Ever since 9/11, a dark view of Islam has been gaining currency on what might be called the Western street. This view holds that, contrary to the protestations of our political leaders—who claim that acts of terrorism are being carried out by a minority of extremists—the real problem lies with Islam itself. In this interpretation, Islam is not a religion of peace but of war, and its 1.2 billion adherents will never rest until all of humanity is either converted, subjugated or simply annihilated.
Is the war on terrorism really a “clash of civilizations”? The overreaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s relatively innocuous remarks at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12 would seem to lend weight to this alarming notion.
As part of a plea for combining reason with religion, the pope cited a 14th century Byzantine emperor who condemned Muhammad's teachings as “evil and inhuman” because of “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The pope subsequently made clear that these were not his own views, but this did not stop an explosion of animosity across the Muslim world. Amid calls from angry clerics to “hunt down” the holy father (a.k.a. “the dog of Rome” and the “worshiper of the cross”), various hotheads have taken to the streets and attacked Christian churches. This recalls the over-the-top outcry this year after a Danish newspaper dared to print cartoons depicting Muhammad as an instigator of violence.
Muslim spokesmen claim that these are unconscionable slurs. Yet, while demanding respect for their own religion, too many Muslims accord too little respect to competing faiths or even to competing brands of their own faith.
Where are the demonstrations in the Muslim street when the president of Iran denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel? Or when Palestinian kidnappers force two Western journalists to convert to Islam at gunpoint? Or when Sunni terrorists in Iraq bomb Shiite mosques and slaughter hundreds of worshipers? All too many Islamic leaders prefer to harp on the supposed sins of the “infidels,” however exaggerated or even fictionalized (no, the CIA didn’t bomb the World Trade Center to create an excuse for invading Afghanistan), rather than focusing on the problems within their own umma (community).
And yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the woes of Islamic society today, serious as they are, are endemic to the religion itself.
It is true that, alone of the world’s major faiths, Islam was founded by a prophet who used force to win converts. “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ’There is no god but Allah,’ ” Muhammad proclaimed in his farewell address to his followers in AD 632.
Countless Muslims since then have followed the path of jihad—literally, “exertion in the path of Allah” but usually taken as an injunction for waging holy war. But countless Muslims also have been willing to trade with unbelievers, to live peaceably alongside them, to learn from them and even to enter into military alliances with them against Muslim rivals.
Religions are not monolithic. They have no fixed, eternal identity. Until the 18th century, Christianity was a militant faith whose adherents did not hesitate to kill “heathens.” Throughout the Middle Ages, Islamic states usually offered greater tolerance to religious minorities and were more open to secular learning than their Christian neighbors.
Even now, most Muslim countries—from Senegal to Indonesia—are far more pluralistic and much less fundamentalist than Iran or Saudi Arabia. And even in the most militant Muslim societies, clerics are able to maintain a rigid orthodoxy only by force. Left to their own devices, the Saudi or Iranian people would opt for a less monastic existence—a danger that the guardians of official morality are keenly aware of.
The real enemy we face is not Islam per se but a violent offshoot known as Islamism, which is rooted, to be sure, in the Koran but which also finds inspiration in such modern Western ideologies as fascism, Nazism and communism. Its most successful exponents—from Hassan Banna and Sayyid Qutb to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden—are hardly orthodox interpreters of Islam. They are power-mad intellectuals in the mold of a Lenin or a Hitler. The problem is that the rest of the Muslim world, by not doing more to curb the radicals—whether out of fear or sympathy—lends credence to the most objectionable caricatures of their faith.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.