What did it mean when George W. Bush talked about Islam really being a “religion of peace” and argued that it was not to blame for the murderous actions of terrorists? Bush was (and is) a true believing Evangelical Christian. How could he argue for a “true” interpretation of Islam when Islam is a falsehood in the first place?
Islam, like any religion, is no one thing. It is a centuries old tradition which manifests itself in a diversity of beliefs and practices all around the world. “True Islam” is not some “accurate” interpretation and application of the Koran. If every Muslim tomorrow became a non-literalist or, even better, became suddenly willing to actually repudiate the Koran where it is clearly false or immoral, they could nonetheless remain Muslims if they retained various other historical cultural identifiers of Islam and understood themselves to be Muslims and were understood by others to still be Muslims.
There is no truth to a religion itself. It can be whatever those who identify with it and belong to its myriad practicing communities evolve to understand it as. Wahhabism, Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, is an 18th Century invention, so for a millennia there was Islam without there being the Wahhabism that Islam’s fiercest contemporary Western enemies want to conflate with “Islam itself”.
Wahhabism is a form of Islam. It is false to deny that. Insofar as Wahhabism is a form of Islam and insofar as Wahhabism inspired 9/11, Islam is to blame for 9/11. It is false as a historical and sociological matter to deny that. But Wahhabism is far from all of Islam and there is much of Islam that has nothing to do with it or with al-Qaeda and so to indiscriminately blame Islam for 9/11 is equally false and simplistic.
So, there are different strands of Islam, why does it make sense for Bush to talk about “True Islam” as different than Wahhabism even though Wahhabism is part of Islam. On what grounds can he argue that “True Islam” is only the non-violent, “religion of peace” parts? Is that just denial of reality? Is it a conscious lie? Is it only political strategy? Should the rest of us also say “True Islam” is only the parts that are good?
Here is what I think is going on and what we should say about what “True Islam”:
I think we can look at “true religion” the way we look at “true morality” and “true science”. Not every system of morality people have called “morality” is truly good or worth calling “morality”. We cannot whitewash that, we can say of 19th Century Southern American morality that explicitly approved of and promoted slavery “in those days, their morality approved of slavery but now we understand more clearly that slavery should be considered immoral”. In this one sentence we both acknowledge the fact of historical institutions of morality which can deviate from our normative judgment about what true morality requires.
Let’s take another example, we can say of some theory which previously seemed to look like the best scientific account of something but which has since been supplanted by a better theory, “The best scientific understanding of the time indicated that x was the best theory but now we know that y is the best theory and anyone who still believes x is ignoring the best science and so is now being pseudo-scientific and not doing ‘true science’.” Again we can acknowledge that what historically what might have counted legitimately as science today is pseudo-science, from a normative perspective.
Can we make a similar distinction between normative “true” religions and historical “pseudo-religions” which should be acknowledged as truly existing historical manifestations of religions but not be confused for “religion itself”—just as we say a past morality was a genuine historical instance of a morality but is not “true morality itself” or that a past science was a genuine historical instance of science but is not “true science itself”? How could we do this with religion? How could we say there is any truth in something so historically enmeshed with ludicrous falsehoods?
Let’s look at how we distinguish true science from past science and from contemporary pseudo-science. We isolate the empirical methods which most reliably lead to the surest truths and we say, “these methods and anything derived from them are ‘true science’”. Any practices which eschew these rigorous methods are not “true science” given what we know about what the best normative methods for being scientific are, even if in the past the most scientific people confused them for scientific. And the conclusions which the best methods of science once thought were truest but now realize are false, are to be discarded.
With morality, there are several ways to do this. My way (in a brief nutshell) is to sift through all our psychological dispositions and historically received practices for making moral judgments and all of our historically received moral judgments themselves and to test them for how well they encourage maximal human flourishing in excellence for the maximum number of people, with minimal exploitation of the least flourishing. Moral feelings and received moral rules should be considered normatively binding to precisely the extent that in the long run they will effectively contribute to that total flourishing in excellence.
So, what about religion? What is it such that it could be done well and encouraged to keep doing that? To me a “true religion” is one which is consistent with and does not violate or undermine the norms of true science or true morality. It does not reinforce superstition, authoritarian deference to arbitrary political or intellectual authorities, faith-based thinking, or outdated stagnating or regressive traditions, etc.
Positively what true religion does is it provides people with communities, rituals, meditative practices, symbols, traditional identities, and rich and euphoric states of conscious experience all compatible with, and sometimes in the service of, what can be known rationally to be the truth—true morality, true philosophy, true meaning, and true science.
So just as a theory is truly scientific to the extent that it is rigorously vindicated by the most reliable empirical methods and just as a moral rule is truly moral to the extent that it genuinely contributes to widespread high quality human flourishing, so a religious practice is truly religious to the extent that its practices help connect people to true meaning, true ethics, true metaphysics, etc.
So, I think we can hear (and ourselves echo, even as atheists) Bush saying that true Islam is a religion of peace the idea that “only religions of peace are worth being called true religions”.
We should vigilantly hold religions accountable for the myriad ways that in practice they fail to uphold truth—philosophically, ethically, scientifically, epistemologically, politically, etc. We cannot let the flawed, corrupt, anti-rational historical institutions be equated only with their ideals or let them be judged only by their emptiest words about truth and love and goodness. We must hold their feet to the fire and demand they root out everything about themselves that corrupts people’s minds, hearts, and practices.
But in doing so we can say that it is true religion that demands this of them. That people deserve truer religions–-either truer versions of their present traditions or newer religions without so much baggage, that provide all the rituals and meanings that people want from religion but in a way vigorously and rigorously progressive morally, intellectually, and politically.
So, is Islam responsible for 9/11? An existing sect of Islam is the most influential cause for 9/11, so partially yes. Would “true Islam” lead to 9/11? No.
To the considerable extent that one billion Muslims worldwide live a true Islam—one that in practice leads to goodness and truths, Islam is good. To the also considerable extent that Islam leads to badness and falsehood, it is bad and needs to become a truer religion—a truer and more moral one. On balance is Islam good or bad? That’s an impossible question to answer of any religion. The better, more practical question is, “how can Islam, or any other religion, be made more truthful and more ethical?”
I developed this thesis initially in a longer, more thorough piece called True Religion?