What ideology ever threatened America more than Islamic extremism? And yet might Islam, which once helped save and preserve Western thought and culture a thousand years ago, do something similar this century, helping to bring us back to a more spiritual, less materialistic, epoch?…
1938. The world is on the threshold of the most devastating war in history, and totalitarianism is everywhere on the march. The Anschluss takes place in February. Later, in October, Germany annexes Sudetenland. In November, Kristallnacht. Beria becomes head of the Soviet secret police. The infamous Rape of Nanking culminates that year, and the great purge is finally winding down in Russia. Japan passes the National General Mobilization Law, focusing the entire Japanese economy on military readiness. The fascist takeover of Spain is nearing completion, and the Pact of Steel between Germany and Italy is only a year away, as is the formal start of the World War. Hitler is Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, edging out Stalin who wins the title in 1939.
That same year, a now-obscure Franco-British author saw things differently. In what certainly seemed at the time a bizarre, clueless historical non-sequitur, Hilaire Belloc publishes this peculiar warning: “The future always comes as surprise… but I for my part cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam.” He elaborates: “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.” With great prescience, he adds: “There is no reason why its recent inferiority… should continue indefinitely. Even a slight accession of material power would make the further control of Islam by an alien culture difficult. A little more and there will cease that which our time has taken for granted, the physical domination of Islam by the disintegrated Christendom we know.”
At the time Belloc published these and many more warnings in his books, The Crusades: the World’s Debate (1937) and The Great Heresies (1938), the historical lands of Islam had been carved up by the European powers and seemed powerless to ever rise again. It was obvious to all the “experts” of that time that it was fascism and communism, and other more modern manifestations of totalitarianism, that imperiled freedom and democracy. Belloc’s clarion call was seen as so absurd and out of touch with current events that it went largely unnoticed for many decades. But Belloc sensed that the rise of fascism and communism were passing fads—that the soulless ideologies of Marxism’s class warfare and the racist, nationalist rants of the fascists could not long capture either the imagination nor the soul of Western civilization. For Belloc, it was Islam, long quieted under the boot of European imperialism and seething under colonial misrule, that remained the true, enduring, and implacable threat to Western values and culture.
I do not share Belloc’s almost Manichean view of the struggle between what he termed Christendom and the Islamic world. Indeed, most of us would reject his use of the term Christendom, and it is hard to accept the urgency of his call to restore a unified Christendom to counter the “perpetual” Islamic threat. In truth, some of his views of Catholicism neatly dovetail with the worldview of too many Muslims, who disdain the secular state and view religion as a way of life that takes precedence over all other loyalties, whether to family, friends, or one’s country. But his insights into the internal dynamics of Islam and his rightful fear that a religion as vibrant, virtuous, and sometimes virulent as Islam is a serious challenge to our modern understanding of country and community warrant consideration.
Intolerance of Islam and Islamic Intolerance
There are few things in modern American political discourse more unsavory than the onslaught of attacks and mockeries against Muslims. What would be considered hateful and nasty if directed against most other minority groups—from blacks to Jews to Gypsies—has acquired a certain carte blanche even among some of the politically-correct crowd. Commentary that most would find appalling and offensive easily passes as humor and wit as long as it is directed against Muslims. Indeed, even some otherwise liberal commentators have succumbed to the siren call of Muslim-bashing. Dark humor employed against Muslims used to be reserved solely for the papacy, red-neck fundamentalists, and other soft targets.
But this doesn’t mean the bashers are entirely wrong. Well, morally, yes, they are. To tar and feather with acrimony an entire class of people is always wrong. It is wrong because it is needlessly nasty and intrinsically unAmerican to judge anyone as anything but an individual. But it is also wrong tactically because these unfair jabs and attacks obfuscate legitimate worries about the medieval mindset that still permeates much of the Islamic community. These unfair attacks have predictably triggered the usual nonsense from liberals—few things in modern American political discourse are as misguided and misinformed as the insipidly insidious efforts of some apologists to insist, despite all the glaring evidence to the contrary—that Islam and its followers are no different from any other religion and its adherents. They argue that there is intolerance among all religions, that there are terrorists among all zealots, that there are passages in most religious texts that advocate violence and subjugation, and they draw the facile and fallacious conclusion that all religions, therefore, are identical and the risks posed by them to our society are all of one cloth.
But on a more objective level, if you filter out the nastiness and irrational and uneducated venom directed against Islam and its followers, you come up against a painful reality: Mainstream Islam is fundamentally different from mainstream believers of any other world religion. The key word here is “mainstream.” All religions do have their fanatics and their literalists and those willing to commit any horror in the certainty that their God has sanctioned their crime. We see this among certain Christian fundamentalists who spout hatred against homosexuality, and we see it among Jewish fanatics who express their abject disgust for any non-Jews in the Occupied Territories. But they are decidedly not the mainstream; they are decidedly on the fringe. As are many Muslims when it comes specifically to perpetrating violence or supporting acts of terrorism. But there is far more to this problem than just a simplistic acknowledgment that most Muslims are law-abiding and decent people who want nothing to do with violence.
For myriad reasons—historical, demographic, cultural, financial (read: Saudi Arabia), and religious—Islamic extremism is both more dangerous and more prevalent than the violent and anti-modernist trends we find in other religions and cultures. The conservatives too often ignore the deep spirituality of Muslims and their connectedness to Christianity. There is a breathtaking beauty to some Koranic passages, and there are more than a few hadith that would captivate even the hardest infidel hearts. Indeed, the suras on Mary and the Virgin Birth would make many modern, so-called sophisticated, Christians smile at the quaintness and sincerity of such “fables.” Conservatives also discount Islam’s historical contributions to science and literature, and the reality that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. From algebra and Aristotle to zenith and the zero, our debt to Islam as a conveyor and preserver of thought and wisdom is great, but old debts don’t temper current threats. Too many liberals ignore the disturbing depth and breadth of Islamic intolerance. While the Koran speaks eloquently of the equality of all those who embrace the faith, regardless of race or nationality, there is almost always a sharp line drawn between believers and nonbelievers. Many of those who encounter Muslims are immediately struck by how patient and polite they are, how welcoming and warm they can be. But there is a profound difference between being polite and being truly tolerant—that is, accepting that every citizen and his beliefs is of equal merit and value in the larger community.
Conservatives make the moral mistake of painting all of Islam with too broad a brush of extremism, while liberals make the equally dangerous intellectual mistake of painting the extremism and violence of other religions with the same brush as applied to Islam. A liberal posts a cross burning by the KKK on Facebook and cleverly notes that the KKK no more represents Christianity than ISIS represents Islam. Well, not exactly. The vast majority of Christians are appalled by both the tactics and the creed of the KKK. And while it is true that many Muslims are also appalled by ISIS tactics, many other Muslims take a secret pride in ISIS’s victories, just as many otherwise-peaceful Muslims did not criticize the attack on the Twin Towers. But even beyond violence, there is the issue of beliefs. The ISIS creed, as opposed to its tactics, is not so strange, not so deviant from what many Muslims believe.
The modern mind—including those Muslims who have embraced the ideal of the secular state—can barely comprehend the pervasive force of Islam within most of the Islamic community. For most Muslims, unlike most “modern” Christians, Islam is not merely a faith, with a set of beliefs and stories that provide a guide to praising God and living a virtuous life. Rather, for a large segment of Muslims, their faith is a way of life and it permeates all aspects of living: how you dress, what you eat, whom you can marry, how you pray, whom you should trust, who is deserving of friendship, and where your greatest loyalty lies.
Ask a Muslim if he believes in free speech, and the answer will almost always be a definitive yes. Then ask him if it is acceptable to make fun of Mohammed or viciously mock Islam, and you will almost always get a definitive and resounding no! Ask a Muslim if he believes that all faiths should be respected, and again the answer will be a clear and unequivocal yes. But then ask him if there should be churches and temples in Mecca, or if Muslim women should be able to marry non-Muslim men, or whether Muslims should have the right to become Christians, and the answer is far removed from what we generally expect in a secularized state.
Two Dangers: Islamic Terrorism and Modern Multiculturalism
Terrorism—the intentional use of indiscriminate violence against civilian populations—is a tactic that many extremist groups employ. While Muslim extremist groups today have a near monopoly on the use of suicide bombers and other means of perpetrating mass civilian casualties, it was not always so. Suicide bombers have had a history that evolved in tandem with technological advancements: Until the invention of dynamite, it was technologically impossible. And with every enhancement in technology, so too the improvement in using human bombs to cause mayhem and death. In recent times, it was the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers), a Hindu terrorist group fighting against the oppression of a Buddhist majority, that perfected the use of human bombs back in the 1980s. When I was stationed in Sri Lanka in the early 1990s, it seemed that the suicide bombers were proliferating and out of control, but now that scourge is all but eradicated there.
Thus, one cannot fairly argue that suicide bombings and terrorism, in general, are unique to Islamic extremists. But the reality remains that Islamic extremists are culpable for far more than their share of such atrocities. One can accept the view that 99.9 percent of all American Muslims are law-abiding people and tolerant, and still worry. Simple math would suggest that if this statistic is accurate there are still around 3000 Muslim Americans who sympathize with ISIS or in general adhere to a dangerously radical interpretation of Islam. Numerous commentators understandably caution that America once unfairly overreacted against other minorities, especially Japanese-Americans, incarcerating over 110,000 of them after the outbreak of war with Japan. But the fundamental difference—and the reason the government apologized and paid reparations to the families of those interned—was that no Japanese-Americans were ever proven to have done any acts of terrorism or sabotage against their country. That, sadly, cannot be asserted regarding Muslim Americans. While the instances of terrorist attacks by Muslim Americans is very small, they do nonetheless occur now and then: a stark difference with the case of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Many reasons are given to explain this inconvenient fact that Islam generates more terrorists than other religious groups, but most of them are nonsense. Especially bewildering is the oft-chanted liberal explanation that poverty breeds such violence. If poverty were the catalyst, then terrorism would manifest itself far more in Catholic Latin America or Christian/Animist Africa or certain Buddhist and Hindu regions of Asia. Poverty has nothing to do with it, despite all the tens of billions of dollars we have foolishly squandered throughout the Middle East trying to prevent terrorism by alleviating poverty.
There are, however, two reasons that do explain the Islamic penchant for terrorism. One is holy writ. The contrast between Islam’s holy book and the scriptures of other religions is startling. While modern Christians sometimes struggle to explain Jesus’ ruthless “mistreatment” of a fig tree, modern Muslims have a far more challenging task rationalizing some of the brutality of the Koran, and even more so the hadith. As with the Old Testament, the hadith is a rich panoply of both awful and awe-inspiring tales. The humanity of Mohammed is embellished with stories that on the one hand show his unusual compassion, tolerance, and sense of humor, and on the other a cruelty that any Old Testament patriarch would envy. The contradictions and inconsistencies have led some purist Muslim scholars to reject all the hadith, but the vast majority embrace them, though there is huge disagreement on which are authentic and which are not.
As for the Koran, certainly there are passages of the Old Testament that are equally brutal, but far fewer Jews (and Christians) take their scriptures literally and even fewer fail to see those violent stories in a historical context that is no longer relevant to the modern world. Moreover, unlike both Islam and Christianity, Judaism is not a proselytizing, evangelizing religion. This renders the impetus to widescale conflict far less likely. And the converse is true of the Christians: They are as much an evangelizing religion as Islam, but the Gospels are sorely lacking in directives for using violence. (It is not too far a stretch to admit that Christians are often violent despite their scripture, while Muslims are generally peaceful despite theirs.) In Islam, you have both: Holy writ that at times endorses violence as in the Old Testament and a clarion call to spread the faith throughout the world, as in the New Testament.
But there is another reason for the near monopoly Islam now claims on terrorism: It is the strong sense of justice that permeates Islamic culture and the noble obligation to fight against injustice. The Western mind often does not appreciate how deeply it is inculcated into Muslim believers the importance of struggling against injustice. While this devotion to justice is laudable, it can also be dangerous especially since perceived injustices are often exaggerated and distorted, and because justice too often slips into a ruthless vengeance.
This is not in any way to dismiss or denigrate the courage and tenacity of Muslims who have waged unceasing war against true injustices. In my own experience, I was stunned to learn of the horrific toll taken of Cambodia’s Muslim (Cham) population during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. While all Cambodians suffered enormously during that bleak period, the Cham were set upon with particular ferocity because they resisted and that resistance incurred the greater wrath of Pol Pot and his henchmen. This same sense of fighting injustice motivates even the most vicious and despicable Islamic terrorists. To dismiss them as insane sadists or religious fanatics or cowards is to fail dismally to understand the enemy we seek to eliminate.
But for all the angst and fretting about terrorism, it is the lesser of the threats now facing Western culture from a resurgent and atavistic form of Islam. The far more serious problem is multiculturalism, that absurd, self-destructive concept that nations and civilizations can endure even when the people comprising those states are not unified as one culture. Multiculturalism has a long history in Europe and for a long time, it posed no serious threat to European culture writ large because distinct minorities were so small or so confined that they posed no challenge to the majority. For example, even in little Slovenia, Italian and Hungarian minorities have their own representatives in the national parliament. This is a concept that almost all Americans would find bewildering: How can you be the citizen of a country and not fully identify with it? The American experience—at least until now—has been wisely and definitely different: The mythic “melting pot” whereby each new wave of immigrants slowly melds with all other Americans to form an increasingly diverse, but still fully united, whole.
Europe, having failed, just barely, in annihilating its culture and power in two world wars, then embarked upon a new tact in its seemingly relentless quest for self-annihilation. Only slowly now is Europe coming to see that multiculturalism is a social cancer that needs to abate if Europe is to retain its distinctiveness and vibrancy. Embracing the customs and culture of your adopted country—while retaining an affection to your former country and culture—should be a prerequisite for all immigration. Those immigrants who wish to make their new country in the image of their old country are a serious, long-term danger to their adopted country. The strength of America has always been this balance whereby new immigrant groups become devoted to the American culture, but also contribute to its evolution by introducing new art, music, cuisine, fashion, and ideas to our national identity.
Neither Belloc nor very many other observers even just half a century ago, could have envisioned the real challenge of modern Islam. Belloc conceived the challenge in conventional terms of one great civilization contesting against another. No one really saw the challenge to be unconventional—mass immigration combined with stunning low birthrates throughout much of Europe and too little assimilation of the new immigrants. This combination of factors suggests that the recent wave of Muslim immigration serves as a demographic fifth column, undermining and slowly eroding the foundations of European civilization from within, rather than a conventional threat from without. It was instructive, for example, how Saudi Arabia refused to accept any Muslim immigrants itself, but did offer to build hundreds of mosques throughout Europe for the new immigrants. Immigration per se is not a danger. Indeed, a dearth of immigration, given Europe’s generally low population growth rate, is a far greater danger in the long term. But multiculturalism and perpetuating the inane policy of ethnic and religious identification to supersede national identity is madness.
The xenophobes have been wrong so often and so consistently that it is hard to ever see any basis for their angst. But this is different. We are loath to criticize too harshly because this is a religion we are dealing with and not just an ideology, because Islam has the legitimacy of time and tradition, and because it is replete with good people and great accomplishments. But what ideology ever internally threatened America more? We never worried about the Soviets planting bombs on planes; we were never seriously threatened by Nazi or fascist or Imperial Japanese sympathizers. Islamic extremism cannot be ignored and cannot be whitewashed or wished away. In order to counter the dangers posed by Muslim immigration and multiculturalism, and to better assimilate these new immigrants into Western society, at least three things are necessary: desensitizing Islam, disengaging from Middle East conflicts, and isolating Saudi Arabia.
I love the Nativity narrative in the Koran. I enjoy it so much that every Advent, when we set up our Nativity set, we include a palm tree in token recognition of the story of the date palm tree that nourished Mary while she endured birth pangs. Some religious extremists, both Christian and Muslim, might be offended by this addition, but not very many I suspect. But our Christmas traditions go further: We decorate the tree with various ornaments and religious symbols we have acquired over the years, including Buddhist and Hindu ones. And also including a delightful miniature Koran, with a green cover and gold lettering. While hanging the Koran on our Christmas tree is not meant as a sign of disrespect, I suspect that a large number of Muslims would find it insulting and even sacrilegious—an inappropriate and scandalous use of their holy book.
There is an odd double standard regarding Islam today. On the one hand, Muslims are, in my view, subject to a good deal of verbal abuse and unfair criticisms. On the other hand, all mainstream media and entertainment are overly cautious when it comes to confronting Islamic sensitivities. For example, how is it that Mohammed is never visualized on a TV program or in a Hollywood movie? Even usually irreverent shows such as “South Park” shied away from using a caricature of Mohammed. There is growing throughout the world a kind of self-censorship precipitated by fear of retaliation. And regrettably, that fear is justified, as evidenced by the reaction whenever some rumor starts about burning Korans or ridiculing Mohammed. Indeed, even a tastefully done and positive film about Mohammed, that included an actor playing the prophet, would be too daring for all those Hollywood lovers of free expression. Here is a hypothetical that puts this self-censorship into perspective. In the early 2000s, some so-called artist placed a crucifix in a jar of urine and proclaimed it art. While some on the extreme right denounced this questionable expression of artistic license, most commentators came to the artist’s defense and wrapped the artist and his jar of urine in the First Amendment. But would any artist dare place a Koran or an image of Mohammed in a jar of urine? Would any art museum dare put it on display? Would it be worth the risk of violent protests and possible bombings to support such artistic expression?
When did respect for all religions become fear of one particular religion? When did tolerance become the handmaiden of oppression? When will we finally come to grips with the need to bring Islam into the mainstream of modern life and culture? When laughter and jokes are seen as a threat to a religion, that is a threat to our civilization. The right to express must include the right to offend or it loses all meaning and relevance. The slaughter of twelve innocents in 2015 in Paris for making offensive caricatures of Mohammed and mocking the Koran sent a clear message that still resonates throughout the world. And the tepid, often times contradictory, condemnation of those killings by most Islamic countries underscores how deep the chasm is between our values and theirs when it comes to freedom of expression.
I have lived much of my adult life among Muslims and they are among the most honest, kind, and honorable people I know. But there is something disturbing to the modern mind about how some Muslims view freedom of expression. For many, freedom of speech is subordinate to respect for religion, to honoring their prophet, to being polite and deferential to their beliefs. This is a key point that few on either side really want to admit. It is a painful historical fact that since the beginning the mockery of Islam and the mocking of Mohammed have been acceptable grounds for killing. It is cold comfort that some Muslim governments condemned those 2015 Paris killings because those same countries have laws that they still enforce against ridiculing Mohammed and Islam—and this sentiment is shared by a majority of their people.
Ironically, we genuinely disrespect Islam when we treat it differently from how we treat other religions; when we treat it more politely and when we hesitate to criticize or mock it. It would be therapeutic for Islam and for the rest of the world if the mocking and the laughter increased. All religions should be equally mocked and respected.
Disengage from the Middle East
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States began developing a military operation originally named “Operation Infinite Justice.” A few days later, having been advised by “experts” who know little about Islamic culture, the name was changed to “Operation Enduring Freedom.” The “experts” expressed concern that the term “infinite” should only apply to God and using it in the context of a military operation might offend. Too bad. Justice, as already mentioned, resonates better and sends a clearer message than freedom. But former President George W. Bush, with his own enduring comic-book notions of liberty and freedom, readily changed the name.
What former President Bush did not understand, and what most experts refuse to accept, is that virtually every attack against America and Americans in the Middle East is engendered by a perception of injustice. While we cannot eviscerate completely the peculiar notion that America is to blame for every evil that occurs in that part of the world, a more measured, cautious foreign policy toward that region would dramatically lessen hatred of us. The current crisis in Yemen—or Syria or elsewhere—is a good example of how the current administration has failed to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. For the United States to take sides in these civil wars and sectarian conflicts is a lose-lose proposition for us and will only fan the flames of radicalism throughout that region and around the world, including in the United States.
We can do a great deal of good without being so directly and unhelpfully ensnared in that region. While people understandably worry whether Islamic fundamentalism may have a detrimental impact on Western civilization, the opposite is also underway: Western values have seeped into the fabric of traditional Islamic cultures, and they feel as threatened by our “freedom” and “secularization of the state” as we do of the prospect of having one dominant religion. Far greater outreach of a nonmilitary kind is needed.
Isolate Saudi Arabia
Finally, something needs to be done about Saudi Arabia. While it continues to disallow other religions to be practiced within its borders—even decorating a Christmas tree is a criminal act—it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding extremist Islamic mosques and madrassas around the world, including in the United States. Many will insist that Saudi Arabia is slowly changing and that patience is required. But allowing women to drive does not a modern state make. It is incredible that this tepid, decades-overdue change is lauded as a great advancement. The Saudi junta is intent on spreading its intolerant, aberrational form of Islam throughout the world, and we do not serve our long-term interests or even the long-term interests of most Muslims by supporting that regime. Many schools of tolerant and rational Islamic thought, once prominent and respected, have now been undermined and marginalized by Saudi money and missionaries. The Wahhabi cult is now in ascendance,do and those terrorist groups that the Saudis ostensibly condemn are closely aligned with the Wahhabi code of intolerance.
A Silver Lining: Religious Devotion and Civic Duty
Thank God there were no social media when my four Catholic Sicilian grandparents immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century. In a letter to the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899, Pope Leo XIII cautioned against “Americanism.” A year earlier he had lamented an America where church and state are “dissevered and divorced,” and wrote that a closer relationship between the State and the Church, such as in some European countries, was far preferable to our First Amendment protections against the establishment of a religion. This official animus toward our secular society only changed gradually, and it took more than half century and Vatican II before the official Catholic view supported a political environment that allows for the religious freedom of all persons and groups. One can imagine how anti-Catholic sentiment and the threat posed by Catholic immigrants would have been stoked if a hundred years ago there had been twenty-four-hour news coverage and the full panoply of social media that now overwhelm us.
Perhaps Islam in America is now in a similar situation, with too much focus on the regressive attitudes of fundamentalists who denounce America and the separation of mosque and state. Perhaps, also like those “religious” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe a century ago, Muslim immigrants may help bolster and restore America’s religious underpinnings and counter the seeming inexorable fall into a hapless materialism. Most of the Muslims I know have a heartfelt desire to assimilate and no desire to muddle the secular foundations of the country.
Belloc makes a keen insight that many will foolishly dismiss as irrelevant and exaggerated—that the old religious foundation of Europe and America is crumbling: “There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine…. We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship a particular economic arrangement…. Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline; and in the contrast between our religious chaos and Islam’s religious certitudes… lies our peril.” But Belloc saw the struggle in conventional historic terms of two great cultures and faiths in a frontal, direct conflict. He did not see the deeper conflict as between Christendom and Islam, but between universal tolerance and universal subjugation, between an impermeable wall between state and faith and the fascism that emanates out of Saudi Arabia and that now pervades much of the Middle East, in such groups as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and others.
The genius of America is that it was founded upon faith-based secularism. Most of the Founders of our nation were religious, and their faith gave them the confidence to create a never-before-tried secular state that safeguards all religions and leaves everyone alone to believe or disbelieve as he chooses. Secularism is a strength and fertile ground for faith and morality. There is always something that must fill the vacuum of disbelief, and it usually is a multitude of lesser gods; race, nation, class, wealth, status, social causes, and perceived grievances are all elevated for worship. And those remain a more enduring threat than any group of immigrants. The sophomoric Lennonist ideal of “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too” ultimately enfeebles society and leads to a collective listlessness. If there is nothing worth dying for, there is also nothing worth living for.
Muslims, for the most part, are far from this sterile humanism. Islam, arguably, may help undergird the faithlessness that now is western Europe, and may even trigger a resurgence in Christianity across this continent. Islam once helped save and preserve Western thought and culture a thousand years ago. Might it not do something similar this century, helping to bring us back to a more spiritual, still secularized, but less materialistic, epoch?
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