How will America respond to militant Islam? Responses from Asia Times Online readers to my contention that radical Islam yet may defeat the West ( Why radical Islam might defeat the West) of July 8 ranged from accusations of anti-Islamic bigotry to the claim that the West, if need arise, simply will kill a billion Muslims. Neo-conservative circles in Washington think neither of accommodating the claims of radical Islam nor of a war against Islam, but rather of an “Islamic Reformation.”
How sloppily the neo-conservatives think about these matters, though, may be judged by an amusing exchange in the June issue of First Things, the closest the neo-conservatives have to a theological journal. Its editor, Father R J Neuhaus, rebutted the view of the neo-conservative Orientalist, Professor Bernard Lewis, who wants Islam to admit that other religions offer a path to salvation. Wrote Neuhaus, “Troubling is the message that Islam, in order to become less of a threat to the world, must relativize its claim to possess the truth. That plays directly into the hands of Muslim rigorists who pose as the defenders of the uncompromised and uncompromisible truth and who call for death to the infidels. If Islam is to become tolerant and respectful of other religions, it must be as the result of a development that comes from within the truth of Islam, not as a result of relativizing or abandoning that truth.”
Catholics, to be sure, have reason to worry about relativism. With church attendance in the European Catholic heartland at barely 5 percent, with the American church crushed by evidence of generalized pederasty, and the Latin American church eroded by Protestant missionaries, relativism is the last word Catholics wish to hear. Sectarian self-interest aside, Neuhaus has a point. Men do not wish to pray “to whom it may concern.” They rather want the assurance of a true path to salvation. That is why radical Islam yet may defeat the West.
What precisely goes into making a Reformation? In the case of Christianity, textual criticism became the starting point. What was the original Revelation, and how could Christians return to it? Rebuilding the engine meant going back to the owner’s manual, namely Hebrew scriptures, and the Jews owned the manual, so to speak. Martin Luther and John Calvin turned not only to Jewish translators, but also to Jewish commentators on scripture, to uncover the Hebrew foundations of Christian dogma. Adopting much of the Jewish critique of the Catholic church, the reformers threw out the worship of saints and the Virgin Mary, the adoration of relics and the presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Mass.
Protestantism from the outset tended to veer off in a Jewish direction. The church denounced Luther as a “Judaizing heretic”, a perfectly accurate statement. The Lutherans then denounced Calvin as a “Judaizing heretic,” and both sides denounced the “Unitarian” followers of Michael Servetus as a “Judaizing heretic.” Truly radical Protestants, like the English Pilgrims who founded Massachusetts in 1621, displayed a high degree of Judeophilia. The same is true for today’s “Christian Zionists,” for example Republican Tom DeLay, the leader of America’s lower house.
This writer claims no expertise in matters of Islamic theology, but it seems reasonable to look for the first stirrings of Islamic reform in the form of Koranic textual research. Here the plot thickens. Hebrew and Christian scripture claim to be the report of human encounters with God. After the Torah is read each Saturday in synagogues, the congregation intones that the text stems from “the mouth of God by the hand of Moses”, a leader whose flaws kept him from entering the Promised Land. The Jewish rabbis, moreover, postulated the existence of an unwritten Revelation whose interpretation permits considerable flexibility with the text. Christianity’s Gospels, by the same token, are the reports of human evangelists.
The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast, dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.
Islamic textual criticism today is an underground enterprise, practiced in near secret by a handful of scholars with access to alternative sources, eg, variants of Koranic text exhumed in Yemen. The pseudonymous Pakistani writer “Ibn Warraq”, the best-known popularizer of the available academic work, hides his identity with good reason. Muslims who question the divine sanctity of Koranic text face persecution or worse. Ominously, “Ibn Warraq” entitled his best-known book Why I Am Not A Muslim, suggesting that the first effect of Koranic criticism may be rejection rather than reform of Islam.
In the advent of the Christian Reformation, the Catholic church showed no more tolerance than the prickliest among today’s Islamic leaders. It hunted down the textual critics with a vengeance. No complete copies survive of a Spanish translation of the Hebrew bible printed at Valencia in 1478, half a century before Luther, because the Inquisition burned them all. Sir Thomas More issued the Christian equivalent of a fatwa against the English bible translator William Tyndale (burned at the stake in 1536). It is worth remembering, though, that just a decade after Tyndale’s death, King Henry VIII had a copy of his bible translation placed for public inspection in every Church in England.
It seems likely that Spain expelled its Jews in 1492 at great economic cost precisely in order to squelch the spread of Protestantism. One hundred and fifty years of religious war ensued on the Reformation, ending in the horrific Thirty Years War and the death of half the population of Germany and Central Europe. Alone among the great European nations, Spain avoided civil war, that is, until 1936.
Koranic textual critics seem as vulnerable today as Tyndale. No agency of the US government will come within a mile of the issue because American policy is to placate Islam rather than risk offending it. President George W Bush, who deems Islam “a religion of peace”, sets the tone himself. Relativists (“radical historicists”) who believe that every culture has its own truth dominate Middle Eastern studies departments. They despise Koranic criticism as a colonialist endeavor. Even the neo-conservative Father Neuhaus fears the subject, which touches on the church’s own sore points. The “Straussian” neo-conservatives show no aptitude at all for religions matters.
Radical Islam confronts the diffident West with absolute belief in its possession of divine truth, and a reckless capacity for sacrifice beyond the capacity of the West to fathom. The Catholic church, traditional guardian of the traditions of the West, wants accommodation with Islam at any cost as Muslim immigrants slowly replace Europe’s declining Christian population. The intellectual elite of the West exhibits open hostility to Western “colonialist” culture. It looks bleak for the West.
But Koranic criticism yet may turn out to be the worm in the foundation of radical Islam. Whence will come the impetus? An intriguing thought is that the same people who brought about the Christian Reformation, not to mention the founding of the US, might do the same for Islam. I refer to the radical wing of evangelical Protestantism, whom the intellectual caste of the West dismiss as stupid yokels. Protestant missionaries already have hollowed out the Catholic church in Latin America, its last great stronghold. Do not underestimate what role they may do in the Islamic world.