Radical Islam—no such thing?

muslim-prayingWe’re still in hibernation as a blog, but I had to resurface to offer some thoughts on a question of great concern to me personally and which only resurfaced recently as I watched politicians debate language. I mean specifically Obama’s refusal to speak of “radical Islam.”

Anyone can appreciate not wanting to needlessly offend Muslims who disavow what they view as a Jihadist perversion of their faith and who don’t want “Islam” identified with such violence. I feel the same with respect to perversions of the Christian faith. This complicates things. But things are complicated. Having lived half my life in the Middle East among Muslims, I can certainly understand why one might want to reduce “Islam” and “Muslim” in our conversations to just those expressions of the faith that are loving, peaceful and morally acceptable and conclude that all other so-called Muslims are in fact not Muslims and follow something (anything) else which is in fact not “Islam.”

But this won’t do. If it would, then every religious and (even) political worldview gets the same deal, and that’s not forthcoming. How many pressured the Vatican to confess the horrors of the Crusades and ask forgiveness of Jews and Muslims? Pope John Paul II, of course, offered just such a sweeping apology. But suppose the Pope would have responded by simply reducing “Christianity” to just those expressions of it which are loving, peaceful and morally acceptable, thus branding all other expressions as absolutely “non-Christian”? What if he had said, “Look, that wasn’t the true Church acting, and so we have nothing to confess, no history to own.” That’s highly unlikely for a Pope to say, but I certainly know many Protestants who attempt to distance themselves from the “Christianity” of the Crusades in precisely this way, and it doesn’t work.

The same might be said of Christians who blow up abortion clinics and who are, as far as I know, still described as “Christians” or “Evangelicals” (preceded by one or any combination of “insane,” “radical,” “right-wing,” “fundamentalist,” “extreme,” take your pick). No objections there. No politicians insisting that it be politically and culturally unacceptable to speak of such bombers as “Christians” since their behavior is so obviously a betrayal of the non-violent Jesus. Or, more controversially, consider the worldview of Americans who supported slavery. What if we were to argue that since the best/truest vision of America imaginable, the “true America,” isn’t in fact an enslaving and prejudice vision of the world, we can simply distance ourselves from that “so-called” America which bound black people in irons and sold them as property? That wasn’t the “true America.” That was a different nation. It doesn’t work. Nor does it work in the conversation that needs to happen within Islam.

We (Obama included) do peace-loving Muslims no favor by rhetorically expunging violent interpretations of their faith from the conversation. Bernie Sanders was right this past week when during the Democratic debates he said (without actually comprehending his own statement, since he thinks there’s something to refusing to describe Muslim terrorists as “Muslim”), “There is a fight on for the soul of Islam!” Exactly. There is. But there isn’t if we refuse to call “Islam” anything but what it is when it’s at it’s best. We only win a rhetorical fight then, as opposed to truly helping Muslims come to terms with defining, or redefining, their faith.

Nobody who appreciates and understands the Quran, the Hadith, and the history of Islam can honestly think that by tweaking language in this way we actually empower non-violent Muslims to own the faith they call “Islam” with a unique authority that exposes terrorist fighters using the name as something unequivocally not Islamic. That will take time, and there are birth pangs here that Muslims will have to suffer through if they wish their language to reflect the growing, predominant faith of those who call themselves Muslims and who truly respect peace, tolerance and religious pluralism. But we don’t make it so by saying so. That will do nothing to distance Muslims from those violent aspects of the faith which they (just like Christians and others) must own and confess (just like Christians and others). Peace-loving and tolerant people who call themselves Christians today don’t get to disassociate themselves from the Crusaders, abortion clinic bombers, or even Westboro Baptist Church members, by simply defining such people out of their language. The same is true for Muslims and every other faith.

Prophets of old, righteous before God, carried the sins of apostate Jews upon their own shoulders, confessing the sins of others, sins the prophets were not guilty of personally and which they knew had no part in Israel’s true faith. And yet the prophets identified with them, as did John Paul II with his community’s failures. In the same Democratic debate mentioned above, Hillary Clinton was asked about whether she objects to the phrase “radical Islam.” She said she didn’t find it particularly helpful to talk that way. My point, on the contrary, is that it’s the only helpful way to talk. Such talking is the only way to invite the healing power of forgiveness into a conversation, opening up space for correction and new understanding. But to insist that the only “Islam” we’re going to permit to be spoken of at all in the public sphere is one which rhetorically dissociates from the violent realities of those who employ the name is to foreclose upon the possibilities of true reformation and healing.

As for whether Islam is an inherently violent worldview or not, I’ve tried to express my own thoughts here and here.

2 comments on “Radical Islam—no such thing?

  1. tgbelt says:

    I’ve enjoyed an interesting conversation with Dwayne this evening over my thoughts on Islam and violence. He had some push-back and some good suggestions. My niece and Biola Professor Joy also had some concern. So I thought I’d try to clarify a few things.

    1) The ignorance, bigotry and fear-mongering among Christians in general and many conservative politicians is off the charts. Even if I agree with those who argue “radical Islam” is a legitimately meaningful phrase, I have entirely different reasons for harping on the language, and none of them include any of the reasons I’ve heard politicians and commentators put forward. The most popular reason being put forward on the news channels I’ve heard goes like this: If we can’t define or say who our enemies are, how can we destroy them? Ridiculous. This is no why it’s important to see that “radical Islam” is an important phrase.

    2) Christians, Jews and Muslims share one and the same stream of theistic insight and evolution. They all direct their worship to one and the same God. If the only way to maintain the language of “radical Islam” is to demonize Islam and equate Allah with the Devil, then I’ll join the President in rejecting the phrase.

    3) My motivation for maintaining that “radical Islam” is legitimate language is first historical and textual, then secondly in the interest of basing relationships, debate, policy and future progress on what is actually the case (historically and textually) as opposed to constraining our language to reflect what we wish to be the case.

    4) So the point of my post (and the previous posts on Islam and violence) is not to argue that pacifist expressions of Islam are not possible, but only to argue that I know of no way, given the paradigmatic role of Muhammad in defining Islam, to claim that violent interpretations of Islam are per se not viable. Be a Muslim pacifist if you wish (though remember that not all Sufis are pacifists). But good luck arguing that jihadists are, by definition, not Muslims.

    5) My concern is not to paint Islam into a portrait for easy targeting by fear-mongering Christians and conservative politicians who want to carpet-bomb the Middle East, but to suggest that the only honest path to peaceful co-existence runs atop an equally honest confrontation with Islam’s texts, history, and the authoritative role of Muhammad’s life, and that there is no way to get from these sources to an unambiguous anathematizing of violence within Islam.

    Even if obvious forms of ISIS/terrorist violence against innocent non-combatants can be unambiguously condemned, let’s leave ISIS aside for the moment and speak of the hundreds of millions of Muslims who condemn ISIS while condoning honor killings, the murder of converts, the subjugation of women, the systematic subjugation and dehumanizing of non-Muslims, and other similar violent ways of maintaining/expressing the faith as valid expressions of Islam. It’s not as if we have ISIS on the violent side of two competing interpretations of Islam and every other Muslim in the world fighting for tolerance, religious pluralism, equal rights for non-Muslims, etc., on the other side.

    6) Christians have a great deal to be embarrassed by and called to account for, but only if the term “Christian” is permitted to extend to the perpetrators of the violence we wish to condemn. Otherwise, no “Christian” has ever committed an act of violence. I do not wish this logic to hold equally for Muslims because I want to justify myself and enjoy the condemnation of Muslims. Rather, I sincerely wish that through embracing their whole history as their history Muslims would bring the best of human moral intuitions into conversation with whatever violence their texts encourage and their Prophet exemplifies and give themselves the freedom to reform. Islam desperately needs a Reformation. Let’s let them have it.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Whatever opinion one is to have about Islam and violence in general, and the legitimacy of speaking about a “radical Islam” in particular, if one doesn’t engage the place of Muhammad’s life as normative for Muslims through all ages, one can’t be taken seriously. One can argue against such normativity–good luck–but one can’t pretend Muhammad is not the defining center of Islam’s vision for humanity. This alone is enough to make it impossible to argue in any simple and straightforward manner that Islam abhors religious violence.

    Is there such a thing as “radical Islam”? Well, define “radical.” If we mean the unimaginable violence done by ISIS to non-combatants, women, and children, I’d agree there is no such thing a “radical Islam” because I agree ISIS has far exceeded even forms of violence thought permissible by most Muslims and spoken of in their texts. But if by “radical” we mean a form of faith that condones honor killings, the murder of converts, the subjugation of women, the systematic discrimination of non-Muslims, and other similar forms of violence as legitimate for the faithful, then we have to concede there is such a thing as “radical Islam.” It all depends on what one means by “radical.”


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