Speaking from the White House on Sunday night, the president gave us sobering news. The West has a problem with radical Islam. The war on terror is real.
Most of us realized this quite some time ago. It’s ironic that this admission, coming from the White House and a Democratic president, really does count as breaking news. Can we finally talk openly about the real dimensions of this problem? Is it time, at least, to stop pretending this is really just about “workplace violence” or the availability of guns?
Is Religion Violent?
As a religious person, I have to relish the ironies of the present discourse. Innumerable times, liberal peers have told me religion is bad because it inspires bloodshed. I dutifully respond that, yes, religious people sometimes play dirty, but godlessness is hardly a prophylactic against wanton violence. (Ah, those peace-loving Bolsheviks!) Then we get into a cozy little argument about whether Hitler was a Christian.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of an actual war of religion. Suddenly, liberals don’t believe in religious violence anymore. Hillary Clinton, echoing the sentiments of liberals across the nation, recently told us we can’t talk about “radical Islam” because that would give the impression that we are “declaring war on a religion.” Some go on to speculate how religion-talk is probably just window dressing for a particular social and political agenda, which we know because there are lots of Muslims out there who aren’t trying to kill anybody. (Phew. That’s some heavy-duty window dressing, no?)
Admitting that Islam has something to do with this is, for a Democrat, a big step. But the president still took the liberty of announcing from on high that terrorists practice a perverted Islam, which should not be mistaken for the real thing. He obviously wants us to think he has a plan, but we should all still be very concerned about the evident lack of depth in progressives’ treatment of this issue.
All Religions Are Not the Same
It’s genuinely hard for liberals to grasp the reality of modern-day religious warfare. They figured they’d gotten past all that by building secular, liberal democracies. It’s like that game toddlers play where they put a towel over their head and declare nobody can see them.
Progressives are in a bad way here, because they have no understanding of religion. (They are so confused, in fact, that they don’t even realize which faith they themselves profess.) To them, all religion is basically the same, because all religious people are mainly reactionaries clinging stubbornly to the superstitions of their forefathers. The content of those superstitions is very much a secondary concern, and they only bother to distinguish insofar as some religious groups (primarily Judeo-Christian) actually threaten their cultural dominance, while most others can be viewed a bit affectionately as backwards protectorates who should be patted on the head, but not “appropriated.”
Jihadists put a fly in this ointment. They have all the benefits of secular liberalism staring them straight in the face, but this just seems to fuel their wrath. Having already infantilized the religious en masse, liberals can only suppose that this particular infant must have been mistreated in some awful way. How else to explain why he is acting out so aggressively? Maybe jihadists are disillusioned by poverty or unemployment, or maybe they are using religion as a vehicle to express their outrage over drone strikes, oil wars, or Israel. But it’s not really about religion. People don’t actually kill in the name of Allah.
This is obtuse. Look at the language of ISIS. Look at what they do, and to whom. Religion is clearly an issue here. It turns out that the content of those ancestral superstitions is, in fact, rather consequential. Progressives were simply too quick to consign actual religious beliefs to a footnote in dusty volumes of cultural anthropology.
Yes, This Is a Religious Struggle
Acknowledging that religious beliefs are of consequence pushes us into a conversation secular liberals find very, very uncomfortable. Joshua Holland, a stalwart defender of the “this is not about Islam” position, effectively acknowledged that this is a major reason for avoiding classifying jihadists as religious terrorists.
Writing at The Nation, he recently told us: “The line between radical and mainstream religious beliefs is a fuzzy one. It ultimately comes down to theological questions that our intelligence agencies and military are uninterested in, and perhaps incapable of answering.” Oh, well, in that case. Let’s not make our military or intelligence agencies worry about questions that don’t interest them.
Of course we shouldn’t over-simplify. Islam has been around for more than a millennium, and it currently claims more than one and a half billion believers. We can’t expect Islamic thought and spirituality to be the sort of thing that could be condensed into a single “Dummy” book.
But we also shouldn’t reject the possibility that jihadists are motivated by ideals or precepts that are actually internal to the religion itself. It’s comforting to tell ourselves that the violent variety of Islam is somehow unreal. But the fact that scores of Muslims live happily in the West without radicalizing is not proof that violent extremists have misinterpreted or opportunistically distorted their faith.
All Religions Have Extremists
Unlike my own faith (Roman Catholicism) Islam doesn’t have a single catechism or hierarchical superstructure that can help us determine what the faith “really” teaches. Different people obviously have different interpretations. But no faith survives that many centuries without a core of religious precepts, usually combined with some kind of hermeneutic that enables believers to determine how those precepts should be interpreted and applied to changing circumstances. It should be possible to say things about Islam as a faith without relying solely on something as superficial as polling.
In that sense, the actions of the devout few really should be of particular interest. In any religion, there will always be people who identify with the religion while taking many or most of their cues from the surrounding culture. Some of these might fairly be classified as lukewarm, while others may be serious believers with deep-but-unrecognized tensions in their various commitments.
Either way, these people are not necessarily the best indicators of the nature of their religion as such. Without a deeply intimate understanding of the faith in question, it’s hard to determine whether their successful assimilation to their surrounding culture is really a sign that the two can be harmonized, or whether they have simply prioritized one.
This is why devout outliers are of special interest. In any faith, there will generally be people who prioritize their religious commitments above the demands of contemporary culture. What happens to those people?
Well, it all depends, and here the differences between religions start to matter and become visible. When a person focuses his life around a historical faith tradition in a serious way, this will probably put him out of step with modern culture in noteworthy respects. In the eyes of many compatriots, this will make him an oddity. But there’s odd, and there’s murderous-rampage odd, and most of us probably care quite a bit about that distinction.
Some devoutly religious people might wear unusual clothing, get enthused about liturgical languages, or stand in public squares begging passers-by to accept their free literature. Some might become hermits or open charitable missions in foreign countries.
We can tolerate those kinds of people. We can even make certain allowances for slightly-more-bothersome demands, like asking for religious holidays off of work, or wanting special permission to use hallucinogenic drugs in religious rituals. But when a deep dive into a religious tradition starts pushing people towards mass murder, we need to recognize that as a problem.
Is Islam Dangerous?
The president is among many who would blithely assert that radical Islam is somehow a misinterpretation of the faith. I don’t think he’s in a position to say that, and his willingness to assert it is troubling, because it shows that he is still unwilling to take the religious dimension of this threat seriously.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that violent jihadists are interpreting Islamic texts in the correct way. That would be an overstatement, and also an over-extension of my own knowledge. I have not engaged in a serious, systematic study of Islam as such; most of my acquaintance with it is based on my formal study of medieval philosophy (which, however, was a critical period in the development of all three monotheistic faiths), and on conversations I carried on with Muslim friends while living in Uzbekistan and Palestine. I am by no means qualified to assert that jihadists are good Muslims.
What does seem fair to say, though, is that a deep dive into the Islamic tradition can provide a disaffected young person with ample justification for thinking that Western thought and political structures should be radically rejected.
In broad picture, we can gesture towards some of the reasons. Muslims do indeed have a number of grievances relating to their geo-political status in the world. But of course, this does not mean that the West is “guilty” in a sense that we should recognize. Historically, Islam has called for a particular sort of political, legal, and social structure, which looks quite different from what we see in modern, Western democracies. Significant majorities of Islamic-world Muslims still seem to think that structure is the best and most appropriate one.
It’s also worth considering that Islam largely rejected natural philosophy in the high Middle Ages (preferring the theologically oriented al-Ghazali to the Aristotelian Averroes), which has left it with less breadth and flexibility than what we see in its Jewish and Christian cousins.
Finally, on a spiritual front, Islam was forged in an atmosphere of successful military expansion. Christianity and Judaism both suffered through centuries of persecution and death at the hands of hostile political regimes. Although these faiths likewise have a tradition of venerating martyrs, “martyrdom” for Christians and Jews generally means allowing oneself to be killed for God’s sake. Both have ample resources to help adherents understand suffering as a means to spiritual growth and, ultimately, God’s greater triumph.
Muslims, by contrast, place far more emphasis on strength and victory as markers of God’s favor. With Islamic nations struggling to find a foothold in the modern world (and, as David Goldman has observed, facing serious demographic decline) it’s hardly surprising that a fatalistic strand of Islamic thought has gained traction throughout the globe.
Obviously, these are very general considerations, meant merely to gesture in the direction of broad differences between Islam and other related faiths. Of course, not every practicing Muslim will take a deep dive into his tradition; among those who do, not all will decide that violent jihad is the appropriate course of action.
There are, of course, some reasons (internal to the tradition itself) to think that terrorism is not the correct course. But the potential for radicalization is there, and yes, it has something to do with Islam. There probably is no magic bullet for ensuring that devout Muslims never take the dangerous ideological turn that Syed Farook (perhaps under the influence of his Pakistani wife) appears to have taken.
What Should We Do Now?
As Americans, we believe in freedom of worship, even if our enemies don’t always grant us the same courtesy. The president’s own rhetoric was rather troubling in this regard, since he seemed to indicate it would be acceptable to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights (like the right to bear arms) merely the on the basis of suspicion, whether or not they had broken any laws. That’s unacceptable, and we should be quick to assert that the rights of Muslim citizens are as important as anyone else’s.
What should we do, though? On the home front, all we can really do is be cautious. Caution, however, requires us to understand the problem for what it is.
Military and intelligence analysts do need to bone up on their theology, at least to the point where they can understand and assess real security threats. (I’m sure they’ve done this already to some degree.) Local law enforcement should also be aware of potential issues that might arise from Islamic communities that seem to encourage greater piety.
As civilians, we should simply make an effort to be vigilant. That doesn’t mean engaging in gross stereotypes, or treating people like presumed criminals based on their name, ethnic appearance, or dress. It just means being observant, and interpreting what we see in the context of a broader understanding of the sorts of threats that can arise in our modern world.
In the wake of incidents like the Paris shooting and the tragedy in San Bernardino, it becomes obvious that radical Muslims can pose a threat to civil society. As a freedom-loving people, we should try to be as non-invasive as possible in acting on this information. No one’s rights can be curtailed on the basis of what mosque he or she attends, and it pains me to think that ordinary, law-abiding Muslims might be put on the defensive owing to the actions of a small number of radicals.
But I don’t think ugly incidents like this will be avoided by pretending that Islam has nothing to do with anything. People know better. We have to help them to understand more, rather than diverting them with misdirection. (This isn’t really about Islam! It’s about politics! And guns!)
My liberal friends have always assured me that religion can be dangerous. They were right. Face up to it, liberals. Now is no time to take refuge in your teddy-bear god.