It’s pretty embarrassing when the on-line comments about an article are more logical and knowledgeable than the article. Such is the case with a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week that argued Muslim violence does not reflect traditional Islamic doctrine, but is merely a case of arrested historical development. The whole argument is a tissue of logical fallacies and historical ignorance.
The author, a professor of history at Harvard, starts by explaining that Christianity was once violent and intolerant, but changed over time, and thus can provide an example for “modernizing Islam.” But most of his catalogue of Christian violence and persecution is little more than the tu quoque fallacy. It ignores the fact that Christian violence was typical of the whole pre-modern world, a sad banality of human existence like plagues, war, torture, and famine. The comparison of premodern Christian violence to today’s Islamic terror is as irrelevant as rationalizing modern torture and executions, like the mutilation and beheading regularly practiced in Saudi Arabia, by bringing up the hanging, disemboweling, beheading, and quartering the English used to punish traitors in the 14th century.
More important, such violence and cruelty were a violation and distortion of Christian doctrine, a reflection not of eternal theological imperatives, but of a fallen human nature prone to error and sin. That’s why even during bouts of cruelty and oppression, like the brutal treatment of the New World Indians, there were those who publicly based their opposition to such behavior on Christian belief. In 1511 the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos scolded his co-religionists, “You are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples . . . Are these Indians not Men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?”
Later, the anti-slavery movement was similarly grounded in Christian doctrine. In 1791, evangelical Christian William Wilberforce, the driving force behind the British abolition of slavery, preached to the House of Commons, “Never, never will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labor, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic.” No matter how often Christian ethics were violated over the centuries, they still provided the theological foundations for rejecting violence and intolerance, as happened during the Civil Rights movement in this country, which was led by a Christian minister. And today Christians know that their co-religionists who continue to act violently and intolerantly are being bad Christians.
This point makes the professor’s argument a false analogy, for there is nothing in traditional Islamic theology that provides a basis for making violence against heretics and non-believers un-Islamic. The professor wants to argue away these inconvenient truths about traditional Islam by arguing that the faith can evolve away from them, just as Christianity did. But again, whereas historical Christian violence could find no scriptural justification, and much to condemn it, Islamic violence and intolerance––and of course slavery and Jew-hatred––are not the result of fringe or extremist misinterpretations. Rather, they are validated in the Koran, the Hadith, and 14 centuries of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, all regularly and copiously cited by today’s jihadists and theologians.
Thus the doctrine of jihad against infidels––the notion that such aggression is a justified form of the defense of Islam and necessary for fulfilling Allah’s will that all people become Muslims––is the collective duty of those dwelling in the House of Islam. The Koran instructs, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth.” Nor can there be any “tolerance” or “mutual respect” for those who reject Islam, especially Jews and Christians: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” The professor’s dream of a “broad-minded form” of Islam would require an extensive reinterpretation or rejection of some of Islam’s fundamental tenets.
That’s why one would be hard pressed to find a Muslim theologian in the 16th century scolding the jihadists rampaging through the Balkans, or seizing Christian slaves in the Mediterranean, the way Montesinos or Bartolome de las Casas criticized the brutalities of the conquistadors; or in the 18th century a Muslim arguing like Wilberforce that slavery, explicitly sanctioned by the Koran, was a “scandal” on Islam’s name. More typical are the words of the envoy representing the pasha of Tripoli, who in 1758 justified piracy and slaving in the Mediterranean by telling president John Adams that “it was written in the Koran that all Nations who should not have acknowledged [Muslims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find.” So too today, many respected imams and theologians throughout the Muslim world sanction Islamic violence against non-believers, and textbooks in schools teach children the same beliefs.
The facts of Islamic theology and historical practice render delusional the professor’s statement that Muslims must learn “that religious texts arose in a particular context and must be reinterpreted in the new context of modernity.” But this reduction of spiritual truth and meaning to the material world of time and social change is a habit of modernity that finds no warrant in Islamic theology. Unlike the Christian Bible, which is the product of an ongoing spiritual inspiration of humans existing in time, the Koran is the pre-existing, uncreated, eternal word of Allah, dictated to Mohammed. It is perfect as written, just as the life and sayings of Mohammed provide the perfect, timeless guide for every dimension of life, including law, economics, politics, and family life. The role of interpretive exegesis or allegory in traditional Islam, then, is vastly less significant than it has been in Christianity. Any Muslim today who desires to reinterpret, say, jihad, or relations with non-Muslims, or illiberal shari’a law, will thus find it difficult, if not impossible, to change the plain meaning of the scriptures as understood consistently by Muslims for 14 centuries.
These problems leave the professor’s article an exercise in false historical analogy. Nor does it help that he makes misleading statements, like his claim that Islam can be reconciled with democracy, and that “such reformations have been institutionalized successfully in several countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Turkey and Tunisia.” Tunisia maybe, but this “reformation” is only a few years old, and has a long way to go before it can be called “institutionalized,” let alone “successful.”
As for Turkey, despite nearly a century of aggressive secularization and de-Islamizing of society, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan it has been moving away from reconciliation with modernity towards an Islamist state. Prime Minister of Turkey for 11 years, and now the new President, Erdogan has called democracy a “train” you “get off” once you reach your “destination,” has jailed more journalists than any other country, has said, “You cannot be both secular and a Muslim! You will either be a Muslim, or secular! When both are together, they create reverse magnetism. For them to exist together is not a possibility,” and was a follower of Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister who founded the Turkish equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood and began Turkey’s turn away from Western liberal democracy and back to a more traditional Islamic view of the social-political order. The example of Turkey makes exactly the opposite point the professor wants it to.
Ignoring the theological foundations that militate against a “reformation” of Islam or even its coexistence with modernity is a form of myopia akin to Obama’s refusal to say “Islamic extremism” or his claim that “no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.” Nor does it help those Muslims who sincerely want to find some way to reconcile their faith with a world that these days is more intimately interconnected than ever.
The tenets of Islam make their job hard enough, but we don’t make it any easier by indulging our “willful blindness,” as Andrew McCarthy calls it, to truths that offend our ideological prejudices or do not serve our political interests.
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Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.