Not so long ago, the great debate in geopolitical circles was whether the West was locked in a lethal and lengthy clash with “Islamic civilization.” The American political scientist Samuel Huntington endured widespread scorn for making this case in his landmark 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations.” Among the torrent of condemnation, few of his critics bothered to point out that the greater clash was to be found within Islamic civilization.
A variant of this omission is making the rounds today. It is widely proclaimed that the crisis embroiling Islam can only be resolved when Muslims rise to condemn their co-religionists who seek to impose an austere interpretation of faith on society. This analysis would seem erroneous given that a chorus of Muslim voices has long been raised in just that cause.
The more pressing duty is to recognize and acknowledge the connection between Islamic ideology and Muslim brigandage wreaking havoc across the globe. Alas, this is precisely what a great many Muslims, to say nothing of most progressives in the West, are flatly unprepared to do. Having lost grip of Occam’s razor, these people claim that there is more to Muslim extremism than meets the eye. In this telling, Islam is a mere veneer for criminality and zealotry disguising what is actually “epiphenomenal” – product of a range of material factors from poverty to dismal education to occupation.
In the natural course of things, it would be readily understood that although diffuse ingredients comprise the malign cocktail of religious state-building, sincere faith is the most prominent among them. On the subject of Islam, however, the Western left’s customary suspicion of religious motivations – not to say religious mania – goes missing. Instead of forthrightly identifying the theological contents of Islamist supremacism, progressives tend to deceive themselves (and deceive others) about the religious warrant for intolerance and hatred.
This narrative of the salience of material factors in human affairs has gained such currency in recent years that religious belief is no longer generally thought to be the proximate cause of Islamism and jihadism. This flawed presumption has survived and thrived even in the midst of a remarkable proliferation of Islamist violence. On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda claimed 400 members. Scarcely more than a decade later, ISIS managed to mobilize some 40,000 recruits to travel to Iraq and Syria.
In the aftermath of September 11, many secular and religious leaders condemned the “perversion” of faith that led nineteen jihadists to attack American civil society. In the age of ISIS, some observers have dared to suggest that the project of an Islamic state appeals only of psychopaths, not true believers. Some further pretend that Islam is not implicated in terror because (to borrow former President Obama’s formulation) religion is not responsible for violence.
It is becoming a commonplace that the fundamentals of Islam are the anecdote to the cancer within Islam. This has led to the preposterous spectacle of heads of state and government officials denouncing murderous holy warriors as insufficiently faithful. (Former Secretary of State Kerry exhibited the full derangement of this logic when he was reduced to declaring the Islamic State to be “apostates.”) If it is only corrupted faith that is to blame for mayhem in the lands of Islam, true faith must be the remedy.
In Encounters with the Strangers, his riveting account of the Islamic State, Graham Wood explains what makes this kind of excommunication such a dangerous game.
“Mainstream Muslims are in a bind. The Islamic State professes that there is one God, and that Muhammad is his last and greatest prophet. Denying the Islamic State’s faith and its supporters’ status as Muslims – excommunicating them because you disagree with their version of Islam – is to concede the match. After all, takfir [excommunication] is the special sport of the Islamic State, and if you practice it, you become one of them. For Muslims who hate the group, the Islamic State’s claim that there is no god but God, and Mohammad is his prophet, is a statement of faith that forces a painful admission: the Islamic State is a Muslim phenomenon.”
That bind distills Islam’s crisis today. We’ve reached an alarming point in our political life when anyone who calls attention to the direct link between religious beliefs and religious deeds must be doing so for the most sinister reasons. The only alternative to the endless and futile effort to exculpate Islam, however, is for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to grapple seriously with the vicious passages of the Quran and the hadith that is supplying fuel for the burning grounds of the greater Middle East.
One might think that the idea of heightening the contradictions within Islamic civilization is fraught with risk, as well it is. Surely, though, the status quo – to say nothing of the trajectory – of Islamist violence is intolerable. To discredit ISIS, it has always been necessary but insufficient to destroy it on the battlefield. The larger task requires a reckoning not only with holy warriors but with holy text.
In that battle, the case cannot be made that our foes represent a perversion of the Muslim faith, but rather that they represent a perversion of the liberal creed. Muslims will be forced to choose which they hold more sacred, and so, eventually, will the rest of us.