A very sweet Catholic lady I knew, when confronted with an example of rabid anti-Catholicism, said, “I don’t understand this. I don’t think I hate anybody because of their religion, but I probably love Muslims the least.” I couldn’t disagree.
It’s hard not to perceive Muslims as a hateful threat to Christianity and our own culture. It’s difficult to avoid racist feelings and religious bigotry. What Christian can honestly say that they have not felt a frisson of fear and dislike when they see a Muslim woman in a burqa or a swarthy Muslim man in his native dress? One tries to put such feelings on one side, but still there is a repugnance one has to overcome to be open minded and learn about Islam.
Robert Spencer is the editor of jihadwatch.org, and expert in Islam, advisor to the US security services and a Catholic. In Not Peace But a Sword he has presented us with a concise and precise work which confronts the difficult questions that face Catholics thinking about Islam. Do we worship the same God? What do Muslims really believe? What is the Koran? What do Muslims believe about Jesus and the Catholic faith? Are Muslims pious, pro life, pro family allies of Catholics or are they terrorists–intent on a holy war to conquer the West?
Spencer begins by answering Peter Kreeft’s open and “ecumenical” approach to Islam and is intent on showing not only the similarities between Islam and Christianity, but more importantly–the radical differences. His chapters walk us clearly through the big questions: Three Abrahamic Faiths? The Same God? The Same Jesus? Once he deals with the Biblical and doctrinal questions he goes on to examine Islamic teachings regarding justice and sexual ethics. The cherry on the top of this excellent book is the transcript of a witty and fast-paced live debate at Thomas More College between Spencer and Kreeft with the inimitable John Zmirak as moderator.
I was most interested in the doctrinal sections of the book. Hilaire Belloc reminds us that Islam is a Christian heresy. It grew up in Christian lands and promoted a false teaching based on a false Scripture to a false prophet. I knew about their denial of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ as God’s Son, but Spencer shows how the Muslims also have a deficient understanding of the human person. In their desire to protect the complete transcendence of God they deny free will to man and deny man’s creation in God’s image and the possibility that we are sons and daughters of God. The consequence of this ultimately pessimistic view of humanity is a sort of fatalism which allows cruelty and barbaric treatment of others because, according to their theology, no one has objective worth as a human being created in God’s image. A harsh conclusion is the possible result: One is either a Muslim or an infidel. Convert or die.
It should be pointed out that to convert to Islam does not mean what it means for Christians. For a Christian conversion means an engagement of the intellect and will in order to make an act of faith. To convert to Islam one only needs to recite the basic belief about Allah in Arabic. Intention of the heart does not matter. Intellect does not matter. Such a fatalistic view leads to the frightening reality of religion as God’s Robots.
While I was most interested in the theological aspect of Spencer’s book, I have to admit a prurient interest in the Islamic concepts of multiple wives, temporary marriage, sex slave wives and child brides. (all of which seem to be legitimate according to some Muslim commentators) Some of the quotations he includes from Islamic teachers sanctioning the capture of sex slaves as spoils of war, the continued legitimacy in Muslim countries of child brides and their implicit acceptance of birth control and abortion are chilling to read.
Spencer’s book is brief and comes across as a radical explanation of modern Islam. In the debate Kreeft points out that, like Protestantism, Islam is “all over the place” and that there is a huge range of different interpretations of the Koran and different expressions of Islam from country to country and from one school of interpretation to another. The form of Islam Spencer presents is extreme, and I came away from the book fearing that I was expected to judge all of Islam based on Spencer’s view rather as if a Muslim might be expected to get his impression of all Protestant Christians from the Westboro Baptist Church.
This is why the debate with Peter Kreeft at the end of the book was refreshing. We heard another side to the story, met a more nuanced Spencer and realized that the subject of Islam is vast and complicated, and that any responsibly religious person should try to take the trouble to learn from Spencer’s excellent book, but then seek to learn even more.