Reclaiming Islam:  The Missing Dimension of Counter-Terrorism

Reclaiming Islam:  The Missing Dimension of Counter-Terrorism

by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

  The principal hot-button issue among American Muslims leading up to the 2008 presidential elections is whether they (or others) should reform Islam or simply reclaim it.  The pro-reformers tend to take the position that Muslims may be good but Islam as a religion is a problem.  Those who want to reclaim Islam from Muslim hi-jackers take the opposite position, namely, that the goodness of Islam has been buried by an avalanch of un-Islamic Muslims.

  This issue of whether Islam should be or can be reformed, and about who should do the reforming, emerged as an intellectual lead-up to the American invasion of Iraq at the beginning of 2003, just as the abortive war against Iraq a decade earlier was immediately preceded by Bernard Lewis’s paradigm-shaping article “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”  Both of these intellectual thrusts grew out of the think-tank community.  They were promoted by and were part of the secular-utopian movement known as Neo-Conservatism, which viewed Islam as the global threat that replaced Communism as the essential bete noir needed to justify the Neo-Cons’ global ambitions.

  Two of the leading intellectuals behind the most recent assault on Islam were Michael Novak and Raymond de Souza, both of whom are staples of the Neo-Con flagship publications First Things and The National Review.  Neither of these persons are household words except within the Washington think-tank community.  Probably not one Muslim in ten-thousand has ever heard of them, much less tried to provide an objective analysis of their new spin on the dynamics of terrorism.

  The best known in the broader circles of Christian literati is Michael Novak, who is one of America’s leading Catholic scholars and has been rewarded for some years with a $500,000 salary at America’s first think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, where his mission is to defend the global status quo under the mantra of “democratic capitalism.”  He has been a mainstay of First Things, America’s leading journal on religion in public life, which, immediately before the March 21 attack on Iraq, published his seminal article, “The Faith of the Founding,” in its issue of April, 2003.  This article was analysed at the time in my article, “The Challenge to Islamic Jurisprudence, which is reproduced in the current issue of the online journal, The American Muslim,

  In this lead article Novak brilliantly portrays the essential teachings of the traditionalist movement, led originally by Edmund Burke, which led to the founding of the Great American Experiment.  He becomes controversial, however, in his contention that even though some Muslims may be good, Islam is inherently bad and un-American because it does not recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore can have no conception of human rights or of government limited by recognition of the sovereignty of God.

  This represents an entirely new approach to Islam, because it is based not on generalizing from the action of extremist Muslims but on denial of what centuries ago the greatest Muslim scholars, all imprisoned for their beliefs, considered to be the three basic fundamentals of Islam as a religion.  The newest strategy apparently is to single out these essential truths of Islam, deny that they exist, and assert that their absence constitutes the Islamic threat.  This strategy may be more effective over the long run than are the simplistic claims of Pat Robertson and Franklyn Graham that Muslims are bandits, because there are no Muslim think-tanks capable of responding at the same level of sophistication.

  The second seminal article in this initiative to demand the reformation of Islam by first demonizing it for intellectuals was Raymond de Souza’s think-piece, “Islam Needs Augustine, not Luther,” published in September, 2003, at, as a riposte to an editorial in the National Post.  De Souza asserts that Islam does indeed need a reformation and that this must consist in following the teaching of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

  This, of course, would conflict with the basic concept of tawhid in Islam, which posits a coherent unity underlying an externally pluralistic Creation as a necessary product of and guide to the Oneness of the Creator.  This, in turn, provides the bed-rock of human rights in Islam, which are created not by political man but by the wisdom and underlying unity of all the world religions.

  De Souza is a globe-trotting evangelists from Perth, Australia, though he is Brazilian by birth.  He has criss-crossed all five continents working full-time in what is known as Catholic apologetics, basing many of his hundreds of presentations on the Catholic talk show, “The Layman’s Hour,” which he and his wife co-host from the Cathedral Parish Centre in Perth.  In his presentation on “The Fulness of Truth,” hosted by Catholic Evangelization Ministries in Houston, Texas, shortly after 9/11, DeSouza spoke of Pope Leo XIII’s vision a century ago of a terrible crisis in the Church, in which he saw devils in great numbers assailing the Barque of Peter.  DeSouza’s article, “Two Popes,” in the October 2003 issue of First Things compared the challenges to Pope Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II and managed to ignore both popes’ emphasis on justice as a framework for policy.  Instead, he wrote only of the primacy of freedom, which was the mantra of Michael Novak and all of the Neo-Conservatives leading up to the attack on Iraq.

  How should Muslims respond to this strategy for “reforming” Islam?  What Muslims need, and the world needs from them, is the reclamation rather than a reformation of their religion.  Muslims need to be reformed by understanding the classical thought of Islam.  They generally would resist any suggestion that the religion itself needs reformation.  All except the most extreme Muslims would acknowledge that many Muslims react to external challenges by turning their religion into a cause rather than a cure for oppression and conflict, but the solution is to “reform” Muslims by “reclaiming” Islam.

  Muslims who call, as do the progressivists among them, for a replay in Muslim lands of the European renaissance and reformation are merely causing extremist reactions among the majority of Muslims.  The ex-president of Iran, Khatemi, polarized his country by calling for an Islamic renaissance without realizing that the European renaissance desacralized society.  The European Reformation first polarized society and then was forced to secularize it in order to avoid constant warfare.

  DeSouza properly rejects the Reformation led by Martin Luther, but calls instead for a similar reformation a millennium earlier by Saint Augustine.  He refers to the essay by George Weigel, once head of the Neo-Con think-tank, the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, and now its senior scholar, who called for purging Islam of Islamism under the rubriq, “Waiting for Augustine.”  George Weigel took a leave of absence a decade ago to prepare a magisterial biography of Pope John Paul II (though some liberals think he was only parroting the party line).  Although Weigel is immensely knowledgable about religion, ethics, and public policy, he seems to overlook the fact that Saint Augustine reflected Zoroastrian influences from his youth in the sense that he looked at the world only within a framework of competing forces of good and evil.  All religions do this to some extent, but he steered Christianity for centuries down the road of black versus white with no room for grays. 

  The dominant culture in most Muslim countries has always reflected the same mindset, to the extent that all the great scholars of Islam were imprisoned for practicing ikhtilaf, which is intellectual debate about the meaning of divine revelation.  This speaks well for Islam as a religion, but very poorly for Muslims as a people.

  The Shi’a especially were persecuted, because, until the advent of the heretical minions around Imam Khomeini only a quarter century ago, all the Shi’a leaders vociferously rejected any spiritual role for the political leaders.  Even the the Abbasid scholars, who were part of the Sunni establishment, reacted against the gradual process of creeping despotism under the Ummayeds by denying the divine right not only of kings, but of every human institution, and they condemned the worship of power and privilege that had brought corruption upon the earth.

  The greatest Hanbali scholar of the time, Ibn Taymiya, who ironically is claimed by the Wahhabi extremists as a patron, completed the process of deconstructing the ontological fatalism of caliphatic thought by restricting the role of the caliphate to what Abu Hamid al Ghazali had called an ummatic umbrella functioning only to protect the functional integrity of Islamic jurisprudence rather than to govern politically.  Ibn Taymiya asserted that the unity of the Muslim community depended not on any symbolism represented by the Caliph, much less on any caliphal political authority, but on confessional solidarity of each autonomous entity within an Islamic whole.Ӕ  In other words, the Muslim umma or global community is a body of purpose based on worship of God.  By contending that the monopoly of coercion that resides in political governance is not philosophically constituted, as explained in my essay, “Religious Extremism: Muslim Challenge and Islamic Response,”, May, 2002, Ibn Taymiya rendered political unification and the caliphate redundant.

  This tradition of untold centuries, which warns urgently against investing any human institutions with sovereignty, explains why the modern concept of the Islamic stateӔ joins political IslamӔ as twin mothers of all oxymorans. The Western concept of the state by definition elevates man to the level of God, beyond which there is no power on earth or in heaven, which is the ultimate shirk or idolatry.

  This Shi’a elevation of truth and justice over all other goals of human society was, in fact, the overriding reason why the split developed between the Sunni and Shi’a portions of the Muslim community.  The Sunni leaders liked to play God and therefore oppressed those who objected, including every one of the great scholars of Islam.  This is why the Shi’a traditionally have emphasized justice as the required response of humans to truth, whereas the Sunni establishment has ignored justice in both principle and practice for six hundred years.

  The major difference between Islam and Christianity is that orthodox Christianity requires evangelization in the sense of converting or “saving” others, which can take the form of cultural oppression, whereas orthodox Islam insists that it is no-one’s business who becomes a Muslim or does not, because this is up to God not to any Muslims.  Muslims’ responsibility is to seek and teach truth, but there is absolutely no responsibility beyond this.  This indifference to converting people is one of the major reasons why Christians embrace Islam, aside from the love and closeness to the Ultimate, which is every person’s purpose of being.

  This essential difference between the two faiths explains why an Islamic understanding of pluralism and democracy comes naturally to Muslims but has been a real struggle for Christians.  Islam throughout most of its history has been the world’s leading example of “intellectual and theological pluralism,” so the chosen response of Christians in support of their faith is to deny this fact. 

  The response of Muslims to the sophisticated baiting by scholars like DeSouza should be that Islam needs neither Luther nor Augustine, but the spiritual transformation of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, and the discipline of the Benedictines, which in combination saved Europe from otherwise certain destruction by the coeval Mongolian hordes. 

  Most of the people in the world see a new Ghenghiz Khan riding over the horizon from Washington.  The solution is not to fight fire with fire, particularly in an era of asymmetric warfare when what Franz Fanon called the poor and wretched of the earth can steal the fire of the Western gods to destroy the world.  The solution is ecumenical cooperation among the enlightened of all the world religions to reclaim their common heritage as one people in many nations under God.