In the wake of the London bombings and the savage terrorist attacks in Iraq, you can hear a new chorus on the talk shows and commentary columns.
“Let's have the courage to tell the truth,” they say. “It's time to admit that Islam itself is the problem.”
In this view, the Koran itself is at the root of terrorist violence. But there are a couple of problems with this view.
One is the profile of the London suicide bombers that is emerging: They were the well-off children of culturally assimilated British families.
“The most common stereotype of a suicide bomber is that of a young man or teenage boy who has no job, no education, no prospects and no hope,” wrote American academic Robert Pape in his new book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. “[But] in general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane or economically destitute individuals, but are mostly educated, socially integrated and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future.”
They are disaffected, bored Westerners picked off by radicals.
“They know very little about religion, and what they do know is out of context,” Rohan Gunaratna from Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies told the Australian. “They know selected passages of the Koran that the [radical] imams have told them.”
Another problem with the attempt to condemn the whole Islamic world for terrorism is that it ignores a key piece of information: Our own culture is hardly in a place where we can blithely assert our superiority.
The progression of abortion, euthanasia and attacks on the family in the West has gotten so bad that Pope John Paul II called ours a “culture of death.” He said our culture is “is marked by the fatal attempt to secure the good of humanity by eliminating God, the Supreme Good.”
There is, of course, a crucial difference between the “culture of death” in the West and the violent extremism of the East. Muslim extremists attack in the name of religion. Our own culture's evils come as we reject our Christian roots.
So how can we isolate and address the real faults of Islam and the West?
This is where Catholics are in a unique place to play a key role in the central conflict of our times. Catholics can be re-evangelizers of the West to overcome our own culture's weakness — and we can be partners in a dialogue with the East to emphasize the best in Islam and find a larger role for Christianity in the Middle East.
“Dialogue” can sound like a weasel-word to our ears. We think it means ducking from a problem by throwing words at it.
Pope Benedict XVI doesn't think of it that way. On April 24 he said it is “imperative to engage in authentic and sincere dialogue” with Muslims.
Pope John Paul II provided a model of that dialogue in Crossing the Threshold of Hope when he wrote about Islam.
“As a result of their monotheism, believers in Allah are particularly close to us,” he wrote. He praised Muslims who “without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer.”
But he added that while some of the “most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran … He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
And what they believe about God affects what Muslims believe about the human person, he said.
God taught us about ourselves by becoming one of us, dying for us, and remaining with us in the Eucharist; he taught us the great dignity of the human person. In Muslim beliefs, God never went so far to affirm that dignity in his people — and as a result, fundamentalist Muslim countries have an impoverished view of human rights.
Pope Benedict put his finger on the best way Christians and Muslims can bridge their basic theological difference when he said that any dialogue with Muslims must be “built on respect for the dignity of every human person, created as we Christians firmly believe, in the image and likeness of God.”
If we can't find commonality in God's redemption, perhaps we can find it in his creation.
But we can't do it as a secular anti-family bloc. A re-Christianized West is our strongest defense against Islamic extremism. That's a tall order — but one that John Paul II reduced to achievable goals when he asked Catholics to promote four basic practices: Sunday Mass, confession, prayer and service. If the Church took up that challenge, the speed of the results would surprise us.
A vibrant, Christian culture of faith and life can prevail against an extremist religious onslaught. A culture of death and doubt cannot.
- July 24-August 6, 2005