The important thing about a religion, said C.S. Lewis, is not whether it makes one feel good, but whether it is true. This observation came to mind while reading a recent piece by Jesuit Father James Schall, titled “Speaking Honestly About Islam.”
Father Schall suggests that we haven’t been telling the truth about Islam because to do so violates the feel-good principle that currently rules Western societies. According to the feel-good principle, self-esteem is the highest value. And, therefore, every person, culture and religion has an inalienable right to feel good about oneself/itself.
People hew to the Islam-is-peace line because they don’t want to give offense and also because they don’t want to be accused of a hate crime. It’s a well-founded fear.
In many Western societies, numerous individuals — and some of them very prominent individuals — have been put on trial for the crime of criticizing Islam: Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant in Canada, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Lars Hedegaard in Denmark and Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria, to name a few. In several cases, the defendants were informed that truth was no defense. The accuracy of their criticism, they were told, was beside the point (the point being that they had said hurtful things).
Honesty is the best policy, according to the old maxim, but many Western governments have adopted a deliberate policy of prevarication in regard to Islam. Hardly a day goes by when some Western leader or other isn’t explaining away the latest jihad attack as having nothing to do with Islam.
It’s not that leaders are doing nothing about the problem of jihad. A number of European countries have belatedly launched de-radicalization programs aimed at countering jihadist ideology. For example, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced a five-year plan to defeat Islamic extremism.
The trouble with these programs is that they can’t let go of the lie. The central feature of most of these initiatives is the enlistment of moderate Muslims in a campaign to convince potential jihadists that Islam has nothing to do with jihad (or else to convince them that jihad, correctly understood, is nothing more than an interior spiritual struggle).
This puts the Muslim leaders who are willing to sign up for such campaigns in a difficult spot. They are in essence trying to defend a largely indefensible position. While it’s true that Islam can be practiced peacefully (and, thank God, that’s the way most Muslims practice it), that can only be done by ignoring some of Islam’s fundamental teachings. As Father Schall observes, “It is senseless to pretend that a jihadist vision is not found in the Quran.”
“What has to be faced by everyone is not the ‘violence’ of Islam, but its truth. We may not ‘like’ a jihadist view of the Quran. But we denigrate the dignity of ISIS and other violent strains in both Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam that clearly see that their interpretation of Islam has legitimate roots in the Quran, in Islamic history and in the judgment of many authoritative commentators.”
To some extent, Father Schall is playing the devil’s advocate. He does not really believe in the dignity of ISIS, but he does suggest that their beliefs are honest. What is the basic attraction that draws young men and women to Islamic movements? Father Schall replies that the main motivation is the perception that the Quran is true. Most jihadists wage jihad because they believe that is what Allah wants them to do.
A campaign based on the dubious notion that Allah does not command jihad is a hard sell. Both sides — the moderates and the radicals — can quote scripture to defend their positions, but the jihadists seem to be able to quote it much more extensively and convincingly. Many of the moderates are akin to “cafeteria Catholics.” They have a family or cultural attachment to Islam, but they don’t have a thorough knowledge of their faith or any great desire to follow all of its commands. They have a more Westernized and subjective understanding of Islam than their fundamentalist brethren and are inclined to say things like “That’s not my Islam” when condemning jihadist violence.
In other words, for some moderate Muslims, Islam is more of a personalized construct — a religion made in the image of their own subjective inclinations. The comparison to cafeteria Catholics is useful because it helps us to better understand the relation of the moderate Muslim to his religion. The Catholic who is accepting of abortion and same-sex “marriage” is convinced that the Church will eventually come around to the same position. The truly moderate Muslim would never resort to violence, and so he convinces himself that his religion must therefore be a religion of peace. In short, the moderate Muslim adheres to what author Stephen Kirby calls “fantasy Islam.”
Because it’s based in fantasy, the whole effort to convince jihadists and would-be jihadists that Islam is a religion of peace seems doomed to failure. Granted, many Western leaders don’t really believe what they’re saying and look upon their anti-radicalization projects merely from a pragmatic point of view. But even looked at from a purely practical standpoint, it’s doubtful that a strategy based on such a massive lie can succeed.
Muslim leaders, of course, are caught in a bind on this issue. On the one hand, they need to please their Western hosts; on the other hand, they can’t afford to repudiate large parts of Islamic scripture and tradition.
But Western leaders and opinion-makers have fewer constraints. They might consider telling the truth for a change. It might prove in the long run to be a much better strategy than the current self-defeating one.
Islamic radicals have a very good case that their version of Islam is truer to the original than the moderate version. The proper way to undermine their ideology/theology is not to cast doubts on their interpretation of Islam, but to cast doubts about the truth of Islam itself.
That may seem like an impossible undertaking, but one thing that works in favor of the truth-telling strategy is that, despite their violence, many jihadists do seem to be truth-seekers. There is abundant evidence from their letters, diaries, blogs, Facebook pages and last-testament videos that they believe they have discovered what God truly wants them to do. For this reason, they may be more likely candidates for conversion to a higher truth than many a lukewarm Muslim.
William Kilpatrick is the author of Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius, November 2012).
For more on his work and writings, visit his website, TurningPointProject.com.