I am not disposed toward the soothingly facile idea embodied in the popular expression, “Let’s agree to disagree.” That trite phrase, intended to avoid confrontation, generally has the effect of delaying, or defeating entirely, any attempt to uncover the truth or error at the root of the question under disagreement. Indeed, agreeing to disagree is what allowed slavery to continue in America for three quarters of a century after the Constitution was ratified. And, it remains a favorite concept of politicians who seek to advance their own agendas behind the screen of an alleged “bipartisanship.”
Such shallow diplomacy is embedded in the contemporary exaltation of tolerance as the primary virtue necessary for life in a civil society. It is sham wisdom grounded in the hope that acceptance of each other’s perception of reality will produce peaceful co-existence (“Whatever works for you!”). What it actually produces is the lie of relativism, which holds that all opinions and cultural practices are equally true and good.
Not confronting difficult questions is destructive of civilization. The American Civil War shows how not dealing with the critical issue of human rights led to national disaster. In more recent times, agreeing to disagree over the intentions and behavior of the Nazis, during the years before World War II, led to conflict on a global scale. Only the clear-sightedness and courage of Winston Churchill, who exposed Hitler’s perverted philosophy and ultimate goals when others chose to look away in appeasement, prepared Britain for war, and kept Germany from conquering Europe.
Religion is an area in which agreeing to disagree is the default position. It’s one of two extremely touchy subjects which social prudence counsels never to discuss (the other being politics). And I can’t deny that, throughout most of our history, the standard American formula for religious concord—You go to your church, and I’ll go to mine!—has largely succeeded in avoiding the extremes of European-style, sectarian strife which the Founding Fathers were so intent on keeping from our shores.
Today, however, we face a political/religious challenge in which, avoiding hard truths, exposes us to a real and present danger. That is the challenge of Islam. We may agree to disagree about what portion of the Muslim population is sympathetic to Islamist extremism. But, anyone who fails to acknowledge the reality that violence is being carried out daily in the name of Allah and the Qur’an is not in disagreement, but rather in a pathological state of denial.
Such denial is widespread. Whether out of naïveté, cultural relativism, the hope for co-existence through finding common ground, or simple fear, there are too many individuals in positions of visibility, influence or authority that are patently unwilling to identify the threat we face, name its source—Muslim radicalism—and speak about it clearly. Unfortunately, that’s even true of some figures within the Church.
For example, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has insisted flatly that: “We must not fear Islam.” In his opening address, “Christianity, Islam and Modernity,” to a two-day congress, sponsored by the faculty of theology of Granada, Spain, the Cardinal noted differences between the two faiths regarding theology and human rights. But, he minimized their significance compared to Christian-Muslim agreement on “the oneness of God, the sacredness of life, the conviction that we must transmit moral values to young people, the value of the family for the emotional and moral growth of children and the importance of religion in education” (Tauran, 2010).
The Cardinal’s view accords with the generous treatment of Islam shown in documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. For instance, the dogmatic constitution, Lumen gentium, notes that the plan of salvation includes other peoples who acknowledge the Creator. “In the first place amongst these,” it reads, “there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” Likewise, Nostra aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, compliments Muslims for their devotion to God, noting their willingness to “submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees.”
Such statements are largely expressions of hopefulness and Christian charity, not De fide teachings essential to Catholic belief. And clearly, they suggest a certain wistful longing that Christians might emulate the single-mindedness which Muslims bring to their religious duties and pious practices. But they don’t reflect a very deep analysis of what Muslims take to be the decrees of God, many of which, from a Christian perspective, are inscrutable indeed.
French scholar Sylvain Gouguenheim challenged Cardinal Tauran’s assertions in a Brussels Journal article (1/15/09). Far from being entranced by any convictions which the two religions may have in common, Gouguenheim noted that Christian and Muslim values are fundamentally incompatible because, “Their gods do not partake in the same discourse, do not put forward the same values, do not propose for humanity the same destiny, and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organization in human society” (Schall, 2009).
Pope Benedict XVI, when he served as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was very much in agreement with Gouguenheim’s assessment, and so opposed the entry of Turkey into the European Union (EU). The then-Cardinal Ratzinger clearly saw a fundamental conflict between the values of Turkish society, which is predominantly Muslim, and the Christian values upon which European civilization is based.
The Pope is one of the few world leaders to spotlight the essential character of Islam on an international stage. In his famous Regensburg Address (2006), Benedict pointed to the dangers inherent in the religion because of a disconnect between faith and reason. The Holy Father quoted 15th-Century Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus II, who in a dialogue with an educated Persian, stated, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The choice of these words was no diplomatic faux pas. They were intended to warn the world of the eminent danger which Islam presented to freedom, human dignity, and international security five years after 9/11.
The very first of the Ten Commandments reads, “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” From the time of Abraham, resistance to those strange gods has been the ongoing struggle at the heart of the Judeo-Christian religious/moral tradition. Many of the Old Testament prophets lost their lives fighting the baals (gods) of the Canaanites. Early Christians were martyred for their refusal to recognize the gods of Rome, which St. Paul had no problem identifying as “not gods at all.”
The Church maintained a no-compromise policy for two millennia, sending missionaries to “preach the truth in love.” For them, the unveiling of error was central to the Good News they carried throughout the world. As recently as February 2010, the Holy Father’s prayer intentions focused on this fundamental requisite of evangelization. He pleaded, “For all scholars and intellectuals, that by means of a sincere search for truth, they may arrive at an understanding of the one true God.”
But as our multi-cultural society has elevated tolerance to the status of a primary virtue, sharpness in delineating truth from error has given way to the belief that all religions are equally valid, all deserve equal respect, and, therefore, none should be challenged. This idea has taken hold among Christians, so that, today, it is widely assumed that, since Islam preaches one God—known in Arabic as Allah—it is, therefore, a monotheistic faith on par with Christianity.
Yet, the teachings of Allah, as they were allegedly revealed to Mohammed, are at wide variance with the teachings brought to us by Christ. The turmoil and division that have characterized the history of Islam, have created tremendous confusion and discord among Islam’s own adherents, and brought violence, destruction, poverty, and denial of freedom wherever the religion has gained dominance.
What is called for, at this moment in history, is not some pointless search for common ground. Christians and Muslims know that common ground exists. There are principles we share, and issues of moral concern on which we find ourselves allied (the struggle against abortion, for one). But, religious peace and human safety are not advanced by the willful blindness that goes by the name of tolerance—by agreeing to disagree. We must, instead, focus on seeking truth. I suggest we begin our search by considering the following topics.
In a 2008 speech entitled, An Alliance of Patriots, Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch Parliament, noted how the behavior of Mohammed is given as an example to all Muslims, and cannot be criticized. Wilders observed that, “if Mohammed had been a man of peace, let us say, like Ghandi and Mother Teresa wrapped in one, there would be no problem. But Mohammed was a warlord, a mass murderer, a pedophile, and had several marriages—at the same time. Islamic tradition tells us how he fought in battles, how he had his enemies murdered, and even had prisoners of war executed. Mohammed himself slaughtered the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza.” Wilders pointed out the implications of this idealization of Mohammed’s very questionable life. “If it is good for Islam,” he said, “it is good. If it is bad for Islam, it is bad.”
Writing in the New York Post, Nujood Ali, author of, I am Nujood: Age 10 and Divorced, provided a poignant example of how Mohammed’s behavior is used to justify the behavior of Muslim men toward women, especially young girls. She recalled how her father contracted a marriage for her at age 10. When her mother objected that she was too young, her father said, “Too young? When the Prophet wed Aisha, she was only nine years old” (Steward 2010).
Muslims believe that Allah dictated the Qur’an to Mohammed. In it, Allah reveals himself to be the only true god. He is totally transcendent, and no one can ever know him personally. The Qur’an describes Allah as able to do anything, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. He is not limited by nature—even his own nature—or by his word. He defies reason.
Thus, the Qur’an reveals a capricious god. Nowhere is that more evident than in Allah’s instructions to Muslims about what their attitudes should be toward non-Muslims. For example, v.99, sura 10 states, “you cannot force people to believe.” However, v. 29, sura 9 says, “Fight against those who do not believe [in Allah]…” Throughout history, this contradiction has led to conflicting interpretations by different religious scholars (imams) on the subject of conversion, and relations between religious groups, often with disastrous consequences for the peoples that found themselves in the path of Muslim conquerors.
Beyond inconsistency, there is within Islam an essential fanaticism whose very source is how Muslims understand their god. This has been highlighted brilliantly by a man who knows Islamist fanaticism from the inside, Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a founding member of the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Yousef told of his conversion to Christianity, and his love for Jesus Christ. When asked if he considered his father a fanatic, he described him rather as “a very moderate, logical person.”
“What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not,” Yousef said. “He’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day, a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God.”
Yousef acknowledged that his assessment of Islam sounded harsh, and did not bode well for the prospects of peace between the Muslim world and the Christian West. “Most governments avoid this subject,” he said. “They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war. The problem is not in Muslims. The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to” (Kaminski, 2010).
It is the very concept of a god subject to no rules—neither his own, nor those of the world he created—that has produced the danger which Islam represents to an increasingly insecure world.
The Qur’an, upon which all Muslims depend for their fundamental dogma, is believed to be descended directly from Allah to Mohammed—known to all Muslims as “The Prophet”—who is simply the transmitter of the message. Islam does not accept the idea that the Qur’an has been refracted through any human agency, or conditioned by culture or period, unlike what Christians understand about the Bible. Therefore, it is forbidden to use the tools of modern historical research or critical analysis in studying the Qur’an or in determining the application of its principles to contemporary circumstances.
The authoritative collections of suras (chapters) found in the Qur’an were assembled by Khalif Uthman in the middle of the 7th century, after Mohammed’s death. The collated result has been accepted as the official version of the revelation from Allah since that time.
However, even though there is an authoritative version of the Qur’an, there is no officially recognized interpreter of its text. In other words, there is no magisterium, or teaching authority, that is in any way comparable to that within the Catholic Church. Believers identify with different schools of Qur’anic interpretation, or turn to their own preferred imams (Samir, 2008).
Hence, the fissiparous nature of Islam, with its multiplicity of sects, are a reality which was unintentionally highlighted by Cardinal Tauran in his address. The Cardinal noted with satisfaction that the “climate of dialogue with Muslims has improved.” But this begs the question: with which Muslims? Sunnis? Shiites? It is doubtful that the radical Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia are very keen for interreligious dialogue. This group is one of the major sponsors of international terrorism. Its most famous son is Osama bin Laden.
The volatility of Allah, and the ambiguity of the Qur’an, have wreaked havoc on civilization since the inception of Islam. Theocracies and dictatorships have arisen almost everywhere Islam holds sway. Timothy Ferris, author of The Science of Democracy, points out that “only a quarter of the world’s Muslim-majority nations are electoral democracies, compared to almost three quarters of the non-Muslim nations.” Suppression of both freedom, and broad civic participation, have caused cultural retardation and economic disaster by encouraging opposition to many aspects of modern commerce and science, as well as resistance to such essential ingredients of civilized life as pragmatic compromise (Ferris, 2010).
Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islamic history and culture, quotes from a letter written in 1556 by a European ambassador summing up the attitude of the Ottoman Turks toward technological innovation: “(N)o nation has shown less reluctance to adopt the useful inventions of others; for example, they have appropriated to their own use large and small cannons and many other of our discoveries. They have, however, never been able to bring themselves to print books and set up public clocks. They hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no longer be scriptures if they were printed; and if they established public clocks, they think that the authority of the muezzin and their ancient rites would suffer diminution” (2002).
During the 2008 Easter Vigil, Pope Benedict baptized Madi Allam, the Egyptian-born deputy editor of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. Confirming Islam’s retrograde nature, Allam celebrated his baptism by pronouncing himself “liberated from the obscurantism as an ideology which legitimizes lies and dissimulation, violent death, which induces both murder and suicide, and blind submission to tyranny” (Fredericks, 2010).
Allam lives under the threat of death, which is the traditional punishment for apostasy from Islam. Numerous imams have issued fatwas (judicial/religious decisions) calling for his murder. Such a method of enforcing religious loyalty makes it clear how desperately the autocratic rulers of Muslim communities fear losing their control over the masses. It throws into question the efficacy of a religion that cannot persuade through its teachings, but must rely on threats of violence and death.
The climate of fear thus created stifles individual thought and creativity, which is what has mired most Islamic countries in massive illiteracy and poverty right up to this day. Just as observed by that ambassador in the 16th century, the only field in which the Muslim world seeks parity with the West is weaponry to fight the infidel—an ambition most obvious in the current push within Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
The word “Islam” itself means submission or surrender—subjugating oneself entirely to the will of Allah. The ultimate Muslim goal is to bring about the submission of every human being on earth, whether through voluntary conversion or force. Violence, and the threat of violence, have played a major role in the rapid rise and expansion of Islam, reflecting the character of its founder, the warlord, Mohammed. It has been a critical factor in the way non-Muslims live inside Muslim countries.
Even where the “tolerant” approach of v. 99 sura 10 (cited above) is the norm, Christians and Jews are regarded as dhimmis, second-class citizens. They are acknowledged as “People of the Book” who recognize the God of Abraham, but their rights are less than those of Muslims and they are subject to special restrictions, and special per-capita taxes.
Even this pseudo-tolerance cannot shield them from violence or systematic removal from Muslim countries (Dalrymple, 1997). The murders of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the severe limitations placed on the Orthodox Church in Turkey, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and the Sudan, the attacks on Christians in Malaysia for referring to God by the Arabic name Allah, the decimation of the Chaldean community in Iraq—all of these outrages demonstrate the inexorable need of Islam to crush any resistance to its advance.
In recent years, this aggressive aspect of Islam has impacted the West primarily through terrorism. While it is obviously true—and repeated often enough to become a cliché—that not all Muslims are terrorists, it is equally true that the vast majority of terrorist acts are carried out by Muslims as part of the international jihad (holy war) aimed at achieving the dominance of Islam.
Whether this violence reflects the essential nature of Islam itself (as maintained by Mosab Hassan Yousef), or is an expression of an aberrant religious fanaticism, is an important question. But in a certain practical sense, it really doesn’t matter. Estimates are that from five to ten percent of the world’s more than 1.2 billion Muslims are radicalized to an extent that they either engage in, or actively support, jihad against non-Muslims. Beyond that, there is broad commitment to the ultimate goal of bringing the entire world into the ummah—the community of believers who submit to the will of Allah—even among those who reject violence and identify themselves as moderate. Surely, this does not bode well for interreligious dialogue or peaceful coexistence.
It has been alleged that the quest for Islamic supremacy is just evangelization by another name—a mirror image of the “Great Commission,” Christ’s charge to take His Word out to all the world. But we Christians have learned from the blood of our own history that conversion can only take place in the heart, and it is the persuasive power of truth, expressed in love, that changes hearts, not fear or physical coercion. The ambiguity and fierce rhetoric of the Qur’an obscure truth and encourage self-deception about the reality of violence. As an American Muslim arrested in Pakistan for attempting to join al Qaida put it, “We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.” (New York Post. 1/10/10, p.26)
This is the situation that confronts us, and there really is nothing in it over which we can reasonably agree to disagree. Quite the contrary—we must face what is. I would maintain that our churches are the most appropriate venues in which to begin grappling with the difficult and disturbing facts of Islam. Accordingly, I set forth the following proposals:
- Pastors must speak clearly to the distinction between the God of the Bible and Allah of the Qur’an. There is no reason why this cannot be done respectfully, and much material is available online to aid pastors in the development of effective homilies. One excellent source is the apologetics organization, Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com).
- Study and discussion groups should be established to help parishioners learn the truth about Mohammed and the Qur’an, and to gain an accurate perspective on Islam and Muslim history. One excellent resource for such learning is the book, 111 Questions on Islam, by Samir K. Samir, S.J. (2008).
- In preaching and discussions about Islam, we should not shrink from addressing oppressive Muslim attitudes toward human rights and religious freedom—attitudes that commonly impose severe restrictions on the lives of women, and in some parts of the world, still tolerate slavery.
- Girls should be counseled about the possible consequences of marrying Muslim men, warning them about the traditional expectation that women will be subservient in marriage, and the common presumption that children must always be raised Muslim, regardless of any agreement to the contrary (even if the mother and father divorce).
- Those in positions of religious authority should avoid undue signs of reverence for Islam or the Qur’an, even at interfaith events. While Christian love demands respectfulness and civility, obsequious postures, and overly solicitous speech, confuse believers and encourage the false notion that ecumenism means all faiths are equally right.
- Catholic schools and colleges must be truthful in teaching about the history of conflict between Islam and Christianity. In particular, they should address the uncomfortable subject of the Crusades. Muslims have long been coddled into believing that they were victims of Christian aggression, and the Crusades have become a rallying point against perceived Western injustice. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Crusades were initiated in response to Muslim attacks on Christian towns, traders and pilgrims, as well as the systematic destruction of monasteries and Christian holy sites in Palestine. These facts are made plain in numerous sources, including the book, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, by Rodney Stark (2009).
- Perhaps, most importantly, pastors should declare that inquiries from Muslims about Christianity are encouraged and conversions welcome. Likewise, mission efforts in Muslim countries must be supported. Lay people have a key role to play as well. They should be encouraged to engage individual Muslim acquaintances, offering invitations to learn more about Jesus. (Mosab Hassan Yousef began his journey to Christ when a taxi driver in Jerusalem gave him a copy of the New Testament, inviting him to take part in a bible study group.) There is no denying the risks associated with outreach to Muslims. But, in actuality, large numbers of individuals have succeeded in leaving Islam (particularly in Africa), and many more long to do so. Pope Benedict, in his intentions, recently asked: “That the Church, aware of its own missionary identity, may strive to follow Christ faithfully and proclaim His Gospel to all peoples.” It is truly said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
In short, Christian leaders must drop the polite silence about Islam, marshal all resources to identify the threat we face in Muslim aggressiveness, and make people understand what is at stake. Pope Benedict has called upon pastors to embrace technology in spreading the Gospel and bringing souls to Christ, encouraging them to use websites, videos, blogs and social networking as tools in pastoral ministry. His call need not be limited to clergy. All believers, who possess writing and technological skills, should be enlisted in the cause. Even the parish photocopying machine should be mobilized; this article might be copied and distributed to parishioners.
Such efforts should not be viewed as sectarian. In truth, they are a service to the entire world, a blow struck on behalf of peace and human liberty. The need is immediate. Recent acts of terrorism, such as the mass murder at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Major Nidal Hassan, and the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a jet liner over Detroit by the notorious “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, underscore the corrosive power of Islamic radicalism. Both of those men come from families and social backgrounds deemed to be moderate, yet they became caught up in fanaticism.
There is no agreeing to disagree about this issue. To remain silent in the face of Islamic aggressiveness—to champion false tolerance or place vain hope in some artificial religious peace—is to allow an inhuman ideology to proliferate, putting our entire civilization at risk. All Christians must recognize what simply is, and then stand together against it.
(2010, January 10). New York Post , p. 26.
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Kaminski, M. (2010, March 6-7). They need to be liberated from their God. Wall Street Journal, The Weekend Interview. p. A13
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Fredericks, J. L. (2010, January 15 ). No easy answers: the necessary challenge of interreligious dialogue. Commonweal , p. 10.
Lewis, B. (2002). What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Responses. New York: Oxford University Press.
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