IT MAY BE UNCOMFORTABLE, BUT WE HAVE TO
FACE THE ISLAMIST WORLDVIEW HONESTLY
September 11, 2001, I was working at The Ave Maria Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when someone came rushing in to announce that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A bunch of us scurried to the newsroom of Credo, a Catholic community tabloid we published at the time. There a TV was kept tuned to cable news. When the second plane crashed into the second tower, productivity came to a total halt throughout the organization.
Of course, 9/11 was a disruption for the whole country. And so, Al Kresta, host of Ave Maria Radio’s daily talk show, “Kresta In the Afternoon,” found himself with no guests available for that day’s broadcast.
I offered to sit in with him, and the two of us kept up a running — if somewhat disjointed — narrative of the day’s unfolding drama drawn from reports collected by Al’s then-producer, Kathy Schiffer (now a widely read blogger at the Patheos Catholic portal).
While word was spreading that the Islamist radical group al-Qaeda was likely behind the attacks, a theme began to emerge in the reports and TV chatter — to whit: that these were cowardly acts perpetrated by madmen.
Granted such early comments reflected people’s initial shock. But thinking about the brazen evil that had come upon us that morning I remarked to Al on the air…
“They aren’t cowards, and they aren’t madmen. They have a profoundly different understanding of life.”
The extent of that difference should be clear after decades of suicide bombings, assassinations, and all varieties of mass slaughter. By now it ought to be beyond dispute that our western ideals of justice, humaneness, and legitimate conduct of a just war (difficult enough for us to maintain) are entirely irrelevant to the dream of Muslim world domination, especially as we observe the revolting acts of al-Qaeda’s wicked spawn, the so-called Islamic State.
But no. Efforts to explain away Islamist radicalism persist — defining it as ideological illusion, or as a reaction to Western (especially American) cultural imperialism, or as some kind of psychological aberration.
This last explanation is probably touted most frequently. Typical is a recent piece by columnist Janet Daily in the UK’s Telegraph. The American-born Daily makes some valid points — for instance…
“Each time the West (or the Iraqi government) has a failure of nerve, it reinforces the myth of [ISIS’s] invulnerability — and another tranche of baby-faced malcontents flies out to sign up for global jihad.”
True enough. But Daily doesn’t seem able to grasp the religious character of this movement. Instead, she’s locked into a decidedly clinical perspective…
“The world has dealt with mass psychosis before — or rather, failed to deal with it. It would be unforgiveable to make the same fatal mistake again: to treat what is really a form of mindlessness as if it were a rational programme that could somehow be accommodated in the global debate ….
“Any possibility of eliminating it as a threat will have to treat it as a delusion which must be undermined, not a lucid plan that can be defeated by diplomatic strategy.”
No quarrel on that score. Diplomatic strategy would be the ultimate mindlessness in this context.
But it’s a sure bet we’ll fail to deal with the situation effectively unless we recognize that what we face is fundamentally a religious movement.
Now, you can argue till the cows come home over whether the horrific brutality of IS/ISIL/ISIS distorts the true nature of Islam or expresses it (for a related discussion see my post of July 7). Nevertheless, those who have attached themselves to the Islamic State are acting on some understanding of Muslim doctrine, even if it’s an incorrect reading. And clearly, their methods reflect principles set forth explicitly in the Qu’ran and other sacred writings of Islamic tradition — for example, on the justification for beheadings…
“I shall cast terror into the unbelievers’ hearts; so smite them above their necks, and smite every finger of them.” (Qu’ran, Surah 8, Verse 12)
Scottish commentator Douglas Murray insists that reluctance to explore the religious character of Islamist radicalism is common in government and throughout much of British society (I would say that’s true in America as well). Writing in the UK Spectator, Murray observes that…
“although the radicals…have what is obviously the worst interpretation of Islam, it is nevertheless a plausible interpretation. They didn’t get where they got from nowhere, and we hamper our efforts to defeat this terrible interpretation if Muslims and non-Muslims do not take it straight on.”
Murray attributes the unwillingness to tackle this reality to a certain cultural/religious blindness in the West…
“At some point our society seems to have informally decided that this discussion cannot be had. Perhaps it is because a Christian or post-Christian country just assumes that all religions are like Christianity and all religious founders must be Christ-like in their behaviour.”
And I think he’s onto something.
Of course, we can’t overlook the political dimension, especially in Britain where, according to the 2011 UK census, Muslims are the second largest religious group, accounting for nearly five percent of the population. Nor can we dismiss the singular emphasis on tolerance that has made it socially unacceptable to address any awkward topic associated with ethnicity, culture or religion.
But it’s ironic that Western society would cling to the Christian referent Murray cites when we have long ceased to shield Christianity from criticism of the violence in Church history.
We don’t whitewash the religious conflicts of the 16th Century by emphasizing the rise of nationalism; we see them as interdenominational war. Likewise, the Spanish Inquisition is never presented as an effort to root out the last vestiges of Moorish influence. Rather it’s unfailingly noted as the supreme example of Catholic bigotry.
This, of course, reflects a growing secularism that promotes the insidious idea that religion, in itself, causes war and suffering. Add to that the romantic multicultural illusion that one faith is pretty much the same as the next…
Aren’t all people really alike deep in their hearts? Doesn’t everybody love their children?
…and you have a perfect formula for confusion over what’s going on in the Middle East.
In the U.S. there’s an added dimension: the current Administration’s conceit that it can somehow finesse the Muslim world through broad statements of national good will and strategic application of the President’s cheerful personality. Although, it must be said that the startling barbarity of IS/ISIL/ISIS appears to have shaken the poise of this cosmopolitan man, Barack Obama, whose boyhood experiences in Indonesia gave him a special sympathy for Muslim culture and once made him so confident in his understanding of Islam (note the unfortunate we-don’t-have-a-strategy gaffe).
Here’s the fact of the matter: We are facing a militant force — a trans-national movement, really — that is motivated by a fanatical religious vision.
To recognize this reality is not to set ourselves against all Muslims. Indeed, we are at a time when we should (and can) build up our alliances within the Muslim world.
Because, despite our shock at the genocidal killings of Christians, it is Muslims who are the primary victims of the so-called Islamic State: Shiites, Sufis, even Sunnis who don’t accept the ultra-extreme vision of IS/ISIL/ISIS. This is a rare opportunity for international/interfaith cooperation (as I observed in my post of August 16), a truly pivotal moment.
But we cannot close our eyes to the religious character of Islamist radicalism. Murray stresses this point, noting that…
“we exacerbate the problem on all sides when we refuse to tackle or even address the problematic things in the Muslim faith in the same way that we would with any other faith. We assist the claims of the extremists by failing to provide any counter-narrative….”
That counter-narrative has to come from the non-extreme elements in the Muslim world, and we must do everything we can to encourage its being heard. That means providing improved security and as much protection as possible in those places where speaking against extremism means, literally, risking your head.
Which may mean at least some American boots on the ground.
Christianity is also part of the counter-narrative. What’s needed on that front is a reawakening of commitment to the religious/cultural traditions that are the basis of Western civilization.
Too many of Janet Daily’s baby-faced malcontents have made the tragic pilgrimage from nominally Christian homes to fervent jihadist cults. Which means we must do a better job of telling the Christian story — telling it in ways that can convince our young people and inspire their loyalty.
As for all you happy secularists out there — drop your carping about the foolishness of faith and the oppressiveness of organized religion. How long do you think you’ll be free to live in comfortable, undemanding agnosticism should radical Islam triumph?
As I observed to Al Kresta back on 9/11, our enemies aren’t cowards, and they aren’t madmen. They have a profoundly different understanding of life — one we must confront.
And it’s all about religion.
As I observed in my August 16 post…
“After a string of foreign policy disasters, the President is going to have a hard time enunciating — and then selling — a coherent vision for countering IS to the American public.”
The most hopeful development in our current vexing situation has been the strong opposition to IS/ISIL/ISIS voiced by Muslim organizations and prominent individuals. For instance, AP reports that Nabil Elaraby, head of the 22-nation Arab League, has called for a…
“‘clear and firm decision for a comprehensive confrontation’ with ‘cancerous and terrorist’ groups.”
Homegrown radicalism is a problem throughout Christian civilization. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer for the Holy See at UN offices in Geneva, charges Europe to…
“ask itself why it has failed to be able to teach these young people to organize their life in order to build something positive in Europe, instead of wasting their lives through violence and fighting.”
I came across an interesting piece by R. R. Reno, editor of the journal, First Things. He sees the brutality of IS/ISIL/ISIS as not at all unique and not particularly religious in inspiration. Rather, he identifies it as a phenomenon that has recurred throughout human history.
Reno draws some insightful parallels between the rise of Nazism and that of the so-called Islamic State. And he sees similarities in motive between those who supported Hitler and those backing the new radical-in-chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi…
“I’m willing to bet that not a few elites in the Middle East think the way the German generals, aristocrats, and businessmen did in 1932. For them, ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, is useful extremism: a populist safety valve, a cat’s paw to use against enemies, and a source of crises that redirects attention away from their unsustainable dominance over their own rapidly changing societies.”
Well…yeah…okay. But that doesn’t negate the religious impulse at the heart of IS/ISIL/ISIS — or, for that matter, at the heart of Nazism, which was very much a religion in its own way. Nazis invoked the spirit and ideals of the ancient Germanic gods, maintained their own (secular/state) sacraments, and inspired a charismatic fervor that was religious in both style and effect. The SS, in particular, had a distinctly mystical side, conducting its own esoteric ceremonials.
Still, Reno’s observations are astute. Give them a read at…
There’s a definite feeling in the air of a world lining up, taking sides. It’s apparent even within Church circles. The Bishop of Imola, Italy, Tommaso Ghirelli, recently issued an extraordinary statement in his diocesan newspaper, in which he decried “the cruelty and arrogance of the armed bands [that] have reached levels of bestial paroxysm.”
Specifically referencing Muslims living in Europe, Bishop Ghirelli asserted that…
“we are asking the Muslims who live among us to show that they are honourable men, and publicly condemn these persecutions and acts of cruelty. Otherwise they ought to have the courage to leave our country, because nobody wants to have enemies in their own home.”
Tough language from a churchman…
David Wood of the Christian apologetics ministry, Answering Muslims (www.answeringmuslims.com), has a very effective video in which he highlights 10 key verses from the Qu’ran, demonstrating how they are being actualized in the depredations of IS/ISIL/ISIS. There may be other ways of reading these verses than those offered by Wood. I don’t know; I’m not a student of Islam. But it’s hard to deny the religious connection to what’s happening in the so-called Islamic State…