The war against Islamic terrorism

This section is intended to redress what I see as the unbalanced view prevailing in many quarters, including American academia, about the current crisis. According to this view, we are engaged in a war against terrorism, which has nothing to do with Islam per se because Islam, like all religions, seeks only to benefit humanity. My view is that we are engaged in a war not against generic terrorism, nor against Islam, but specifically against Islamic terrorism.

The view that all religions are essentially good, and that it is only when they are misused for nefarious, extrinsic agendas that they becomes forces of evil, is basically a theological position, and a mistaken one at that. (See the article by Franklin Foer below.) Every religion has a "dark" side (Harvey Cox, in the article below, calls it the "demonic underside") -- the potential to be used to justify cruelty and violence. That is because religions are human creations, and aggression is part of human nature. Whether those tendencies are expressed or not depends in part on culture, including religion, which can support and reinforce efforts to cultivate the good in us or the bad.

It seems to me quite obvious that a disproportionate amount of the violence and terrorism in the world today (Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, etc.) is being justified in Islamic terms. This is not to say that violence is caused by Islam; but by providing easy justification it is certainly a contributing factor. A laundry list of non-Islamic terrorist movements -- Tamil Tigers, Aryan Nations, etc. -- does not invalidate this observation. Islam is the only contemporary religion that is a common factor in such a wide swath of violence. Why is that? To say that it has nothing to do with Islam is absurd. Of course each case has its own history and particular conditions, but Islam is one of those conditions. The fact that the founder of Islam was a warrior (whether by choice or not); the fact that martyrdom is more highly valorized in certain forms of Islam (especially Shi'ite) than in probably any other tradition; the fact that large swaths of the Islamic world never came to terms with Enlightenment attitudes towards religion (see the discussion by Leonard Swidler below) -- these are factors that strike me as relevant, but I'm no expert on Islam.

I believe that if Islam is not capable of taking responsibility for its dark side and either marginalizing it or transforming it into something good, it will be (as Andrew Sullivan says in his article below) "on the losing side of history." But relatively few Islamic scholars today are brave enough and objective enough to admit that contemporary Islam has a serious problem. To say that Islam has a problem with violence is no less valid than saying, for example, that Christianity has a problem with anti-semitism (rooted in its gospels, which, taken at face value -- as they are by 99% of those who read them -- are clearly anti-semitic). The most significant difference is that the Christian problem is freely admitted by most Christian leaders and intellectuals, while the problem in Islam is admitted by only a tiny minority. And neither statement is an indictment of the entire tradition or all its members.

In general I dislike the term "political correctness" because it is so often used as a smokescreen for moral bankruptcy by neo-conservatives; but in this case I think the term is appropriate. The prevailing orthodoxy in American academia (and much of Europe) is that it is wrong to say anything negative about Islam. This is partly because it is in fact wrong for good and innocent Muslims to be tarred with the brush of terrorism. And I have no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are horrified by terrorism. But that does not invalidate the claim that contemporary Islam, or perhaps Islamic culture, has a problem. To refuse to address this is to throw out the baby with the bathwater -- the baby in this case being "truth." What we need is responsible Islamic scholars to explain to us the historical, cultural, and theological reasons for the correlation of Islam and violence. Bernard Lewis attempts to do this in his book, What Went Wrong? For some others -- Muslim scholars -- see the article below by Danny Postel from the Chronicle of Higher Education. But unfortunately, too many Islamic scholars, at least in this country, fail to address the problem, creating the legitimate suspicion that they are more advocates for Islam than they are scholars of Islam. It is possible to be a good, objective scholar of one's own religious tradition, but it is my impression that for some reason (perhaps an over-reaction to the cliché that Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the world), proportionately fewer Islamic scholars are successful at this than, say, Jewish and Christian scholars of Judaism and Christianity.

This section is not about religion and violence in general, nor even religion and violence in American culture, and it makes no attempt to be balanced. As explained above, it is intended to redress a particular imbalance, and to do that one must put extra weight on the other side of the scale. Also, most of the articles below are not by or about scholars of religion, partly because of the prevailing orthodoxy I've discussed. But as far as I can tell they are all reasoned arguments written by thoughtful intellectuals.

I hasten to add that these opinions do not reflect the views of the Department of Religious Studies or Kenyon College.

-- Joseph A. Adler

Responses to Sept. 11 and other acts of terrorism:

Other relevant pieces:

  • "The Clash of Civilizations?" by Samuel P. Huntington (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993)
    This famous (or infamous) article is widely-criticized in liberal academic circles. It does contain some claims that border on the ludicrous -- e.g. "the Confucian-Islamic connection." But the central idea of the piece is that in the near future (from 1993) "the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations." And if the events of September 11, as well as the earlier bombings engineered by Al-Qaeda and the more recent acts of Islamic terrorism, are not strong support for this thesis, I don't know what could possibly count as such. (See the article by Fouad Ajami above.)
  • The failure of the Islamic world to come to terms with the Enlightenment (excerpt from a book on interreligious dialogue by Leonard Swidler, 1992). I also agree with the other points Swidler makes here.
  • The official charter of the Hamas movement (1988)
  • "Academic Freedom and the 'Intifada Curriculum'" (2003): from Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)

Edit date: 8/15/12