For twenty years we have been fighting a global war on terror without much to show for it. This lack of success stems from a deception at the heart of the war effort. The deception is to call it a war on terror when it is, in fact, a war on Islamic terror.

For twenty years we have been fighting against ideologically motivated warriors while carefully avoiding any discussion of what that ideology is. One sometimes gets the impression from news analysts that the terrorists are motivated by terrorism itself. But, of course, that is no explanation at all.

Occasionally, however, the terrorists are described as “radical Islamists.” That’s closer to the truth, but it still leaves many questions unanswered. What’s the difference between Islam and radical Islam? Exactly where did the radical Islamists go wrong?

Very few ever press these questions because, in truth, Islam and radical Islam share the same basic beliefs. The radical version of Islam and the standard version are uncomfortably alike. In the West and in the Muslim world, the most common way of dealing with the issue is to assert that the terrorists have misunderstood their religion. They must have misunderstood Islam, it is suggested, because, as everyone knows, Islam itself is a good thing—a great religion that has brought many benefits to the world. And anyone who says different about this wonderful faith is an “Islamophobe” who ought to be silenced.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that in order to win a battle, you must first know your enemy. But in our two-decade war against terror, we have made every effort to avoid knowing too much about our enemy’s motivating ideology. Note that this was not the case in previous wars. During the Civil War, the North made every effort to discredit the South’s slave system. In the Second World War, the Allied Forces mounted a massive propaganda campaign aimed at undermining Nazi ideology. And in the Cold War, America showed no hesitation in attacking communist ideology. 

By contrast, the war on terror has dragged on longer than any other U.S. war, with hardly a hint that something might be amiss with Islamic ideology. Perhaps the length of the war reflects the fact that we never fully knew what we were fighting for—and what we were fighting against.

How did we get ourselves into this fix? How did we get involved in endless wars with an ideological enemy whose ideology we refuse to identify? There is more than one answer to that question, but I’d like to focus here on just one of them—namely, the Catholic Church’s role in developing the deceptive myth that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam.

The myth developed mainly within the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, but conservative Catholics never mounted much resistance to it. In fact, most went along with it. The myth was “officially” established in 1965 with the publication of the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate.

The declaration’s section on the Muslims tells us that the Church regards Muslims with “esteem” because they “adore the one God,” because they “revere” Jesus and “honor Mary” and because “they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”

From which the average Catholic might conclude: “Nice fellas those Muslims. They’re just like us Catholics.” Was that the intended takeaway? It seems so. As the old song instructs us, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” And Nostra Aetate follows the instructions to a T. While nothing false is said about Islam, neither is anything negative. In short, a great deal of important information about Islam is left out. Anyone wishing to get an accurate picture of Islam would have to dig much deeper than Nostra Aetate, yet it is that brief puff passage that seems to have become the Church’s final word on Islam. It is quoted endlessly, and its message—that Islam is just like Catholicism—is echoed in the Catechism as well as in Catholic schools and colleges.

One university in particular spread the message. Founded in 1993, Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding became the main vehicle for disseminating the Catholic progressives’ positive view of Islam. Before long, a number of wealthy Arab States became interested in the Center and donations began to pour in. In recognition of the generous Saudi contribution, the Center was renamed the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. However, the Saudi contribution was eventually dwarfed by a massive donation from Qatar—a country which also lavishly funds Islamic terrorist organizations.

Coincidence? Well, only a conspiracy theorist would think such an unkind thought. But, as long as we’re on the subject of coincidences, here’s another one: Georgetown University is situated in Washington, D.C.,—a city which is also home to the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon, the FBI, and the Department of State. Moreover—by sheer coincidence—the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding just happens to be housed in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service—a school whose graduates often go on to careers in the State Department, the FBI, and the CIA. Did some of our foreign affairs experts get their basic training in Islam from the CMCU?

Could it be that, in the crucial days and weeks after 9/11 when President Bush was being assured by Muslim Brotherhood officials that Islam was a religion of peace and justice, the Catholics in his administration were reassuring him that this positive portrayal of Islam dovetailed with their own information?

In any event, the fear and suspicion of Islam that initially gripped many Americans after 9/11 was eventually overcome by the combined voices of government officials, educators, and television news anchors who all confirmed the good news that Islam was a religion of peace and that terrorists were a handful of extremists who had perverted a great religion.

This version of things gained added respectability from the fact that Catholic leaders were saying more or less the same things about Islam. After all, this is what they had learned about Islam in Catholic schools and seminaries. So, after every jihad attack in the U.S., Europe, Canada, and elsewhere, local bishops could be counted on to certify that “this has nothing to do with Islam,” and to bemoan the fact that a tiny minority of “misunderstanders” had tarnished the reputation of a great religion. 

Of course, not every Catholic was willing to jump on board the Islam love boat. In his Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI tried to introduce a more realistic view of Islam. However, even Benedict, along with John Paul II, was conflicted over the Islamic issue. John Paul II was more worried about the spread of Communism than the spread of Islam. Moreover, both pontiffs tended to divide the world into two camps—the secular and the religious. With all its faults, Islam was still a fellow religion and an ally in the fight against secularism. And so, both men were reluctant to criticize it.

But with Francis’ election to the papacy, every vestige of realism went out the church window and fantasy-based Islam came in by the front door. Thus, in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis proclaimed that “authentic Islam and a proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” Just as he has confused almost every other issue, Francis brazenly declared that a religion founded on violence was opposed to violence. Perhaps the only other progressive Catholic who is more confusing than the Pope is the vacant-eyed occupant of the White House.

Whatever the magnitude of the Catholic contribution to the confusion over Islam, let’s briefly try to set the record straight on one oft-repeated falsehood. One of the chief ways to protect Islam against charges of violence is to claim that jihadists are “misunderstanders” of Islam. That’s another way of saying that they’re mostly illiterate country bumpkins. But a number of studies show that jihadists are, on the whole, better educated and better off financially than the average Muslim.

It’s true, of course, that many Muslims—especially in Afghanistan—are illiterate. But it’s not true of the Taliban. The word “Taliban” means “students.” Students of what? Well, mostly the Koran, the Hadith, the Sira, and the sharia law books. In short, while they may not know a lot about Shakespeare and quantum physics, they do know a lot about Islam. What makes our Western leaders, who know next to nothing about Islam, so sure that the Taliban “misunderstand” Islam?

Most of the Taliban leadership attended the Darul Uloom Haqqania Seminary in Pakistan. And Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban and a graduate of the seminary, received an honorary doctorate from the school. Of course, an honorary doctorate is not as good as a real one. But surprise! Several terrorist leaders did have real Ph.D.s. Abdullah Azzam, the founder of MAK (later renamed al-Qaeda), had a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University. So did Omar Abdel Rahman—the “Blind Sheik” who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS, had a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad, and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, was an expert on Islamic law and the author of more than forty books. 

We in the West tend to think that if only Muslims knew their religion better, they would be more peaceful. But the obverse is true. For example, several European research studies found that as Muslims become more devout, they became more radicalized.

The truth is that it’s Westerners who are the real misunderstanders of Islam. As it became clear that the Taliban would retake Afghanistan and reimpose sharia law, many Afghans expressed fear. They knew what the Taliban had done in the past and they knew that much of what the Taliban did was allowed and even sanctioned by sharia (Islamic Law). By contrast, Westerners tended to be shocked. Covering of women? Child marriage? Amputations for theft? How could such things be done in the name of religion? 

But many in the West suffer from the delusion that all religions are essentially the same—that all are peaceful, tolerant, and charitable, and that all treat men and women equally. But these principles and practices derive from Christianity, not from Islam. Westerners should not be shocked when true-believing Muslims—such as the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram—depart from Christian and Western principles. They are guided by a different understanding of right and wrong.

The irony is that this delusion about the essential sameness of all religions has been championed in recent years by progressives in the Catholic Church. One of the prime examples is the Abu Dhabi Declaration on “Human Fraternity” signed by Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, in 2019. The document portrays both Christianity and Islam as humanitarian religions which share the same values—peace, fraternity, tolerance, kindness, and so forth. At one point the document informs us that terrorism “is not due to religion… it is due rather to an accumulation of incorrect interpretations of religious texts.” Of course, that’s just a fancy way of saying that Islamic jihadists misunderstand their faith.

Whether the Grand Imam believes any of this is doubtful. But Francis does. The Declaration of Human Fraternity is the logical continuation of all the misleading things Francis has said about Islam ever since his election as pope. Misunderstand Islam? If anyone deserves the title of “Chief Misunderstander of Islam,” it is Francis.

Yet it is Francis’ naïve view of Islam that is now dominant in the Church. The “religion of peace” mantra is repeated in Catholic schools, colleges, and seminaries throughout the world. Of course, Francis does not bear sole responsibility. His line of thinking goes all the way back to the misleading picture of Islam presented in Nostra Aetate.

This is not merely intellectual history. I think it fair to say that “progressives” in the Church bear some of the responsibility for what is now happening in Afghanistan. We hear it said now that we “underestimated” the Taliban. But that underestimation is due to a general misreading of Islam—a misreading to which Catholics have generously contributed. 

Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Church has become an enabler of Islam—not merely in an abstract way but in very concrete ways. One example is the Vatican campaign to admit more Muslims into Europe, and the consequent migration invasion of the Continent by the Muslim faithful. This has already resulted in a massive crime wave, but that’s only the beginning. 

Thanks in large part to the Catholic hierarchy, Europe will be dominated by Islam within a few decades. And European Christians? Well, look at what is happening to Christians all over Africa in places where Muslims are a majority or else have a large presence. There are few if any Taliban in Africa, yet Christians are being slaughtered on a mass scale. If the Taliban were to miraculously disappear tomorrow, Islamic persecution of non- Muslims would continue as usual in the rest of the world.

When I say that the Church has become an enabler of Islam, I do not mean to say that the Church has enabled the growth of “moderate” Islam, but rather the growth of what is inaccurately thought of as “radical” Islam. Islam is basically a radical religion. There are far fewer moderates than is generally thought. And there will be fewer still if the progressive view of Islam continues to hold sway.

The basic way in which Catholics enable radical Islam is by denying its importance. Radicals, they contend, are only a tiny unrepresentative minority. They are, according to progressives, an aberration, and they are bound to dwindle and disappear because they are out of tune with “authentic” Islam. All that is necessary to convince them that they are on the wrong path is a little more dialogue. 

It’s often said that one of the devil’s greatest achievements is to convince people that he doesn’t exist. Once people are no longer on their guard against him, he can operate more freely and effectively. By insisting that radical Islam is only a small and unrepresentative force on the edges of Islam, naïve Catholics only ensure that it will grow and spread. They also ensure that Catholics and other Christians will be totally unprepared when “radical” Islam comes to their neighborhood.

This article originally appeared in the August 26, 2021 edition of Crisis.

Pictured above: World Trade Center

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