Three Principles for Talking About Islam

Why do so many non-Muslims feel the need to opine so definitively on the nature (and virtue) of the Muslim faith? It’s almost comical to watch politicians tripping over themselves to praise Islam to the heavens when no doubt they’d flunk the most basic quiz regarding its history and beliefs.  It’s even more comical to see the same (and sometimes even more effusive) praise from progressive Christians who at least theoretically believe that Islam — no matter how virtuous — has inferior truth claims to Christianity.  On the other hand, there are conservatives who have described Islam with all manner of sweeping negative characterizations and make equally definitive (though ignorant) statements about Islam’s “true” character.  If I had to sum up the difference in perspective, progressives tend to see jihadists as aberrational while many conservatives see jihadists as definitional.

But do we even have to define Islam?  In the aftermath of 9/11, like many Americans, I rushed to learn more about the Muslim faith.  That task gained additional urgency before my deployment to Iraq.  I read the Koran, I read parts of the Hadith, and during my deployment I worked side-by-side with more Middle Eastern Muslims than most Americans will meet in an entire lifetime, yet in many ways I feel more ignorant about the nature of “true Islam” than I did before September 11.  To precisely no one’s surprise, you can find Muslims with diametrically opposed views about many aspects of the faith, about the nature and applicability of Sharia, and about the role of Islam in civic and government life.  In fact, these disputes spill over into violence with depressing and tragic regularity.

So, how can a Presbyterian lawyer know what Islam truly is if even Muslims don’t agree?  In dealing with Islam, with the challenges of our war on terror, and with the sweeping characterizations from the right and left, I try to observe three basic principles of discussion:

First, we should leave the definition of authentic Islam to Muslims (and some scholars of Islam*).  Simply put, not only do I not have the knowledge base to participate intelligently in that discussion, my opinion on the matter is utterly, completely irrelevant.  Is there a Muslim in the whole universe who really cares about my interpretation of the Koran?  Certainly I know there are theological and ideological differences within Islam, and I’m quite familiar with the debates most relevant to the war on terror and my own service, but how could I possibly adjudicate those disputes?  Yes, I know quite a bit about the jihadist interpretation of Sharia law and its requirements, but how can I say those interpretations are right (or wrong) on the merits of the Muslim faith?  I can’t.  You can’t.  And chances are, no one you know can, either.

*By “scholar of Islam,” I do not mean “person who read a few books/articles and knows a few Muslims”

Second, we should oppose jihad on every conceivable physical and ideological battlefront.  Regardless of whether contemporary jihad represents an authentic expression of Islamic faith or it’s a grotesque perversion of a peaceful and peace-loving religion, it is still savage barbarism and must be opposed.  While opposing jihad, we can’t labor under either hope-based delusions that its just the work of a “few extremists” or under the excessively cynical view that all Muslims are potential jihadists.  After all, no one has suffered the effects of jihad more than Muslims–  yet at the same time, there are too many hundreds of thousands of jihadists supported financially and morally by too many millions of Muslims for anyone to rationally believe that problems within Islam represent the work of the isolated few.

The same progressives who continually extol Islam’s virtues in spite of tens of thousands of terrorist attacks with hundreds of thousands of victims are often quick to demonize evangelicals conservatives on the basis of one or two “extremist” statements.  Last year in National Review I wrote a piece that imagines America with a Christian terror problem on a similar scale as the terror problem in the Middle East.  Perhaps this will speak a language you can understand:

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — This morning marked a grim milestone in the fight against Christian terror in North America. Work crews cleaned up the remains of a suicide bomber and his victims after his self-detonation marked the 10,000th terrorist attack in ten years within the continental United States. The Camden, New Jersey–based Army of the Messiah immediately claimed responsibility. The bomber screamed the now-familiar “Praise Jesus!” just before he pressed the button, detonating his explosive vest while in a McDonald’s breakfast line.  

At present, the United States government lists five states as “Crusader-dominated” in whole or in part. The Army of the Messiah rules New Jersey, the Knights Templar dominate Rhode Island, and the so-called “Crusader Regions” of mountainous Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado are utterly beyond federal control. In those regions, anti-blasphemy laws are enforced at rifle point, and Crusader militias have established training camps to support the California insurgency. These privately financed militias, supported through Texas oil money and supplemented by Baptist telethons, are believed to number in the tens of thousands and are also supported by the FBI as a counterweight to Mexican Catholicism.

In the meantime, hopes of a “Christian Spring” in Michigan were crushed when revolutionary Christian mobs attacked Muslims in Dearborn, and National Guard troops called in to keep the peace responded by crushing Muslim protestors beneath the wheels of their Humvees. Crusader parties were doing well in early polling in Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and in Florida a lonely protest marked the closing of the last synagogue — a once-thriving Jewish population having been completely expelled.

Overseas, the majority of the Christian diaspora is peaceful, but the Knights Templar are making significant inroads in British and French churches, and the Gulf States are still reeling from the destruction of the Burj Khalifa, formerly the world’s tallest building.  Almost ten years after the coordinated truck bombing that took 3,000 lives and launched a decade of sustained combat, reconstruction is still not complete.  

If those were the facts of Christian life, would any rational outside observer definitively declare that fears of Christian terror represented “Christophobia”?  Simply put, we must oppose jihad — regardless of its extent or its relationship to “authentic” Islam.

Third, we should support and defend those Muslims who embrace liberty and stand against jihad. Even at this moment in history — when the Muslim Brotherhood triumphs in Egypt, embassies burn across the Middle East, and Sharia leads to brutal persecution and even executions of “apostates,” “blasphemers,” and non-believers — there are still brave Muslims who have not bent the knee to jihad.  One of them, a 14 year-old-girl who spoke out for girls denied an education, was shot by the Taliban earlier this week.  Another, a Muslim lawyer who bravely and successfully defended a Christian pastor in Iran, was just imprisoned by that totalitarian regime.  In Iraq, I met many Muslims who died to stop jihad.  Regardless of whether these individuals represent a tiny minority or an intimidated majority, Christians should stand with them.  We should also understand the following: When we excuse or minimize jihad, we are excusing and minimizing the deadly persecution not just of Jews and Christians but also untold millions of Muslims.

As a final note, I yearn for the Middle East and the Muslim world — home to many of the world’s most oppressive regimes — to be opened to the Gospel.  Until that day comes, however, we Christians can make the same declaration — with deeds and words — that so many of my brothers-in-arms did in Iraq: No human being, regardless of their religious belief, should be forced to live under the tyranny of violent jihad. Good men and women have died liberating Muslims from the oppression of their co-religionists.  Those deaths were not in vain.

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  • Mike Mckee

    I don’t agree with you on question 1 at all.
    I first read the Koran in 1996-7 whilst trying to understand the persecution some friends had in Muslim countries and another couple who had a price put on their heads, by imams in Cape Town where I lived at the time.
    Having now read the Koran through a couple of times as well as some of the hadith and the Sira I have an understanding of why Sharia law is like it is and what constitutes Dhimmitude and what it is designed to do.
    I have constantly recommended to people to read the Koran through cover to cover and now notice there is a website doing the same as well.
    The conclusion I have come to in all this is that at it’s core, Islam is evil and wicked, because sharia comes from it, and is the practical outworking of Islam.
    That all muslims everywhere pray for sharia in the whole world every day you and others don’t mention, which you should, because it is all muslims praying (and contributing resources), not just the jihadis.
    Sure one can argue that they are more devout than Christians are to their scriptures but that doesn’t change the violence throughout the world wherever islam comes into conflict with other faiths and ideologies.
    remember the jihadis are accused of being monoculture like in their destruction of other faiths places and buildings, but all they are doing is fulfilling the koran and sharia like blowing up big statues of budda recently.
    More importantly, the Jihadists aren’t twisting islam or the koran but are outworking the practicalities as followers, they are not nutcases or fanatics but more devout than others, who still fund them openly or through “charities”.
    That non believers are considered less than muslims, constitutionally, legally and socially in Islam wherever it is found should be heralded by all free people and dealt to accordingly in all the forums and media we can do in.
    Whilst we can :-)
    Mike Mckee

  • Deena

    I’ve only known one Muslim fairly well. He was a secular Muslim from Algeria, had lived in America many years when I knew him, had an American Christian wife and 4 children, became a naturalized citizen. He started attending a mosque after their oldest son was maybe 10 or so. We talked about Islam quite a bit at work. What surprised me was how backward from the Old Testament some of the theology was. Just one example – supposedly they believe much of the Old Testament – yet something simple like Isaac being the birthright son of Abraham was the opposite, in his belief system Ishmael was the birthright son. Sounds unimportant – but to some extent – that’s a big part of the basis of the hatred of Jews – that they usurped the birthright. I don’t get how something 4000 plus years in the past (that can never be proven one way or another) can inform and motivate today’s wars – but he was as convinced of his version as I was. I didn’t argue the point, and maybe he thought he’d convinced me.

  • Natalie

    Mr. French, I’m afraid you’re incredibly misinformed about the concept of jihad. Jihad isn’t an inherently violent concept, and depending on one’s interpretation of it it may be the exact opposite. From what my muslimah friends have told me, jihad is more of a spiritual quest to uphold Islamic values in one’s life. This can be done by dedicating oneself to the study of the Koran (as many Christians do with the Bible, and Jews with the Torah) or by being modest and wearing a hijab, niqab, burqa, or other veil (again, as many orthodox Jewish and Christian women do), or by endorsing peace and the teachings of Muhammad. The idea of jihad as an act of violence is very controversial, and shunned in all but the most radical Muslim circles. It is INCREDIBLY irresponsible of you to tell people to oppose jihad when you yourself aren’t entirely educated on the subject, and next time you write an article about Islam please please please consider researching first!

  • Luis Monge

    I have read your article and am in complete disbelief, that you actually read the Koran. If you had read it, like you claim to have read it then you would not be talking positive about it at all. The funny thing here is you actually compare islam with christianity.Nothing in the bible says its ok to strike terror into the hearts of those who don’t believe. There is nothing in the bible that says jews and christians are like pigs and apes and to not make them friends of yours. And there is nothing in the bible that says its ok to lie if it’s to advance your purpose or to save your neck (taquiyah). What this article shows is the true lack of knowledge its author has regarding the ideology called islam. I urge you to read, really read the Koran and not just skim through its pages, like this article seems to prove you did.

  • David French

    Where do I favorably compare Islam to Christianity? Where do I evaluate the Koran at all? I did express amusement that progressive Christians seem to admire Islam a great deal.

  • David French

    So you know the true nature of jihad? Because I could introduce you to quite a few Muslims who laugh at your interpretation. I can also introduce you to Muslims who agree with your interpretation. So what qualifies you to decide which interpretation is correct? As for the meaning of jihad from my post, it’s quite clear I’m talking about the violent form of jihad that has caused so much death and destruction.

  • Agkcrbs

    Brilliant article that correctly stakes out the territory of American conservatives today.

    I’m one who falls more to the side of tolerating the varieties of Islam as legitimate expressions of faith, even beneficial where properly practiced, though weighed down with every manner of cultural, economic, and political drag, making isolated analysis nearly impossible. Every Bible-believer has to come to terms with differing theological claims. My first answer to Islam was fairly pessimistic. After gaining more familiarity and correspondingly losing my sense of threat, I now see it, like many other faiths, as a particular modification of the gospel for some wise purpose — some obvious elements, in its ghastlier incarnations, being to scourge us all to humility and divine dependence, remind us of the futility of this world’s supposed victories, and allow us to return either evil or good, hatred or love, to our enemies — to float up above their crimes, or to sink down to meet them, and mimick them. These are just some of the blessings refracting to us through the prism of Islam, from What we recognise, with Muslims, as the common Source of all goodness, Whom we apparently still have trouble comprehending directly.

    The subject may be hazy, but our guidelines are very clear, as always: Are Muslims our brothers and sisters, the children of God, though strangers to the doctrine of Jesus? They are. Should they enjoy religious freedom, especially in this country? They should. Have we any common cause to make with them, as, for example, we’ve made with other, nearer denominations in the present political cycle? We have. Must we try to defend ourselves, and other innocents where possible, from malefactors? We must.

  • Aziz Poonawalla

    this was a wonderful piece. I will be linking to it and spreading it amongst my networks. shukran for writing this.