamist “sect” is this tiny fraction of “radicalized” believers while “most Muslims” both historically and contemporarily are benign, peace loving, followers of the God of love. While I have no desire whatsoever to validate the likes of Donald Trump nor to inadvertently lump all Islam into Islamism, it seems very difficult to look at history, look at current demographics, and the events of the world we live in and conclude that the majority of Muslims are of the Westernized, peace loving variety and that the Islamists really are nothing but a radicalized sect.

    Your thoughts? I’m not asking you to go do my research for me (on demographics), but am curious if this is something you’ve already examined or perhaps have reasons for believing is actually besides the point.

    Thank you again.

    1. I have not done any demographic research, though I would love to read whatever is available. My conviction that liberal Muslims exist is based on the public utterances of those Muslims who say that the Islamists do not represent them and that the Islamists distort Islam as they understand it. For example, the Mayor of Calgary (a major city in Canada) is Muslim, and he is clearly committed to the values of a liberal democracy. I cannot say that liberal Muslims predominate in the world, because I do not know. But whatever their numbers, they should not be ignored or misrepresented.

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