Sense and Nonsense: On Islam

Zenit reported (June 13, 2003) that at the Great Mosque in Rome a Muslim cleric called for the annihilation of “the enemies of Islam and [a] guarantee everywhere in the world [of] the victory of the Nation of Islam.” This outburst caused the raising of not a few Italian eyebrows. Bill O’Reilly, among others, holds that World War III has already begun. War with whom? With Islam. But what Islam will fight a world war?

Islam is a religion. No major military force exists in Islamic lands. Islam is composed of perhaps a billion believers. Almost no record, except isolated cases, exists of conversions from Islam to any other religion or to secular philosophy. Christianity has never made a dent. Conversions go the other way. Muslim believers are concentrated into some 22 nations. Members of the religion have almost complete control. A large presence, not the majority, of Muslim believers is found in India and China. Increasingly, Muslims inhabit almost every Western country, especially those with declining and aging populations.

The form of polity in Muslim nations betrays common signs of arbitrary military rule, civil intolerance of other religions and practices, usually poverty. Few, if any, Muslim nations could be called free societies. In these areas the term “tolerance” means something different from our accustomed understanding. A non-Muslim can survive but only as a second-class citizen, however delicately it is put. Anyone familiar with modern martyrs notes that there are a disproportionate number in Muslim lands. What complicates this figure is that the Muslim “terrorists” themselves, who are killed or kill themselves in bombings or fights, usually, along with local public opinion, consider themselves to be martyrs in the name of Islam.

The common Western doctrine, formulated by President George W. Bush as a rationale in the war against “terrorism,” is that Islam is a peaceful religion. But somehow, with no connection to the religion, a large group of “terrorists,” maybe 10 percent of the total, actively support this violent group. Most of the current wars or insurrections in the world today have a Muslim component. Strategists have been hard-pressed to define, in classical terms, this new kind of national and international threat. It does not appear to come directly from what is called a nation-state, even an Islamic one. Some Islamic states, however, support, finance, or protect such nationless “terrorists.”

In an audience with the Catholic Hierarchy of Egypt (L’Osservatore Romano, English, September 10, 2003), Pope John Paul II remarked:

The dialogue with Islam is particularly important in your country where this is the religion of the majority, but it also sets an example for the dialogue between the great world religions, which is vital following the tragic events linked to terrorism that marked the beginning of the third millennium and whose causes public opinion might be tempted to ascribe to religion. I would like to remind you how essential it is that the world religions join forces to denounce terrorism and to work together at the service of justice, peace and brotherhood among men and women.

Evidently, the pope thinks only “erroneous” public opinion holds that this problem has anything to do with Islam as a religion. While not denying self-defense, he does not, unfortunately, indicate whether he thinks that “denouncing terrorism” by world religions will in fact prevent attacks.

The Economist of London (September 13, 2003) published a long survey, “In the Name of Islam,” covering the whole Muslim world, to try to come up with a balanced view of the nature of the threat. The survey acknowledged a real problem that cannot be misjudged:

When people are trying to kill you, especially when they are good at it, it is prudent to listen to the reasons they give. And Mr. Bin Laden launched his “war” explicitly in Islam’s name. Indeed, three years before the Twin Towers, he went to the trouble of issuing a lengthy “Declaration of World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” stating that “to kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is the individual duty of every Muslim who is able….”

This is heady stuff. The Economist did not find a world plot exactly and tried to trace various motives for trouble not rooted in such terrorist rhetoric.

What do I conclude from this? No more serious problem exists than the accurate answer to the question, “What is Islam?” Not a few Muslims have already decided the answer to this question. We call them “terrorists.” Our own ideologies often prevent us from seeing anything except our own theories. The Holy Father and others insist that another way to resolve this issue, besides war and military defense, exists. This, too, is a theory. To work, we require an Islamic theory that can accept the premises of the papal theory. This is what is lacking. We could use an incisive encyclical, “On Islam.”


  • 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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