Why exactly are we treating Islamic theology like a protected species?
Although many won’t admit it, we are in the midst of an ideological war with Islam. And since the advantage goes to the side that fully realizes they are at war, the West is losing. The propaganda war is going in favor of Islam precisely because the West doesn’t realize it is supposed to be fighting one. The ability of Islam to rally much of the world behind its hatred of Israel is a telling indication of who is winning the war of ideas. As for war aims, it’s not clear that there are any. Even those who see the danger clearly rarely talk in terms of victory; they talk mainly in terms of resisting cultural jihad. You know you’re in trouble when your ideological opponent is a primitive seventh-century belief system, and yet the best that your top strategists hope for is to put up a good resistance.
As the Dracula-like return of Communist ideology demonstrates, an ideological war needs to be fought to complete and total victory. The enemy ideology should be so thoroughly discredited that no one—not even its former staunchest defenders, not even the most doctrinaire college professor—will want to be associated with it. In regard to Islam, then, our aim should go beyond simply resisting jihad; it should be the defeat of Islam as an idea. But, aside from inflicting crushing military defeats on Islamic powers, how do you accomplish that?
One answer is that you do all you can to force Muslims to question their faith in Islam. As Mark Steyn observes, “there’s no market for a faith that has no faith in itself.” He was speaking, of course, of the more mushy versions of Western Christianity—the post-Christian Christians who seem anxious to dialogue themselves into dhimmitude. But there’s no reason the concept can’t be applied to Islam. Surely the average intelligent Muslim has occasional doubts about the founding revelations. And just as surely he keeps them to himself, not only because he fears his fellow Muslims, but also because the rest of the world seems to be going along with the pretense that he belongs to a great religion. It may be time for the rest of the world to drop the pretense.
If one of your opponents’ core beliefs is that you need to be subjugated, why wouldn’t you want to foster doubts in his mind? Jihadists commit jihad because they correctly perceive that their religion calls them to it. As long as they are kept secure in the illusion that their faith is unassailable, they will continue the jihad by whatever means seem most expedient. They won’t question their faith—and neither will the majority of Muslims—unless they get used to the fact that it can be questioned and criticized.
One man who has done a lot to shake up the faith of Muslims is Fr. Zakaria Botros, a Coptic priest who hosts a weekly Arabic language TV program watched by millions of Muslims around the world. Among other things, the engaging Fr. Botros forces his Muslim audience to confront unflattering facts about their prophet. He also talks to them about the Christian faith—something that most Muslims know very little about, beyond some simple caricatures. Apparently he is very successful at what he does. According to reports he is responsible for mass conversions to Christianity.
Does such questioning of Muhammad’s character provoke anger among Muslims? Well, yes, it does. The elderly Fr. Botros has been labeled Islam’s “Public Enemy #1,” and a reported $60 million bounty has been put on his head. But, according to a recent piece by Raymond Ibrahim, “the outrage appears to be subsiding.” Ibrahim contends that Life TV (the satellite station that carries Fr. Botros’ program) “has conditioned its Muslim viewers to accept that exposure and criticism of their prophet is here to stay.” The first time a Muslim hears the moral flaws of the Prophet exposed, he may well be angry at the exposure. But how about the third time? The tenth time? The twentieth time? What initially provokes anger might eventually provoke doubts about Muhammad’s claims.
There are those who think that such efforts are doomed to failure—that Islam is too deeply rooted in the Muslim world. But deeply held beliefs are not always as deeply rooted as they seem. Thirty-five years ago it would have been non-controversial to say that the Catholic faith was deeply rooted in Ireland, but if you said it today you would be going out on a limb. More to the point, Islam itself was less “deeply rooted” 60 years ago in the Middle East than it is now. Consider this recollection by Ali A. Allawi, a former Iraqi cabinet minister:
I was born into a mildly observant family in Iraq. At that time, the 1950’s, secularism was ascendant among the political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the Middle East. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world. Even that term—“Muslim world”—was unusual, as Muslims were more likely to identify themselves by their national, ethnic, or ideological affinities than by their religion.
Deeply rooted? Perhaps you’ve seen that sequence of photos of the University of Cairo graduating classes for the English Department. The women of the Class of 1959 look like college students anywhere in the Western world circa 1959. They wear Western style skirts and dresses and no head covering. Ditto for the class of 1978. It could be the class of ’78 at the University of Chicago. But by 1994 half the women are wearing hijabs. By 2004 almost all the women are wearing hijabs and ankle-length clothing. So, sometime in the 1990’s educated Muslims apparently began to take their faith more seriously. They appear to take it very seriously now. But how “deeply rooted” is twenty years?
Given that the penalty for leaving Islam—or even criticizing it—can be death, we may be mistaking deeply rooted fear for deeply rooted faith. Moreover, the fact that Islam prescribes such harsh penalties for doubters suggests that the faith itself is not intrinsically convincing. As the Ayatollah Khomeini once said, “People cannot be made obedient except with the sword.” Any religion that needs so many external incentives—swords behind you, and virgins in your future—cries out to be questioned. Unfortunately, instead of exploiting its theological weaknesses the West insists on chivalrously shielding Islam from the kind of scrutiny that the West reserves for its own institutions and traditions. And with good reason. Because it’s generally understood, though rarely said, that Muhammad’s claims would not meet the tests of critical reason and historical evidence that we apply to the Judeo-Christian revelation. The much revered sufi theologian al-Ghazali wrote, “The dhimmi is obliged not to mention Allah or his Prophet…” You can see why. Curiosity didn’t kill Christianity, but curiosity would almost certainly kill the Caliphate—or, in our times, the hope for a resurrected Caliphate. Obliged not to mention the Prophet? Given the threat Islam poses to the world and to Muslims themselves, it’s beginning to look as though the obligation runs the other way. The world needs to take a much closer look at the Prophet and his claims. The Prophet is Islam’s main prop. If he is discredited, Islam is discredited. Hence, the mighty efforts by the OIC to make it a crime to blaspheme a prophet.
The Prophet’s integrity is not the only thing in doubt. Theologically speaking, Islam is a house of cards. The whole faith rests on the belief that Muhammad actually received a revelation from God. But where’s the proof? Were there any witnesses to this revelation other than Muhammad? Why should we take his word for it? Why were there so many revelations of convenience that worked directly to Muhammad’s personal advantage? Are there really dozens of renewable virgins awaiting young warriors in paradise, or was this revelation simply a clever recruitment tool manufactured by Muhammad to provide an incentive for following him? And why is the Koran, despite its flashes of poetic brilliance, put together like a soviet-era automobile? As an exercise in composition the Koran would not pass muster in most freshmen writing courses. Why can’t God write as well as the average college student?
Ordinarily it’s not a good idea to go around questioning other people’s firmly held beliefs. But these are not ordinary times, and Islam is no ordinary religion. As any number of observes have noted, it’s partly a religion and partly a supremacist political ideology—although no one seems to be able to say exactly what percent is political ideology and what percent is religion. Is it 50/50 or 60/40 or 80/20? Is it legitimate to criticize the political part of it, but not the religious part? How do you tell where the politics leaves off and the religion begins? Or are they so bound together that they can’t be separated?
If you remember “Joe Palooka,” the old comic strip series about a decent but not-too-bright heavyweight boxer, you might remember that one of Joe’s craftier opponents once tattooed his rather expansive stomach with the word “Mother” inscribed within a large heart. His midsection was his weak spot, of course, but he knew he could count on Joe to avoid hitting him there, Joe being too much of a gentleman to do otherwise. In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s character refers to the place where failed fighters go as “palookaville.” Currently, our whole culture is in danger of ending up in “palookaville” because there are large areas of Islam we decline to examine out of a sense of delicacy that would be excessive in a Victorian matron. Islamic strategists are counting on polite Westerners not to hit them in their soft spot.
Islamic strategists invoke the supremacist principles of the Koran in order to stir up aggression against the Muslim world, yet any criticism of Islam is met with cries of, “No fair! You are blaspheming a prophet and his religion.” So far, the shame-on-you-for-criticizing-a-religion strategy has worked very effectively. Fortunately, a few, like Fr. Botros, aren’t buying into the ruse. He has enough respect for Muslims as individuals to realize that their religion should not be put beyond discussion. Many Muslims, especially Muslim women, suffer a profound sense of desperation: the feeling of being trapped in a 1400-year-old nightmare, with no way out. It’s difficult to see any convincing argument for propping up the system that oppresses them. On the contrary, it seems almost a duty to undermine that system—political and religious—and call it into question at every turn.
In past ideological struggles we wisely sought ideological victory—the discrediting of the belief system that inspired our enemies. Because the driving force behind Islamic aggression is Islamic theology, it makes no sense to treat Islamic theology like a protected species. Rather, we should hope that Muslims lose faith in Islam just as Nazis lost faith in Nazism and Eastern-bloc Communists lost faith in communism.
Of course, it would be all the better if, like Fr. Botros, we had something to offer them in its place. Winston Churchill once said that Greer Garson, for her role in Mrs. Miniver, was worth six divisions in the war against Hitler. It seems safe to say that Fr. Botros, for his role in instilling doubts about Islam and giving Muslims something solid in its place, is worth at least a couple of Departments of Homeland Security.
William Kilpatrick’s articles have appeared in FrontPage Magazine, First Things, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Jihad Watch, World, and Investor’s Business Daily.