After recent conversations with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and others who are of a more conservative bent, I started to reflect on Western scholarship and American conservative commentary on Islam. Western historiography of Islam provides a treasure-trove of sympathetic and hostile criticism of the Middle East’s last-born, earth-shaking faith. A huge body of modern Western scholarship has sought, more often from curious sympathy than malice, to answer the quintessentially liberal question about Islam: “What went wrong?”
And things going astray is a good way to look at some prominent conservative commentary. Although liberals have been quick and careless in hurling accusations of Islamophobia at opponents of the Ground Zero/Park 51 cultural center, there is something historically and philosophically amiss in some conservative ruminations about the Islamic faith. It really shouldn’t be so hard to oppose Islamic militancy, push back forcefully against those who downplay the threat of Al Qaeda as well as a nuclear Iran, and, at the same time, not suggest that all Muslims are, basically, nuts.
There is, to be sure, absolutely nothing wrong with non-Muslim Americans engaging in a debate about faith and violence that ranges far and wide. Western history offers a lengthy chronicle that encourages an exploration of why devout men kill for God; Christian-Muslim parallels provide a lens through which to see where—and where not—sincere believers in the Almighty have interpreted how violence and religion intermarry. So, no, there is no sin in non-Muslims querying Muslims about why so many terrorists tend to be Muslim and why those terrorists advertise their acts of violence as a defense of their faith. There is nothing wrong with asking why so many Muslims have such a difficult time saying that Palestinian suicide bombers have committed acts of evil. There is nothing wrong, either, in asking why it is that Islamic radicals melted two skyscrapers and blew out a side of the Pentagon and yet prompted so little soulful reflection, produced no Émile Zola, no Captain Dreyfus. Short of that, Muslims in the West at least ought to have a few Thomas Friedmans and Roger Cohens crankily telling them what a mess they’ve made.
But all of these serious Islamic problems aside (and any Westerner aware of the quantity of blood that Westerners themselves spilled making the world modern really ought to exercise a bit of charity when it comes to Islam’s travails), we still ought to be concerned when prominent American conservatives—and here I’m thinking first and foremost of Newt Gingrich—blur the line between militant Muslims and the everyday faithful. When Gingrich, whom I’ve long admired and had the pleasure of working with, gave a much-noted speech at the American Enterprise Institute in which he stated, “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it. … I think it’s that straightforward and that real,” I could only say in response, “String Theory is dangerous”: Gingrich was looking for an explanation for the Islamic terrorist threat, but, like many on the right, looking in the wrong places. Neatly tying it all together, Gingrich and others have alighted upon the Muslim Holy Law, the Sharia, as the source of all that bedevils the Middle East, and us.
This is hardly the place for a disquisition on Sharia, or how it’s evolved over the centuries. Suffice to say, even some Muslim theologians have seen the strain of despotism in Islamic history as being connected to the static and authoritarian nature of Islamic legal practice. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with Shiite and Sunni clerics who were teaching Sharia and opining about daily life, and such schooling didn’t strike me then, and still doesn’t, as a good laboratory for terrorists, which is why, I suspect, so few terrorists have had any proper clerical training. A rigorous Islamic education may make you a killjoy, but it doesn’t make you a terrorist. If the empirical record tells us anything, it’s that a skimpy Islamic education combined with a mediocre—even a decent—Western education seems much more likely to produce an explosive mix.
When Westerners, however well-intentioned, start suggesting that Muslim law supplies the foundation for Islamic terrorism, it immediately conveys to Muslims, even secularized Muslims, that Westerners think all Muslims are disordered, that the only route to salvation runs through a renunciation of their faith (that is, they ought to become the mirror-image of Westerners who go to church every so often. Whatever vestigial pride Muslims may have in their religious law (most Muslims aren’t particularly fastidious or knowledgeable about the Sharia, but nevertheless have an understandable historic affection for it), gets crudely pummeled by such commentators.
The blanket demonization of the Holy Law can lead one to view Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite thinker in the world, and one who tried desperately and selflessly to keep his country from descending into internecine savagery, as a bigot and a terrorist engine. The same would be true for the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran’s Green Movement and the nemesis of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ruler, himself a very mediocre student of the Sharia.
True, the Holy Law applied can be ugly, not least for women. Westerners, especially Europeans, are quite right to be outraged by the importation of Sharia practices to their shores. And Westerners should cast a very dim eye on any financial institution that sets up Sharia-compliant offices that could, if left unchecked, discreetly normalize anti-Semitic practices in big global institutions. Westerners can only hope that progressive Muslim jurists, who briefly sprouted in the nineteenth century, once more gain force among the faithful. But we should not make the great philosophical and historical mistake of seeing even the staunchly conservative clerical elite of the Muslim world as the handmaidens of Islamic terrorism. If, indeed, Islamic terrorism comes to an end, it will probably be because these men have united to say finally and clearly that a devout Muslim’s distaste for Western values and “cultural imperialism” does not, after all, justify murder.
The intellectual peregrinations of Saudi Wahhabism, the mother-ship of Sunni Islamic terrorism, may be frightful, but, even in Saudi Arabia, the best bet for ending this plague may likely be found among the ranks of its reactionary clergy. What Westerners should dream of is not the elimination of the influence of the Sharia in Muslim lands, but the triumph of a more competitive mindset among those who adhere to the Law. If Saudi Arabia, at home and abroad, would just welcome Hanafis, the most open-minded of Sunni Islam’s law schools, it would be an enormous triumph over Wahhabi intolerance and the hatred that spews forth from that oil-rich land.
Free-lancing, perfectly modern rebels like Osama bin Laden, who believe they alone have the right to interpret God’s message, will no doubt storm forth now and then, but they would have a much harder time if the Sunni clergy were arrayed openly and loudly against them. When, for instance, Iran and Lebanon’s Shiites fell in love with holy war and martyrdom, prominent Shiite clerics went the other way. Among the Shiite faithful, suicide bombing had a short run. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is a wicked zealot who loves to kill Jews, but he is, like his counterparts in Iran, Ali Khamenei and Mahmud Ahmadinejad, of no religious standing. As counterintuitive as it seems to some Americans, it may be divines who are among the most effective opponents of such men.
Misunderstanding Islam’s internal problems and miscasting the Sharia and its clerical custodians as our primary enemies aren’t, however, the biggest problems with some American conservative commentary. Many conservatives—and liberals—utterly fail to appreciate the extraordinary continuing power of Western, especially American, culture among Muslims. Declinism may be all the rage among trend-chasers in the West, but the apocalyptic tactics of Osama bin Laden and his followers offer, among other things, evidence that we, the West, have been winning the war for the hearts of everyday Muslims. Among Muslims fixed to their computers and televisions, we still embody both hope and hell on earth. As Khomeini put it so well, we remain the satanic whisperer, who seduces men—and especially women—from the righteous path.
Contrary to what one regularly reads on conservative websites, we are not yet losing this war. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the determined proselytizing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and among Muslim immigrants in the West are efforts to turn back the tide. But modernity is relentless. The traumatic Westernization of Islam continues. That Westernization led to the Islamic revolution in Iran and to Osama bin Laden, but it also leads, even more powerfully, to a world where Muslims—especially Muslim women—aspire to a more prosperous and democratic way of life. We have reasons to hope that Islam’s passage will be less bloody than our own, though we should prepare, as Gingrich constantly and wisely warns us, for its being worse.
But we shouldn’t see enemies where they are not. The Holy Law is, as it’s always been, what Muslims make of it. In the titanic struggle within Islam between those who fear modernity and those who embrace it, we would do well not to make the clergy our foes. They will go, as they always have done, where the majority of Muslims take them. Like Ayatollah Khomeini before him, bin Laden once thought that most Muslims would rise up to defend his cause. Both gentlemen were wrong. Westerners and most Muslims may not (yet) share with the same intensity and priority that many values, but we share enough to provide considerable hope that the “clash of civilizations” will end, as Grand Ayatollah Sistani no doubt wants it to, in a suspicious, at times tense, but peaceful and prosperous co-existence.