Michael Shier’s letter from Canada about Islam in last month’s New Directions (Between or Within?) suffers from a fatal flaw: it is more about us than them. Take, for example, Shier’s criticism of one of the foremost scholars of Islam, Professor Bernard Lewis. We are told Lewis ‘believes that the Judaeo-Christian West always was and always will be at odds with Islam.’ This gets it precisely the wrong way round. Lewis’ concern in his many books is with Islam’s attitude to the West, not with what we think of them.
As far as the latter is concerned, few Christians would disagree with Shier’s irenic approach. He is surely right to dismiss Billy Graham’s son’s view that ‘Islam is a very evil and wicked religion’ as ‘silly’ and ‘ignorant.’ He points out that Muslims, Christians and Jews agree on a lot of fundamentals such as the doctrine of creation and the spiritual destiny of man. But he surely goes too far when he writes of ‘our common Scriptures.’ Although Muslims respect the Bible, only the Koran is Scripture, viz., the inspired utterance of God. And is the fact that ‘Islam belongs to a western monotheist tradition in which salvation is worked out in history’ really grounds for optimism, as Shier claims?
The problem is that Muslims have always held that the only way ‘salvation is worked out in history’ is by the spread of Islamic faith and rule through the world. To that extent, Lewis is surely right to predict that Islam is likely to remain at odds with ‘the Judaeo-Christian West’ at least for the foreseeable, if not the infinite (!), future. Despite Shier’s irenicism (he urges us to start ‘talking about our Islamo-Christian heritage’) I see no evidence that he is about to make the submission to Allah required by Islam. Indeed, quite the reverse: ‘the Christian…is always looking to the day when there will be one flock, one shepherd.’
As I said, I agree with Shier against Franklin Graham: Islam is not ‘very evil and wicked.’ But in his laudable and entirely Christian desire to reach out the hand of friendship to our Muslim brothers and sisters, he overreaches himself intellectually. This is apparent in his portrayal of 9/11 and 7/7 as ‘a clash within civilization,’ for it requires him to pretend that Osama is not a Muslim. He writes of his ‘pseudo-religious jargon’ and claims it is ‘bogus, a smokescreen for what really motivates him’. He sees him as a Lenin figure and the heir in the twenty-first century to the same Jacobin tradition of revolutionary violence to which Lenin laid claim at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Why does Shier attempt to resituate Osama and Muslim terrorism generally in an entirely different culture to the one in which they place themselves? Why does he tell us that we should ‘look for his [Osama’s] heart of darkness’ within ourselves, in western culture? There is after all no evidence that Osama and his friends have ever read Lenin or Rousseau, let alone sought inspiration from them (unlike of course Asian revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot from the last century).
The answer to these questions lies in his irenic perception of Islam. He refuses to see its shadow side. Thus he asserts ‘that for the good Muslim jihad is mostly a struggle within the soul, like the Christian struggle of the spirit with the flesh.’ I know Shier does not approve of Bernard Lewis’ negative evaluation of Islam but it is a simple fact, as Lewis shows in considerable detail, that this is not what good Muslims in the past have thought jihad to be. ‘The overwhelming majority of authorities,’ writes Lewis in The Crisis of Islam, ‘citing the relevant passages in the Qu’ran, the commentaries and the traditions of the Prophet, discuss jihad in military terms.’
He then discusses the traditional Muslim division of the world between the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), ‘in which Muslim governments rule and Muslim law prevails,’ and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), ‘the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, still ruled by infidels.’ And he continues: ‘The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule. Those who fight in the jihad qualify for rewards in both worlds – booty in this one, paradise in the next.’
I therefore cannot see how Shier can confidently proclaim: ‘It is no part of Islam that the world be remade by violence. Osama is an impostor.’ On the other hand, although I think it is obvious that Osama, pace Shier, is ‘an authentic exponent of Islam,’ it is equally clear that he is not the only one. There is more than one Islamic voice; indeed, at no time in its history has Islam been monolithic. That between Sunnite and Shiite is just one of a number of divisions in the Muslim world.
Herein lies hope for the future. This seems to be in short supply in both Shier and Lewis. Shier concludes with a word of approval for the present government’s repressive legal proposals (‘inflammatory preachers actually threaten multi-culturalism itself and are now quite properly being reined in’); and Lewis is almost apocalyptic in tone: ‘If the fundamentalists are correct in their calculations, and succeed in their war, then a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.’
Lewis’ alternative to Armageddon is that ‘people who share our values, sympathize with us, and would like to share our way of life’ should take over Muslim countries. It is the familiar story of American imperialism which, in its conviction of superiority and ultimate victory, seems to mirror Muslim fundamentalism. And it is not just American or fundamentalist; it goes back through the centuries; it is the story of the clash within (or between) Christian and Muslim barbarism.
So what is the source of hope here? I think it lies in the understanding of jihad referred to by Shier (‘a struggle within the soul’), for are not Christians called by our baptism to be spiritually militant too? ‘Fight valiantly (as a disciple of Christ) against sin, the world, and the devil.’ In this ‘Islamo-Christian heritage’ lies hope – for dialogue and perhaps more.