Religious relativism is a destroyer of conviction.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is adapted from Andrew C. McCarthy’s foreword for Andrew Bostom’s Sharia Versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism, published this week by Prometheus Books.
‘Multi-religious prayer almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith.” So wrote Joseph Ratzinger in 1986. Even then, the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI was renowned as a singularly deep thinker on the finer points of religious belief systems — to say nothing of the sweeping themes.
As head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Cardinal Ratzinger was ruminating on the World Prayer Day for Peace, forged by his legendary papal predecessor, John Paul II. Though he was among the pontiff’s closest advisers, Ratzinger was uneasy about John Paul II’s grand gesture: taking center stage in a spectacle of interfaith solidarity. Flanked about him were leaders of the world’s religions. Even Shamanism took its place among Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism, Protestant sects, Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and, of course, Islam — all joined in an iconic, ecumenical quest for “peace.”
It was as if there were but one civilization, one single, common way of looking at the world. It was as if there were a talismanic aura about “peace,” such that the word connoted a universal value, impervious to inquiry about its meaning to the variegated voices uttering it. Was this “peace” the mere absence of war? Hadn’t the 20th century already proved that there were evils worse than war? Was “peace” an absence of war achieved by appeasing malevolent oppressors? Or was it an absence of such oppressors because they had been righteously defeated — because liberty and equal opportunity, undergirded by the rule of law, had triumphed? Details, details. Surely a tidal wave of banners, splaying “peace” in a Babel of tongues, would wash away such impertinent questions.
In a nod to the host locale of this iconic display, the event’s legacy came to be known as the “spirit of Assisi,” that city of deep spiritual redolence. Ah, but deep spiritual redolence…for whom? Assisi is a holy city if you are a Christian. To other religious traditions, it is just another dot on the map. To a fundamentalist Muslim, it would be better understood as acoveted city than a holy one. What makes it sacred in Roman Catholic lore, its witness to what the faithful take to be ultimate truth, would make it anything but a place of reverence in classical Islam.
Nevertheless, papering over these distinctions is our convention, is it not? And nowhere is that manifested more clearly than in the cloying homage paid by the West to things Islamic. The ostentation with which the U.S. armed forces revere the Koran — indeed, “the Holy Qur’an,” as our top commanders unfailingly refer to it — borders on parody: mandating, at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for instance, that a copy of the book be distributed to each detained jihadist (notwithstanding that each construes it to command war — I suppose I should say, holy war — against the West), the said delivery carried out by a white-gloved military guard, who must, if at all feasible, be a Muslim.
Who cares what the Koran and the other sources of Islamic scripture — the hadith and the authoritative biographies of Islam’s warrior prophet — actually say? We are to regard them as “holy,” the same adjective our official lexicon ubiquitously attaches to cities like Mecca, Medina, and Qom — even as the word “Christmas” is purged as a modifier of “carol,” “card,” “tree,” “present,” “party,” and “celebration.” In the West we no longer acknowledge, much less celebrate, what distinguished us as the West.
Such distinctions, though, were the inspiration for Cardinal Ratzinger’s clarion note of caution against multi-religious prayer. Religion as cosmetic reverence shorn of substantive content is a virtue only the postmodern, post-doctrinal West could love: its self-congratulatory elites having evolved beyond anything so quaint as doctrine and arrived at…nihilism. Ratzinger knew better. Doctrinal differences never lose their salience because it is doctrine that defines a believer. To airbrush our differences — even for the well-intentioned purpose of elevating “peace” as a transcendent value — is to deny the essence of who we are.
Thus should multi-religious prayer be a rarity, Ratzinger admonished — “to make clear that there is no such thing as a common concept of God or belief in God.” Far from religion, religious relativism — oblivious of doctrinal content, eroding real faith — is a destroyer of conviction. The philosopher cardinal grasped, moreover, that the obverse is true: Real faith has such transcendent power that religious relativism — this “common concept of God,” this nihilism swaddled in politically correct reverence — cannot compete.
Real faith is an ultimate claim about what constitutes the good life. It is the antithesis of relativism, whether that relativism takes the form of an amorphous quest for “peace” or similarly fashionable pieties: “anti-terrorism,” “social justice,” “equality,” “freedom,” or “democracy.” Such noble ideals, we blithely assure ourselves, could not conceivably provoke dissent from any creed worthy of the name “religion.” Indeed, in our post-doctrinal West, such dissent actually deprives the underlying belief system of any standing as religion — and, therefore, of any need for us to examine the belief system or come to terms with how broadly its convictions are held. That was the wayward reasoning of the British government after the jihadist bombings of July 7, 2005. Terrorism, pronounced Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, is “un-Islamic activity” simply by dint of its being terrorism. After all, Islam is a religion, so violence perforce could not possibly be rooted in Islamic doctrine. Q.E.D. — why tarry over what the doctrine actually says?
Well, because it matters. There is no common concept of God, and the mush that passes for this feel-good illusion cannot obscure that real faiths exist. They are different because they represent different claims about ultimate truth. One cannot apprehend what those claims are, and how the believer is apt to act on them, without studying doctrine and respecting the divergences between faiths. Substantive differences, civilizational chasms, and supremacist ambitions do not evaporate just because we wish to believe everyone wants “peace.”
Real faith inspires. It has meaning and gives purpose to our lives. Real convictions, no matter how loathsome they may seem to an unbeliever, inspire allegiance and action. Nihilism, no matter how alluringly coifed, is a feckless competitor. Something will always beat nothing.
To understand and elucidate the something that is the core of classical Islam has been the mission of Andrew Bostom’s scholarship for well over a decade. A professor of medicine by education and training, Dr. Bostom has brought the uncompromising rigor of that discipline to the study of Islamic history and doctrine. It is the saddest of ironies that such rigor is sorely needed in an age of jihadist supremacism.
Western elites, however, have abandoned the field — or, better, put it up for sale to Islamic activists and their apologists. Lushly endowed by the Wahhabist rulers of Saudi Arabia and schooled by the Salafist program of the Muslim Brotherhood, these partisans make little secret of their dedication to “the Islamization of knowledge.” That’s the stated mission of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a Virginia-based think-tank founded by Brotherhood operatives in 1981. The goal is clear: to make Islam appear unthreatening, to limn its detractors as irrational and racist (“Islamophobes”), and thus to control the narrative about their doctrine even as they pursue its hegemonic ambitions.
Dr. Bostom is one of the precious few who dare make the counter-case, based on nothing so noxious as bigotry or dreamy as hope. In the best Western tradition, Bostom’s quest for knowledge is rooted in reason, applied gimlet-eyed to an assemblage of evidence drawn painstakingly from the historical record.
The contributions of this approach have already been immense. Most notably, Bostom has edited two essential compendia: The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (2005) and& The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (2008). These collections, featuring accounts of Islam in word and deed for over a millennium, as well as the critiques of scholars of Islam — Muslim and non-Muslim — over the centuries, put the lie to conventional wisdom. Jihad, despite assiduous efforts to reinterpret its meaning and bleach away its history, originated as the mission to spread Islam by forcible conquest. Strains of Jew hatred inhere in Islamic scripture and tradition — neither were they inculcated in Muslims by shameful anti-Semitic chapters in the history of Christendom, nor are they strictly a byproduct of Israel’s modern establishment as a nation-state in the Promised Land inhabited by Jews for many centuries before the birth of Mohammed.
These treatises set the stage for Sharia Versus Freedom: The Legacy of Islamic Totalitarianism. The traditions of holy war and animus toward Jews are critical to our understanding of classical Islamic doctrine. Sharia, however, is the doctrine’s essence. It is Islam’s legal and political system. Its establishment is the necessary precondition for a society’s Islamization, and it is thus the objective of both violent jihad and stealthier methods of pressuring a society’s major institutions to bend to Islamic norms. Sharia is the animating force of classical Islam — its claim to ultimate truth. To the extent that doctrine, preponderant among the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, is challenged by reformist movements within Islam, one cannot apprehend what those tensions are about, or assess how uphill is the reformer’s quest, absent an understanding of sharia and its doctrinal centrality.
As for our own challenge, preserving Western civilization and American constitutional republicanism, Bostom’s title is aptly succinct: “Sharia Versus Freedom.” To borrow again from Cardinal Ratzinger, by exhibiting their trademark “indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed,” Islam’s Western apologists depict sharia as gnomic and aspirational. It is not a regulatory code, they assure us, but a mystic, private compass by which the believer comes uniquely to experience the divine. Of course, when a woman who has been sexually assaulted is sentenced by a sharia tribunal to death for extramarital fornication, or a homosexual is similarly condemned for consensual relations, or an apostate for renouncing Islam, the executioners don’t hurl aspirations; they hurl stones.
In point of fact, sharia is a manifestation of bedrock convictions: that there is no division of private belief and public conformity, no separation between mosque and state, between the demands of the sacred law and the governance of civil society. Sharia is authoritarian — unapologetically so. It is, to the believer, Allah’s gift to mankind, the path divinely prescribed for human flourishing. Consequently, it brooks no repeal or refinement by legislation — what right does man have to change or try to improve upon the writ of his Creator, to whom he is obliged to submit? And, as Bostom’s subtitle intimates, sharia is “totalitarian” in the sense that it really does endeavor to control everything — theological principles, economics and finance, domestic relations, social interaction, crime and punishment, the use of force, even hygiene.
Most significantly, sharia is juxtaposed to freedom because it strangles individual liberty, the catalyst of progress. Sharia, we have noted, eschews our fundamental premises that the people are sovereign; that they may control their own destiny irrespective of any predetermined code; and that, while civil society may be profoundly influenced by spirituality, it is governed by secular laws.
Equal protection under those laws is the glue of a free, pluralistic society — but sharia rejects it, elevating Muslims above non-Muslims and men above women. Our basic liberties fare no better — sharia rejects freedom of conscience (apostasy from Islam is not merely a crime but a capital offense), freedom of speech (expression that casts Islam in an unfavorable light or sows discord among Muslims is a transgression as grave as apostasy), freedom of association, privacy, economic freedom, humane punishments, and the social commitment to tolerate and even appreciate most of our differences — not extinguish them by violence and coercion.
Sharia-compliant Islam is ascendant. In the Middle East, about 80 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan tell pollsters they desire to live under sharia strictures. Even in the Far East, in Indonesia, where the practice of Islam tends to be more moderate due to its syncretism with other traditions of worship, sharia is on the march — preferred by half the population and rising. Throughout the West, including in the United States, governments are under pressure from their swelling, aggressive Muslim communities to accept and adopt sharia standards — legitimizing them in our law and our culture, even as their brute repression of speech degrades our capacity to assess the wages of conferring legitimacy.
The price will be high. The “spirit of Assisi” is a sweet-sounding invitation to abandon our defenses and our inconvenient knowledge that convictions matter — that liberty, equality, and the elevation of reason are not just another way of life but a better way of life. Supremacist Muslims are a grave threat to that better way of life because they make an unabashed claim to truth and they are acting on it.
We cannot defend ourselves from the threat unless we see it for what it is — unless, as Andrew Bostom puts it, we examine “sharia without camouflage.” We cannot defeat the threat until we once again revel in what makes us different, for it is also what makes us better.
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— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which was published by Encounter Books.