Islam’s Religious Exemption From Criticism

During the financial crisis of 2008, one of the pressing questions of the day had to do with whether or not various giant corporations—AIG, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, GM, and others—were too big to fail. The consensus among policymakers at the time was that these companies had to be bailed out by the government, or else the global economy would collapse with them.

A similar question can be raised with regard to Islam. Is it too big to fail? Would its collapse bring chaos in its wake? Judging from their behavior, most policymakers seem heavily invested in Islam’s survival. Their reasoning goes roughly as follows: Islam is a religion; religion is a stabilizing force in society; therefore, the flourishing of Islam is vital to the stability of the Muslim world. Hence, the consensus view is (and has been for a long time) that it is desirable to prop up Islam and provide bailouts when needed.

The bailouts come in the form of financial and military aid to various governments in the Muslim world. The assistance also comes in the form of “vouchers” for Islam’s good character: assurances by world leaders that Islam is a peaceful religion, assurances by religious leaders that it is a model of interfaith tolerance, and assurances by educators that “jihad” is an interior spiritual struggle. Keeping Islam afloat has become such a high priority that Western critics of Islam often find themselves facing fines or even jail time. In most of Europe, you can safely wave a “Behead Those Who Insult Islam” poster in the face of a policeman, but if you are a non-Muslim and you observe that Islamic law allows for beheadings, you’ll be standing before a magistrate the next day on hate crime charges. For his own part, the President of the United States vowed to protect the good name of Islam from “negative stereotypes.”

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Initially, the moral support went to Islam, and the financial and military support went to Muslim governments—many of which were not particularly religious. That changed with the Obama administration. The policy all along had been to support moderate, stabilizing governments, but with the advent of the new administration, the definition of “moderate” underwent a change. On the assumption that religion makes for moderation, the more religious factions—such as the Muslim Brotherhood—were now assumed to be the more moderate ones. Consequently, the Obama administration threw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood-type groups who were attempting to overthrow secular governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. Likewise, the administration strongly supported the rule of Recep Erdogan in Turkey, even though Erdogan was in the process of transforming Turkey from a stable, secular state to an Islamic state.

Moderate? It doesn’t look that way now. As it turned out, the U.S.-backed Islamists quickly proved themselves far less adept at stabilizing their countries than the regimes they replaced. Whatever their drawbacks, the secular, authoritarian rulers appear, in hindsight, to have been the more moderating force; and one of the ways they maintained stability was by keeping Islam in check. They acted as a restraining force on the more violent manifestations of Islam with the result that Christians and other minorities enjoyed relative security.

One of the primary arguments for providing life support to Islam is that it’s a stabilizing force in the Middle East and elsewhere. But if that’s not the case, should we still want Islam to succeed? If Islam is a destabilizing force, wouldn’t the world be better off without it? And since Muslims are the primary victims of Islamic violence, wouldn’t they also be better off without it? This is not to suggest that we should consider going to war against Islam, but that we should consider withdrawing the support that keeps it viable.

Let’s draw an analogy to another globe-spanning ideology—communism. Take the case of Soviet-bloc communism. Should we have wanted it to succeed or fail? Considering the oppressive nature of communism, it’s surprising how many in the West had mixed feelings about the question. Many Western elites had the same attitude toward Soviet-bloc communism as they do today toward Islam. Like Islam, Soviet communism also seemed permanent—an inevitable force of history with which, it seemed, we had to come to terms. Western apologists for communism were willing to grant that Soviet communism had its faults, but that was because it was a misinterpretation of true communism. It needed reform, yes, but the basic model was sound. Yet, for all its Western cheerleaders, Soviet communism did fail, and it failed in large part because Western leaders stopped making accommodations with communist ideology (as they had during the Carter administration) and began to challenge it instead.

The analogy to Soviet communism limps, however, in one crucial respect. Soviet communism was not a religion. In fact, many attributed the evils of communism to its godless nature. As with the Nazi threat which preceded it, communism was perceived to be a political, not a religious, movement. Although Hitler tried to revive pagan-Teutonic mythology and although Stalin encouraged a religious-like cult of personality around himself, no one in the West thought of Nazism or communism as legitimate expressions of religion.

It’s a different story with Islam. Islam is looking more and more like a world-threatening ideology, but it is more immune to criticism than either Nazism or communism because it is a recognized and long-established religion. To challenge it is to court charges of anti-religious bigotry. In addition, something in our conscience makes us reluctant to reprove a fellow religion.

We are conditioned to have a favorable view of religion—especially other people’s religion. It somehow doesn’t seem right to contemplate Islam’s failure. To get around this difficulty, some critics of Islam contend that it is nothing but a political ideology and ought to be labeled as such. But this rebranding effort is a difficult sell because, by most standard definitions of the term, Islam does qualify as a religion. To most people, moreover, it certainly looks like a religion. The pagan-like symbols and ceremonies of the Nazis were clearly ersatz, but the same can’t be said of the centuries-old observances of Muslims. When people prostrate themselves in prayer five times a day, it’s hard to make the case that what they’re doing is nothing more than a power play.

The truth of the matter is that Islam is a hybrid: it’s both a political ideology and a religion. And although the political side of Islam may turn out to be every bit as dangerous as Nazism or communism, the religious side provides considerable protection from criticism. Because of its religious nature, it seems improper to engage Islam in the kind of ideological warfare the West waged against fascism and communism.

Yet the threat to the West and to the rest of the world is, by all appearances, increasing. Egyptians, Nigerians, Kenyans, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and others are finding it difficult to arrest the spread of radical Islam within their borders. In Europe, Islamization moves on apace, and no one has found the formula for resisting it. In Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has proclaimed the creation of a new caliphate state, declared himself caliph, and has called on Muslims worldwide to join him in waging war against infidels. We hear a lot about all the different forms of Islam, but the idea of the caliphate is that there should be only one unified Islam. Like communism, the caliphate is intended to be a borderless community—a trans-national and ever-expanding empire of true believers. That’s because, like communism, Islam aspires to be a universal belief system.

Unlike communism, however, Islam has the advantage of conducting its proselytizing activities under the banner of religion. During the Cold War, communists did not have the benefit of being able to set up recruitment and indoctrination centers all over the free world. Yet, in effect, Islam does. Mosques are not just places of worship; they are often centers of political activity and, not infrequently, of jihad activity. As a popular Muslim poem puts it, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” That may seem like a bit of poetic exaggeration, but it is taken seriously in the Muslim world. Recep Erdogan went to jail for quoting those lines when Turkey was still a secular state. That he is now the leader of that country provides a good indication of which way the wind is blowing.

Of course, for a non-Muslim to even hint at the possibility that mosques might serve such purposes is to invite accusations of Islamophobia and bigotry. Likewise, to suggest that there are similarities between Islam and communism or between Islam and Nazism puts one on the fringe of acceptable discourse. Which goes to prove the point: Islam’s religious status puts it beyond criticism. You can criticize very radical Islamic radicals and very extreme Islamic extremists—just as long as you add that, of course, their activities have nothing to do with the religion of Islam.

When I was a boy, one of the more popular comic strips was “Ham” Fisher’s “Joe Palooka.” Palooka was a heavyweight prize fighter, and about as clean-cut, noble, and patriotic as a comic strip character could be. Next to his boxing skills, Joe’s greatest strength was his integrity. It was also his chief weakness because his opponents invariably took advantage of it. One that I recall was a burly brawler named Ruffy Balonki. Ruffy used every dirty trick in the books, including eye-gouging and brass knuckles inside his gloves. He even used psychological warfare. On one occasion, he appeared in the ring with a large tattoo encompassing his expansive stomach. It was a heart-shaped tattoo, and inside it, in bold letters, was the word “MOTHER.”

As Ruffy correctly guessed, Joe’s sense of decency prevented him from landing any punches in that area. For round after round, and despite the pleas of his manager (and the silent pleas of comic strip readers across the country), Joe refused to hit Ruffy in what everyone knew was his weak spot. And, because he was thrown off his game, Joe took a beating for round after round. I don’t recall what it was that ultimately brought Joe back to his senses, but I haven’t forgotten the image of him rendered nearly helpless by his own sense of propriety.

Like Ruffy Balonki, the theology/ideology of Islam has some very large weak spots. But our sense of propriety, which is nowadays governed by the rules of political correctness, won’t allow us to even talk about them. In effect, the sensitive areas are protected by a large sign that reads “religion—do not touch.” The difference is, the struggle we’re being drawn into is not a boxing contest and if we lose it, we won’t be offered a rematch.


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