It’s disappointing that Lt. General William Mc Master, President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, has said that the Islamic State is “un-Islamic.” He also insists that organizations like ISIS “cynically use a perverted interpretation of religion to incite hatred and justify horrific cruelty against innocents.” In short, the General seems to think that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.
This kind of thinking prevailed under the Obama administration, and during those eight years, the Islamic threat grew by leaps and bounds. It would be a shame if a key person in the new national security team perpetuated such simplistic views of Islamic terrorism.
Many Church leaders have views not much different. For the last four years, we’ve been treated to a litany of ecclesiastical pronouncements that there is a solid wall of separation between Islam and violence.
Some people seem actually to believe this counter-factual nonsense. Others probably see it as a good strategy – a way to strengthen “moderate Islam.” The strategists are fond of saying that criticism of Islam itself will drive the moderates into the radical camp. From this point of view, the only way to promote positive change in Islam is to praise it, and hope that a self-fulfilling prophecy is set in motion.
But it’s not a good strategy. In fact, it gives the upper hand to the radicals. Here’s why. If everyone from national security advisors to the pope says that Islam is fine as is, then there is no incentive to change. If there’s no problem with Islam–only with extreme splinter groups–you undercut Muslim reformers. It’s difficult enough being a moderate Muslim; it’s downright dangerous to be a Muslim reformer. Why should the reformers stick their necks out if they get no reinforcement from prominent non-Muslims? And why should other Muslims listen to them if everything is fine the way it is? This strategy turns Muslims away from the moderates and reformers and towards the imams.
We assume that mosques, Islamic schools, and imams will have a moderating effect on Muslims, but the truth is otherwise. Five separate studies (four in the U.S. and one in Canada) revealed that about 80 percent of mosques promote extremist views. The majority of mosques can hardly be considered moderate. In fact, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser relates that when the Muslim Reform Movement sent a mailing to over 3,000 American mosques seeking support, they received only forty responses, and of those only nine were positive. You’ve probably seen Dr. Jasser on television. He’s the embodiment of moderation and reasonableness. Yet most Muslim leaders will have nothing to do with him. Apparently, they see no need for reform.
In other countries, of course, mosques are often centers of recruitment and radicalization – sometimes even weapons depots. When a terrorist attack occurs on Muslim soil, authorities often respond by raiding and closing mosques. Even “enlightened” Western countries have adopted a policy of “cherchez la mosquée.” In the wake of terrorist attacks, both France and Germany have conducted numerous raids on mosques.
So when Catholic leaders draw a moral equivalence between Christianity and Islam – as they often do – they are encouraging Muslims to find meaning in a faith that finds meaning in jihad. Pope Francis once told a group of immigrants that they could find direction in their holy books – Christians in the Bible, and Muslims in the Koran. But such advice only pushes Muslims deeper into the fundamentalism that the pope thinks is embraced only by a few.
By any definition of “fundamentalist,” Islam is a fundamentalist religion. Most Muslims take the Koran literally, and their imams tell them that is how they must understand it.
If we are really interested in seeing Islam turn in a moderate direction, we need to criticize, not cosset it. After all, there is something wrong with Islam. And as ex-Muslim Nonie Darwish writes, “The West is not doing Muslims. . .a favor by constantly treating them as children who should be shielded from reality.”
The reality is that there is something wrong with Islam’s harsh blasphemy laws and apostasy laws, and with its treatment of women, children, and minorities. We shouldn’t overlook these problems, and neither should Muslims.
So it’s time to stop playing “let’s pretend.” Muslim nations won’t address these problems unless non-Muslim nations and Church leaders put pressure on them. When Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in 1962, it was only because of intense Western pressure.
Why is pressure needed? Because, as a number of observers have remarked, Muslim societies are not given to introspection. Raphael Patai, author of The Arab Mind, suggests that the Islamic belief in fate or pre-destination leads to a “disinclination to undertake efforts to change or improve things.”
When Western leaders give Muslims the message that their religion deserves much respect, it may be good for Muslim self-esteem, but it doesn’t provide them with an incentive to change. Instead, we should be telling Muslims, as diplomatically as possible, that many aspects of their faith are deeply disturbing. And that until they do something about it, we will have to consider various stern measures such as breaking off dialogue (on the part of the Church), or initiating withdrawal of aid, sanctions, and investments (on the part of governments and businesses.)
At the very least, we should close our doors to immigration from the most troubled Islamic states. Some people caution that such a ban will increase Muslim hatred for the West. It may have that effect on some Muslims. But strong and decisive action may also give many Muslims second thoughts about Islam.
The spoiled child only learns to question himself when others will no longer play with him. After 9/11, many Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” In other words, “What did we do wrong?” It’s about time that the Muslim world starts asking that question of itself. But it will never ask it unless the West dispenses with its “I’m OK, you’re OK” policies towards Islam.
A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the March 9, 2017 edition of The Catholic Thing.