As the controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero plays itself out, conservatives must not allow their understandable hostility toward radical Islam to transmogrify itself into a hostility against all of Islam. Because while America is rightfully at war with radical Islam, we have no quarrel with Islam properly understood. After all, as the renowned Princeton historian Bernard Lewis has observed in The Crisis of Islam:
Christendom and Islam are in many ways sister civilizations, both drawing on the shared heritage of Jewish revelations and prophecy and Greek philosophy and science, and both nourished by the immemorial traditions of Middle Eastern antiquity.
For most of their joint history, they have been locked in combat, but even in struggle and polemic they reveal their essential kinship and the common features that link them to each other and set them apart from the remoter civilizations of Asia.
Yet there is a prominent group of conservatives who do seem to be at war with all of Islam. They tend to congregate at a blog to which I otherwise proudly contribute: NewsReal Blog.
Indeed, according to NewsReal’s editor, David Swindle, Islam is “a Jew-hating creed” that is implacably hostile to America and the West. Islam must, therefore, be “eradicated,” Swindle writes; and there is no debate to be had on this matter. Period. End of discussion.
I am sorry that Swindle feels this way: because if he is right, then it seems to me that he is consigning America to a state of permanent war with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. And I’m not sure that the United States can win this war, given the overwhelming demographic and geographic challenges inherent in such a conflict. There are, after all, some 50 countries with a majority Muslim population.
But more to the point, I’m not sure that such a war is right, wise or necessary. There are, after all, practical and prudential reasons to oppose the type of harsh and virulent rhetoric that Swindle typically employs against all of Islam. For starters, “to many reasonable [and] well-intentioned people,” writes Calvin Freilburger
– especially those we still need to persuade — the phrase [eradicate Islam] does conjure up images of building concentration camps, exterminating Muslims, and nuking Mecca or at the very least suggests that those options are on the table.
It also raises the question of how much conservatives are willing to bend the Free Exercise Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] in the pursuit of our goals.
And, as Freilburger rightly points out, creating doubts and suspicions about our good faith will not help us in our larger-scale war against the Jihadists. In fact, quite the contrary: demonizing all of Islam will seriously undermine our efforts to win over the vast majority of Muslims who are both moderate-minded and religiously devout.
This is no small matter because counterinsurgency warfare is very much a popularity contest. Indeed, as Gen. Petraeus has observed, in this type of fight, the people (or the population) are the center of gravity; they are the prize to be won. I fail to see how we can win over the people of Iraq, Afghanistan or any other Muslim nation if we are busy demonizing their religion.
More substantively, it is far from obvious that Islam is an irredeemable religion that cannot be salvaged or interpreted peacefully and in accordance with the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. The renowned historian, Dr. Daniel Pipes, for instance, declares that “militant Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution.”
Pipes believes in the possibility of a moderate Islam because he recognizes that Islam already has changed, often for the better, and dramatically so throughout the centuries. For example, he notes, in Medieval times, Muslim jurists reinterpreted Sharia Law to overturn the Islamic prohibition on usury.
Sharia law, Pipes explains, “makes demands that are untenable.” And so, to get around its overly exacting strictures, “pre-modern Muslims (that is, Muslims before 1800) developed legalistic fig leaves that allowed for the relaxation of Islamic positions without directly violating them.”
This “Medieval synthesis,” Pipes observes, allowed Muslims to “stick to the letter of the law while negating its spirit.”
“I’m an historian,” says Pipes. “And what I’m impressed by is how Islam has changed. You take a concept like Jihad and you see how it has changed over the centuries.”
Yet, Swindle’s analysis of Islam seems entirely textually based and devoid of any historical context. Thus, he is repeating, I am afraid, the same mistakes as the Islamists, who insist upon an extreme, radical and doctrinaire interpretation of Islam.
But as Pipes points out, this extreme, radical and doctrinaire interpretation is not the only interpretation of Islam available to us. Why, then, insist upon its primacy? What good does this do? Who does it help?
Answer: It helps no one but the Islamists and other radicals who are at war with America and the West.
You can follow John Guardiano on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano