Thursday, September 25, 2014


With thanks to Malcolm, whose tweet on this was the first I saw of it, I present a link to an article by a Jesuit* priest, the Reverend James V. Schall, SJ, that analyzes Islam, its relationship with terrorism, and the question of how seriously to take the Islamic State. Schall writes, provocatively:

Is terror intrinsic to Islam?

What I want to propose here is an opinion. An opinion is a position that sees the plausibility but not certainty of a given proposition. But I think this opinion is well-grounded and makes more sense both of historic and of present Islam than most of the other views that are prevalent. I do not conceive this reflection as definitive. Nor do I document it in any formal sense, though it can be. It is a view that, paradoxically, has, I think, more respect for Islam than most of its current critics or advocates.

This comment is an apologia, as it were, for the Islamic State at least in the sense that it accepts its sincerity and religious purpose. It understands how, in its own terms, the philosophic background that enhances its view does, in its own terms, justify its actions, including the violent ones.

The Islamic State and the broader jihadist movements throughout the world that agree with it are, I think, correct in their basic understanding of Islam. Plenty of evidence is found, both in the long history of early Muslim military expansion and in its theoretical interpretation of the Qur’an itself, to conclude that the Islamic State and its sympathizers have it basically right. The purpose of Islam, with the often violent means it can and does use to accomplish it, is to extend its rule, in the name of Allah, to all the world. The world cannot be at “peace” until it is all Muslim. The “terror” we see does not primarily arise from modern totalitarian theories, nationalism, or from anywhere else but what is considered, on objective evidence, to be a faithful reading of a mission assigned by Allah to the Islamic world, which has been itself largely procrastinating about fulfilling its assigned mission.

To look elsewhere for an explanation is simply not to see what the Islamic State and its friends are telling us about why they act as they do. The tendency among pragmatic Western thinkers, locked into their own narrow views, is to exclude any such motivation as an excuse of raw power. This view shows the intellectual shortcomings of Western leaders and the narrowness of much Western thought.

[emphasis added]

This question—the question of the extent to which Islam and Islamism** are synonymous—has been batted about by several of the blogs on my daily reading list, Malcolm and Jeff foremost among them. Their thoughts on the matter are worth your while. I've written very little on the subject because I consider myself rather poorly-read when it comes to Islam, its history, and its doctrines. I know enough about the religion to write perhaps a 2- or 3-page essay on the topic, and that would pretty much exhaust my knowledge.

That said, my impression, especially after having read both Bernard Lewis on the right and Edward Said on the left, is that we're reaching a point, in Western discourse, where it's becoming increasingly hard to deny that there exists, if not an absolute identity, then at least an extreme overlapping of the concepts of Islam and Islamism. I'm still not willing to concede that Islam can be boiled down to an essence: my own experience with Muslims in America (I had quite a few Muslim students in my tutoring job at YB in Centreville, Virginia—along with Hindus, Jains, Christians, atheists, and spiritual-not-religious) leads me to believe that a kinder, more open, and sincerely skeptical form of Islam does indeed exist, but that it doesn't make itself well-known at the level of public discourse. And that is truly unfortunate. People en masse are stupid, and if the moderate Islam that I'm referring to exists only at the broken, scattered level of private belief, it will never become an opposing force against Islamism. (But if moderate Islam did become a countervailing force, wouldn't it also become subject to the stupid-en-masse rule?)

If the argument that Islam = Islamism wins in the West, this conclusion will lead to a very narrow set of possible actions, the genocide of Muslims among them. Dr. Charles B. Jones of Catholic University, my old mentor, explained the alternatives in his book The View from Mars Hill (which I reviewed here in 2006). The possibilities in religious conflict, according to Jones, are threefold:

1. elimination
2. containment
3. expulsion

The West, in its current state, is too squeamish to opt openly for elimination, because that would be advocating genocide—a repeat of the Holocaust, but on a different group of people, many of whom will be innocent parties and undeserving of such a fate. That leaves, for the West, the options of containment and expulsion, and of those two, I'd assume that containment is the more feasible alternative. How containment would work, in practical terms, is the question of the day, but I assume it's going to have something to do with major changes in immigration law. Perhaps one interview question for potential immigrants might be the one that David Horowitz asks at every campus he visits: "Will you condemn Hamas here and now?" Any hesitation on the question, or any refusal to condemn Hamas, could be grounds for automatic rejection.

A thornier question is that of the role of religious jurisprudence vis-à-vis the law of the land. Muslims are correct when they judge it unfair for non-Muslim Westerners to claim that Muslims should have no right to practice sharia in their own communities: Catholics have canon law; we Presbyterians (PCUSA) have The Book of Order, etc. Many matters that could be settled in a secular court are often settled "in-house," so to speak, within the context of the religious institution—up to and including matters of sexual misconduct. It's not so easy to say to Muslims, then, that sharia should simply be banned. As a matter of fairness, if you ban religious jurisprudence for Muslims, you have to ban it for everybody.

The flip-side of this question focuses mainly on the law of the land. Take, for example, the case of the Muslim women who refuse to unveil themselves to take American driver's-license ID photos. My own sympathies are with the law of the land on this one: sorry, ladies, but your tradition and religious tenets should take a back seat when it comes to public safety. In this sense, I'm sympathetic to the French notion of laïcité, or secularism, which essentially says the law of the land prevails in all instances in which religious law and secular law are in conflict. But there are aspects of laïcité that rub me the wrong way as an American: should a high-school girl wearing a crucifix pendant be forbidden from doing so? So this question, the question of church and state, is still unsettled in my mind.

I need to digest Schall's article, but in the meantime I pass it along to you. I might write further on this topic later, but I'm sure that better blogospheric minds than mine will be on the case soon enough.

*To me, the term "Jesuit" is synonymous with "badass scholar." I'm committing the genetic fallacy, to be sure, but I automatically, implicitly trust just about anything written by a thoughtful Jesuit. Most of these guys are toting around two and three Ph.D.s, and they've spent their lives at the forefront, in many cases, of Catholic mission work, which has put them in real-life contact with different cultures and traditions all over the world. There's experience there to back up all the theorizing and contemplation, all supported by the Ingatian ideals of free inquiry and skepticism. The Society of Jesus doesn't churn out dummies, and when a learned Jesuit talks, I listen.

**I take Islam and Islamism to be defined in contrast with each other: Islam refers to what people consider best about that religion: its peaceful values, its universalist attitude regarding God's mercy and compassion, its scholastic hunger for knowledge and discovery, its ability to produce works of high art and high culture. Islamism, on the other hand, refers primarily to a barbarous, primitive, intolerant, hegemonic ideology that uses terrorism as a tool to sway minds and dominate lands.



Charles said...

I'm a little confused about your stance on sharia. You start out with this: "Muslims are correct when they judge it unfair for non-Muslim Westerners to claim that Muslims should have no right to practice sharia in their own communities," but then you say you agree with the idea that "the law of the land prevails in all instances in which religious law and secular law are in conflict."

Under sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. (In some countries, homosexuality is also punishable by death.) We probably don't need to go into the violence sanctioned against women who act "improperly." Are these not all instances where religious law and secular law are in conflict? And is it thus really unfair to tell Muslims that they cannot beat or kill people who think or act differently than they do, but who have otherwise broken no law of the land?

Did I miss something? I feel like I did, but I don't know what it is.

Kevin Kim said...

I'm more sympathetic to the French notion of laïcité than in full agreement with it, but yes, as I admitted in the post, my own stance is definitely confused. I haven't settled on a firm position yet, mainly because I'm still slowly and randomly collating information. Your reading of me and my headspace isn't wrong.

Kevin Kim said...

Thinking a bit further:

I think the reason why I sympathize with French laïcité is that it's a brave stance against cultural relativism: it's basically saying, "Some shit just don't fly in our country"—a very public Hier stehe ich (or maybe that's Hier stehen wir) that's been codified in French law. The atrocious acts you highlighted are illegal in France (as they are in America), but those examples of Muslim jurisprudence gone too far are also the easy and obvious cases to cite because they're so extreme.

What happens if we ban sharia entirely? Is this even possible if there's to be a separation of church and state? Wouldn't the state be too intrusive at that point? And if we grant the state the right to be so intrusive, then my own feeling is that the principle of fairness would kick in, and it's "in for a penny, in for a pound": if we ban sharia, in America, then we have to ban all other forms of religious jurisprudence. This would be laïcité squared.

Even stickier: what if we were to take a surgical approach to sharia and ban only those aspects of it that we Westerners find most repugnant—honor killings, clitoridectomies, apostate-killings, execution of homosexuals, etc? This opens up a whole can of worms as to what counts as repugnant and what doesn't. Obviously, I'd agree that doing away with the cases mentioned would be desirable, but the question becomes Where does the surgery end?

Perhaps I could have been clearer about this in my original post, but the thrust of my thinking is all toward the practical endgame: if we take, say, Dr. Jones's path of containment, then how do we implement that agenda in real terms? I really can't say.

But something obviously needs to be done. Far easier, at least in the abstract, would be expulsion followed by containment, but how likely is that ever to happen? What politician will put his name on such a policy?

Kevin Kim said...

Clarification: I wrote

"Even stickier: what if we were to take a surgical approach to sharia and ban only those aspects of it that we Westerners find most repugnant...?"

In a sense, one could argue the "surgical approach" is already in place in that those atrocious acts are already illegal in Western countries. When I say "ban," though, I'm talking less about a tacit agreement as to how the law of the land operates in and through Muslim communities in the West, and more about the formulation and implementation of actual, explicit policy regarding these and other aspects of sharia.

So perhaps I could reword the above quote thus:

"Even stickier: what if we were to take a surgical approach to sharia and officially, explicitly ban only those aspects of it that we Westerners find most repugnant...?"

Charles said...

It's a difficult issue, no doubt, and I certainly don't have the answers.

I do have a question, though: does Catholic canon law exist on the same level as sharia? Does that makes sense? I mean, is it as legally binding in the secular sense? I know next to nothing about this, but my suspicion is that Catholic canon law (and almost certainly the Presbyterian Book of Order) aren't nearly as far reaching as sharia, and if that is the case I wonder if they can be compared.

But, again, I am extremely ignorant on these points. Just speculating.

Kevin Kim said...

I suspect that sharia, with its ever-growing and regionally varied corpus (since Islam has no centralization), is much more of a pervasive reality for everyday Muslims than canon law is for Catholics. Sharia, taken as a whole, deals with the superfine minutiae of everyday life and is subject to interpretation by the local imams (I even read one time that there have been pronouncements on whether men should shave their asses—see an example of this here, if you dare).

I also suspect that Christian jurisprudence likely varies in its pervasiveness according to denomination. Jurisprudence is often linked with polity, and since different churches are run in different ways (congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian forms of government), the forms of jurisprudence will necessarily be different as well.

As for whether sharia can be compared with Christian jurisprudence: there are doubtless disanalogies (especially in terms of pervasiveness), but also analogies. The "British dictionary" section of defines sharia as "the body of canonical law based on the Koran." Wikipedia, for what it's worth, associates the idea of jurisprudence with sharia, so I'd say there's definitely some conceptual overlap with Christian analogues like Catholic canon law. And if such overlap exists, then I think the principle of fairness kicks in, and we get tangled in the question of whether banning sharia also means banning other forms of religious jurisprudence.