“The cultural and theological division between Islam and the West is real, and these differences in religious philosophies play themselves out in a very concrete way in the modern world, just as they have in the past and will continue to do in the future.”
current demographic transformation of Western Europe makes me think of the migration period at the end of the Roman Empire. And when a self-hating, oikophobic culture has established itself among the leading echelons of Western societies, as it has today, our leaders have little compunction about welcoming external elements that in some cases are extremely hostile to the host civilization.he
Western oikophobes and allophiliacs like to refer to Islam as a religion of peace and to point out that terrorist and other violent acts are committed by a very small minority of Muslims. But the fact of the matter is that a very large proportion of Muslims, and certainly of Arab Muslims, sympathize with many of the violent actions performed in the name of Islam–the “silent majority” of which Western oikophobes like to speak is, in fact, comprised of those who support extreme dogma but who, at least until recently, did not talk about it to their Western associates. All the while, it is only the minority that wholeheartedly rejects it and fully embraces Western freedom of speech, intellectual skepticism, and the full legal equality of women with men, and of Jews with others.
Before proceeding further, however, I should point out what should be obvious but nowadays is the sort of thing that must be explained even to adults: General statements about groups of people or about systems of faith are not meant to include every individual member of that group or every practitioner of that system. An analysis and critique of certain aspects of Islam is not tantamount to bigotry and is not an attack on individual Muslims, though some both Muslims and non-Muslims will perceive it as such; there are, of course, Muslims who embrace Western civilization. But an analysis and synthesis of certain facts should be welcome in any society that purports to support the disinterested pursuit of truth.
It is hardly a novel idea, but nevertheless one worthy of repetition–and even more so since people keep forgetting it–that political correctness prevents us from recognizing the true traits of culture, both our own and that of others. Contemporary Western society is failing to provide its members with a sense of something that is larger than they, and so these members cannot see the differences among larger entities–and the cultures that do provide such meaning to its members step in to fill the vacuum. When all one has left of one’s own culture is mere external details like manner of dress and type of food, one sees nothing in other cultures but, precisely, different manners of dress and types of food, while the radically different ways of thinking and of viewing the world remain hidden. One often comes across silly Internet memes to the effect that religions and their important individuals (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed) are essentially about the same thing, namely kindness and love of one’s neighbor. This naïveté even manifests itself in architecture, such as in the House of One, currently under construction in Berlin, and the Tri-Faith Commons in Omaha, Nebraska. But a wee bit of education about the religious texts and the cultures that evolved from and in symbiosis with them would instruct us that this is absolute nonsense.
The cultural and theological division between Islam and the West is real, and these differences in religious philosophies play themselves out in a very concrete way in the modern world, just as they have in the past and will continue to do in the future. Even though there are peaceful Muslims, whose approach to their faith should be encouraged, Islam and the West are and always have been mutually exclusive. Judaism and Christianity are Western religions because they entered the West after the Greco-Roman foundation had been established, and became a part of Europe. (Even before the rise of Christianity, certain ideas from the Semitic cultural sphere had influenced the Hellenistic schools of thought.) But the third Abrahamic religion, the last one to arise, was never part of the West and within a generation had launched a war of conquest against the West. Whereas the West through its Greek origin, one which early on emphasized debate and dissent, came to be the birthplace of democracy and freedom of speech, and whereas debate and intellectual struggle are a cornerstone of Judaism and freedom of conscience is crucial in Christian philosophy, Islam, with its emphasis on obedience and submission, is inimical to the best values that the West has produced. Without an understanding of these differences, we will not succeed in preserving our values, and this failure is, of course, fully apparent in Western Europe and is becoming ever more apparent in the United States, too. This ignorance of ours makes it incomprehensible to us that other peoples and cultures can desire things fundamentally different from those that we desire. It is also a type of intellectual narcissism and arrogance to believe that everyone around the world thinks fundamentally as we do, or that they will eventually convert to our way of thinking. (I discuss this at greater length in my previous article for Merion West, which is a type of companion piece to the present text.)
While an exposition on the differences among the Abrahamic religions could fill many volumes, I wish to examine three main factors that serve as a hindrance to Islamic integration in the West and that essentially render that religion, in its current state, incompatible with Western civilization. These factors do not preclude reform, as for instance happened with the foundation of the modern Turkish state after World War I–even if that reform is now being undone–and one may hope that the number of Muslims eager for reform will increase. However, the current situation, of Muslims across Europe and even in the United States celebrating the mass murder of Jews, does not cause optimism.
The first and most crucial factor is that Islam is a totalitarian dogma insofar as it weds its theological principles to a political construct. It is not a critique per se of Islam to point this out. Muslims themselves have traditionally prided themselves on the notion that Islam is not merely a religion in the more familiar Western sense but also a political aspiration, and they will happily explain that, ever since the establishment of the first Islamic state in Medina in 622 A.D., Islam has been a total system that makes little distinction between personal belief and political authority. This is especially evident in the Medinan suras of the Quran (not to mention some of the Hadiths), which deal with many aspects of practical, communal life, as opposed to the Meccan ones, which tend more toward the philosophical or theological. The state in Medina was probably quite liberal for its time and place, and even the Quran itself contains a few passages that appear relatively progressive, such as an outlining of a wife’s rights in marriage and during divorce proceedings (4:19 ff.; see also 24:33; 33:49; 58:1 ff.; 65, passim). But this liberality played little part in external affairs, once Mohammed and his men set out on their conquests. Western oikophobic apologists for Islam, who like to accuse Islam’s critics of ethnocentricity, are, in fact, themselves the true ethnocentrists because they view Islam through a Western lens, where “religion” and political life are entirely separate concepts. This is not so in Islam, where we should not even use the word “religion” as something separate and contained; something like “theology” would be more appropriate when we wish to distinguish that part of Islamic religion that many Westerners think of as simply “religion.” Westerners, and Lutherans more than most, stress the centrality of personal faith and conviction, and especially after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 consider hierarchical structures and the interference of the state to be alien to the very idea of religion. This attitude comes to define Westerners’ understanding of what religion properly is; a better education would have taught them that “religion” is a much more complex and loaded term than that. Many oikophobic Westerners themselves would, of course, if one pointed it out to them, be dismayed at the fact that they are viewing the world through a Lutheran lens, just as they abhor any form of Christianity, and they would be horrified that their defense of Islam in this regard becomes possible only through that Lutheran viewpoint, false though it is. In Islam, strictly speaking, we should not even speak of an entanglement of politics and religion because that terminology itself already assumes the Western viewpoint that politics and religion are two separate entities. So when people specify that they are speaking of “political Islam,” this is redundant and implies that “Islam” is apolitical. Rather, they should simply say “Islam,” or at most “the political aspect of Islam” if they wish to exclude that religion’s purely theological or personal aspects.
Furthermore–and this is really the central distinguishing point of the first of our three factors–once one combines Islam’s political aspect with the element of proselytism, which it also contains (da’wah, as it is called), the final result is an aggressive imperialism because the combination of proselytism and the political is tantamount to not only wanting people around the world to bend to a particular theological view but, also, to bend to a specific political order. Obviously, not all Muslims are imperialistic in this sense, nor do all believing Muslims aspire to political triumphs, and there are Muslims who are trying to rework or reinterpret their religion to make it more democratic and appropriate for Western ideals, and these efforts should be encouraged. But Islam in its original and still prevailing form is politically imperialistic. Islam can and does exist in the West, just like communism and various forms of right-wing fascism can and do exist in the West, but, like these home-grown Western dogmas, Islam is essentially anti-Western because it seeks to restrain or even to destroy much of what is great with the West: freedom of speech and press, equal rights for women (because what was progressive in 622 A.D. is medieval today), the right of homosexuals to love one another, open inquiry, scientific and philosophical skepticism, and much else. Therefore, small but not large numbers of Muslims are tolerable among us, just as small but not large numbers of communists and fascists are tolerable among us before a critical mass is reached.
This point of the intersection of the political element with proselytism is important to emphasize because, of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam is the only one that unequivocally features it, and so we see here a crucial philosophical difference between Islam and the two Abrahamic religions that as opposed to Islam are Western. Christianity is proselytizing but in its founding philosophy quite apolitical and pacifist, most famously by Jesus’ urging to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21), by Jesus’ reply to Pontius Pilate that his kingdom is of another world and that therefore his followers will not fight for him (John 18:36), and by Paul’s claim that people must obey the polity of which they happen to be part (Romans 13:1; cf. Titus 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:13-14, even if in Acts 5:29 Peter himself does not appear to heed this advice). This is a subject that has been amply discussed. As for Judaism, though its political element is stronger than Christianity’s in that its ritual obligations permeate all aspects of life, as in Islam, and in that it is tied to a particular cultic location, namely Jerusalem and surrounding areas, it is not proselytizing. (When it comes to the emphasis on ritual obligation in daily life, however, it is worth noting that Islam in this regard has often emphasized submission, while Judaism has generally emphasized discussion and allowed for conflicting opinions about such things.) While the importance of the Holy Land and, in particular, of Jerusalem as a cultic center has certain political ramifications, it must also be borne in mind that the emphasis on that place is directly connected with the fact that, precisely, Judaism does not have universal proselytizing ambitions. Whereas Christians and Muslims believe that only their own kind will be saved, so that they want to proselytize other peoples for those peoples’ own sakes, as it were, Jews believe that righteous gentiles can also reach salvation (Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 105a), which obviates the need for proselytism, even though people seriously desiring to convert can do so. So, when people say that Jews are arrogant insofar as they consider themselves the Chosen People, it must be countered that Judaism is in fact the religion that is by far the most tolerant in this respect. In fact, whereas the number of forced Christian and Muslim conversions is so enormous that surely no complete list could ever be compiled, there is only one single and certain instance of forced Jewish conversion recorded in all history, namely that of the Idumeans by the Jewish Maccabee ruler John Hyrcanus, around 125 B.C., as part of his struggle against the Seleucids–an event that stands out precisely by dint of its incongruity. Additionally, the political part of Judaism is still arguably weaker than that in Islam. Whereas in Islam the ruler and prophet were one, the prophets and the kings in Judaism were always separate, and the prophets often worked against the kings, which is to say that dissent and a conspicuous absence of totalitarianism were a part of Jewish reality from the earliest times. Islam is the only one of the three Abrahamic religions that clearly combines politics and proselytism, and this is the principal reason why it deserves categorization as something politically totalitarian or imperialistic.
Of course, Christianity does encompass internal differences in its relationship to politics and the state, and, as with any religion, one cannot rely on scripture alone in order to understand it. Augustine conceives of the Church alone as ordained by God and considers the worldly state to be a result of the Fall, with the result that the state is evil if it does not serve the heavenly state (City of God 14, 28; 15, 1-5; 19, 17; 20, 9). That is, the state has legitimacy only insofar as it serves the Church. This point of view clearly opens up space for friction between state and Church, a friction that is evident in the history of Western Christianity, most starkly, perhaps, in the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV in the 11th century. Aquinas, on the other hand, represents a different view within Christendom in that he views the worldly state as an instrument that enables religious flourishing. The state makes it possible for us to achieve the higher goal of living virtuously and religiously, which in turn goes beyond the state. The state becomes the body, the Church the soul (On Kingship 1, 15 and Summa Theologica I-II.93, esp. article 3; see also Summa Theologica II-II.60, article 6: “the secular power is subject to the spiritual, like the body to the soul” (my translation)). This allows for greater cooperation between the two, with each having its own domain. An even greater appreciation of the worldly state, which finds its roots in Aristotle and also in Aquinas himself, is championed by such figures as Dante, in his Monarchia, and Marsilius of Padua. Even though in Augustine we see what appears to be a departure from the license granted to the state in the New Testament, it is the latter view that ultimately proved the most influential in the development of western Christianity. Islam also accords great respect to the state, but the issue there is, as I have said, that the state is not separate from the “religion,” whereas an underlying assumption of the entire Christian discussion, whether one agrees with Augustine or Marsilius, is that the two are separate. In maintaining, for instance, that individual groups may not declare jihad, and that such declarations must come only from a legitimate state, Muslims actually assert the supremacy of the theocratic elements of their faith because the state can only be legitimate if it is zealously Islamic.
Regarding Christianity’s more pacifist nature, as compared to both Judaism and especially Islam, there is no other Abrahamic equivalent for the Christian turning of the other cheek. While the idea of holy war (one of the possible forms of jihad–exertion for the Islamic faith, which can also be spiritual and non-violent) has been present in mainstream Islam from the very beginning, Christianity needed a millennium to fully develop the notion that war is permissible under certain circumstances. Of course, Christians’ actions in this regard preceded their philosophy, and numerous wars and persecutions have taken place in the name of the cross, but the first couple of centuries of Christianity were entirely peaceful, and Christians were involved in violence only as its targets. Some ideas of just-war theory can be found already in the work of Ambrose and Augustine; emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century had necessitated a Christian discussion of how the military defense of the realm might be permissible (indeed already Lactantius in his later work seems to retreat somewhat from his radical pacifism). But individual behavior remained pacifist, and it is not until the 13th century through Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica that war becomes fully permissible from a theological point of view. Such a codification of Christian war had become more necessary than ever in light of the continuous onslaught of Muslim armies on Christendom, and Aquinas was able to draw on the Old Testament, which is more militant than the New. His work filled a philosophical gap and rendered Europe’s defense more plausible than the blundering attempts at reconquest of the Holy Land that had been the crusades (a land which, people forget, was Christian before it was Islamic, and Jewish before that). Christian non-violence worked well as a basis of individual morality and personal codes of conduct, but was impractical on the geopolitical level. That pacifism as a geopolitical matter is suicidal is something that especially Western Europe forgot again after World War II and must now relearn in a hurry.
There is, thus, a clear distinction to be drawn between individual and state morality. But the more Europe is turning individual Christian morality into state morality and the more it forgets Aquinas’ contributions thereto–though most Europeans have no idea that this pacifistic morality is Christian in the first place–the more easily it will fall to its enemies. The appeal to universal love on a political level is dangerous because wanting others to be happy often leads to fascistic interference, as in the case of proselytism. Certain individuals might learn to some degree to love all the world, but the state must assiduously identify its external enemies and spare no resource in keeping them at bay. Regarding the current war in Gaza, a friend of mine, though she supported Israel’s war effort, asked: “What are we to do about the minority of Palestinians who do not support Hamas and who in fact are innocent, but who will die?” And I had to explain that, though the situation is of course tragic, the “we” in her question does not actually exist–or, rather, it assumes a Western universalistic ethos that has no political relevance for the Middle East and many other parts of the world. This becomes even clearer when we remember that Islam has been, for the most part, spread by the sword, a fact to which Pope Benedict XVI famously referred in his Regensburg address in 2006, before popular outrage forced him to clarify his position, and not by kindly patriarchal wanderers preaching universal love. (Strictly speaking, Benedict XVI never stated this unequivocally, but was only reporting the view of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos.) While Christianity, in spite of its anti-Semitic birth pangs and historical bias, is a direct outgrowth from Judaism, Islam has merely broken loose pieces from each and combined them in unsalutary ways: proselytism and harsh eschatology from Christianity, prophethood and quotidian restrictions from Judaism, but in the latter case with yet another crucial distinction, which I have already mentioned: In ancient Israel and Judea, the prophets were often critical of their Jewish kings and governments, while in Medina, the prophet himself, Mohammed, was the head of state. Islam has been the most totalitarian of the three Abrahamic religions ever since.
It must also be said that whereas Christian misbehavior during the Middle Ages and early modern times was often in considerable contravention of actual Christian philosophy, which as stated is far more pacifist in nature, such behavior on the part of Islam hews much closer to the actual faith. It is worth pointing out in this regard something that has not been sufficiently emphasized in public discourse, namely that the violence in the Bible is mainly descriptive, while the violence in the Quran is mainly prescriptive, which is much worse. This should be the reply to those who claim that there is plenty of violence in the Bible as well and not just in the Quran. More generally, whereas the Bible, and in particular the Hebrew Bible, sets out to tell stories, and stories that have universal application for human philosophy and psychology, the Quran has an entirely different structure in that it is mostly a series of edicts and threats, and the edicts constantly revolve around fighting and military issues. And so the fact that most Biblical violence is descriptive is intimately related to its textual structure and purpose–which is not just the imparting of law but the telling of stories–whereas the Quranic structure makes its violence almost by necessity more prescriptive and open-ended. Examples of prescriptive violence in the Quran are: 2:191 ff. (though this also, contrary to popular belief, includes injunctions on limiting violence); 2:279; 4:71; 4:89 ff.; 4:104; 8:39; 8:57 ff.; 9:5; 9:12 ff.; 9:29; 9:39 ff.; 22:60; 47:4; 61:4–the list excludes all the instances, too numerous to count and some of them quite graphic, of hellfire being promised for the unbelievers. This is not to suggest that there is no prescriptive violence at all in the Bible–e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Luke 12:51-53, and Matthew 10:34-35 are prescriptive–but even the prescriptive violence is usually tightly bound to particular events in stories (in the Deuteronomy case Joshua’s conquest of Canaan), as opposed to the more open-ended Quranic edicts. And in the cited New Testament passages, there is no actual call to violence.
Even during those times when Muslims’ treatment of non-Muslims compared favorably with Christians’ treatment of non-Christians, it is only the fact that the Christians were even worse that makes the Muslims appear good from a modern viewpoint. Non-Muslim populations were tolerated because they had been politically subjugated, and one was content to collect the dhimmi protection tax from them. In some places, such as Egypt, tolerance of non-Muslims depended also on the fact that the ruling Muslims for a long time were a numerical minority. They became a substantial majority in that land only after the crusades, several centuries after it had first been subjugated by the Muslims. The current migration to Europe by Islamic peoples should thus serve as a warning: If many European Muslims appear tolerant (though already many do not), it is in many cases because they are still a minority. What is today considered Muslim “tolerance”–again, only by comparison with the Christians of that time–includes many things that Westerners have rather forgotten about, such as the fact that the Ottomans, among others, were very happy to make slaves out of Christians, since they considered it their religious duty to do so, and that they waged a constant war of conquest against the Christian West. The Golden Age of Islam was golden mainly in comparison with the darkness in Europe at the time. One can admire certain cultural accomplishments of the Muslims, such as the Moorish architecture of southern Spain and the scientific and scholarly achievements they gave the world, like algebra and the translation into Arabic of certain Greek texts whose content would otherwise have been lost to us, while at the same time recognizing how enslaving and imperialistic their civilization was (the amount of slaves sent into the Muslim world surpassed by far that of slaves sent to Western colonies in the Americas). And the cultural accomplishments of Islam’s Golden Age were often a result of the fact that many Muslim artists, scholars, and innovators did not take their religion all that seriously, such as for example Averroes and Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (and many of them were not Arab but Persian, such as Avicenna, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, and Suhrawardi). Another contributing factor, which to some extent weakened Islam and thereby encouraged innovation, was the very large surface occupied by Muslim dynasties, which led to an exchange of ideas among several different cultures. It is true of course that a similar dynamic between innovation and religious weakening has obtained in Western cultures as well, but if we take this as an argument against Christianity–though it is questionable whether we really should–then we must do the same with regards to Islam, which, however, many oikophobic Westerners are loath to do: Western innovations they will argue took place in spite of Christianity, whereas innovations in the Muslim world were apparently all to the credit of Islam.
The Golden Age, as well as the fact that, for instance, in the 1950s parts of the Arab-Islamic world was more secular than today, mislead people, who have short memories, into thinking that political Islamic “extremism” is something relatively new. But this extremism comes and goes, depending to some extent on geopolitical circumstances, and has existed since the beginnings of Islam. Since religious fanaticism is sometimes connected to nationalism–which is even truer of Islam due to its political dimension–it is to be expected that this extremism would be weaker at a time when the Arab world was in the hands mainly of Britain and France. The secularization of the Muslim Arab world was due in part to Western colonialism and subsequent influence; with increasing independence and strength, that world became increasingly religious again. In the United States one would remind people that the first American war after the Revolution was not against the British–the War of 1812–as many Americans erroneously believe, but against the Barbary states of northern Africa, who were of the view that the Quran gave them the right to impress and enslave American and European sailors. If any Muslim today expressed a similar view as those of the Barbary states, every Westerner would consider him or her an extremist. So Islamic extremism, which is only “extreme” within our own Western world view, is nothing new.
This extremism is entailed by the fact that Islam has always required an enemy: Those who do not follow God as Muslims see him. This is why for much of its history Islam has divided the world between the dār al-Islām (the House of Islam) and the dār al-Harb (the House of War). Between these two houses there is a permanent state of conflict, until the House of Islam will have conquered the world. Any peace treaty signed with the West is but temporary, a delaying tactic for the purpose of gathering strength for a renewed attack; this has historically been the case even though the Quran also includes language on the importance of respecting treaties (e.g., 4:90). One cannot understand the history of Islam–of how they have treated both Westerners and each other–without understanding this. Therefore, to take yet again one of the more familiar instances of current (and perennial) conflict, a knowledge of history would reveal to us the pointlessness of the Middle East peace process: If the “Palestinians” ever brought themselves to sign a peace treaty, and even that will surely not happen, it would simply be for the purpose of, in due time, re-launching the war against the Jews from a more advanced frontier. (I use quotation marks since they began calling themselves this only around the middle of the previous century in order to convince the world that they are a discrete people whose rights are being infringed upon; earlier in the same century “Palestinian” had simply been a designation for people, including Jews, living in a particular area.) Even among very many secularized and reasonably well-educated Muslims today there is an extreme obsession with Israel and the Jews, an obsession stemming in part from Islam’s ancestral need of an enemy. And this need is no coincidence. Examine any totalitarian dogma or regime in history, whether in the East or West: The first thing it needed for its own legitimacy was an enemy upon whom to vent the risible wrath of its massive inferiority complex. The matter is naturally not helped by the fact that the Quran is to a considerable extent structured around edicts about war and fighting.
A second factor, after the political-proselytizing issue, that serves as a hindrance to Islamic integration in the West is its Arab origin, as I briefly hinted at when I pointed out that many Muslim innovators, such as Avicenna, were Persian, not Arab. Monotheism was not able to install in the East a culture of guilt in the place of Arab nomadic-tribal honor culture, as it had done over many centuries in the West in the place of a patriarchal honor culture. Arab culture was part of Islam from the very beginning, and it is only non-Arabic Muslim countries that, to varying degrees, have succeeded in overcoming the worst excesses of the Arab-Islamic core and in lessening the influence of tribalism. Indonesia and Turkey are good examples, though the former remains unstable and the latter has in recent years been rolling back its Kemalist legacy and been slipping into religious despotism once more, as I indicated in the beginning; counterintuitively, Iran is also an example, since in contrast to their leaders large swathes of the population have rejected tribal honor culture. So it is true that some Muslim countries suffer less from the combination of Arab tribalism and Islamic totalitarianism that is so pronounced elsewhere. But be that as it may, while Western guilt culture may be criticized on a number of points, it is as a political matter far superior and more conducive to social development, far better able to self-correct, than the nomadic-tribal honor culture where kindness is weakness and where one may not compromise or admit to errors. In fact, even though Islam has universal ambitions, it remains deeply tribal and ethnic-focused (and anyone who states the contrary does not understand the Middle East). Social development will always require the overcoming of tribalism, and, apart from immigrating Muslims, it is oikophobic woke Westerners–those who perceive the slightest misplaced comment as a patriarchal and highly offensive sleight against their persons–who are slowly reintroducing tribal honor culture into the Western fabric. When Muslim terrorists deliberately surround themselves with children so that there will be innocent deaths when Israel or another Western power attacks the terrorists, this has its less dramatic correspondence in oikophobic, progressive Westerners using particular “victim” groups (blacks, gays, women, etc.) to advance their own political agendas.
The tribal nature of Arab culture has contributed to the third factor or problem I wish to discuss, namely that Islam has no clear hierarchy of authority in scriptural exegesis. In the other political Abrahamic faith, Judaism, though it is traditionally a religion of intense debate, there is a clear understanding of what constitutes the canonical reading of the Torah (somewhat less of the Talmud). The medieval French rabbi Rashi’s commentary on the Torah is considered so authoritative that if one has not read the Torah with the Rashi commentary, one has for all practical purposes not read the Torah. An example is the verses containing the famous phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21), where Rashi, also drawing on earlier rabbinical tradition, explains very clearly that it refers to a monetary indemnity, not a literal lex talionis. So if one reads the Torah with the Rashi commentary, one will know with a considerable degree of confidence what practicing Jews actually think about particular issues. But this is not so in Islam because the frictions between diverging interpretations were often not settled through scholarly debate, as in Judaism, but tribally, by means of the sword–which ultimately means that they were not really settled at all. So although there is indeed perfectly respectable Islamic exegesis of the Quran that claims that one should actually not kill infidels wherever one finds them (e.g., 2:191), and that the Jews discussed in the Quran, and certainly Jews in general, are actually not like apes (2:65, 5:60, 7:166), there is no scholarly hierarchy sufficiently strong to drown out those exegetical voices that claim that these and other passages are to be taken at face value. This state of affairs makes it easier for radical Islamic preachers to find a hearing and to claim that their reading of scripture is the only proper one, and that more moderate or progressive Muslims who interpret such passages differently are apostates. On the specific point of the Jews, apologists for Islam will state that negative remarks about Jews refer only to specific groups of them, which is mostly true (though not in every instance–see e.g., 62:6), but there are so many hostile statements about Jews interspersed through the Quran that the overall impression is nonetheless quite chilling.
Thus, even though there are moderate Islamic voices, more extreme types can make just as strong a claim to being orthodox. While some schools of Islamic jurisprudence emphasize scholarly reasoning and consensus, such as the relatively liberal Sunni Hanafi school, the much more conservative Sunni Hanbali school lays a greater emphasis on the literal word of the Quran and of the Sunna. And the point is that there is no higher authority within Islam to decide for all Muslims which of these is right. The Hanbali school has grown influential through the Wahhabi and Salafi branches of Islamic thought, which are what we may call “fundamentalist,” because these derive from the highly respected theologians Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, who were both Hanbali disciples in the 14th and 18th centuries, respectively. Wahhabi education includes training with weaponry, which again reinforces the notion that the Western concept of “religion” is almost completely useless when trying to understand Islam and its various parts. While the lack of a unified Islam–for the purposes of this article I must generalize, but it is true that there is not simply one Islam–can of course also offer an opportunity for reforming influences, it is sadly the case that with increasing power around the world, Muslim communities give in to their most tribal instincts, as we see all around us. As I said above, in the case of Egypt, Muslim tolerance often stemmed from a relative lack of power, but as that power increases, we will see an inverse relationship between it and tolerance.
The Quran, being so much about war and fighting, does include a number of precepts about unlawful action in war (e.g., 2:192 f.; 8:61), so that it can certainly be argued that, for instance, Hamas in its October 7, 2023 killing of Jewish women and babies broke Islamic law, and several branches of Islamic jurisprudence would tend to agree, but, again, there is not sufficiently strong hermeneutical consensus on this in the Islamic world, as could be seen in the ostentatious acts of celebration not only in Gaza but around the planet. The problem from a scriptural point of view is compounded by the fact that the Quran is a sufficiently mixed bag that both defenders and critics of Islam can find something they like in it: suras preaching peace and suras preaching war. This problem is yet further compounded by the well-known principle of abrogation (based on 2:106 and 16:101) because this principle states that later verses should abrogate earlier ones if there is tension between them, and by and large the later, Medinan suras are more violent than the earlier, Meccan ones. Curiously enough, the Quran itself states that it can be ambiguous and that it will be misinterpreted and that God alone knows the true meaning (3:7), which does not really help–if anything, it renders likelier what the Quran says should not happen (3:103 ff.), namely that the believers split into factions.
As for Christianity, in spite of the differences among philosophers there was a unified Church under the pope until the East-West schism of 1054. And even then the differences between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity were relatively mild. It really was not until the Reformation that starker, and, of course, often violent, disunity appeared–and the violence was rendered more extreme by the fact that Christianity, for all its founding apolitical nature, entwined itself with questions of state. And Protestantism, by dint of not having a pope as unifying authority, then branched off into a seemingly endless list of different communities and sects. But these more radical differences were still more internal and did not greatly influence Christian behavior as a whole toward the outside world; rather, they involved such matters as liturgy, church organization, and apostolic succession.
And so, to pause here for a moment, we see three main reasons for Islam’s incompatibility with the West: its combination of politics with proselytism, its Arab-tribal honor culture origins, and its lack of authoritative or canonical exegesis. One can point out this incompatibility while at the same time encouraging reform within Muslim communities. As stated, the lack of authoritative exegesis also presents an opportunity for those Muslims who genuinely desire reform or a more Western way of life. Other constructive efforts could seek to establish that there should be no reason for the local, tribal ethos to remain part of a world religion and that, on the contrary, universalism can be seen as an invitation to cosmopolitanism. The political issue is more difficult to obviate, in that it is such an integral part of the Quran and the Hadiths. While the faith could continue to regulate quotidian and especially more private personal behavior, as it does in Judaism, there would have to be a radical and probably painful break from the notion that a state, or even just the public culture of a society, must be Islamic for its legitimacy. Alas, to say that these mass reforms would be necessary for Islam to exist in the West is not to say that they are ever likely to happen.
All this should reveal to us that, once again, the politically correct and, therefore, popular notion that the three Abrahamic religions really all care about the same thing, namely love toward one’s neighbor, is wholly false. Influential public figures like to claim that apparent differences among the religions are merely a question of what discrete individuals bring to their faiths, and they can make this claim easily since almost no one bothers to sit down and actually read. Even the slightest study of the various religious texts, of the philosophies of religion, as well as of the respective religious histories, proves this laughable notion to be precisely that. During the Islamic attack on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, one of the French police officers intervening against the terrorists, and who was barbarously killed while lying wounded on the street, Ahmed Merabet, was a Muslim; so too, Lassana Bathily, an employee in the kosher shop that was subsequently attacked and who risked his own life to help shelter some Jewish customers, was a Muslim–may they and their heroism remain an example for us all. Fatuous Western intelligentsia, including some putatively conservative voices in Europe, thereby immediately claimed that violence and Islam are not linked in any way, and that it is simply a question, as stated, of what individuals bring to it. In one example of this, it was written that “Religion is neither good nor evil, but always a result of its practitioners” (my translation). In a strictly nominalist-philosophical sense this is true, but in every other sense false, and is the height of intellectual laziness, since it obviates the need to study what the scriptures and philosophers of the various religions actually say. The general thrust is, in a limited form, a truism–of course local cultures and people with individual personalities can color a faith system or adapt it to their own needs–and, in its more extreme claims, totally absurd, since it is tantamount to denying cause and effect: By this way of thinking, it could just as easily be Jews who attack newspapers or magazines that say something critical about revered religious figures, but the fact of the matter is that it is not, and there is a reason for that. And this is precisely the problem with basing larger conclusions on anecdotal evidence (the police officer who was killed and the shop worker who hid others): With eight billion people in the world, practically any side of practically any controversy could make its case perfectly well if all we needed were anecdotal evidence. That there are individual righteous Muslims in Western countries (and elsewhere), and that we should think of them as our fellow citizens, should be obvious to anyone, but to conclude from this that there is nothing violent or imperialistic about Islamic philosophy as such is a major non sequitur–and even if it is not explicitly concluded, the matter is certainly glossed over. But oikophobic Westerners have inverted the Arab tribal attitude that emphasizes blood and family over all else. The farther away and more exotic a culture is, the more they will jump to its defense: Here in the United States, they will defend France against America and Muslim Arabs against France. The other philosophical problem with such claims is that if one says that an individual instance of Muslim righteousness means that Islam is not violent, then one would also have to say that an individual instance of Muslim violence means that Islam is not peaceful. But, of course, one applies this logic in only one direction.
The situation is exacerbated, perversely, by a sort of pre-feminist ideal in which both young men and young women are attracted to the warrior type, who represents virility and courage in the face of feminized Western men (though this ideal may also be called post-feminist, since it is a result of and backlash to the effeminacy of contemporary Western society). Young Westerners seek a new god, since the Christian one is thoroughly dead, and they find the god in that place where he is still very much alive, namely in those lands where radical ideologies hold sway and where they see that there are struggles for something higher in which they could invest themselves, at least morally. This is particularly perverse since they see it as a rebellion against what is perceived to be the West, whereas that against which they actually rebel is only a very decadent and distorted version of the West.
My final consideration in this regard is that oikophobic political correctness leads to an abuse of language. Many Westerners pretend that Islam has nothing to do with violence, and they must therefore invent new words in order to protect their favorite religion. The word “Islamist” has thus developed, very subtly, to replace the word “Muslim” whenever a Muslim does something bad. So too “Islamism” has come to replace “Islam” in the same circumstance. The term “Islamism” itself is quite old, dating back to the 18th century, but was at that time, and also in the 19th century, used synonymously with “Islam.” Its meaning of a reactionary, violent, or political form of Islam (and the political distinction, again, assumes a Western viewpoint) only arose quite late in the 20th century, starting in the 1960s and 1970s. For what is supposed to be the difference between Islam and Islamism? Any -ism must be an -ism of something. A Muslim is a Muslim as long as he is respectable, but the moment he commits a horrible crime we vainly call him an Islamist in an attempt to protect our sugary prejudice that a major culture, an oriental religion, could never contribute to such an act. Many on the political right routinely make this mistake as well, and they thereby strive to protect Islam against prejudice. But those who criticize Islam often–albeit not always–do so on the basis of a post-judice; the pre-judice is only that which ignores all empirical and philosophical evidence and defends Islam as a religion of peace. And so Westerners, in calling those who criticize Islam “prejudiced,” manage to flip the words on their heads. The word “prejudice” nowadays is simply used in the sense of “negative opinion,” and the assumption thereby made is that if someone knows enough about any group, he cannot have a negative opinion about it–that is to say, the assumption is that everyone is good. The word “prejudice” as used today thus has a forced egalitarianism about it that ought to be rejected, since it implicitly refuses to recognize the existence of genuine moral turpitude in the world.
The actual prejudice that seeks to defend Islam against empirical and philosophical evidence at all costs has given rise to the misnomers “islamophobe” and “islamophobia.” I am far from the first to point out that these words prohibit the critique of an idea and are used as epithets against those who criticize aspects of Islamic scripture or philosophy even though they do not irrationally claim that every Muslim is bad or evil. By adopting these words, the Western world has also adopted the totalitarian notion that one finds in certain Islamic quarters, that the argumentative critique of an idea is a form of bigotry or apostasy. This, of course, is an extremely dangerous attitude. People who merely count heads–often severed ones–and insist that Islam is not such a great threat because, after all, not that many Westerners are killed by it, and that Muslims tend to kill more of their fellow Muslims than of Westerners, forget the importance of culture and of ideas, and that not only death is a threat but also the shifting of cultural trends and the outlawing of speech and argument. (And besides, do immoral acts suddenly become less immoral when their victims are not Westerners but Muslims far away?) It is not primarily to our bodies, albeit also to those, but to our culture and freedom that Islam is such a threat (something I discuss on pp. 133-134 of my 2022 book Western Self-Contempt). When we have already adopted the vestiges of totalitarian tenets, which are encapsulated in words like “Islamist” and “islamophobia,” and incorporated these into our way of thinking, when we come to censure ourselves and our manner of life and our pursuit of knowledge, to stifle our own ideas and creativity, the barbarians do not need to kill all that many of us in order to declare victory. When it comes to self-censorship, it should be considered a general axiom that our law does not only intend to allow X and to prohibit Y. The law also intends to act as a general guide: If the law says that the freedom of the press should not be curtailed, it also means that we should try not to indulge in self-censorship, that we should not curtail ourselves when we believe something to be true. It guides us to a more open and fearless spirit.
Generations that have not had to fight for their own existence have of course become exceedingly naïve and cowardly. The solidarity expressions that one sees after Hamas’ 2023 attack on Israel, or after something like the “Je suis Charlie”-event in 2015, are little more than sympathetic clichés and nice gestures, and many of the people taking part in such expressions do not understand what would be intellectually required to combat these crimes. Some of them denounce “religious extremism,” thereby avoiding the mentioning of the religion in question, as well as of the fact that, to an enormous number of members of that religion, the behavior in question does not constitute “extremism.” It is easy and entails no sacrifice to express sympathy, but to truly want to make a difference one would have to identify the Islamic threat to Western and especially European society, and too few are ready to do that. As it is, all sympathetic Westerners do is to indulge in uncontroversial bromides about freedom of the press (in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack) and to state that it is wrong to burn babies in ovens (in the Hamas case). What makes such expressions of sympathy even more bloodless is that many of the sympathizers are the same as those who encourage self-censorship and who believe that Israel shares responsibility for the plight of Palestinians. (A prominent example is former President Barack Obama, whose press secretary in 2012 questioned Charlie Hebdo’s judgment in publishing cartoons of Mohammed, and who himself said that “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” a statement in which President Obama pulled off the neat trick of combining submission to Islam with an eschatological view of history in one single sentence.) They therefore completely fail to see the actual nature of the problem.
Many of those outraged by the latest Islamic atrocity were complacent before and soon became complacent again. Hardly anyone in Europe ever said anything about the police vehicles always stationed in front of synagogues, as if it were perfectly acceptable that such a thing should be necessary; hardly anyone thought it lamentable that in many European countries small children going to Jewish school must pass by armed guards in order to reach their place of instruction. Some Americans express confusion over why Islam would be such a threat, but this is because of Americans’ non-autochthonous background, and the fact that integration in American society, for all its faults, has been relatively successful. Integration in Europe, however, is an absolute disaster. Still, most native Europeans will be unwilling to look more broadly, to see their own complicity, and will thus remain utterly incapable of understanding the futility of their own gestures and their own sympathy. They wish to remain comfortable, to be good, tolerant citizens, and not to go out of their way too much–somehow, they convince themselves, everything will be alright. This is when their culture is lost, though they do not yet know it. They will find out that since there is nothing for which they would die, they have no special claim to live.
Even in the United States, it is worth pointing out, integration is only a relative and not an absolute success, as can be seen in the great number of American Muslims–a majority of them–who expressed at least some support for Hamas for its October 7, 2023 attack. Any such person who is not an American citizen should be immediately deported. In Western Europe, governments should take advantage of the fact that they no longer have free speech by disenfranchising and deporting even citizens who express support for Hamas. This may seem a bit radical to some, but it is only a question of time, for as I recently had occasion to point out to a Swedish journalist: 20 years ago many of the points I make would have seemed radical; today, only a few seem radical; in another 20 years, none of them will seem radical.
Indeed, when two such disparate cultures as the Western and the Islamic share countries and cities, as they now do in much of Europe, there will always be conflict. But, having progressed so far from the sources of our own culture, we deny this and refuse to understand how others can be so close to theirs, or what it truly means to adhere to a culture. Because many Muslims have greater respect for their own culture, or for what they perceive to be the mission of their own civilization, they will fight harder for it than we do for ours. We, since we are not willing to die for anything at all, convince ourselves that Islam wants peace as much as we do, that surely it has not already, since medieval days, assigned us to the House of War.
On the positive side, understanding that we are in the midst of civilizational struggle means that we need not be continuously disappointed in our hope for a better world. We carry on the struggle with equanimity, knowing that it will continue beyond our lifetimes, but that we must nonetheless, for the sake of future generations, not give in. It is a liberating knowledge, for instead of constantly obsessing about victory and war, we may also devote ourselves to the reasons why we treasure life and freedom, the beauty of makers, the makers of art and the maker in nature, where a little dandelion can stand as confident and proud as any skyscraper or cathedral spire.
Dr. Benedict Beckeld is a philosopher based in New York City. His most recent book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, was published last year by Cornell University Press. He can be found on X @BenedictBeckeld