The Islamic roots of terrorism must be addressed

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 19, 2014

“Now let’s make two things clear,” President Barack Obama said in his televised address to the American people on September 10. First, he said, “ISIL [the Islamic State] is not Islamic.”

But that’s precisely what is not clear about the Islamic State and about Islam. Is the brutal terrorism of the Islamic State an accurate representation of Islam in action? Or is terrorism a corruption of a religion of peace?

“No religion,” President Obama continued, “condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” The second part of that sentence is unquestionably true; most of the victims of Islamic terrorism have themselves been Muslims. But terrorists cite passages from the Qu’ran and the hadith to justify their actions and to recruit new followers. So one religion—or at least one variant of that faith—does indeed justify the killing.

The question that must be addressed, and that President Obama refuses to address, is whether the violent version of Islam, as preached by terrorists, is the genuine faith or a Muslim heresy. In other words, are we now engaged in a worldwide struggle against Islam, or should we Christians ally ourselves with more reasonable Muslims in a battle to wipe out a misbegotten understanding of their faith?

To be fair, President Obama is not alone in ducking this question. President Bush repeatedly insisted that the US has no quarrel with Islam. Leaders of the Catholic Church have frequently taken the same line, sometimes going to the extreme of suggesting that the worst thing about Islamic terrorism is that it threatens the future of inter-religious dialogue. Among prominent world leaders of the past decade, only Pope Benedict XVI, in his Regensburg speech, has addressed the key question directly.

Having made the claim that the Islamic State is not Islamic, President Obama went on to the second point he wanted to clarify, insisting that the Islamic State is not a state. “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple,” he said. “And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

Here, I’m afraid, President Obama is clearly wrong. Unlike other terrorist groups, the Islamic State holds territory and has developed its own sources of revenue. In those respects it resembles a nation-state. More to the point, the Islamic State definitely does have a vision: the creation of a new caliphate. The lure of the caliphate, governed by Shari’a law, eventually spreading across the world, does seem to exercise a powerful and lasting influence over Muslim thought.

Respectable Muslim leaders tell us that Islam is a religion of peace. Their equally respectable partners in inter-religious dialogue leap to accept those statements and to repeat them. But talk is cheap, and bloody actions speak louder than calming words. Appeals for peace do not make for headlines; decapitations do.

American Christians often complain that Muslim leaders have been silent in the face of Islamic terrorism. Actually that is not true. There have been numerous public statements by Islamic leaders denouncing the violence; the Paris Appeal, released last week by the most prominent Islamic leaders in France, was only the most recent and visible of these statements. Certainly it is reasonable to ask for more—to insist that every Muslim should join in the condemnation of violence. Still the denunciation of terror is not as dramatic as the terror itself. And since the world of Islam has no equivalent of the papacy—no single, definitive voice to proclaim what is or is not the true content of the faith—the crucial question remains.

Are terrorists a small minority within the Islamic world? Yes, of course. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people. Yet the terrorists claim to represent the most serious, virile form of the faith. And their success in recruiting idealistic young Muslims to their ranks shows that they are striking a sympathetic chord. There is something in Islamic thought—or at the very least, in the thoughts of many Muslims—that provides fertile ground for the terrorists’ appeal. Half of all Americans, according to a recent poll, believe that Islam is more prone to violence than other faiths. Is that view unreasonable? What makes Muslims susceptible to militant activism? Is it something intrinsic to the faith, or some rogue infection that responsible Muslims should be anxious to wipe out?

Robert Reilly has argued persuasively that the best hope for Christian-Islamic dialogue is to seek out those Muslim leaders who will examine their faith critically and cooperate in efforts to root out the irrational and the violent. If there is a moderate, peaceful strain of Islamic thought, it must be distilled out of the current confusion. We Christians, as well as intelligent Muslims, should learn to distinguish the reasonable from the violent.

The point is that we must distinguish. It does no good to deny that Islamic terrorism is in fact Islamic. There is a virulent, deadly strain of Islam at work in today’s world. To pretend that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam is to bury one’s head in the sand. Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what the Islamic State wants: to bury Christian heads in the sand?

Earlier this month, responding to the brutal execution of American journalists, Bishop Denis Madden, who chairs the US bishops’ committee on inter-religious affairs, issued a statement warning against an anti-Islamic backlash and reaffirming “our respect and affection for our Muslim brothers and sisters.” The best response to violence, he said, is dialogue.

”Our response to evil and violence cannot be fear of others,” Bishop Madden insisted. Now wait. It is perfectly reasonable, indeed it is a matter of self-preservation, to fear people who engage in brutal violence. There are some Muslims—the terrorist leaders of the Islamic State, certainly—whom we should fear. Moderate Islamic leaders should fear them, too. Productive inter-religious dialogue should be based not on a denial that the threat exists, but on a shared determination to isolate that threat and eliminate it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bedfordts9416 - Sep. 21, 2014 1:43 AM ET USA

    "The best response to violence, he said, is dialogue." Dialogue with whom? Talking to ourselves or like-minded? The violent ones are engaging in a monologue of death. Nothing you can say to them will appease them. "seek out those Muslim leaders who will examine their faith critically and cooperate in efforts to root out the irrational and the violent." How will that be done? Turn the law against the violent ones? How does one root out a persist evil? I tell you there will be much more bloodshed

  • Posted by: garedawg - Sep. 21, 2014 1:26 AM ET USA

    A big problem is that they don't have a Pope. Go back 160 years, and you find Christians, without a Pope, using our scripture to justify chattel slavery.

  • Posted by: christhavemercy821235 - Sep. 20, 2014 5:51 AM ET USA

    Any inter-religious dialogue with Muslims would be a fraud without bringing them the light their religion is false religion of Death and Catholicism is the ONLY truly religion of Life.

  • Posted by: cellakon52529 - Sep. 20, 2014 2:30 AM ET USA

    It is time our leaders and all infidels (everyone who isn't Muslim) learned what Islam is all about. Moderate Muslims would be heretics in the eyes of Mohammed. As far as the Koran goes, the principle of abrogation applies: what Mohammed says on Monday is wiped out by what he says on Tuesday.

  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 19, 2014 2:54 PM ET USA

    Just a thought: Islam has no clear division in its scripture, but emphasizes violence especially in the latter parts of the Quran. There is no prophet that intervenes between the first and second part to clearly partition the purpose or methods of the religion. Quran is inherently ambiguous, compared to the Bible, where there is clear break, with the NT being very pacifist. It would seem hard to escape the inherently violent aspects of the Quran given that its latter parts are so violent.