There are a number of Muslim reform movements in the West and in the Muslim world which aim to make Islam a more peaceful religion by removing the more offensive parts. Some reformers, for example, want to rebuild Islam around the more peaceful verses of the Koran while discarding the violent verses.
But what if the main appeal of Islam lies precisely in those parts that the reformers wish to excise? What if the aggressiveness of Islam, its ambition to conquer the world, and its demand that others submit are its main attractions?
I recently watched a video of Syrian boys on a bus on their way to a training academy. They appeared to range in age from 9 to 12, many wore camouflage uniforms, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. They were singing the praises of jihad. Except for the lyrics, they could have been a group of Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts going off to summer camp. The lyrics? Here’s a sample:
O Mother don’t be sad. I’ve chosen the land of jihad. Wipe your tears. I only went to fight the Jews.
(Boy leader): Our destiny? Our destiny?
(Chorus): Jihad! Jihad!
A bearded man in his twenties, the leader of the group, explains to the camera: “We call this generation the cubs of a lion…God willing these youth will establish a caliphate…and they will carry the message of jihad.” He asks one boy, “Why did you come here?” Answer: “To become a Mujahideen fighter.” If you’re thinking that these ISIS loyalists will be a hard nut to crack, think again. The film follows the activities of the Syrian branch of Al Nusra-Al Qaeda, a group that is fighting against ISIS (and also against President Assad’s government).
ISIS is not the only Islamic group that wants to raise up a generation of warriors. Young Palestinians, for example, receive similar paramilitary training. And along with lessons in shooting and stabbing, they are given the message that fighting and dying for Allah is life’s highest calling. The warrior tradition in Islam is an ancient one, prescribed in the Koran, and, thanks to the Iranian Revolution, very much back in style.
It all seems alien to those of us who live in the West. But it shouldn’t. Islamic apologists like to say that Islam is the natural religion of mankind. And, if you are speaking of the natural inclinations of males, there’s a lot of truth to that assertion. Overly-feminized societies have difficulty understanding that there is a natural pleasure in physical combat. I’m not talking about the bloody combat of the battlefield. Men don’t take naturally to the prospect of being torn to pieces by a grenade. Soldiers need to be trained and conditioned before they’re ready for actual warfare. What I’m referring to are the schoolyard and backyard tests of strength and skill that boys are naturally drawn to.
At the Catholic grammar school I attended, it was not uncommon for boys to issue friendly challenges of “combat.” The most common of these involved a standing hand-wrestling contest to see who could throw the other off-balance first. Sometimes the combat involved free-style wrestling contests which only ended when one party agreed to “give up” or say “uncle.” The satisfaction lay not so much in hurting your opponent, but in forcing him to submit. After school, we would often play at war games—using imaginary machine guns to wipe out an imaginary nest of enemies, or lobbing imaginary grenades into imaginary bunkers.
Obviously, such activities have the potential for turning into something unhealthy. That’s why civilized societies try to sublimate aggressive instincts into healthy channels such as team sports (which, despite its benefits, is still a form of combat involving victory for one side and defeat for the other). It’s long been recognized that one way of countering the natural tendency of young males to form tribal-like gangs is to get them off the street and onto the basketball court.
However, sublimation is one thing, and repression is another. If a society becomes “over-civilized,” it risks losing the aggressive instinct altogether, and thus the ability to defend itself. An ability and a willingness to fight is essential even in a civilized society. A healthy society doesn’t try to snuff out aggressiveness and toughness, it tries to convince young men to put their strength and skills in the service of a higher cause.
But what if the higher cause is fighting? Or, more precisely, fighting for Allah? The appeal of Islam is that it takes the aggressive male instinct and combines it with the religious instinct. A large part of the training that the Al Nusra-Al Qaeda boys receive is religious training. They sit at desks and learn their catechism—only it’s a catechism of jihad. In Islam, God doesn’t ask for much in the way of sublimation, he puts his seal of approval on the male’s instinctual urge to fight and dominate. Religious duty and the thrill of conquest. Unfortunately, it’s a combination that’s hard to beat.
It seems unlikely that the Muslim reformist attempt to create an Islam-Lite is going to work. Nevertheless, non-Muslims should wish them well, because if they do succeed, Islam would quickly lose much of its appeal and energy. But it’s a long-shot. If you take away the fighting and subjugating part, and if you remove the conquest of the world part, what do you have left? Not much that would interest a young man. Not much to compete with the join-the-jihad type videos put out by ISIS and Hamas.
If, in addition, you were to take away the 72 virgins-in-paradise part, you greatly increase the risk that many will lose interest in the faith. Young men like to fight, but they don’t like to risk their lives for nothing. The 72 virgins loom very large in the calculations of young jihadists. Yes, they fight for Allah, but that, in large part, is because Allah has a rich reward in store for them.
Take away all that and what do you have left? What’s left are a handful of scattered verses about mercy, peace, and justice, and a tradition—mostly borrowed from other religions—of prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage. What’s left, in other words, is the kind of religion that speaks to a certain kind of soul, but doesn’t have much to say to the young man who is searching for a fighting faith.
In addition, the Muslim reformers are left with the problem of what to say about the main hero of Islam—Muhammad. He was the first jihadist—a warlord who ordered torture and mass beheadings, sold women and children into slavery, and pronounced sex slaves to be the rightful property of the victors. Islam minus Muhammad would be a kinder, gentler religion. But can you have an Islam without Muhammad? After all, the Islamic confession of faith requires a Muslim to testify that there is no God but God, and to testify further that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Next to Allah, Muhammad is the central figure in Islam.
Islam is a purpose-driven religion. Its purpose is to conquer the world for Allah. The boys on the bus in the video don’t look mean or angry. Indeed, many of them seem sweet and affable. But they have a determined purpose, and because of that purpose some of them will likely grow up to be killers.
Hopefully, the changes that the Muslim reformists envision can someday be accomplished. Hopefully, they will be able to convince other Muslims that subjugating the world ought not to be the purpose of their existence. In the meantime, non-Muslims can’t afford to lose sight of their own higher purposes—those things in life that are worth defending.
We tend to forget how easy it is to lose sight of the essentials. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” So are a number of other essential rights. Indeed, many of the core beliefs that could be taken for granted in Reagan’s lifetime can no longer be assumed. Today’s young people grow up in a different kind of society—one which values tolerance, diversity, and celebrity, and not much else.
If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely that you notice things the young don’t notice—for instance, the West’s pathetically passive response to repeated acts of Islamic aggression. That’s not a normal state of affairs. But, as Mark Steyn recently observed:
The young … have no memory of when their societies were not like this. And if you have no sense that things were once other than this, you cannot mourn the loss, and you’re certainly unlikely to fight to retrieve it.
Even if the core virtues of Judeo-Christian, Western societies can be retrieved and re-instilled, one other thing is necessary. Even when a society knows what values are worth defending, it can’t afford to lose the fighting qualities without which no effective defense can be mounted.
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2017 edition of Crisis.