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The Islamic Enigma
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I don’t know whether or not this is comforting news, but it appears that some Muslims hate the Pope even more than the editors of the New York Times do. Not by much, though; the Times (to the surprise of only the naive) blames Pope Benedict for provoking the Muslim violence of the past week. I guess he is sorely in need of sensitivity training, or something of the sort.

Some wag has defined the drama more humorously: “German professor meets sound-bite culture.” The Pope obviously didn’t realize how an obscure quotation would be spun by the modern Muslim media. The fanatics weren’t interested in reading the footnotes. Neither were the liberals who, as usual, placed the fault with the Pope rather than with the rioters. We have to address the root causes, you know.

Let’s back up a bit here.

C.S. Lewis remarks somewhere that people still talk as if St. Augustine wanted unbaptized babies to go to hell. Lewis’s point was that Augustine’s belief in infant damnation followed from the doctrine of Original Sin, and what he “wanted” had nothing to do with it. Lewis himself had been, on his own account, a “reluctant convert” who came to believe in Christianity in spite of his own disposition; he actually preferred Norse mythology to the Christian narrative.

A young woman once remarked to me that the idea of Original Sin is a “cruel” doctrine. Well, I reflected, the question is whether it is true, not whether we like it, since salvation isn’t something God owes us. Many who believe the doctrine to be true also make room for the “invincible ignorance” of those who, through no fault of their own, never hear, and can’t be blamed for rejecting, the Christian message. That would obviously include infants.

What this illustrates is the deep connection, in many people’s minds, between religion and wishful thinking. They assume that whatever we do believe is what we would prefer to believe. This leads very naturally to condemning unbelievers and relieving oneself of the duty of persuading them by, say, preaching the Gospel “to every living creature,” as Jesus commanded. The primary fault must always lie with the unbeliever.

In the Koran, Mohammed, as far as I can see, seldom says anything that can be reasonably construed as enjoining violence against unbelievers. But one verse says (in the J.M. Rodwell translation), “O Prophet! make war on the infidels and hypocrites, and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their abode! And wretched the passage to it!” Yet he sometimes urges Muslims to be patient with them, to abstain from injuring them, and not to commit aggression. God will deal with them in the afterlife.

He constantly repeats that unbelievers will be damned forever. I see no suggestion that they will be forgiven if they have never heard God’s message, though he says just as often that God is “all-merciful.” Mohammed seems to have had no conception of invincible ignorance. As we say today, “my way or the highway.” On Judgment Day, the unbelievers will have no excuse. The Koran dwells on Hell far more than either the Hebrew or the Christian scriptures do.

Given this emphasis, this unremitting tone of censure of unbelievers, it may not be surprising that many Muslims take the view that all non-Muslims are enemies and deserve no mercy. But it is hard to separate what Mohammed taught from what may be later accretions of Islamic culture. This difficulty is increased by the authority of traditions not found in the Koran itself, which was not originally written in book form, but in scattered chapters, or suras, collected after Mohammed’s death. Even their order remains uncertain.

Consider the status of women. In Islam they are subordinate to men, but they are not without rights of their own. The Koran says nothing, as far as I know, about whether they should be veiled, and it gives no support to the horrifying practice, now widespread (though far from universal) in the Muslim world, of mutilating their genitals at puberty. These things vary from place to place without much protest among the faithful.

As with the U.S. Constitution, much depends on which parts of the Koran are emphasized and which are quietly ignored or softened by interpretation. The commandment to “make war on the infidels and hypocrites” has often been taken very literally; Mohammed himself was a warrior and conqueror who disdained to call war “defense,” as we do. And Muslims have traditionally taken pride in their conquests, even if they now act indignant at any suggestion that they have ever used the sword to spread their faith. If enough of today’s Muslims want Islam to be a synonym for terror to today’s non-Muslims, so it will be. If not, not. That isn’t up to this Pope.

So in the end we are left with the violent enigma of today’s Islam — and with the dismal prejudices of such liberals as denounce the Catholic Church in the New York Times.

(Republished from Sobran's by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Islam 
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