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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Islam & Terrorism: Identification and Disassociation

Michelle of the Catholic blog Sollicitudo Rei Socialis recommends the following article by Islamic scholar Karen Armstrong: The label of Catholic terror was never used about the IRA (The Guardian July 11, 2005), calling for a phrase that is more exact than "Islamic terror" in describing the London bombings and Al Qaeda's continuing war on the West:

We need a phrase that is more exact than "Islamic terror". These acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur'an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. It also states firmly that there must be no coercion in religious matters, and for centuries Islam had a much better record of religious tolerance than Christianity.

Like the Bible, the Qur'an has its share of aggressive texts, but like all the great religions, its main thrust is towards kindliness and compassion. Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign. So although Muslims, like Christians or Jews, have all too often failed to live up to their ideals, it is not because of the religion per se.

On the one hand, the IRA never tried to bolster their violent tactics with a theological defense, and their tactics were clearly at odds with the core principles of Catholic moral tradition. One is not likely to find Catholic scholars sympathetic to the IRA presenting a theological apologetic for their campaign of terrorism. (As Ms. Armstrong rightly notes, "We rarely, if ever, called the IRA bombings 'Catholic' terrorism because we knew enough to realise that this was not essentially a religious campaign."

What is the difference between the IRA and the present situation? -- To borrow a popular phrase, "not all Moslems are terrorists, but almost all terrorists are Moslems." Or, at least, carry out their acts under the pretense of waging an Islamic jihad against the West.

Whereas religion played a cursory role in the IRA, most acts of terrorism we see today are motivated by a religious worldview that is distinctly Islamic in tone if not in nature. A worldview that is taught in the religious schools througout the Middle East, preached by radical imams in mosques, expounded by Islamic scholars and inculcated in the minds of young Muslims, in some cases even from childhood.

While Ms. Armstrong is correct in noting that 'Islamic Terror' may be fueled by nationalistic ideology and a reaction to the brutal oppression of secular governments, I think that in eschewing the Islamic relationshiop altogether she downplays the role of Islam in providing a religious framework for terrorism.

Some examples:

  • Dr. Hani Al-Siba'i, director of London's Al-Maqreze Centre for Historical Studies, said in an interview on Al-Jazeera July 8, 2005: "The term 'civilians' does not exist in Islamic religious law.. . . There is no such term as 'civilians' in the modern Western sense. People are either of Dar Al-Harb or not. Is this merely the opinion of one deluded Al Qaeda sympathizer or a common interpretation among radical Islamic believers?

  • On October 24, 2004, two Arab websites posted a petition from Arab liberals to the United Nations calling attention to the use of fatwas by Muslim clerics to condone violence and terror:

    . . . The Saudi newspaper Arab News reported that, within a week of the petition's posting, over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from twenty-three countries had signed the petition. Shakir al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian academic and one of the signatories, noted that "There are individuals in the Muslim world who pose as clerics and issue death sentences against those they disagree with. These individuals give Islam a bad name and foster hatred among civilizations." The petition names several prominent clerics, among them Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian preacher working in Qatar, and cites a number of fatwas as examples.

    (Source: Arab Liberals: Prosecute Clerics Who Promote Murder Middle East Quarterly Vol. XII, No. 1 Winter 2005).

  • According to MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), "several Arab columnists have recently published articles critical of the view that the main motivation to terrorism is poverty or despair. They instead cite the role of cultural and religious factors in motivating terrorism, and particularly the incitement by sheikhs who encourage young men to conduct terror operations." Arab Columnists: Terrorists are Motivated by Cultural and Religious Factors, Not Poverty (Jan. 26, 2005).

Disassociation and Identification: The Error of Two Extremes

Like Karen Armstrong I agree on the dilemma of how to properly label this particular manifestation of religious violence. But in discussing how to resolve this issue, I think one can err in two ways.

First, one can err in portraying Islam in a wholly positive light -- e.g., a "religion of peace" -- such that Islamic-inspired terrorism is percieved as wholly alien to the core tradition, as inherently non-religious and motivated by other factors such as nationalism. This flies in the face of religious history, the content of the Qur'an (which has its share of troubling passages regarding the treatment of Unbelievers), and radical Islamic thought on the dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) and the dar al-harb, (land of war). See, for instance, the website on the history of jihad and James Turner Johnson's Jihad and Just War First Things 124 (June/July 2002), on the development of radical Islamic interpretation of these concepts).

Likewise, one can err as well in emphasizing only the negative elements of Islamic tradition and portraying it in the worst possible light. This is why in the past I have taken issue with some prominent pundits who in their denunciations of radical Islamic violence seem to dismiss Muslims themselves as belonging to a corrupt and irredeemable religious tradition. (I have assembled a few of these posts below).

A Christian Parallel

To illustrate what I mean about this error of identification and disassociation in dealing with the relationship of Islam and religiously-motivated terrorism, I think there is a similarity in Christianity's relatively-late attempts to deal with the element of anti-semitism in strains of Christian interpretation.

For centuries Christianity harbored a "shadow tradition" within its ranks, dubbed by Professor Jules Isaac "The Teaching of Contempt" that sought to provide theological justification for the persecution and oppression of the Jewish people. Elements of this hermeneutic included the "dispersion of Israel as a sign of providential punishment"; the "degenarate state of Judaism at the time of Jesus" and the charge of the crime of deicide. (For further discussion see my post on Pius XII, Pope John XXIII and the Jews and a longer essay on Jewish-Christian Relations).

On one hand, it would be wrong to completely identify this "teaching of contempt" with Christianity itself, such that its purgation would necessitate the end of the Christian tradition and a wholesale dismantling of the Catholic Church. (Robert Louis Wilken criticized Catholic scholar James Carrol of having this intent in his review of review of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Commonweal Jan. 26, 2001).

On the other hand, it would be wrong to completely disassociate the "teaching of contempt" from Christianity, so as to contend that it had nothing whatsoever to do with Christian tradition. The "teaching of contempt" was a blatant perversion of the heart and core of the Christian faith, yes, but as Dr. Jules Isaac aptly demonstrated in Jesus and Israel, it was nevertheless one propogated by various Catholics (and Protestants) until the twentieth century when, moved by the bitter lesson of the Holocaust, it was addressed by Pope Pius XII and Pope John XIII, and was ultimately repudicated by the Vatican II conciliar document Nostra Aetate.

Likewise, in addressing the relationship of Islam to terrorism, we cannot turn a blind eye to those elements within Muslim tradition, and even within the Qu'Uran itself, that assist radical Islamic clerics and schools to advance an apology for terrorism.

Neither should we identify the two and deem them inseparable -- such that the proposed solution to Islamic terrorism would lie in a liberalizing, secularizing and wholesale eradication of Islam itself. Such a "solution" to the problem of Islamic violence has been proposed by both sides of the political spectrum. In a recent case, Terry Mattingly at GetReligion questioned the prospect of Progress via a Muslim Spong?:

. . . Then [commentator Irshad Manji] suggests it is time for all religious leaders to be equally honest in dealing with their own scriptures and histories. So far, so good. Then she holds up, as the model for these exchanges, the work of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark. This is where the train comes off the tracks.

The last thing in the world we need right now is for Western leaders -- religious or political -- to find and promote the views of some Islamic version of Spong, someone who is no longer even a theist. You want a clash of civilizations? Let the mainstream Muslim world see America praising the work of those who do to Islam what Spong does to Christian faith. Heaven forbid.

Or as Fr. Neuhaus said in responding to an essay by Bernard Lewis that faults Islam and Christianity for their claim to divine revelation (Why Aren't Muslims Like Us? First Things 134: June/July 2003):

". . . Yet more troubling is the message that Islam, in order to become less of a threat to the world, must relativize its claim to possess the truth. That plays directly into the hands of Muslim rigorists who pose as the defenders of the uncompromised and uncompromisible truth and who call for death to the infidels. If Islam is to become tolerant and respectful of other religions, it must be as the result of a development that comes from within the truth of Islam, not as a result of relativizing or abandoning that truth. Is Islam capable of such a religious development? Nobody knows. But, if the choice is between compromising Islamic truth or a war of civilizations, it is almost certain that the winner among Muslims will be the hard-core Islamism that [Bernard] Lewis rightly views as such a great threat."

Just as Christianity was able to overcome and repudiate the teaching of contempt towards the Jews, it remains for Islam to find within itself the religious resources to counter what many Muslims contend is a grave perversion of their faith. Michael Novak issued just such a challenge to Islam in his book The Universal Hunger For Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, calling for Muslims to follow Judaism and Christianity in developing distinctly Islamic grounds for political, economic, and religious liberty, and citing the work of several Muslim scholars who are engaged in this task.

Finally, In The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism (Policy Review No. 125, June 2004), Shmuel Bar takes a look at "the Weltanschauung of radical Islam", in which he argues that:

. . . to treat Islamic terrorism as the consequence of political and socioeconomic factors alone would not do justice to the significance of the religious culture in which this phenomenon is rooted and nurtured. In order to comprehend the motivation for these acts and to draw up an effective strategy for a war against terrorism, it is necessary to understand the religious-ideological factors -- which are deeply embedded in Islam.

His conclusion is that the problem of Islamic-inspired terrorism must ultimately be resolved by Muslims themselves:

The goal of the West cannot be defense alone or military offense or democratization of the Middle East as a panacea. It must include a religious-ideological dimension:: active pressure for religious reform in the Muslim world and pressure on the orthodox Islamic establishment in the West and the Middle East not only to disengage itself clearly from any justification of violence, but also to pit itself against the radical camp in a clear demarcation of boundaries.

Such disengagement cannot be accomplished by Western-style declarations of condemnation. It must include clear and binding legal rulings by religious authorities which contradict the axioms of the radical worldview and virtually "excommunicate" the radicals. In essence, the radical narrative, which promises paradise to those who perpetrate acts of terrorism, must be met by an equally legitimate religious force which guarantees hellfire for the same acts.

Previous posts to Against The Grain on Islam:

Related Links:

  • Coming to Terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists?, by Martin Kramer. Middle East Quarterly Vol. X, No. 2 (Spring 2003) - a examining the semantic problem in labeling violent Islamic movements.
  • "The Crescent and the Gun", by Brian Saint-Paul. Crisis 20, no. 1 (January 2002)
  • "Views on Islam", by Benazir Bhutto & David F. Forte. Imprimis 31, no. 10 (October 2002): 1-6. Does the radical form of Islam behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent true Islam? or is it an aberration? Is Islamic doctrine compatible with religious pluralism and constitutional democracy? How are we to think of Islam in the context of the war against terrorism? The former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto responds.
  • Choose: Islam Scary, Lite or Dry? by David Need, reviewing three books by American scholars on Islam.
  • On Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism Interview With Professor Joan-Andreu Rocha. Zenit News Service. July 17, 2005.


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