Philos Project, by Andrew Harrod, August 15, 2015:
“What are Western policymakers frequently talking about when they are talking about religion? Islam.”
So wrote Transatlantic Academy Senior Fellow Michael Barnett in his report “Faith, Freedom and Foreign Policy: Challenges for the Transatlantic Community,” which was presented during a recent Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs panel that focused on Islam while unconvincingly minimizing that religion’s fundamental differences with other faiths.
Elaborating on Barnett’s report, George Mason University professor Peter Mandaville spoke about the globally popular opinion that religion is superfluous in world affairs, and pointed to a “secular bias” in modern bureaucracies, noting that the American Constitution’s establishment clause often raises questions about the government’s involvement in religion. Berkley Center Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari cited Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin’s famous quote, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”
Claiming that the common viewpoint of Islam as the “religion of the sword” stemmed from such ignorance, Cesari said that today’s global discourse on Islam resembles the historic views of the Catholic Church by emphasizing aggressive and authoritarian elements. This concept was echoed in the TA report’s repeated equivalences between Islam and other faiths. The fact that South African Muslims once argued against apartheid with Islamic texts that are now claimed by terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda supposedly indicate that societal context – not scriptural text – is the critical variable.
Mandaville questioned Islam’s current status as a violent religion and asked that a distinction be made between the “mainstream nonviolent Islamism” seen in groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the brutal Islamic State. He attributed the rise of ISIS in Iraq to “decades and centuries of old political and economic tensions among different demographic groups, not Islamic sectarian divisions.” He dismissively spoke about the infamous article “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic – an insightful examination of ISIS Islamic ideology – but caveated that American officials “have no standing or creditability to define Islam for Muslims.”
Evelyn Finger, the religion editor for Germany’s leading newspaper weekly Die Zeit, deviated from her fellow panelists’ discussions and called for an analysis of the Islamic sources that underlie the numerous ISIS atrocities. She even warned that – although Islam as a whole is broader than the Islamic State – it is dangerous to get stuck in politically correct discussions that defend this religion.
In his report, Barnett claimed that “the Middle East provides an object lesson of what happens when religion goes wild and spills out of the private and into the public. If peace is going to have a fighting chance, then religion needs to go back to where it belongs – in in the private realm.” He also claimed that it made no sense to speak of a “political” Islam when referencing the traditional Islamic faith, “because Islam already incorporates politics.” He then brought up what he called the “Christian definition of religion, in which religion is part of the private,” adding that the average Muslim looks at the promotion of religious freedom as a campaign against religion.
Barnett said that to call the Western liberal order a “Christian liberal order” a century ago – when “Western, liberal states wore their religions on their shirtsleeves” – would have been stating the obvious. For example, the Red Cross’s cross logo indicates that organization’s Christian roots. While he said that religious figures worldwide have led some of the great moral campaigns to counterbalance religious violence, he failed to identify most of these individuals as Christian.
Barnett’s fellow contributor, Turkish commentator Mustafa Akyol, critiqued “politically correct, but factually wrong” platitudes including the ideas that “Islam is a religion of peace” and “violent jihadists have nothing to do with Islam.” Past reformers tended to incorporate their wishful thinking into their interpretations of Islamic texts. This led to the idea that apostasy is a crime that deserves capital punishment in all classical schools of sharia, for example. He pointed out that a tension now exists between democratically elected Islamists who have intolerant goals and liberals whose views are not popular enough to win them democratic elections.
Janice Gross Stein’s chapter spoke of ISIS as part of a “long tradition of movements that seek to purify Islam.” She said that throughout Islam’s history, enemies such as the MB and Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda and ISIS have clashed about the “true voice” of Islam. To face these entities, she said that the West will need “resolve, stoicism, patience and intelligence in a struggle that will go on for generations.”
In all, the TA’s senior fellow contributors did not seem fazed by Islamic doctrine. Clifford Bob cited the discredited book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” and its thesis of undue Israeli influence on American policy, and repeated the increasingly common fallacy that “anti-Islam activism has – in recent years – joined anti-Semitism as a dangerous form of politics.” Instead of focusing on Islamic doctrine, Sir Michael Leigh asked Western schools to emphasize past Western misdeeds with an “understanding of the lasting legacy of imperial expansion, including perceptions of the role of missionaries.”
The writers in residence at the German-American TA indicated the muddled state of elite thinking regarding Islam. Almost 15 years after the Taliban’s Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, politically correct Western guilt and cultural relativism continue to cloud policy analysis. As the TA writers demonstrated, though, Islam’s stark realities are gradually becoming all too apparent.