Religious Illiteracy Hampers West’s Response to Radical Islam

We are faced with a multicultural elite that freely slanders and disparages Israel, Jews, Christians and western values, but which tends to excuse Islamist extremism or contextualize it disingenuously.

Matthew M. Hausman, J.D.

OpEds Matthew Hausman
Matthew Hausman

It seems that some lessons are difficult to learn.  As ISIS was busy slaughtering Yazidis, Coptic Christians and western hostages, burning fellow Muslim alive, and destroying ancient pre-Islamic artifacts, President Obama was denying its spiritual pedigree and planning a White House summit on violent extremism that would deny any connection between radical Islam and terrorism. 

The very use of the term “violent extremism” minimized the terrorist threat by obscuring its ideological motivations.  And by using neutral terminology to mask its doctrinal character and goals, the president didn’t simply ignore the religious connection – he affirmatively denied it and thus facilitated Islamist dissimulation.

He also attempted to shift blame for terrorism by legitimizing Muslim grievances against the West and attributing the actions of religious extremists to economic privation.  With other world leaders and moderate Muslims finally acknowledging the threat, President Obama’s steadfast refusal to do likewise seems pathological.  His denial of the religious foundation for much of today’s terrorism – and for Iran’s nuclear ambitions – is a slap in the face of reality and an insult to Israel and all other U.S. allies that are targets of Islamist aggression.  Moreover, it demonstrates either ignorance of history or an affinity for those committed to religious totalitarianism.

Mr. Obama’s coddling of extremist organizations and rogue regimes stands in sharp contrast to his hostility for Binyamin Netanyahu and duplicitous treatment of Israel.  Furthermore, any discussion that misrepresents Islamist terror as “violent extremism,” or fails to acknowledge that its primary targets are Jews, westerners, “infidels” and “heretics,” serves only to camouflage the problem.   

There can be no understanding of radical Islam without recognizing its historical antecedents and theological underpinnings, according to Rabbi Dr. Richard Rubenstein and Pastor Dr. Mark Durie, who spoke at a recent program in Massachusetts entitled, “Responses to Jihad from Christian and Jewish Theological Perspectives.”  Dr. Rubenstein is an academic theologian with degrees from the University of Cincinnati, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Harvard University.  A former university president, he is the Distinguished Research Professor of Religion in the College of Public and International Affairs at the University of Bridgeport and the author of numerous books on theology and history, including, “After Auschwitz” and “Jihad and Genocide.”  

Dr. Durie is a Christian theologian, human rights activist and Anglican pastor, as well as a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Adjunct Research Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology.  He has published an array books and articles, including, “The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom,” and numerous meditations on Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom.

According to Dr. Rubenstein and Dr. Durie, western society’s inadequate response to Islamic radicalism arises from religious illiteracy and ignorance of history.  Gaps in popular knowledge exist because of the secular progressive penchant for belittling domestic religious traditions, criticizing western culture’s global influence, and suppressing history that contravenes liberal sensibilities.  A common ploy for minimizing the threat of radical Islam is to compare it to Christian or Jewish religious traditions in order to present it as somehow less extreme by association.

Such intellectual artifice does not withstand critical scrutiny, particularly in light of the post-reformation, post-enlightenment evolution of Christianity and the lack of an evangelical impulse in Judaism.  Christianity differs greatly from Islam, and neither tradition is squarely comparable to Judaism, in which national identity and religious obligation are merged and the Covenant remains binding on successive generations through common history and descent. 

Though Christianity has a missionary tradition, and while its persecution of Jews was institutionalized by Constantine and later codified by Theodosius and Justinian, it did not begin to engage in holy wars until almost a thousand years after its birth.  In contrast, followers of Islam have engaged in jihad, which is explicitly referenced in the Quran, from its earliest days to the present in many parts of the world.  This is not to ignore the Christian mistreatment of Jews throughout the generations or the anti-Semitism that persists in many quarters today, but conditions ameliorated comparatively after reformation and enlightenment.  Indeed, many Christians today are unwavering supporters of Israel.  The Islamic world, however, has not experienced the same kind of reformative change.

The ability to understand religious differences is essential for understanding the conflict between Islamist radicalism and western values.  By way of illustration, Dr. Rubenstein recounted an interaction he had with a Muslim cleric who opined that Islam would ultimately predominate because “[we] love death, while you love life.”  According to Dr. Rubenstein, this observation is indicative of a master-slave worldview in which those in control do not fear death, but rather prefer it over the loss of mastery and freedom, while the slave accepts his lowly status in order to preserve life.  This Weltanschauung does not recognize universal human rights and accords “nonbelievers” only two choices: dhimmitude or death.

Dr. Rubenstein likened this view to Hegel’s master and slave dialectic, and said it explains why subjugated peoples are willing to live in dhimmitude.  Those who value life are more likely to accept subservience than those who are willing to kill or die to advance their ideology and preserve their mastery.

The western mainstream’s knowledge of Islam is generally limited and is colored by its own cultural perspectives.  Few actually read the Quran, Hadith and Sira, and fewer still seem to have any awareness of how non-Muslims were habitually treated in Islamic society.  Observant Jews who bridge the knowledge gap are capable of seeing how Islamic tradition deviates from their own.  So are believing Christians.  However, secular people with little connection to religion do not have the same frame of reference, and thus often do not see where different faiths diverge. 

Secular westerners tend to eschew religious belief in favor of liberal political values and often fail to confront radical beliefs for which they have no theological sense of perspective.  It is difficult to analyze religious extremism in the absence of a countervailing belief system against which to compare.  When confronted with Islamist ideology, some progressives attempt to accommodate it in the name of multiculturalism, or to deem negative reactions to it as bigoted and insensitive.  Such responses are certainly informed by religious illiteracy, but are also shaped by moral relativism and ignorance of history.

Dr. Durie attributes the prevalence of religious illiteracy to the success of secularism and enlightenment.  Though liberal democracy certainly affords rights and liberties that are unheard of in dictatorial theocracies, the trivialization of religion has made it difficult to discuss matters of faith cogently.  Those who believe all religions are fundamentally the same often have little understanding of their own traditions and thus have no standard for determining how extremism deviates from normative faith.  Some believe that all religions are benign and peaceful, while others believe they are all reactionary.  But informed analysis becomes difficult when mainstream religious knowledge is reduced to generalized concepts of little substance.

According to Dr. Durie, Christianity has the capacity for critical self-reflection; and, indeed, Christian views regarding Jews and non-Christians have evolved in ways that have no analogue in the Islamic world.  In addition, Dr. Durie believes that Christian and Jewish religious identities are shaped by relational covenants with G-d rather than the master-slave dynamic.  He does not believe there is a parallel perspective in Muslim scripture.  The lay ability to discern such distinctions, however, decreases as society loses sight of its own religious traditions.

In addition to being hampered by religious illiteracy, progressive society tends to view Islamism from a morally relativistic perspective and to ignore the historical role of holy war in spreading the faith.  Though the left falsely accuses Israel of being a colonial creation – ignoring the native Jewish presence that long predated all other claimants and usurpers to the Jewish homeland – it has amnesia regarding the history of jihadist conquest and colonialism. 

The White House is of like mind in its refusal to acknowledge the Islamist basis for much of today’s terrorism – or for that matter to recognize Jewish ancestral rights in Israel.  Despite terrorist acts committed throughout North America, including assaults, murders and the attack on the Canadian Parliament, and regardless of the increasing numbers of ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers arrested in the U.S., Mr. Obama refuses to concede any links to radical Islam.  This refusal has become a meme of his administration, often leading to absurd results, such as designating the Fort Hood shooting as workplace violence and referring to terrorism perpetrated by Muslims as “man-caused disasters.” 

Those who refuse to make the connection must deny the long history of jihadist colonialism in the Mideast, India, Africa, Asia and Europe, where fanatical armies subjugated indigenous peoples, destroyed their sacred places, and exterminated those who refused to submit.  In extolling the virtues of an idealized Muslim tolerance that never really existed, secular apologists from the president on down – liberals and conservatives alike – are simply parroting back dissimulation that is fed to them.

How many in the secular mainstream have the background to understand that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are engaging in modern jihad and have no desire for peaceful coexistence?
But how many in the secular mainstream have the background to understand that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are engaging in modern jihad and have no desire for peaceful coexistence?  This is precisely the scenario envisioned by Samuel P. Huntington in “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” which seems all the more prescient in light of current events.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the West has been confronted with Islamist aggression.  Jihad came to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century and spread to the Balkans and other parts of Europe thereafter.  As brutal as the Crusaders were to Jews, their campaigns against Muslims were reactions to the jihad that had been unleashed on Europe centuries earlier, and which was not finally quashed until the Battle of Vienna in 1683. 

The United States, too, had early experiences with doctrinal militancy, as alluded to in the Marine Corps Hymn, which begins with the verse: “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”  These words refer to the First and Second Barbary Wars precipitated by Muslim pirates from North Africa, who began attacking and ransoming American and European ships in the late eighteenth century.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in London in 1785 with Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, the envoy from Tripoli, who explained to them:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once. (“Jefferson, American Minister in France,” p. 413, the Atlantic Monthly, Volume 30, Issue 180, October 1872.)  

The First Barbary War ended when the United States agreed to pay annual ransom to ensure safe passage.  But the cessation of tribute in 1801 triggered the Second Barbary War, which ended with the U.S. Naval bombardment of Algiers.  Unfortunately, American school children no longer learn this history, as progressive educators have jettisoned subject matter deemed culturally offensive or insensitive.

This cultural dumbing down is an inevitable consequence of the theological illiteracy and politicization of education about which Dr. Rubenstein and Dr. Durie spoke, and which have compromised western society’s ability to understand religious extremism.  The problem is exacerbated by a multicultural elite that freely slanders and disparages Israel, Jews, Christians and western values, but which tends to excuse Islamist extremism or contextualize it disingenuously.

Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, western society has not responded effectively because it refuses even to identify the problem.  However, mislabeling Islamist terrorism “workplace violence” or “violent extremism,” or falsely comparing it to the lawful political activities of religious conservatives, only inhibits the ability to confront it.  The situation will not change until westerners reclaim their own religious traditions, relearn their history, and take control of the dialogue from those who believe that religious terrorism is an understandable reaction to European and American chauvinism.