I’m reading Paul Kengor’s splendid book, A Pope and a President, and it got me to thinking—as everything does these days—about Islam. Kengor’s book tell the story of the partnership between Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, and the role the two played in defeating Soviet communism. Without their commitment to fighting communism, the Cold War might well have gone the other way.
Unlike communism, Islam is not a godless ideology, but in other respects there are many similarities. Like communism, Islam is an oppressive system that seeks total control over both mind and body. Like Soviet communism during the Cold War era, Islam is a proselytizing creed that seeks to export its ideology across the globe. And wherever it goes, something like an iron curtain of silence envelops all who are caught behind it.
Not surprisingly, many national security experts have found the Cold War analogy a useful one for explaining the West’s civilizational struggle with Islam. Several have also suggested that a Cold-War type campaign of ideological warfare against Islam is now called for—something like the campaign that Reagan and John Paul II once fought.
But all analogies limp. One of the differences between the Cold War struggle with communism and the current struggle with Islam is that today’s Catholic leaders are a long way from understanding Islam in the clear-eyed way that Pope John Paul II understood communism. There is very little resistance to Islam on the part of Catholic leaders, because there is very little awareness that it ought to be resisted.
That could change, however. There are scattered signs of an awakening. Cardinal Burke in the U.S. has spoken out boldly about the threat of Islam. So have bishops in Africa, the Mid-East, and Eastern Europe. African and Mid-East bishops have felt the full brunt of jihad, while Eastern Europeans, having recently escaped the clutches of communism, are not about to stand quietly by as another totalitarian system colonizes their territory. As attacks on Christians ramp up, it is likely that more bishops will join their ranks.
But even if Church leaders were to finally come to their senses, a problem would remain. Catholics will still have to grapple with the question of how to resist Islam. Any attempt to resist Islamization immediately runs up against two difficulties. The first is the problem of reprisals against Christians and other minorities living in Muslim lands, and even in non-Muslim lands. Christians faced a similar problem in confronting Nazism and communism. During World War II, Catholic leaders were forced to temper their criticisms of Nazism once it became apparent that European Christians and Jews would suffer the consequences. And although Pope John Paul II worked tirelessly to support resistance to communism, his emphasis was on the rights of Eastern Europeans to live in freedom, rather than on the wrongs of the Communist system.
Say the wrong thing and people will be killed. That’s the first difficulty. The second difficulty also involves a form of retaliation. Criticize Islam and the media will strike back with fury. Because the media is heavily invested in the narrative that Islam is a religion of peace, anyone who challenges the narrative will face charges of intolerance and bigotry. And since the media already considers the Catholic Church to be the fount of intolerance, Catholics need to be especially careful about what they say.
Say something and people will be killed, and the media will attempt to destroy you. On the other hand, if you say nothing, Islam will continue to spread … and people will be killed. That’s the quandary. Is there any way to avoid it? Is there any way of challenging and discrediting Islamic ideology without endangering the lives of the innocent? Without being steam-rollered by the press? The short answer is no. Islam is easily offended, and nothing short of complete submission will appease its more excitable representatives. Meanwhile, the press will continue to portray saints as sinners and vice as virtue. Not always, of course, but that’s the way to bet.
However, there are some effective ways to counter Islamization that are less risky than others. One of these is to concentrate fire on Islamic practices rather than beliefs—particularly on those practices that are troubling not only to non-Muslims, but to many Muslims as well.
While every Muslim is obliged to believe that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (and also the perfect man), not every Muslim is obliged to take a child bride, to beat his wife, or to kill a disobedient daughter. It makes sense then, to call attention to those Islamic practices that are hardest for Muslims to defend, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), cruel and unusual sharia punishments, honor violence, forced marriage, child marriage, and the like.
Some Islamic practices such as fasting during Ramadan or observing the ban on pork and alcohol are nobody else’s business. But some are blatant violations of what we understand as universal human rights. They can’t be excused on the grounds that Muslims have a different culture. Many Muslims realize that these practices seem barbaric to those who live in the developed world, and many feel uneasy about them. One way of chipping away at Islam’s cultural jihad is to increase whatever sense of unease Muslims already have. We should want them to feel uncomfortable about these practices and, by implication, with the faith that sanctions them. Contrary to the claim that these practices are only cultural in nature, they have the sanction of religion. For instance, Reliance of the Traveller, a widely-consulted manual of sharia law, states that female circumcision is “obligatory” (e. 4.3), and that parents who kill their children [presumably for reasons of honor] are not subject to punishment (o1.4).
The discrepancy between what Islamic law finds acceptable and what the rest of the world finds acceptable ought to be emphasized, not minimized. This is really much more charitable to Muslims than the current practice of looking the other way. The Church is rightly concerned with the most helpless and vulnerable in society, but many in the Church seem not to have noticed the widespread exploitation of vulnerable women and children in the Islamic world. There is an immense amount of suffering in Muslim lands. Much of it, moreover, is not simply the suffering that normally accompanies poverty and ignorance, but the specific sufferings that flow from Islamic doctrines. Many people are not interested in the theological side of Islam—they don’t care whether Allah is a trinity or a singularity—but most people recognize injustice when they see it. If no one speaks out about these injustices, nothing will change, but if they are brought out into the open there is at least, a chance for reform. When Saudi Arabia finally put an official end to slavery in 1962, it was not the result of a sudden enlightenment, but because of the pressure of world opinion.
That kind of pressure on Islam needs to be reapplied. That doesn’t mean that Pope Francis should stand in Saint Peter’s Square and denounce Muhammad as a false prophet. An in-your-face challenge might bring massive reprisals against Christians—not only from ISIS and al-Qaeda, but from imam-inspired Muslim mobs.
On the other hand, it is less easy to get a mob together for the purpose of defending one’s beloved tradition of wife-beating or honor-killing. And that’s all the more so if the criticism is widely diffused. There is no need for the pope to lead the charge when Catholic media, bishops, human rights groups, and social service organizations can do the job of raising awareness about these human rights abuses. In addition, Catholic groups could join forces with non-Catholic organizations that are already campaigning against FGM, honor violence, and other human rights abuses. Two that come to mind are the Clarion Project and the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation.
Another benefit of calling attention to the most egregious and indefensible Muslim practices is that it is also difficult for the media to defend them. The media likes to put Islam in the best possible light while putting its critics to shame. This is not so easy to do, however, if the critic is criticizing horrific behavior. If a town planning board opposes the construction of a new mosque, the mainstream media is quick to shout “Islamophobia,” but if a non-profit organization initiates a campaign to raise awareness about FGM, the media is put in a difficult position. Do they want to criticize the critics of such a destructive practice? Are they for FGM?
The point is that most attempts to question Islam, particularly those that emanate from Catholic or Christian sources, will be pounced on by the media. The skewed reporting and bad publicity could easily cancel out whatever good might be accomplished. That’s why it makes sense to concentrate on those practices that even the media would be loath to defend—practices such as FGM, honor violence, stoning, and amputation for theft. Even the most hardened leftist journalist will hesitate before putting a positive spin on hand chopping.
The same goes for another feature of Islamic life—the apostasy law. The media can’t very well defend the death penalty for apostates. So, when they deal with it at all, they tend to claim, despite the evidence, that the law does not really require that apostates be killed, or that it is never enforced, and so on. Muslim leaders will sometimes go along with this deception because they know that the idea of murdering converts doesn’t play well with a non-Muslim audience. They are not, however, going to give up the apostasy law without a fight. That’s because it lies very close to the center of the faith. It is, in effect, the guarantee that the rest of the faith won’t be questioned. As Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the most influential Sunni leader in the Middle East, once let slip, “If they [Muslims] had gotten rid of the punishment for apostasy, Islam would not exist today.”
Non-Muslims need to make an issue of the apostasy law and also of the blasphemy laws which serve a similar function. Doing so puts Muslim religious leaders in a bind. They can’t defend the laws without revealing the totalitarian nature of their religion. Which is all the more reason for Christians—and others—to press the issue. Even if an anti-apostasy campaign doesn’t succeed in overturning the law, it will at least draw attention to the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, there really is compulsion in Islam. If you can’t leave your faith without fear of being executed, then you are being compelled to stay.
And that is one of the reasons for campaigning against Islamic human rights abuses. It forces Muslims—and the media—to defend the indefensible. At the same time it serves the dual purpose of educating non-Muslims about the true nature of Islam, and of increasing Muslim dissatisfaction with the system that holds them captive.
Let’s go back to the Cold War analogy. Winston Churchill spoke of communism as an “iron curtain” that had descended on the Continent of Europe. The iron curtain served to keep Eastern Europeans within the Soviet bloc. It also functioned to keep out any alternative view of human dignity and destiny. A similar curtain of silence now shrouds the Islamic world. It serves to keep Muslims in their place, and it works to keep non-Muslims in ignorance about the nature of Islam.
President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and countless other brave souls understood the tyranny of the Communist system, and their efforts eventually brought freedom to millions. The present situation vis-à-vis Islam is not exactly the same, but there are lessons to learn from the Cold War warriors. One of the primary lessons is that oppressive ideologies need to be confronted. Silence is not the solution, because silence only ensures that the oppression will spread.
One of the decisive moments of the Cold War came when President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Communists went to great length to prevent defections—miles of walls, barbed wire, and guard posts. And that’s why Western leaders, like Reagan, brought so much attention to bear on the Berlin Wall. It symbolized the prison-house nature of communism.
The apostasy laws and blasphemy laws are the Islamic equivalent of the Berlin Wall. They are the barriers which prevent many Muslims from crossing over to freedom. Because of them, Muslims are no more free to leave Islam than East Berliners were free to leave the Soviet zone.
Will Christians challenge the apostasy and blasphemy laws? Will they make an issue of Islam’s other hard-to-defend weak points—FGM, honor violence, and brutal punishments? Or will they succumb to the multicultural argument—namely, that what Muslims do in their own cultures is none of our business? If that seems like a compelling argument, you might consider the message on a sign that occasionally shows up in Muslim protest rallies. It says: “Islam, our religion today, your religion tomorrow.” As is increasingly evident in France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and elsewhere in Europe, many Muslims want to make their culture your culture.
This article originally appeared in the May 9, 2017 edition of Crisis.