Is the West kidding itself about the good intentions of Islam?

September 22, 2017

Dear Cecil:

Is the West kidding itself about the good intentions of Islam? On one hand many followers of Islam, especially in the West, claim it’s a religion of peace. On the other hand, in majority-Islamic countries, huge chunks of the population are all about going to holy war with the West and striking as many deadly blows as possible. Are we fooling ourselves about the peaceful nature of Islam if this focus on jihad is at its philosophical core?

Cecil replies:

Let’s not be alarmist. Islam has roughly 1.5 billion adherents. I haven’t taken a recent head count, but surely 99 percent wish their non-Muslim neighbors nothing but the best.

OK, that leaves 15 million who may have other ideas. Worrisome? Yes. Cause for panic here in the West? No. If we unpack jihad, the subject of immediate concern, we find there’s much we can work with. Likewise, Islamic fundamentalism is potentially our friend. Why, look how well it’s worked out in the case of Iran.


Now, now. Iran isn’t my notion of the ideal society. I’m just saying it’s a step on the road.

Back to that later. First some basics.

Jihad, commonly interpreted as “holy war,” literally translates as “struggle.” Whether it’s at Islam’s philosophical core I leave to the theologians. But it’s a basic Islamic concept.

A sizable body of Islamic tradition, dating back to the 11th century, distinguishes two types of jihad. “Greater jihad” is the inner struggle against unworthy impulses. “Lesser jihad” means fighting the infidel.

It’s reasonably clear jihad in the military sense is the original connotation of the term, with jihad as spiritual struggle grafted on later. Some Islamic thinkers claim such latter-day elaborations are spurious, even heretical. Western fearmongers have seized on these contentions as proof that the accepted, orthodox meaning of jihad is holy war, suggesting that those who claim otherwise are deluding themselves.

But Islam doesn’t have a central doctrinal authority; it’s got competing schools of thought. Sure, plenty of Islamists think they have a religious duty to wage war against unbelievers in the West. So what? Ideas don't drive passions; passions drive ideas. It doesn't matter what the "real" meaning of jihad is: those determined to see it as a mandate for violence are going to do so.

But a billion-plus other Muslims don’t see it like that — and they’ve got long-standing (if disputed) doctrinal support. That’s the comeback to dire claims that Islam isn’t a “religion of peace.” Of course it isn’t. No world religion is inherently anything; it’s what its adherents make of it. Christianity, with its own impressive history of violence, can today be said to have a sizable peace-loving wing. So can Islam.

That brings us to Islamic fundamentalism. Has it been the seedbed for radical Islamic terrorism, to use a phrase some like to trumpet? Yup. Is sharia law a medieval throwback? Yup again. Are death-to-America sentiments more common among fundamentalist than than non-fundamentalist Muslims? Likely so.

But you know what? Setting aside your al-Qaeda/ISIS/Taliban suicide-bomber types, we can work with these guys. Take our buddies in Iran.

In 1979, in the midst of the hostage crisis, Iran was the U.S.’s worst nightmare. Today? Yes, there’s the nukes, oppression of women, etc. But look at the bright side. This is a stable theocratic regime. It appears to have a modicum of popular support, due largely to Islamic fundamentalism. It’s not a North Korea-style police state; on the contrary, they hold elections where sometimes the candidate we like wins.

Let’s not get goofy. If I’m the leader of a Western democracy, I’m not inviting the Iranian theocrats on a long fishing trip. But can we do business with them? I’d want to count the change, but sure. They’re running a country; they have much to lose. They've got an intelligible goal, namely regional dominance, which admittedly puts them in the crosshairs of many others in the Middle East.

But come on. Of such ingredients are bargains made, and we’ve made them. Will they hold up? No idea. But I like the chances better than I would with Islamic State.

In short, we need to be realistic. Can Islamic teachings be read as supporting violence? Demonstrably so. Is holy war the heart and soul of the religion? Fanatics think so, but every public-opinion survey I’ve seen shows most Muslims reject violence.

Sharia law, it’s true, enjoys broad support, accounting for the majority of believers in many Islamic countries, according to Pew Research. Sharia means tension with the West but not necessarily outright hostility. Iran’s not a U.S. fan, but Saudi Arabia, equally fundamentalist (and no less problematic), is our ally.

Look, you play the cards you’re dealt. Peace? Not happening soon. But if you’re panting for war to the death with 20 percent of the planet, that’s easy: act like that’s what we’re in now.

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