Was Pope Francis Wrong about Islam?

Was Pope Francis Wrong about Islam?


According to many news reports, Pope Francis made some off-the-cuff remarks to reporters about Islam. The “gist” of this informal talk—not a papal pronouncement—was that there is no such thing as “Islamic Terrorism” unless there is also such a thing as “Christian terrorism.” This conversation took place aboard the papal airplane on the pope’s way back to Rome after a special event in France in late 2016. (The precise date does not matter here.)

Some American conservatives are angry that the pope would deny the existence of “Islamic terrorism” and especially that he would seem to place Islam and Christianity on a plane of moral equivalence. Actually, there is much debate and dispute about exactly what the pope said and what he meant. But I will put that aside for now and tackle only one question: Is Islam itself, as a religion, inclined toward terrorism?

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

But first I need to lay out my credentials for talking about this. During my Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Rice University (Houston) I co-taught an introduction to religion course for undergraduates. I was assigned by the department chair to teach a mini-course, as part of the semester course, about Islam. I dived into the subject and read many scholarly articles and books about Islam and taught the course. I even visited the local mosque and spoke with a group of Muslim men gathered there. I invited to my classroom representatives of different kinds of Islam who I could find in Houston. Two stand out to me as especially, even extremely, different. One was a Sunni Muslim from the Middle East and the other was a Sufi Muslim from Turkey.

One thing I discovered during my studies and later learned more about is Islam’s diversity. Exactly like Christianity, there are different “denominations” of Muslims. Of course they do not call them “denominations,” but I am simply using that term for “branches,” “types,” “tribes” of the same religion. Most people in America are woefully ignorant about the diversity of Islam.

For example, how many Americans know which country in the world has the most Muslims? Wait for it….Indonesia. And Islam in Indonesia is very different from Islam in, say, Saudi Arabia.  How many Americans know anything about Sufiism—a mystical branch of Islam? (Yes, I know, many Muslims deny Sufis are real Muslims. So what? Many Christians deny Quakers are real Christians [because they don’t practice water baptism]. To sociologists of religion, Sufis are Muslims.)

My point is simply that I do have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from a major research university and that my studies then, during my program there and then and since, I have studied Islam much more than the average America ever will.

So back to the pope and Islam. His point seems to have been that Islam itself is not inclined toward terrorism or violence but that some Muslims, like some adherents of many religions—including Christianity—distort their true heritage and misinterpret and misapply it to justify violence including terrorism. Who can really doubt that about Christians? Think of the Crusades. Then think of the event in Norway a few years ago in which a devoted Christian slaughtered many young people at a camp for his own religiously-inspired reasons?

The vast majority of so-called Muslim terrorists or Islamic terrorists come from a particular part of the Middle East and are driven by some Imams of a particular branch of Islam especially common in Saudi Arabia known as Wahabism. (I am not claiming that all Wahabi Muslims support terrorism.) Almost none come from Indonesia, for example, although some might be recruited from there and other predominantly Islamic countries.

I think the pope’s point is simply that one ought not to label a whole religion—in this case Islam—with terrorism. That is what some conservative Americans especially tend to do. That is what “Islamic terrorism” or “Muslim terrorists” tends to mean to many Americans especially.

On the other hand… It does seem to me there’s no escaping those labels. So what’s the right solution? Perhaps it is not, as the pope suggests, to abandon those phrases entirely but to teach people—in churches, in schools, through the media—that those phrases do not mean that all Muslims or even branches of Islam are inclined toward violence or terrorism and that there are many Muslims in the world who abhor terrorism.

If you disagree (and I expect even some of my best friends will disagree) please imagine something with me for a moment. Imagine that a particular sect of Christianity became a fertile ground for extreme violence and even terrorism. (This has happened in history.) Then imagine that news reached you that in some countries where Christianity is not well-known and is little understood most people began to talk about “Christian terrorism” and “Christian violence” such that all Christians living there were under suspicion of being potential terrorists—including members of Christian “peace churches” (e.g., Friend/Quakers, Mennonites, etc.). Would you not want some spokesperson for the dominant religion in those countries to speak up in support of Christians and Christianity as a whole and contradict those there who spoke without qualification about “Christian terrorism?”

Now, please, do not respond by saying “That could never happen because no sect/denomination of ‘real Christianity’ would ever become terrorists.” Perhaps so; I’m inclined to agree. But! Some Muslims say that Islamic terrorists do not represent “real Islam!” My point is not about the meaning of “real Christianity.” My point is that there are many kinds of people who claim to be Christians and it is not at all inconceivable that a group of such might someday become terrorists and people who know little about Christianity would probably equate their terrorism with Christianity. Wouldn’t you want someone among them to correct them? I would.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).