Speaking Honestly About Islam

The laws of several western countries, besides the Islamic ones themselves, do not permit anything critical to be said of Islam. Such laws forbid what is called “hate speech.” They often include other sub-groups like homosexuals, women, or race. Such laws and customs have practically reduced responsible freedom of speech to a dead letter. Fines and jail sentences are meted out if such laws are violated.

Such laws are generally based on a civil peace idea rooted in Thomas Hobbes. That is, violence is caused by religious and philosophical controversy. The only way to prevent it is by a civil law forbidding any expression of “hatred.” This approach explains why civil authority is hostile to honest analysis of what religion or philosophy actually holds. Such a law becomes particularly dangerous when we are not permitted to speak objectively about Islam. Criticism, satire, or disagreement with its tenets will often be answered by Islamic violence. Rather than inquire whether this critical analysis is valid, it is simply forbidden. The accuracy of the criticism is irrelevant.

Here, I am interested in talking about Islam’s truth. Almost every public, academic, or media talk of Islam goes something like this: “Most Muslims are peaceful. The violence comes from terrorists.” This approach is premised on two positions: 1) The original Muslim conquests of Africa, Spain, the Near-East, the Balkans, and all the way to India were “peaceful,” like they were the results of free elections and not, as was in fact the case, success in battle. 2) Those whom we identify as “terrorists” are not “true” Muslims. “Terrorism” becomes a kind of free-floating cult with no relation to anything but itself. Thus, terrorism is best explained in economic, cultural, psychological, or ideological terms that have little to do with “religion.” This view allows us to state the politically correct view that Islam is a religion of “peace” with no connection to “violence.”

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Here I propose a counter-cultural position. I want to defend the integrity of the “terrorists,” as we insist on calling them. I want to grant them the “dignity” that they deserve. That is, they are not mindless products of poverty, ideology, ignorance, psychological mania, or any other excuse to avoid calling them what they claim to be, namely, loyal and devoted believers in the Qur’an, the real followers of Mohammed. It is senseless to pretend that a jihadist vision is not found in the Qur’an.

What has to be faced by everyone is not the “violence” of Islam, but its truth. We may not “like” a jihadist view of the Qur’an. But we denigrate the dignity of ISIS and other violent strains in both Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam that clearly see that their interpretation of Islam has legitimate roots in the Qur’an, in Islamic history, and in the judgment of many authoritative commentators. The modern Islamic “states” set up by the West in the previous two centuries often have had to face this same issue. Usually, they set up a military dictatorship to deal with violence within its own borders.

I have listened to the British Prime Minister and others try to explain the attraction that draws many young men and women to Islamic movements. Usually, they come up with every reason but the right one, namely that the attraction is that the Qur’an is true. The ISIS type movements are but carrying out a delayed world mission to conquer the world for Allah according to Qur’anic norms. While cynics and exploiters are found in such movements, its core is a religious mission to all men. When conquered each person will be offered the usual choices that they have been offered since the seventh century—to convert, to die, or to pay a fine for tolerance.

What do we conclude from this approach? First, we do need superior military force to meet it. Secondly, and more basically, we must address the truth of Islam. To this latter, two approaches are possible. First is that of the scholarly critical edition of the Qur’an that is being prepared in Berlin. We all, including Muslims themselves, need to know what kind of a book the Qur’an is, how it was constructed. Secondly, we need the approach of Father Zacharia Botros, the Coptic TV priest. He spends his time just reading in Arabic the Qur’an itself to show its many internal contradictions and incoherencies. The Qur’anic text is Islam’s weakest link.

Both of these approaches respect the text for what it is, not just what it claims to be, the last word of God to mankind. We sometimes need force just to be able to talk, as Benedict XVI implied in the Regensburg Lecture. In the end, though what we do not need is a “tolerance” or civil law that prevents us from stating the truth of what Muslim movements claim they stand for. They are not free-floating “terrorists.” They are pursuing the vision that they see in the Qur’an.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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