President Obama’s recent talk at the National Prayer Breakfast was the latest of many efforts to absolve Islam of the crimes of Islamists. World leaders are constantly telling us that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam. Obama did so by drawing a moral equivalence between Christianity and Islam. As he reminded us, Crusaders were invading and inquisitors were torturing innocent people in the name of Christ back in the day.
The implication being that just as it is unfair to pin the blame for the excesses of the Crusades and the Inquisition on Christianity itself, it’s wrong to blame Islam for the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group (ISIS) and Boko Haram.
Likewise, in a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Obama claimed that “99.9% of Muslims” reject radical Islam. So, again by implication, to understand what Islam teaches, we should look to the vast majority of peaceful Muslims rather than the handful of terrorists.
It might seem to be a compelling argument; but, in fact, it’s full of holes. The issue is not what individual Muslims believe, but what Islam teaches. For example, what some (and even many) individual Catholics may believe about an article of faith or morals doesn’t tell us what the Church actually teaches. According to various polls, a great many Catholics see nothing wrong with contraception, abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Yet we wouldn’t conclude from this that the Church teaches these practices are permissible. The Church has very clear teachings in these areas, as she does on the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — another article of faith that many Catholics don’t subscribe to.
The fact that some or many Muslims reject violent jihad and lead peaceful lives doesn’t mean that Muslims have no religious duty to engage in jihad. In fact, they do. Although not all Muslims are expected to fight, all are expected to support jihad in some way (for the specific rules and regulations surrounding jihad, see Reliance of the Traveller, section o9.0-15). It’s to their credit if they ignore their obligation, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking there is no such duty according to Islamic law.
It’s often claimed that the atrocities committed by ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and other groups are thoroughly un-Islamic. If that were true, however, then the very first misunderstand-er of Islam was Muhammad himself. He permitted rape and sex slavery, and he ordered that prisoners be tortured and beheaded. And contrary to the current claim that burning prisoners alive is un-Islamic, Muhammad once ordered that a fire be lit on a prisoner’s chest until he revealed the site of a hidden treasure.
The point is: In Islamic law and tradition, Muhammad’s example is considered paradigmatic. His behavior sets the standard for what is permissible and impermissible. If 99.9% of Muslims reject radical Islam, then, to be consistent, the same percentage would have to reject their own prophet. By 21st-century standards, Muhammad was a moral monster. We would expect a good person to reject much of his behavior. If a Muslim rejects Muhammad, however, he is considered a bad Muslim and an apostate — and is therefore deserving of death.
Of course, the 99.9 figure is grossly inflated. Numerous polls have shown that a significant number of Muslims believe in violent jihad, and even greater numbers support the most brutal aspects of sharia law. The 2009 Pew “Global Attitudes Survey” of Pakistani public opinion found that 83% of Pakistanis favor stoning adulterers, 80% favor whipping or amputation for thieves and 78% favor death for apostasy. A 2011 Pew survey of Egyptians showed similar results.
Nevertheless, Western leaders and Muslim leaders (King Abdullah of Jordan comes to mind) continue to insist that terrorist behavior is un-Islamic. Admittedly, it’s confusing. Most Western leaders, of course, understand very little about Islam, but Muslim leaders do. Wouldn’t they know if something is Islamic or not? Yes, for the most part, they would. But for reasons of state, it’s not always prudent to say what they know.
Established Muslim nations, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are highly vulnerable to external attacks from ISIS and the growth of ISIS-type movements within their own borders. Thus, it is in their best interests to condemn ISIS, and in the Muslim world, the best way to malign a movement is to call it un-Islamic. If Muslim leaders were to say — as Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi recently came close to saying — that the problem of violence is rooted in Islam itself, they would risk losing their legitimacy — and possibly their lives.
That’s not to say that the defense of the Islamic faith is all calculated hypocrisy. Most people have a filial attachment to the faith they were brought up in. Even “cafeteria Catholics” or Easter-only Catholics still identify as Catholics. And just as it’s difficult to admit the faults of one’s mother, it’s difficult to entertain the thought that there is something intrinsically wrong with one’s faith. In a sense, it’s a matter of family loyalty. And this is even more the case in the Middle East, where family, tribal and religious loyalties are all bound together.
It’s not surprising that many Muslims want to distance themselves from groups like ISIS. It’s more of a mystery why Western leaders, Western media and even Western churchmen persist in the fiction that Muslim terrorists who emulate the zeal and the deeds of their prophet are betrayers of Islam.
Unfortunately, too many influential Catholics, some bishops included, tend to go along with the nothing-to-do-with-Islam charade. Because they don’t want to think badly of a fellow religion, they nod their heads in agreement when it is asserted that such and such an atrocity is thoroughly un-Islamic. They have demonstrated their tolerance and open-mindedness. Now, it’s time for them to demonstrate some common sense.
William Kilpatrick is the author of Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West.