Muslims who have made their life in Western countries while adhering to Islam face a frightful dilemma. After the November 2 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh (The assassin’s master sermon, Nov 16), European authorities have demanded that resident Muslims repudiate violence.

Many mainstream Muslim leaders, though, cannot bring themselves to denounce the murderer of van Gogh, whose film Submission showed Koranic verses superimposed on the naked skin of Muslim women.

Smugness oozes from European politicians who demand that Muslims repudiate violence as a precondition for residence in the West. To repudiate the death sentence for blasphemy would be the same as abandoning the Islamic order in traditional society in favor of a Western-style religion of personal conscience. The West spent centuries of time and rivers of blood to make such a transition, and carried it off badly. Whether Islam can do so at all remains doubtful.

As a matter of record, most European Muslim organizations declined to disavow the murder of van Gogh. During a November 19 radio interview, for example, Zahid Mukhtar, head of the Islamic Council of Norway, refused to condemn van Gogh’s murder, creating a scandal out of proportion to Norway’s small Muslim population. A Moroccan-born member of the Belgian Senate, Mimount Bousakla, received death threats after remonstrating with the umbrella organization of Belgian Muslims for its refusal to denounce the van Gogh murder. She since has gone into hiding.

In Germany, most of the country’s Muslim groups refused to take part in this past Sunday’s Muslim demonstration in Cologne against terrorism and violence. In fact, the Turkish government organized the 20,000-person demonstration without support from local Muslim organizations. Its sole sponsor was DITIB, the Turkish government’s Muslim association headed by an appointee from Ankara. DITIB “already had tried in vain to organize a common declaration by all German Muslims against Islamist terrorism,” noted Der Spiegel Online on November 19.

Muslim refusal to tolerate blasphemy has nothing to do with rage or recalcitrance. It is a theological necessity. Executions for blasphemy would attract no attention in Iran or Saudi Arabia. The trouble is that the population of Islamic countries has spilled over en masse into the West. Imams in Europe cannot pronounce differently on such matters than they would in their home countries, and blasphemy cannot be tolerated by traditional society.

“As for heretics, their sin deserves banishment, not only … by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death.” Those are the words of the 13th-century Catholic authority St. Thomas Aquinas, the most influential of all Catholic thinkers, presented by Catholic writers from Lord Acton to Jacques Maritain as the antecedent of European democracy.

An apologist for St. Thomas, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, excused the hard line against heresy on the grounds that tough times required it:

Thirteenth-century societies were highly fragile. Beyond ties of kinship, many citizens experienced little to bind them to others. Most were subjects of a few – and one ruling aristocrat was often overturned by another … geographical isolation was often intense, and shifting patterns of warfare, baronial allegiance, and foreign occupation awakened acute local insecurity. Under political anarchy, the common people and the poor suffered much. Under all these uncertainties, the chief consensual bond among people was Catholic faith and Catholic ritual. Virtually all unifying conceptions of relationship and social weight, meaning and order, came from that faith. [1]

St. Thomas did not merely support a death sentence for individual heretics, but weighed in vigorously on behalf of the Crusade against the Albigensians, which laid waste to most of Provence. Does Novak believe that today’s Muslim societies are any less fragile? If he believes that 13th-century conditions justified the death penalty for heretics in Christian Europe, why should Muslims not apply the same logic to their own societies?

In fact, the terrestrial power of the Church, along with its authority to burn heretics, was pried out of her cold, dead fingers. It took the frightful 30 Years’ War to break the political power of the Church in Europe, and the reunification of Italy to reduce the Vatican to its present postage-stamp dimensions. The Church in the person of pope Pius IX responded by excommunicating the entire government of Count Cavour.

Not until the Second Vatican Council of 1965 did the Church reconcile itself to the role of a religion of conscience without temporal power. But the disintegration of European Catholic life coincides with Vatican II. Church attendance in most European countries has fallen to single-digit percentages, and the lowest fertility rates are found in Spain and Italy, formerly among the most Catholic. It is unclear whether Catholicism will survive the transition to religion of individual conscience from temporal power, and the prognosis is bleak. Even Michael Novak has his doubts:

What is the proper relation of Christian faith to the open society? A relation that entails the persecution of heretics is clearly repugnant to Christian faith. The special circumstances of the 13th century remain a vivid case study in what not to do. But if the profession of Christian faith is not to be constitutionally required, as certainly it should not be, just how can Christian faith escape from being merely privatized and relativized? And how can open societies themselves be saved from giving a posthumous victory to such relativists as Hitler and Mussolini, who began by stating that nothing in politics is right or wrong, that only power matters?

Only in one form does Christianity thrive without the policeman’s baton in the back of the shepherd’s rod, and that is in its American evangelical expression. The great monuments of European Catholicism lie exposed like the bones of extinct mammoths, and in Latin America, the mice of American-style Protestant denominations are eating the eggs of the Catholic dinosaurs.

Judaism suffered its own transition from a state religion to a private religion of conscience, bloodily and against its will. The best account comes from Rabbi Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal priest. Between the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and the establishment of Christianity as Rome’s state religion in the 4th century under the Emperor Constantine, the two religions traded places. Judaism ceased to function as the state religion of Israel, and the legal philosophy preserved in the Mishnah gave way to the theology of the Rabbinical writings of the Talmud. The private and communal character of early Christianity gave way to the public and political state religion of Constantine. [2]

The sorry state of today’s Judaism should provide moderate Muslims poor cause for optimism. Not much middle ground separates the Jewish orthodox, who attempt to live by the medieval interpretation of Jewish scriptures, and secular Jews, who find themselves everywhere at the cutting-edge of social experimentation.

With its 139 major denominations, America’s protean form of Christianity might seem least likely to succeed. In reality, its superficial weakness reveals underlying strength, for American Christians are immune to the blandishments of mere “Christendom” (Soren Kierkegaard’s dismissive term for social habit), and better prepared to take the leap of faith. American Christianity is by its nature born-again, evangelical, disruptive, an unending moment of self-conversion.

Jews and Christians had centuries to accomplish the transition from public and political religion to private and communal religion, whereas circumstances press moderate Muslims to do this on the spot. The two older religions did so under duress, chaotically, and with limited success.

Whether Islam can make such a transition at all remains doubtful. There is an element of truth in Michael Novak’s attempt to portray St. Thomas Aquinas as a democrat. Human freedom flows from the Judeo-Christian concept of divine love, as Aquinas wrote:

Divine providence extends to all things. Yet a special rule applies where intelligent creatures are involved. For they excel all others in the perfection of their nature and the dignity of their end; they are masters of their activity and act freely, while others are more acted on than acting. They react to their destiny by their own proper activity, that is by knowing and loving God, whereas other creatures show only some traces of this likeness … To begin with, rational creatures are governed for their own benefit, whereas other creatures are governed for the sake of men. Men are principals, not merely instruments. [3]

No such concept of divine love and the ensuing sovereignty of the individual can be found in Islam. Love constrains the Judeo-Christian God, but not Allah. “The God of Mohammed,” wrote Franz Rosenzweig, “is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily” (see Oil on the flames of civilizational war, Dec 2, 2003).

It is not clear where the present crisis will lead. A few European politicians are demanding harsh measures to suppress Islamist radicalism. The German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg’s cultural minister, Annette Schavan, proposes that a law to compel Muslim clergy to preach exclusively in German, while the interior minister of Brandenburg, Joerg Schoenbohm, wants to take away the citizenship of “hate preachers.”

On the other hand, the Netherlands’ justice minister, Piet Hein Donner, has proposed to enforce a 1932 law against blasphemy to prevent future insults to Islam. The proposal is astounding, for no Christian country has penalized blasphemy of the most extreme variety in two generations. Would the anti-blasphemy rule apply to scholarly demonstrations that alternative variants exist of the Koran, or to linguistic arguments that the Koran has been mistranslated (eg, Professor Christoph Luxenberg’s claim that the “seventy-two virgins” awaiting martyrs in Paradise really are white raisins)?

The tragedy will continue to unfold, and at a faster pace. Jews and Christians have learned to accept humiliation. God’s love for the individual soul remains valid despite worldly reverses, and failure in the temporal realm provides cause for self-evaluation. Humiliation is intolerable to Islam; Allah sets the spin of every electron around every nucleus by a discrete act of will, and reverses in the temporal world challenge Islam’s promise of success.

The logic of events offers nothing to Muslims but humiliation. The reelected administration of US President George W. Bush has put into action a two-pronged attack, destroying the Sunni resistance in Fallujah and neighboring cities, while holding a gun to the head of Iran in order to forestall the emergence of a greater Shi’ite opposition, just as I predicted (Bush, Marshal Foch, and Iran, Sept 21). Not a whimper of protest arose from the Europeans, whose undivided attention was focused on the van Gogh affair and its implications. The ground will continue to erode beneath the feet of moderate Muslims, the constituency upon whom the White House placed its best hopes.


1. Michael Novak, “Aquinas and the Heretics,” in First Things, December 1995.

2. Jacob Neusner and Michael Chilton, Trading Places: The Intersecting Histories of Christianity and Judaism (Pilgrim Press: New York 1996).

3. Quoted in Michael Novak, On Two Wings (Encounter: San Francisco 2002), page 208.

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