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Monday, December 28, 2009

In Reply to a Comment on "Disturbing Thoughts on the Religion of Peace"

A commenter (?) wrote:

Do you feel that Islam as a faith is more intolerant of competing faiths, and
is intolerant of secular government itself?

And if so, I wonder if there are ways to foster an evolution of the Islamic
belief system such that there's less of a threat to the Western way of life. A
billion Muslims aren't going away, and banning minarets/mosques seems likely to
be counterproductive.

A fair question, deserving an honest, well-meant answer.

In some ways, whether a belief system is "tolerant" or "intolerant" is beside the point. All belief systems present truth claims; all, with sufficient incentive, are capable of great violence against those who dissent or disbelieve. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that words like "reason" and "justice" taken their meanings from the traditions of discourse in which they are used. Perhaps "tolerance" or "intolerance" are similar. Is tolerance simply a case of accepting that the person who is “wrong” nonetheless retains certain personal and civil rights? Is it a matter of recognizing the validity of the “other’s” point of view? The latter case, which seems to be what many are demanding, is in fact impossible.

I admit to holding to a very intolerant belief system myself. Yes, I believe in such last things as a final judgment, heaven, and hell—even if I have strong theological reasons to refrain from hastening anyone on his way to the last-mentioned (the sixth commandment, for starters). I am primitive enough to believe that if Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would suffer and die for his people (Isaiah 53), and that if the apostles bore witness that he actually did do that and then rose from the dead (cf. First Corinthians 15), then the Qu'ran's statement "...but they did not kill him, or crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them" (Qu'ran 4:157) cannot possibly be true. If I believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh--and that the Word was God--as John wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel, then Muhammad's statement that Jesus is no more than a human messanger (Qu'ran 43:57-59) is excluded from the things that I can believe. If I believe that anyone who adds to the corpus of divine revelation (the Bible) is in danger of suffering all the plagues written therein (Rev.22:18), then I cannot accept either the Book of Mormon or the Qu'ran as revelation. If God has been so merciful to us as to become flesh, live among us, offer the final atoning sacrifice for us, and then conquer death for us (yes, I believe in Jesus' resurrection, and observe it every Sunday, thank you), what need is there for a "next" revelation?

The thing that is intolerant isn't this or that belief system, religion, or philosophy; it is logic itself. Now, perhaps we Christians (and the Jews, from whom we received much) falsified the Scriptures, as Muslims claim, and Muhammad's Qu'ran is needed to give us the real story. If this is the case, the things I believe and confess are thereby false. However, since not even Mr. Ahmad Deedat has explained how, after all that conflict, the Jews and the Christians read the same Old Testament and a score of Christian conflicting Christian sects read the same New Testament, I'm not really losing any sleep over the possibility of Islam being true.

Hence, the issue is not whether Christianity is more "tolerant" than Islam or vice versa, but whether one or the other is true, or whether both are false. My commenter, whom I know to be a follower of Ethical Culture, doubtlessly accepts the latter possibility. Does that make him dangerously "intolerant", since his intolerance takes in both a couple billion who call themselves Christians and another billion plus who call themselves Muslims? Well, perhaps it does. But he, I, our Muslim neighbor, and others are not alone in being intolerant.

Why, then, is Islam especially disturbing?

The historical record is replete with dreadful violence perpetrated by both Christians and Muslims. Certainly, some of this was (and is) motivated by the belief that "our side" has the truth. In the 20th century, "liberals in a hurry" (as the Communists were once described) were responsible for more politically motivated deaths, imprisonments, and exiles than Christians in power were in the 1500 years between the conversion of Constantine and 1811, when Ruggles v. New York upheld the imprisonment of a man for blaspheming the name of Jesus. Surely this was partly motivated by the obscenity of people unwilling to accept the clear, obvious "truth" proclaimed by Karl Marx (at least in Marxist eyes)and, to borrow a leaf from Rousseau,the need to compel men to be free.

But how intrinsic is violence to the tasks which God and Allah have put before Christians and Muslims respectively?

Christianity has long understood the ban on the Seven Nations of Canaan to be a unique event, and containing within it the warning to Israel that the practice of similar abominations would result in a similar curse. Hence the unhappy story of the kings of Israel and Judah, the warnings of the prophets, and the Babylonian captivity. The Christian may tremble in fear before the "show them no mercy" texts of Numbers and Deuteronomy and may thank God that he, in his justice, has not seen fit to treat us in a like manner. But these "show them no mercy" texts are not the current marching orders as they were in the 1400's B.C. Today, we are called to "make disciples" (Mt. 28:19). Further, Paul tells us that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual rather than carnal (2 Corinthians 10:4ff). These are reasons why Christians who passionately believe the whole Old Testament to be every bit as "God-breathed" as the New can be tempted by pacifism and see no contradiction in such a stance (for the record, I hold to the just war theory and recognize the state's need to use violence against evildoers).

Islam, however, is a program of subjugation. The Qu’ran and Hadith divide the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, the latter seen as a legitimate target of Islamic aggression. Whereas those who speak of Islamic “tolerance” of other religions point to the protected status of Jewish and Christian minorities (and, to a lesser extent, Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Buddhist ones) at various times and places in Islamic history, they tend to forget that dhimmi status involved subjugation. This meant the absence of full political and legal equality, a “one-way” freedom of conversion from the subjugated community to the dominant one, and the imposition of special taxes at the very least. Persecution and persistent pressure on non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated countries has been the normal pattern throughout the Islamic centuries. While much has been said in recent years about the “greater” and “lesser” jihads in Islam—self-subjugation as opposed to armed conflict with the world of unbelief—jihad itself is fundamentally warfare to convert or subjugate non-Muslims and occupy their lands. The late Samuel Huntington has spoken of the “bloody borders” of Islam in his work on inter-civilizational conflict; a thesis which seems to have all the more salience now that the sole counterfactual case (southern Thailand, where a Cold War alliance between Buddhist Thailand and Muslim Malaysia put a simmering conflict on hold) has broken out in a renewed round of violent Muslim separatism. While all inter-civilizational borders can be and have been violent, there seems to be a special propensity for violence on the borders of Islam. Certainly the doctrine of jihad is an important element in this volatility.

It is indeed true that more than a billion Muslims will remain a force to be reckoned with in international politics for some time to come. But it is not within the competence for secularized Western statesmen to police the Muslim conscience from the outside in order to foster the evolution of Islamic belief systems that are less of a threat to Western values and polities. The various Muslim peoples, sects, schools, movements, individuals, and states will adopt a peaceful or belligerent approach to us “Harbis” (after dar-al-harb—or “house of war”) based on their own calculus of what is advantageous or disadvantageous to themselves. The world of Islam today, no less than the Far East of roughly 1919-68, is not clay in the hands of the West, and is making its own choices. For Western statesmen to pretend that they can strengthen or bring about Islamic “moderation” or “reformation” (forgetting what our own reformation was like) is hubris.

My own position is that the “reform” of the Islamic world depends on a mighty movement of God’s Spirit that will lead people who are now Muslims out of Islam to Christ—in short, a massive Los vom Islam. It is one of the things on my prayer list. Certainly, it sounds impossible, but we Christians have a God who is merciful, able to turn human hearts, and sovereign over history. Now, such a movement will doubtlessly require much time (even if there are a few fruits of such a movement present—such as small Evangelical communities in Turkey, Algeria, and the “Little Tehrans” of America made up of former Muslims).

In the meantime, my only advice to Mr. Obama would be to keep the proverbial powder dry while talking, and to understand that sometimes the causes of conflict can’t be found in the stubborn insistence of certain parts of the American electorate to vote Republican. But, I suspect that Mr. Obama is already coming to understand some of this without my help.


  1. You wrote, "a commenter (?)"

    - I'm wondering if you feel I am taking improper license by including questions amongst my comments. I find doing so to be much more fruitful than sequential commentary, and I do hope you are open to my doing so in this and other responses to your postings. If otherwise, Peter, please say so.

    You wrote, "Is (tolerance) a matter of recognizing the validity of the 'other's' point of view? The latter case, which seems to be what many are demanding, is in fact impossible."

    - I was under the impression that Hinduism, for example, saw other faiths as being alternative paths to truth, and worthy of respect. Am I incorrect?

    You wrote, "I'm not really losing any sleep over the possibility of Islam being true."

    - Nor am I. If, therefore, we agree that Islam is a human social movement, why wouldn't it respond to cultural forces? Why would divine intervention be required? We in the U.S. can keep our powder bone dry, but this won't stop a terrorist from smuggling in a suitcase nuke. There's got to be a way to find common ground short of mass religious conversion.

  2. John: I welcome questions.

    Your question re Hinduism is likely to provoke another blog entry sometime soon. Hindu tolerance depends on the Hindu. Remember, in 1947-48, Hindu mobs boarded trains, forced all the men to pull down their pants, and killed everyone who was circumcised. Not too long ago we had the spectacle in Orissa, I believe, of an Australian Christian missionary and his young son set upon and burned to death by a Hundu mob.
    In Mahrashtra (Sp.?), the Shiv Sena people find even recent Buddhist proselytizing among low caste people to be a bit too much to stomach.

    Presenting Hinduism, Buddhism, and other such faiths as "tolerant" faiths is, as far as I can tell, a convenient stick with which some were and are wont to beat the Christian dog.

    As for keeping our powder dry it seems to me that it worked on Moammar Qaddafi while Cowboy George was in the White House. Further, Reagan's bombing of Libya way back when may have had something to do with the Algerian Salafists keeping their hands off Americans when they were merrily killing any French, Russian, or Yugoslav they could get their hands on.

    As for my comment on mass religious conversion, it all goes to show you that I do not believe that all religions are equally valid.

    More elsewhere and at other times. Thanks for your interest.