But first, we should fear misunderstanding one another. So let us begin by trying to figure out what we are talking about when we use the word "Islam."
Intro: Define Religions to Avoid Confusion
Atheists and believers often talk past one another because they hold different notions of what the word "religion" means. Some people (often skeptics) assume what sociologist Peter Berger called a "substantive" definition of the word ("Religion is a belief in supernatural beings"), while others (often believers) prefer a "functional" definition ("Religion is a person's 'ultimate concern.'"). Either sort of definition is defensible. But I suspect Secular Humanists prefer substantive definitions because that lets their own beliefs off the hook. Even though Secular Humanism and Marxism often look, sound, smell, and act like "religions," by invoking "saints" and "holy books" and oppressing competitors, by defining themselves as not having any "religion," humanists can pretend to stand above "religion" and critique other peoples' beliefs objectively, as for instance John Loftus pretends to do with his Outsider Test for Faith, even if they fight like wolves to protect their own views.
Liberals and conservatives have a different way of talking past one another. And that has to do with how we define, not religion in general, but particular religions, including Islam. Since Randal Rauser is a "liberal" (I hope he doesn't mind the term), and I am a conservative (that's how I see myself), it helps to consider the different ways that these two schools define particular religions before we wade into the question, "Should we fear Islam?"
People often define specific religions in three ways: (1) by the personality and teachings of a faith's founder (s); (2) by the written or oral canon produced by early believers; and / or (3) by broad tradition as it has developed in the centuries or millennia since that religion first burst on the scene.
Conservatives tend to define religions by the first two, founders and texts. Thus, a conservative might say that a Christian is a follower of Jesus, or someone who reads and obeys the Holy Bible, which tells the way to salvation. A Muslim is one who is inspired by the life, teachings, and example of the Prophet Mohammed, or by reading (or hearing) of the Holy Quran (along perhaps with the earliest and most reliable hadith).
Liberals, by contrast, focus (if one can use that word for their more scattered approach) on evolving tradition. Liberals have been known to describe the United States Constitution as a "living document," which we interpret from our growing life experiences. In the same way, given time, imagination, and the selective pressures of different cultural environments, Christianity, Buddhism or Islam may evolve in all kinds of directions . Buddhism became militaristic among the Samarai class in Japan, turned to occult orgies ("consort practice") among the Tibetan elite, became a school of nature art, a New Age fad for American filmmakers, or returned to its quietest roots in hundreds of caves and temples scattered around Asia. I have sometimes wondered if Nazism would have ultimately have developed a pacifist wing, had it survived.
When defining a religion, which of these definitions should we focus on? Again, any can be defended. Language is plastic, and in a sense, words really can mean anything you like -- so long as you make yourself clear.
But to be clear, you must do two things. (1) First, make sure your definition is the same as that of the person you're talking with. If you say, "Buddhism is a great religion," a conservative may hear, "Buddha was a great teacher and what he said, as preserved in the earliest sutras, is largely true," while a liberal may hear you say, "Buddhist traditions as they spread from India to Central Asia and the Far East contributed richly to the tapestry of Far Eastern literature, art, science, and cuisine." Then the liberal and the conservative often get into a loud argument without realizing that they're talking about two completely different things.
But which definition should one choose? Maybe that depends, in part, not just upon one's personal preference, but also on the nature of a particular faith. So one must also ask, (2) "Does the kind of definition I like fit this particular religion?" Some faiths are more fixed in nature, like an animal with a shell or skeleton, while others are squishier and more elastic, like a jelly-fish. Religions with a high view of revealed scripture may evolve to fit new environmental conditions (which is what liberals expect and even hope for), yet also retain a stronger core set of beliefs, which change much less than those of religions that lack a fixed canon (written or oral), or in which you can pick and choose from thousands of "sacred" scriptures a la carte.
Keep those two points in mind, as you read a piece my friend Randal Rauser posted on November 21st, "Should Christians Be Afraid of Islam?" He thinks "no." I think "yes." I think the problem with Rauser's answer in large part derives from a problematic definition of "Islam," which leans liberal, but ultimately equivocates between liberal and conservative definitions. In Part II, I'll analyze specific points marked and lettered in Part I, attempting to clarify some of the usual confusion. Then I will attempt to answer Rauser's question as a whole in Part III.
I. Rauser's Argument: "No, We Need Not Fear Islam"
In my review for God’s not Dead 2 I pointed out that the religion currently under greatest threat in the United States is not Christianity.(a) Rather, it is Islam.
That claim received a response from readers both in the discussion thread and via email who argued that Islam is a threat. When the concern was initially raised by Walter I replied as follows:
“Islam, like any religion, is subject to multiple interpretations of the relationship between the religious community and the state. (b) The kind of Islam you describe as a concern has its Christian equivalent in contemporary Christian dominionism as well as in many historic forms of Christendom.”
Another reader, VicqRuiz, countered my response as follows:
“If the segment of Islam which believes in a theocratic state under shari’a was as small relative to all of Islam as the dominionist movement is relative to all of Christianity, I would agree that Islam is something which we have no need to beware.”
I then offered this reply:
“It is true that the relative size and strength of the theocratic wing of Islam is currently greater than the theocratic wing of Christianity. But it simply doesn’t follow that fear of the theocratic wing of Islam should thereby transfer to fear of Islam simpliciter. (c) That’s a non sequitur.”
But VicqRuiz was undaunted as he then replied:
“What argues against your response, Randal, is the dearth of majority Islamic countries in which the theocratic wing of Islam is not firmly entrenched in power.”
In fact, that doesn’t argue against my response. On the contrary, it is another non sequitur. So here is my explanation of why folks shouldn’t be afraid of Islam or believe that Islam per se represents an essential threat to western society.
Muslim majority countries today very much parallel pre-Enlightenment Christian majority countries in the West. (d)I am using the term “Enlightenment” here to refer to a set of cultural, scientific, philosophical, political, and economic forces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which gave rise to the hallmarks of western capitalist, democratic, and religiously tolerant pluralist society. (e)
Let’s begin with this observation: in key respects religious life in England in 1610 was much closer to religious life in contemporary Saudi Arabia than contemporary England. For example, if you lived in England in 1610 you could be jailed for being a non-conformist (i.e. for refusing to conform to the Church of England’s form of worship). And if you failed to attend church for an extended period, you could be called before the civil magistrate where you could be fined, imprisoned or worse. (Just consider what happened to Thomas Helwys who had the temerity to write King James I at this time to request religious toleration for his fellow Baptists.)
But over the next two centuries, western Christendombegan to break down as a result of many forces including the continued fracturing of religious consensus and the growth of religious, political and economic conflict (e.g. Thirty Years War); the continued growth of the significance of the secular sphere in natural science (e.g. Galileo, Newton, Darwin) and economics (e.g. Adam Smith), the rise of philosophical skepticism (e.g. Hume, Kant), the democratizing force of politics (the French and American revolutions) and popular revivalist religion (in Britain and North America especially). (f)
All these forces amounted to an extended assault of cannon fire on the edifice of western Christendom. But Christianity didn’t die as a result. Indeed, many commentators would argue that it was freed from the constraints of Christendom as it adapted to the new reality of pluralism, free market capitalism, democracy, science, and the ongoing forces of secularization. (g)
Most Muslim-majority countries have not yet grappled directly with these same forces of Enlightenment. Consequently, many of the values now taken for granted in the West like religious tolerance, free markets, and democracy are not embraced in large parts of the Muslim-majority world. And in the countries where the influence of the West is most present (e.g. Turkey, Iran, Egypt) one can also see the most visible conflicts.
So here’s the lesson to draw: it is simply wrong to think that this current clash of civilizations is a clash with Islam simpliciter just like it is wrong to think that the earlier clash with Christendom was a clash with Christianity simpliciter. (h) Consequently, instead of encouraging non-Muslims to fear Islam we should be encouraging Muslims to engage with the same forces (pluralism, capitalism, democracy, etc.) that wrought change in Christendom. (i)
And one more thing. One should not assume that the Enlightenment forces which wrought these radical changes in Christendom were and are all secular. On the contrary, as several scholars have argued, many of these forces are in fact sourced ultimately within the Judeo-Christian tradition. (See for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s account of justice and human rights.) Likewise, the most effective reform of Islam will be that which engages not only in a dialogue with external factors, but also in a careful and creative ressourcement of the Muslim tradition itself. (j)
II. Initial Analysis
Now let us analyze the ten points (a-j) marked above, in light of our talk about definitions above, and see if any confusion has crept into Rauser's typically well-spoken analysis.
(a) "The religion currently under greatest threat in the United States is not Christianity."What sort of "threat" is Rauser talking about? In the review which he cites, Rauser appeals to alleged "persecution" of Muslims in America, but doesn't give any details. His concerns seem more oriented towards possible future persecutions of some sort: To note some examples, this past week President-elect Donald Trump chose Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, even though Flynn has insisted that Americans should be afraid of Islam (not Islamic radicalism, but Islam itself) and further that Islam is really a political ideology rather than a religion. (This latter claim is particularly troubling as it sets the stage for challenging the religious freedom currently granted to Muslims.) This whole paragraph is about definitions. Is Islam a "political ideology," and not a "religion?" Or at least a religion in which politics is more central than, say, Buddhism or Taoism? Should we believe what Flynn or Rauser tell us about the relationship between piety and politics in Islam?
One might wish Rauser had directly quoted Flynn here. I have heard Flynn speak on the radio, and he did not strike me as particularly careful or profound in his use of his words. But anyway, the "threat" which Rauser sniffs out here seems extremely faint -- it does not sound as if Flynn actually proposed taking away, or even "challenging" the freedom of Muslims. Even if Islam were a political ideology and not a religion at all, isn't political expression also protected speak in the United States? Furthermore, even if Flynn did think Islam was overly political, and that obnoxious ideologies should be suppressed (though that is not mentioned here), he does not have dictatorial powers, just the future president's ear on some matters.
So the dangers for Muslims in America that Rauser refers to here seem vague and implicit, even watered down over several generations, like chemicals in a homeopathic solution.
By contrast, non-Muslims in America face a more concrete danger: getting killed by Islamic terrorists.
May there not be more to fear in the devil of terrorism that we know, and that has scorched thousands of American citizens already, than in whatever minor hobgoblins may emerge from the vapor of General Flynn's clumsily-constructed public utterances?
(b) “Islam, like any religion, is subject to multiple interpretations of the relationship between the religious community and the state."
"Multiple interpretations" is a bit of a scholarly cliche. Human beings being endlessly complex creatures, almost every event in history is "subject to multiple interpretations," especially since we hardly even know what our own motives are, at times.
But consider this comment in light of my second warning above. Yes, Islam evolves, as do all beliefs, and "liberals" can therefore rightly point to numerous differing manifestations of a faith that has been evolving for more than a millennium. But it also seems that Islam generally maintains a far more stable core of beliefs than do, say, Buddhism or Hinduism. Islam is constrained from too quick or radical change by the person, example, and canonical teachings of Mohammed, and by belief that God has authored the Koran word for word. These beliefs seem to lend Islam far more stability than religions based in more amorphous sets of teachings.
And in fact, Mohammed was leader of both the religious community and the Arab state, as were caliphs who followed in his footsteps for centuries after his time. Mohammed issued political rulings, waged war, took in a fixed percentage of booty from raids on neighboring tribes as taxes, and punished personal enemies by wielding political power. The union between politics and religion that he instituted is fixed in Islamic law as normative, since Mohammed is considered the ideal man. Maybe some Muslims can ignore later Islamic rulings. But the Koran is even more authoritative in Islam than the Bible in Christianity, and far bolder in what it says about use of political power. Unlike Jesus, Mohammed was an authoritarian political leader. So one may indeed find multiple interpretations of how religion and politics meet in Islam, but the most successful ones must come to grips with the example of Mohammed, the political leader and yes, highly successful tyrant and warrior.
(c) “It is true that the relative size and strength of the theocratic wing of Islam is currently greater than the theocratic wing of Christianity. But it simply doesn’t follow that fear of the theocratic wing of Islam should thereby transfer to fear of Islam simpliciter.
Again we return to definitions. What does Randal mean by "Islam simpliciter?"
If we define Islam by the example of Mohammed and the writings that tell of his life, one might argue that theocracy is not a "wing" of Islam but the whole bird, aside from a few loose tail feathers.
Can one even point to some "Islam simpliciter" that was not already theocratic? I doubt that history reveals any such thing: I don't find it in the Koran, I don't find it in Maxine Rodinson, in Bernard Lewis, or even in John Esposito or Karen Armstrong.
The Gospels do not confront us with an analogous difficulty. Jesus was neither a political leader, nor even politically demanding: "My kingdom is not of this world" disavows political ambition pretty clearly. When Jesus' disciples left, he did not try to retain them, nor did he ever hold a weapon in his hands, or ask that any of his followers wield them against his critics.
If we define Islam according to the example and teachings of Mohammed, as made normative in the Koran, then Islam is not a religion with a "theocratic wing," it is a theocratic religion with a democratic fringe. We may hope that liberals within Islam will cause their religion to evolve away from its roots, but then that would be away from "Islam simpliciter." And one might say that Rauser also fears that, which is why he hopes that Islam will, in fact, evolve, and why he fails to cite any ancient Islamic teachings or normative examples which modern Islam can appeal to to reform.
The problem is, if you don't define "Islam" by its founder or sacred text, you can't really talk about "Islam simpliciter" or "Islam per se," but only, "one late and marginal interpretation of Islam that I think would be socially useful." That's fine, in liberal circles, or as a Hollywood version of Buddhism. But Muslims are likely to feel that you are asking them to jump ship and become something entirely different.
(d) Muslim majority countries today very much parallel pre-Enlightenment Christian majority countries in the West.
I wonder. Were there any "Pre-Enlightenment Christian majority countries in the West?" Rodney Stark argues that the number of "Christians" passed the 50% mark in Rome during the 4th Century, but also that from that point on, sincere Christians again became a minority.
Anyway, if as Rauser claims one can find similarities between "pre-Enlightenment" Europe and modern Islam, what would be the cause of those similarities?
Medieval "Christianity" had been altered from its original state by three outside influences: (a) Greco-Roman imperial faith; (b) Germanic faith; and (c) Islam itself, which conquered half of "Christendom" and inspired a reaction, including the concept of "holy war." (Paul Tillich is good on this topic.) So one reason Medieval Christianity resembled modern Islam to the extent that it did, may be that Christendom had been influenced by Islam. After all, Islam had conquered half of Christendom. When threatened by a stronger rival, religions often adopt what they perceive as that rival's strengths in order to compete. Christianity thus moved away from its roots in the teachings and life of Jesus, first by adopting Roman power and customs, then German superstitions and love of war, and then the attitude towards slavery and "holy war" that its more powerful competitor to the south modeled.
The problem with Islam may be that it has already reformed, and that "Islamic reform" and the desire to return to "simply Islam" is what produced Saudi Arabia, modern Iran, and the Taliban. If Mohammed was the ideal man, and the ideal man married a 9-year-old, shouldn't we lower the age at which girls can marry? And if Mohammed enslaved enemies, and took his enemy's womenfolk into his own harem (permanently or temporarily) why shouldn't ISIS do the same?
(e).I am using the term “Enlightenment” here to refer to a set of cultural, scientific, philosophical, political, and economic forces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which gave rise to the hallmarks of western capitalist, democratic, and religiously tolerant pluralist society.
But is the Enlightenment a purely benign force, as Rauser seems here to assume? Having cast off Christianity, the French Revolution, Communism, and Nazism could also claim to be children of the Enlightenment in their own ways. Rauser and I might agree that the difference between a helpful and a harmful interpretation of the Enlightenment may lie in whether a reformer embraced or disavowed the teachings and example of Jesus. But then our goal would not be the "Enlightenment Simpliciter," but a brand of Christian thought which Rauser and I both affirm, and we would be asking Muslims not to "reform," but to become cultural Christians. Why not go the whole nine yards, then, and invite them to become actual Christians?
(f) Western Christendom began to break down as a result of many forces including the continued fracturing of religious consensus and the growth of religious, political and economic conflict (e.g. Thirty Years War); the continued growth of the significance of the secular sphere in natural science (e.g. Galileo, Newton, Darwin) and economics (e.g. Adam Smith), the rise of philosophical skepticism (e.g. Hume, Kant), the democratizing force of politics (the French and American revolutions) and popular revivalist religion (in Britain and North America especially).
What broke down was European unity. Christian belief, Stark shows in "Secularization, RIP," had never been as strong in Europe as the term "Christendom" would seem to imply. And the Christian church was never fully united: the Nestorians, the Byzantines, and other churches went their ways long before European Christianity shattered into pieces. (To the extent that it was ever one.)
As a disciple of Adam Smith, Stark sees that breakup as healthy, encouraging true piety which had been smothered by political and religious monopoly. (Ma Bell: "We don't care. We don't have to.") The words "Christendom" and "breakup" may obscure these richer realities going on beneath the surface. And pietist and revivalist religion impacted more than just Britain and North America: it brought about dramatic reforms in Germany and Scandinavia, and ultimately most of the world. (Those parts of the world that did not shut Christian influence out, as Islam has often tried to do.)
(g) Christianity didn’t die as a result. Indeed, many commentators would argue that it was freed from the constraints of Christendom as it adapted to the new reality of pluralism, free market capitalism, democracy, science, and the ongoing forces of secularization.
While "pluralism" was new to the 15th Century, perhaps, it was not new to Christianity. The Gospel was born into pluralism, and thrived peaceably under its challenge. What is alien to the New Testament is the idea of enforcing belief and persecuting unbelievers. That was the true adaptation, so modern Christians can be seen as returning to their own roots.
But can the same be said of Islam? I don't think that it can.
(h) It is simply wrong to think that this current clash of civilizations is a clash with Islam simpliciter just like it is wrong to think that the earlier clash with Christendom was a clash with Christianity simpliciter.
The parallel Rauser argues for here only works if Christianity and Islam, in their primary (1 and 2) definitions, relate church or mosque to state in a similar fashion. But observe the lives of Jesus and Mohammed, or read the Scriptures they produced, and this assumption becomes difficult to sustain. "Simple" Christianity began with Jesus rebuking his disciples for wanting to blast towns that did not listen to their message. It began with Jesus protecting women from being stoned for adultery. "Simple" Islam, by contrast, began with Mohammed imposing his beliefs with the sword, raiding caravans, launching attacks, cutting off limbs, seizing enemy goods, and selling women and children into slavery.
Hinduism and Buddhism reformed in response to the challenge of the Gospel, because they were "squishy" religions (see JN Farquhar's Modern Religious Movements in India.) Islam did not reform nearly so much, because "simple Islam" defines itself far more rigidly.
(i) Instead of encouraging non-Muslims to fear Islam we should be encouraging Muslims to engage with the same forces (pluralism, capitalism, democracy, etc.) that wrought change in Christendom.
But I think what reformed Christianity, and prepared it to carry reformation to the world, was largely the character, example, and teachings of Jesus. The Gospel was born into a plural world, and gave Christians -- when they paid attention, which they often did not do -- an example of how to peacefully persuade, rather than force, our neighbors, which we can find all through the Gospels and in Acts. Muslims may choose to ignore Mohammed's own tyrannical example and try to turn their societies towards democracy. But Jesus' emphasis on the weaker members of society, on carrying for the poor, the sick, women, children, and the elderly, on servant leadership, on taking off his disciples dirty sandals and washing them as if he were a slave or a woman of the house, on forgiveness, working with one's hands (not pillaging neighbors), all set civic society on a firm foundation which I do not think can be found in the life of Mohammed.
(j) Likewise, the most effective reform of Islam will be that which engages not only in a dialogue with external factors, but also in a careful and creative ressourcement of the Muslim tradition itself.
Here Rauser is clearly relying upon a liberal understanding of religion, emphasizing the wide variety of resources that no doubt can be found in every tradition. He is not asking that Islam express its core nature, as expressed in the life of Mohammed or in some systematic and fair approach to reading the Koran for its core or simplest method. Rather, he's looking at it from the outside with a critical eye and a pair of pruning sheers, asking what twigs needs to be lopped off, and which allowed to grow -- hoping that some native part of the plant will prove wholesome and fruitful after the operation is complete.
The problem, we have seen, is that how Mohammed acted, what he taught, the example he set, are not what Rauser recognizes we should be aiming for. What we do not want modern Muslims to do, is marry lots of wives, as Mohammed did, beginning when they are nine years old. Nor do we want Muslim men to kill the husbands of infidels, then rape their ladies as the bodies of their menfolk still cool, as Mohammed did in one case. Nor would Rauser urge future Muslims to assassinate people who criticize them, or who leave the faith. As a kindly scholar, Rauser frowns on starting wars with peaceful neighbors, as Mohammed did time and time again. I am pretty sure Rauser also stands solidly against all forms of torture.
So "simple" Islam must be defined in terms of the European "Enlightenment," minus its more ruthless and radical manifestations.
Which makes me wonder, given all that pruning with barely a glimpse of the pure archaic stump from which must proceed the future life of Islam, does Randal Rauser believe his own answer to his fundamental question? That question, to which we now return, is:
III. Should We Fear Islam?
Now let us define another word. What does "fear" mean?
After all, doesn't the Apostle John say "perfect love casts out fear?" If Muslims are our neighbors, or even our enemies, doesn't the Bible teach us to love both neighbors and enemies? In either case, if we love Muslims as the New Testament instructs, should we not then cast aside fear of them?
But fear can also mean at least two things:(a) a physiological reaction to danger which serves the purpose of motivating animals (including humans) to protect themselves by removing themselves from the danger, or the danger from themselves; (b) a chronic state of debilitating unease that arises from a lack of trust in God and confidence about the future.
Let me suggest that John does not mean that love anesthetizes us so we fail to react properly to physical danger. He does not want us walking off cliffs, or crashing into guard rails. He wants us to trust in a God of love Who will then liberate us from unreasonable and debilitating fears.
In that second sense, no, we should not "fear" Islam, or car accidents, bears, thin ice on a frozen lake, or anything else. But in the first sense, well, John is not telling us to be fools. It is right, and inevitable, that we should "fear" dangerous objects, and not jump off of tall buildings, as Satan tempted Jesus to do.
And clearly, the example and teachings of Mohammed, as preserved in the Holy Koran, "Islam simpliciter" is a dangerous thing, and ought to be feared as a healthy person fears measles or a broken leg.
So what does that mean?
"Should I invite a Muslim over for Christmas?" Of course! Don't be afraid to befriend your Muslim neighbors.
"Should I travel in a Muslim country?" Some countries, and some parts of some countries, are in fact dangerous, sometimes more so if you are a woman.
"If am a security official at an airport, should I be especially careful of radical young Muslim men traveling from Iraq or Syria." I should hope so!
"Setting immigration policies, should Canada or America wish for more immigrants who espouse sharia as the highest for of law?" I don't see why.
"Was Andrea Merkel wise to allow 800,000 mostly male Muslim foreigners to immigrate to Germany?" That is certainly debatable, and a prudent fear for the future of Germany ought to be assumed in that debate -- without fear of ridicule or shaming.
"Would it be wise, if you are a young woman, to attend the next New Year's celebration in Cologne?" No, thanks to Merkel's policies, it would not.
No doubt the world would be better off if Islam took Rauser's advice, and reformed itself into something far distant from the example Mohammed set. But I am not sure that such a reformed object would still count as Islam -- not just because I am conservative, but because Islam itself is conservative that way. Bernard Lewis notes that Islam experienced many reforms, but none of them ever challenged the subservient status of women, slaves, or dimmis (Christians and Jews, especially).