Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Islamic Threat: same as it ever was

This article in the Washington Post today got me thinking, about naive Christians and the ever-elusive "peaceful" Islam.

First and last, I applaud anyone who prays for an end to war and terror, and I join these folks in praying for the safe release of the hostages.

But there remains this assertion, which appeals to us Westerners: "Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance."


Let's look around the world, shall we?

Can anyone cite a single nation, where Islam is the clear majority, where there is true equality between religions, where Christians are fully free? That means, free to practice and free to evangelize?

There are a lot of nations with Muslim majorities; and there may be an example of this, somewhere. But let's be candid: the vast majority of Islamic nations do not allow such freedom of religion. For Islam, it is considered generous if they allow Christian minorities to exist in a subordinate state -- so long as they don't get "uppity." Evangelizing is a crime, with both the one bearing the Gospel, and anyone accepting it, facing punishment, sometimes death.

(And for those who think I'm being terribly illiberal here, may I recall what Iran did to a couple of young men who were accused of being homosexual? They were hanged, after being tortured. Folks can complain about the treatment of minorities in the West, including homosexual persons -- but come on.)

The history of Islam shows it to have been an aggressive force, conquering militarily, squeezing Christianity, hemming Christians in, sitting on them, holding them down -- and that's when Islam was being "tolerant."

Now, the response comes rapidly: "But what about the Crusades?"

Ah yes, the Crusades.

First and foremost, the Crusades were defensive. Christian nations watched as Islam relentlessly pressed forward to conquer Christian lands -- and the goal was no secret -- to take everything within reach. I invite anyone who doubts this to do a little research, and note some of the high-water-marks of Islamic invasion into Christendom (Europe): Poitiers (France) in AD 732, and Vienna, twice, most recently in AD 1683. For those who say, "oh, that's a long time ago, everything's changed," I would respond: a lot of things have changed, including "Christendom," the West, and much of the world -- but how much has Islam changed since then?

Oh yeah -- Cyprus -- I forgot ... the latest example of Islamic conquest of Christians, in the 20th century. Oh yeah: Lebanon, too. Oh yeah: Sudan -- 21st century.

My second point about the Crusades is to recall that they were an aberration. I mean this: you had this relatively brief period where the pope and other clerics attempted to rally Christian nations to a common effort to go repel Islamic conquest of formerly Christian lands. They succeeded -- very briefly. Even more briefly did the Christian forces even have the initiative; then, it became a long, retreat.

My point, here, is to suggest that even if you view the Crusading episode as terribly shameful to Christianity, it is hardly as central to Christian history in the same way that conquest is to Islam.

(Herewith the obligatory apology: yes, it's awful that Christians did awful things in the name of Christ. The Crusaders ought to have kept their focus on their actual task, and done so with impeccable adherence to the principles of Just War; alas, every one of them was a sinner, and so they committed a lot of sins and outrages, even to the point of failing in their primary objective. Hence they conquered Constantinople instead of Jerusalem. Were it not so sad, it might be possible to see the tragic comedy of it.)

Third, then, I would point out that the Crusades essentially failed. That's a key difference: Islam summoned the wherewithal to conquer and hold vast Christian areas, and Christians did not. Even cases where Christians regained what was lost were rare.
So let's dispense with the "what about the Crusades" business. Complain (legitimately) about them all you want, they are in no way comparable to the conquest to which they responded; and they do not reveal something essential about Christianity in the way that conquest clearly is at, or very near, the heart of Islam.

Because even if you make the best indictment you can, of Christianity in relation to violence, it still remains true that Christianity has changed in this regard. (The vital subtext of this is the real, though varying, separation of Church and state in Christendom. It is a fact that throughout almost the entire history of Christianity, since Constantine, that Church and state were almost always at odds; the constant attempt of political figures to manipulate the Church invaribly spurred the Church to fight back; and its still true today. Churchmen tried to do the same in reverse; but most of the time, the state had the upper hand. The pope compelled the Holy Roman Emperor to kneel in the snow and beg forgiveness; yet shortly afterward, the same emperor was at war with the pope again. Another pope brought Henry II to public penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. Such episodes are memorable because they are rare.)

So, yes, Church leadership is culpable insofar as it collaborated with political figures to do unseemly, unChrist-like things. But as I said, "Christendom" has completely changed in this regard, to the point that it is unrecognizable today, as the same entity from, say 1500 -- that is, if one can even speak of "Christendom" at all, except as a fond memory.

May I also point out that the bill of indictment against Christendom, in relation to Islam, usually drawn up, is incoherent on present-day "multicultural" grounds! I.e., Christians' sins are only sins according to their own teachings; Christian behavior toward Islam is only "wrong" in Islam, by being the "wrong" side! What Christians have been wrong to do to Islam, Islam has claimed the right to do, itself, to Christians! (Namely, conquer them and "graciously" allow them to be second-class subjects.) My point being, yes we who are Christians can and should fault ourselves, and our predecessors, for failing to live up to the Gospel; but on what basis does Islam complain, other than on the principle of might makes right?

The world still awaits a true, "liberal" (in the classic sense) Islamic society; such would be a genuine partner in interreligious dialogue and cooperation. We hope this is the fruit of the present war in Iraq. The signs, thus far, are inconclusive.

But I can't help recalling attending a expo at the Washington Convention Center in about 1990. It was sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- I went because free things appealed to me given my finances then. After I had toured the displays, I asked one of the representatives standing by: "can you tell me, how many churches are there in Saudi Arabia?"

"None," was his reply.


Mark Anthony said...

Ah, Fr. Martin. I miss you. This is more fun face to face, but blogging is an acceptable second.

First, leave the Crusades out of this. They were a disaster - politically, militarily, and especially spiritually - and no reasonable Christian today would want to replicate them. They had many causes, few of them noble. At their heart, the Crusades were intended to take back the "Holy Land" from the "infidels." The mindset of Christendom (yes, I detest that term) during the Crusades was not one of free people defending themselves from vicious, wild-eyed conquerors. The Crusades were the expected result of two religions and cultures, each of which considered itself "true" in both spiritual and worldly manner.

Besides, the Crusades are only a convenient straw man for your argument. The issue is religious toleration and its origins. It can be said, with little worry of contradiction,that the Church has not been in the vanguard of this movement. You say that Church and State have long been at odds. This was not because the Church wished for religious freedom and tolerance. It was because the Church wished to exert its influence over the State and mold it to the Church's design. It has been true of our Church, it was true of the Puritans, it has been true over and over again.

It is a myth to try and paint the Church as in favor of religious toleration during any period before the mid twentieth century. Religious toleration had its origins in the Enlightenment, as a reaction against Papal authority. The United States was the first nation of note to enshrine the concept in law, and for a long time we really only meant it for Protestants. The Holy See was very wary of the American experiment for a long time, and didn't exactly move with haste to introduce the idea into its own territory. As you well know, Catholics such as John Courtney Murray were silenced and harrassed into the 1950's for daring to dialogue with Protestants.

Religious freedom will come to Islamic countries when political concepts such as democracy take hold. The fault does not lie in Islam itself, but in its connection to the reactionary political systems of the Islamic world. No churches in Saudi Arabia? How many mosques in Christian-controlled Western Europe in the 1400's?

Christianity has a 600 year head start on Islam. If we don't want to be judged by how we asted in 1405 (and I sure don't), then let's pull back on the whole "evil religion" thing. The peaceful Muslims of the West are the future of their faith. They have as much right to call their foem of their faith "true" as we do to call ourselves "true Christians" in opposition to the terrorists of northern Ireland or the Aryans of Idaho.

I'm not saying that Islam and Christianity are equal. You well know that I don't beleive that. I am saying that the whole "There is no such thing as peaceful Islam" program smacks more of political than spiritual purpose, and is patently unfair in the light of history.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

I think it would be a mistake to term this "Islamofascism," as many neo-cons do. Fascism was about control of the state, per se. Islam is about control of one's conscience.

Your posting successfully (in my opinion) points to the religious and historical roots of the problem. Islamic culture is not characterized by openness to outside ideas. Rather, it shares fearful insularity with modern day political correctness. It is like a house built on sand (as in Jesus' parable), but with the wrong materials and using the wrong plan. When the rains come, it tends to collapse. Knowing this, both Islamicists and many in the cultural left tend to react with vitriol and force to anything that questions the established wisdom, rather than engaging the issues.

That's why Saudi Arabia could not abide the presence of a church. That's why China today cannot abide the presence of the Church. That's why Christmas is being purged of Christ.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

I agree with Mark Anthony this much: we're not talking about unmitigated evil when we speak of Islam. What we're talking about, in my humble opinion, is a religious heritage that is objectively dysfunctional.

I am ready to admit that Christianity shares in dysfunction, and that other approaches to life, including so-called "secular humanism" are also dysfunctional. I think all of us would do well to look at our own traditions against objectively positive standards, if we can find such. I also think we will never find such standards if we rely solely on our own knowledge and understanding. Dialog is always necessary and indicated. The problem comes in establishing real dialog.

I also think Fr. Martin's primary point was not about who is without fault, but rather who is more at fault and who remains primarily at fault. Mark, your comment doesn't address that, as far as I can tell.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Fr Larry:

I'd say I'm making a couple of points, one subordinate to the other.

My primary point is that the "peaceful, tolerant Islam" we're told is the main reality, is elusive. I'm all for it; but I strongly suspect there's a lot of wishful thinking and "projection"--if I'm misusing that psychological term--in these repeated assertions.

I certainly hope Mark is right that we have reason to hope it will come, through natural development. I hope I am wrong in my negative assessment of Islam. But I am concerned that too many in our day lack the courage (I do not speak of anyone in this conversation) to say inpolitic, unpleasant things about Islam, and that could be a real problem.

My subordinate point, about the Crusades, is not that they were wonderful, or even should have happened at all. My point was simply to show why I believe they are not the grievance they are made out to be. I almost did leave them out; I included the subject to pre-empt that response. (Although I think there was more nobility in the Crusaders -- not all of them, but many of them -- even if their aims were misguided.)

Mark, you're correct that it would be inaccurate to project backward, into Christian history, the sort of religious tolerance and, even more, freedom, that we experience in the West today. (It remains to be seen whether what we experience now, will endure, and whether a bolder secular climate helps or hurts; but that's another argument.)

But the religious freedom we value today has roots in Christianity, as does the whole matrix of inalienable rights and limited government. No doubt, the so-called Enlightenment gets credit, and I won't deny it its due, but representative government has its roots long before the Enlightenment, as does the notion of law prevailing over human dictate. It's a long process of development.

It's also true that Christendom, if I may run the risk of inexactitude in using that term, did impose its own dhimmitude on Jews and Muslims when it had the chance.

But, based on my extremely limited understanding of the Koran, it seems to me there was a good deal less in Islamic tradition to give them an uneasy conscience about that, than there in in the Christian tradition to give Christians, in time, an uneasy conscience about the matter.

(I welcome someone to point me toward some exposition of the Koran that would address this latter point.)

Mark, you make many good points, but I think the example of northern Ireland and the Aryan "Christians" is a bit strained.

Fr Martin Fox said...

...before someone else calls me on it, I'll correct my own goof:

"...representative government has its roots long before the Enlightenment..."

Indeed -- it predates Christianity!

What I would have done better to point out is that, while the idea of the republic, and of democracy, came from pre-Christian Rome and Greece, what Christianity contributed was the insistence on universal human dignity, and an essential human equality; which, nonetheless, took quite awhile to emerge in law. But it was an essential joining, nonetheless.

Thus, I'd "revise and extend" my prior remarks thusly.