In my review for God’s not Dead 2 I pointed out that the religion currently under greatest threat in the United States is not Christianity. Rather, it is Islam.
That claim received a response from readers both in the discussion thread and via email who argued that Islam is a threat. When the concern was initially raised by Walter I replied as follows:
“Islam, like any religion, is subject to multiple interpretations of the relationship between the religious community and the state. The kind of Islam you describe as a concern has its Christian equivalent in contemporary Christian dominionism as well as in many historic forms of Christendom.”
Another reader, VicqRuiz, countered my response as follows:
“If the segment of Islam which believes in a theocratic state under shari’a was as small relative to all of Islam as the dominionist movement is relative to all of Christianity, I would agree that Islam is something which we have no need to beware.”
I then offered this reply:
“It is true that the relative size and strength of the theocratic wing of Islam is currently greater than the theocratic wing of Christianity. But it simply doesn’t follow that fear of the theocratic wing of Islam should thereby transfer to fear of Islam simpliciter. That’s a non sequitur.”
But VicqRuiz was undaunted as he then replied:
“What argues against your response, Randal, is the dearth of majority Islamic countries in which the theocratic wing of Islam is not firmly entrenched in power.”
In fact, that doesn’t argue against my response. On the contrary, it is another non sequitur. So here is my explanation of why folks shouldn’t be afraid of Islam or believe that Islam per se represents an essential threat to western society.
Muslim majority countries today very much parallel pre-Enlightenment Christian majority countries in the West. I am using the term “Enlightenment” here to refer to a set of cultural, scientific, philosophical, political, and economic forces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which gave rise to the hallmarks of western capitalist, democratic, and religiously tolerant pluralist society.
Let’s begin with this observation: in key respects religious life in England in 1610 was much closer to religious life in contemporary Saudi Arabia than contemporary England. For example, if you lived in England in 1610 you could be jailed for being a non-conformist (i.e. for refusing to conform to the Church of England’s form of worship). And if you failed to attend church for an extended period, you could be called before the civil magistrate where you could be fined, imprisoned or worse. (Just consider what happened to Thomas Helwys who had the temerity to write King James I at this time to request religious toleration for his fellow Baptists.)
But over the next two centuries, western Christendom began to break down as a result of many forces including the continued fracturing of religious consensus and the growth of religious, political and economic conflict (e.g. Thirty Years War); the continued growth of the significance of the secular sphere in natural science (e.g. Galileo, Newton, Darwin) and economics (e.g. Adam Smith), the rise of philosophical skepticism (e.g. Hume, Kant), the democratizing force of politics (the French and American revolutions) and popular revivalist religion (in Britain and North America especially).
All these forces amounted to an extended assault of cannon fire on the edifice of western Christendom. But Christianity didn’t die as a result. Indeed, many commentators would argue that it was freed from the constraints of Christendom as it adapted to the new reality of pluralism, free market capitalism, democracy, science, and the ongoing forces of secularization.
Most Muslim-majority countries have not yet grappled directly with these same forces of Enlightenment. Consequently, many of the values now taken for granted in the West like religious tolerance, free markets, and democracy are not embraced in large parts of the Muslim-majority world. And in the countries where the influence of the West is most present (e.g. Turkey, Iran, Egypt) one can also see the most visible conflicts.
So here’s the lesson to draw: it is simply wrong to think that this current clash of civilizations is a clash with Islam simpliciter just like it is wrong to think that the earlier clash with Christendom was a clash with Christianity simpliciter. Consequently, instead of encouraging non-Muslims to fear Islam we should be encouraging Muslims to engage with the same forces (pluralism, capitalism, democracy, etc.) that wrought change in Christendom.
And one more thing. One should not assume that the Enlightenment forces which wrought these radical changes in Christendom were and are all secular. On the contrary, as several scholars have argued, many of these forces are in fact sourced ultimately within the Judeo-Christian tradition. (See for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s account of justice and human rights.) Likewise, the most effective reform of Islam will be that which engages not only in a dialogue with external factors, but also in a careful and creative ressourcement of the Muslim tradition itself.