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It’s Time For Islam To Mature Or Perish


Suddenly, it feels like we all need advanced degrees in theology.

How else are we going to make sense of the violence Muslim extremists perpetrated in Paris last week? In the wake of another round of appalling violence, we again find ourselves pondering hard questions about terrorism and its relationship to Islam. Obviously, there is a connection. But what sort of connection? How curable is the disease that affects at least a significant portion of the Islamic world?

At this point, both conservatives and liberals have pretty thoroughly covered the point that, yes, this is an Islam problem and not just a problem with religion as such. We don’t spend much time worrying about Catholic extremists, Mormon extremists, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, Zoroastrian extremists, Baha’i extremists, or Rastafarian extremists. We worry about Muslims, because they’re the ones who are murdering people in the name of their God.

On the other side, some fairly thoughtful people have insisted that it’s wholly unreasonable to connect Islam as a whole with a problem that is surely restricted to an unfortunate few. It has to be, right? For one thing, many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims do emphatically share the rest of the world’s horror over the appalling violence recently wreaked by jihadists (which include, let us not forget, horrendous massacres in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram). Also, as some have observed, all four of the primary schools of Islamic thought (even Wahhabism, the most conservative of the four) have prohibitions on violence against innocents.

As a free society, we believe in protecting freedom of religion, even for those who use it to rail against our society’s core values. We can’t ban the Islamic faith. And we believe in individual responsibility, which means we obviously can’t hold Muslims collectively responsible for the offenses of a few. At the same time, we should also recognize that the above arguments for a “peaceful Islam” are not dispositive. The murder of innocents may technically be “against the rules” within Islam, but obviously it is still happening on a fairly large scale, with the support of even more people than are actually willing to participate. We won’t address this problem just by consulting the rule book. What we need is a deeper understanding of the place of Islam in the modern world. Call in the theologians.

Let’s Ask the Right Questions

How deep does this problem run? Is Islam necessarily and inexorably locked into a death match with free, democratic societies, or are extremists more of an aberrant fringe phenomenon? If the latter, can we somehow encourage the less-malignant interpretations of Islam? Are there reliable ways to head off (or at least recognize) budding extremists before they start shooting and chanting “Allah Akbar?” These questions are difficult, because they draw together considerations of philosophy, theology, and culture. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre we’ve seen a number of too-simple responses reverberating across the web.

Is Islam necessarily and inexorably locked into a death match with free, democratic societies, or are extremists more of an aberrant fringe phenomenon?

Some contend that Islam is simply a violent and barbaric religion, full stop. Thus, we should destroy it before it destroys us. Muslims in Europe may have reason to be concerned at this point, since anti-immigrant sentiments are rising. Violence against Muslims has been more imagined than real up to this point, but of course that could change if the situation worsens. Everyone has plenty to lose if the standoff precipitates more violence in the years to come.

On the other side, some still labor to dismiss any connection between violence and Islam as incidental or simply trivial. Howard Dean made headlines by declaring that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were “about as Muslim as I am.” Vox insisted that it is “bigoted” and “Islamophobic” to expect Muslims to condemn terrorism in the wake of their co-religionists’ appalling violence.

Meanwhile, some attempted to walk a more-reasonable middle line. At Slate, Yascha Mounk tried to finesse the point by suggesting Europeans need to be bolder about standing up to Islamic fundamentalists, while also taming the Islamophobia that “invokes violent extremists to tar the vast majority of peaceful Muslims with the same calumnious brush.” William Saletan took a similar line, arguing that the attackers “became the caricature” instead of avenging one, dishonoring their own faith. True, faithful Muslims would never behave in such a way.

What Would Muhammad Do?

Are we sure about that? What would Muhammad say about the attack on Charlie Hebdo? While I easily understand the appeal of the two-Islam solution (encourage the good guys, condemn the bad), I think the reality is far more complicated.

It seems perverse to persuade peaceful, law-abiding citizens that they’re actually honor-bound to kill us.

Not all Muslims, clearly, support the murderous atrocities of their co-religionists, and it seems perverse to persuade peaceful, law-abiding citizens that they’re actually honor-bound to kill us. It’s also naïve, however, to assume that a peaceful, Western-friendly, modernized Islam is a viable possibility just because we’d really like that. Most Muslims aren’t members of terrorist cells, but many who don’t participate in violent atrocities nevertheless seem sympathetic to terrorists’ motivations. Those who aren’t might simply be inconsistent, or incompletely formed in Islamic mores. Islam would hardly be the only religion to find that its adherents frequently take their cues from mainstream culture more than their own religious tradition.

In short, theology matters, and the numbers (terrorists vs. non-terrorists) aren’t dispositive either way. We shouldn’t oversimplify and assume that Muslims are by nature violent reactionaries. But we also can’t hide from the genuine possibility that authentic Islamic adaptation to the modern world may not be an achievable goal. Sometimes a faith or philosophy really does find itself so wildly out of step with the conditions of the times that the foundation starts to crumble. It’s possible that Islam is in this position now, immovably stuck in a pre-modern age. We may be witnessing (as David Goldman contends) the spasms of a dying civilization. In these kinds of desperate straits, some will prefer to go out with a bang, rule book be damned.

Obviously that’s a grim prognosis, and we should give peaceful, sincere Muslims the space they need to explore other possibilities. In doing so, we also need to be clear about what’s we’re asking. “Adaptation to the modern world” doesn’t mean throwing every tradition overboard and heading to Victoria’s Secret for a shopping spree. Unease about modernity isn’t necessarily problematic in itself; after all, Christianity and Judaism are also pre-modern faiths, which have many critical things to say about contemporary ideals and mores.

Even so, these faiths (for reasons that reach back into centuries of intellectual history) seem to have attained a greater philosophical maturity. Far more than Islam, they have the theological and spiritual resources they need to articulate fundamental beliefs in a way that’s responsive to modern mores, instead of violently rejectionist. That’s why you find them organizing social and political movements rather than terrorist cells. If Muslims could likewise position themselves as a mature and peaceful critics of the modern age, that would be fine. But it needs to be possible to remain robustly Muslim while also being a peaceful citizen of free and democratic societies. Muslims seem deeply divided among themselves as to whether it is, and how.

It needs to be possible to remain robustly Muslim while also being a peaceful citizen of free and democratic societies.

I’m not sure whether they can bridge this gap, although some are certainly trying. As one piece of this effort, knowledgeable scholars of Islamic law (both Muslim and not) are articulating reasons, from within the Islamic tradition itself, for condemning the atrocities of violent jihadists. John A. Azumah recently wrote an admirable summary of the ways in which extremist groups violate Islam’s own rules of just war. He suggests, persuasively, that we should try to undermine Islamic militants by urging young Muslims across the globe to adhere more strictly to these components of their own tradition.

Less persuasive was his suggestion that extremists might fairly be viewed as renegade outliers, similar to the Branch Davidians, or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda (which quoted Biblical texts to justify its actions). For one thing, I’d happily accept Branch Davidians as next-door neighbors rather than live anywhere in the vicinity of Boko Haram militants. More importantly, these groups are clearly far more marginal within Christianity than Islamic extremists are to their fellow believers. And that matters. Even if jihadists are in many respects non-representative of all Muslims, their movements are large, global, and obviously admired by many Muslims. Far more than the Branch Davidians, it’s reasonable to suppose that they are symptomatic of deeper problems that affect all Muslims, and that need to be settled before jihadists can lose their ability to rally the disaffected.

Islam Is a Religion in Crisis

If Muslims cannot find good ways to articulate and live their faith within the context of the modern world, the result will be more violence. Over the longer run, there are other serious implications for Islam as a faith. Already there are reasons to think that Christianity is ascending as an ever-more-important spiritual influence in areas of Africa and Asia that have traditionally been Islamic strongholds. Muslims are finding it more difficult to reach their own people, theologically and spiritually; other faiths are starting to fill the gap. This of course is one major reason why Christians are often intensely persecuted in those regions.

Don’t be fooled by the confidence of its more frighteningly zealous proponents. Islam is a religion in crisis. Some will always be attracted to lost causes, and of course for many, Islam is attractive precisely because it seems so uncompromisingly anti-modern. But most people will always prefer to live their faith, rather than killing and dying for it. If Muslims wish to salvage something of their civilization, they need to convince their adherents that there is a way forward for them that does not involve a choice between mass murder and capitulation to the assumptions of the secular world.