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UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY
LESSON 1. The great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological.
How men and women think about God—or don’t think about God—has a great deal to do with how they envision the just society, and how they determine the appropriate means by which to build that society. This means taking theology seriously—which includes taking seriously others’ concepts of God’s nature and purposes, and their commitments to the beliefs arising from those concepts—as well as the theologies that have shaped the civilization of the West. If we have not learned this over the past five years, one wonders if we have learned anything.
Yet that very question—what have we learned?—arises every time a commentator or politician or statesman uses “theology” as a synonym for “superstition,” or “theological” as a contempt–riddled substitute for “mindless.” Such glib (and truly mindless) usages must stop; they are an impediment to clear thinking about our situation. And our situation is too urgent for muddleheadedness arising from prejudice.
Failures on this front tend toward the comprehensive, not least because American education has done a very poor job of equipping Americans with a minimal comprehension of the teachings of the world's great religions. The problem is particularly urgent, however, in those parts of the United States Government where a genteel secularity is the analytic default position—and the received wisdom on How to Understand Things As They Are. This puts American diplomacy and intelligence collection at an immense disadvantage in a world in which the true curiosities—the things that really need explaining—are not throngs of Mexican pilgrims at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or several million Hindus ritually bathing in the Ganges, or the Hajj to Mecca, or the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala. The curiosities, the things that need explaining as cutting strangely against the human grain, are those redoubts of aggressive and inward–looking secularism to be found in, for example, western higher education and journalism.
Tone deafness to the fact that for the overwhelming majority of humanity, religious conviction provides the story line through which life's meaning is read is, in one sense, a by–product of a disinclination to acknowledge the truth of what has become something of a cliché: that “ideas have consequences.” They do, manifestly, and understanding the consequential ideas that shape a given historical epoch, and their interplay, is essential to wise statecraft. We understood this during the Cold War, which was, at bottom, a global contest of fundamental ideas: ideas about human nature, ideas about human community, ideas about human origins, human aspirations, human destiny. Understanding that the contest with communism was idea–driven, the West, led by the United States, deployed intellectual and cultural resources as well as military power to blunt the threat that communism posed, to expose it for what it was, and, ultimately, to defeat it. There would seem to be a lesson here.
The idea of inevitable progress in history—the idea that the human story is inevitably unfolding in such a way that the future will always be better than the present and the past—has exercised such a profound grip on the modern American imagination that we may have forgotten that it is, at best, a hypothesis, not a given of the human condition. Things can, and do, get worse, especially when cultural morale declines: much of Europe today exhibits a kind of cultural exhaustion that does not bode well for the future. Moreover, as Aldous Huxley presciently saw in Brave New World, technology can lead to real reverses in human affairs—indeed, to the deterioration of our very idea of humanity. All of which is to suggest that the holiday from history, and from the obligation to press history in a more human direction, that Americans seemed to take in the aftermath of the Cold War is a snare and a delusion. History must be made to march in the direction of genuine human progress; world affairs have no intrinsic momentum that necessarily results in the victory of decency. Maintaining the morale necessary to achieving progress in history requires us to live our lives, today, against a moral horizon of responsibility that is wider and deeper than the quest for personal satisfactions. The future of our civilization does not rest merely on the advance of material wealth and technological prowess; the future of the West turns on the question of whether our spiritual aspirations are noble or base.
It is, perhaps, ironic that, at precisely the moment when a religiously grounded, existential threat to the civilization of the West has manifested itself with real power, a new atheism, dripping with disdain for traditional religious conviction, has risen up in the form of broadsides by bestselling polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. (1) Yet contrary to the claims of these new atheists and their call to the “maturity” of unbelief, a West that has lost the ability to think in terms of “God” and “Satan,” and that has forgotten the drama contained in the idea of “redemption,” is a West that will be at a loss to recognize what inspires and empowers those enemies of the West who showed their bloody hand on September 11, 2001. A West that does not take religious ideas seriously as a dynamic force in the world's unfolding history is a West that will have disarmed itself, conceptually and imaginatively, in the midst of war.
LESSON 2. To speak of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the “three Abrahamic faiths,” the “three religions of the Book,” or the “three monotheisms” obscures rather than illuminates. These familiar tropes ought to be retired.
There are, of course, some obvious truths here. Viewed from the perspective of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Shinto, the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, while clearly “other,” exhibit many “familial” characteristics that may seem to make them cousins of sorts. Moreover, and more important in terms of their own self–understanding, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to the self–revelation of the one, true God to Abraham. What has emerged from that common point of origin is, however, decisively different—especially with regard to Islam.
In recent years, it has been frequently suggested that there is a relationship between Christianity and Islam that is analogous—some would say, virtually identical—to what Rabbi David Novak has called the “common border” between Judaism and Christianity. (1) Islamic regard for Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary is often cited as an example of this alleged affinity. Yet as the eminent French scholar Alain Besançon has pointed out,
The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Qur’an; Moses is not Moussa. As for Jesus, he appears, as Issa, out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel. His mother, Mary, or Mariam, identified as the sister of Aaron, gives birth to him under a palm tree. Then Issa performs several miracles, which seem to have been drawn from the apocryphal gospels, and announces the future coming of Muhammad.
Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Qur’an, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith. The Jesus/Issa of the Qur’an promulgates the same message as the earlier prophets—Adam, Abraham, Lot, and the rest. Indeed, all possess the same knowledge and proclaim the same message, which is Islam. Like the rest, Issa is sent to preach the oneness of God. He is emphatically no Trinitarian, not an “associator”; “do not say Three,” he protests. Nor is he the son of God, but a simple mortal. Nor is he a mediator between earthly men and their heavenly Father, because Islam knows not the concept of mediation. Nor, since in Islam it is unimaginable that a messenger of God can be vanquished, does he die on the cross; a double is substituted for him. (2)
Besançon’s reference to what appear to be Qur’anic borrowings from the apocryphal gospels raises, for a twenty–first–century audience, the question posed by St. John Damascene in the eighth century: that is, whether Islam ought to be understood, in terms of the history of religions, as a heretical offshoot of Christianity that came into being when defective Christologies (i.e., theologies of the nature, person, and mission of Christ) intersected with ideas culled from pre–Islamic Arabic tribal religions and off–brand forms of Judaism, all of which were then forged into a new religious system by the genius of Muhammad. (3) But that is an argument for another time and place. So is wrestling with St. Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth–century refusal to concede a parallelism between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, which was based on Thomas’s conviction that Muhammad taught great falsehoods. (4) Suffice it to say that Islam’s deep theological structure includes themes that render the notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” ultimately misleading in understanding Islam’s faith and practice—particularly if this trope is understood in the popular imagination as a matter of three equivalent legs propping up a single monotheistic stool.
Take, for example, the question of Islamic supersessionism: Islam’s claim that it supersedes Judaism and Christianity, both of which are finally unveiled, in the revelation to Muhammad, as false (or, at best, deeply distorted) religions. (5) This, of course, Christianity cannot accept, for it is a cardinal tenet of Christian doctrine that God’s self–revelation culminates in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ; no further revelation can be imagined. This bedrock Christian conviction—that God’s revelation has been completed in Christ, in the sense that nothing essential for the world’s salvation will be revealed after Christ—also helps identify another defect of the “three Abrahamic faiths” trope. In a Christian understanding of salvation history, Abraham is not only the great ancestor; he also points toward the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, which will emerge from Abraham’s stock, the People of Israel—a fulfillment Christians believe God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David. From a Christian point of view, Abraham cannot point beyond the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham: which is to say, Abraham cannot point toward a post–Christian revelation to Muhammad (or anyone else, for that matter). For Christians, in other words, the word “Abrahamic” does not designate merely origin and patrimony; it includes finality and destiny—Abraham points to what God intended for humanity by choosing Abraham, and that is the gift of God’s Son through the People of Israel. (To think “Abrahamic” solely in terms of origin also poses problems for Jewish self–understanding, but exploring that would take us too far afield here.)
Despite the supersessionist claims that some Christians have made throughout history vis–à–vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God’s self–revelation in Christ negates God's self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel. Islam, by contrast, takes a radically supersessionist view of both Judaism and Christianity, claiming that the final revelation to Muhammad de facto trumps, by way of supersession, any prior revelatory value (so to speak) that might be found in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament. (6)
Thus Islamic supersessionism has a built–in tendency to set in motion a dynamic of conflict with Judaism and Christianity that is not “required” vis–à–vis Islam by the deep theological structure of Judaism and Christianity—although, to be sure, Christians have taken an aggressive and bloody–minded posture toward Islam on many occasions over the past fourteen hundred years, an aggressiveness that has left deep resentments in the Islamic world and a historic burden of conscience among more thoughtful Christians. Nor should it be thought that Islamic supersessionism necessarily requires violent conflict between Islam and “the rest,” although that is a face of itself that Islam has displayed throughout its history; and in the contemporary world, that face has led to what Samuel Huntington describes as Islam's “bloody borders.” (7) Still, as Bernard Lewis writes, “Since its first emergence from Arabia in the seventh century, Islam has been in almost continuous conflict with Christendom, through the original Muslim conquests and the Christian reconquests, through jihad and crusade, the Turkish advance, and the European expansion. Though Islam has fought many wars on many frontiers, it was the wars against Christendom which were the longest and most devastating, and which came to loom in Muslim awareness as the great jihad par excellence.” (8) That Islamic supersessionism was an important theological source of this “almost continuous conflict” need not be doubted, although other factors were obviously in play.
This supersessionism, and the conflicts it has engendered, lead Lewis and others to suggest that we need a new reading of world history. It is striking to look through a standard reference work like the Times Atlas of World History and find so little on Islam, much less on the world-historical ebb and flow of Islam-versus–the–rest. Yet, Lewis suggests, that ebb and flow, underwritten by a certain understanding of Islamic supersessionism, is one of the primary story lines of the last millennium and a half. To take but one example: We tend to think of the rise of European colonialism and imperialism as the product of intra–European economic, political, demographic, and religious dynamics—the quest for wealth; the great power game; the question of what to do with younger sons in an age of primogeniture; the missionary imperative. Lewis suggests that we see European expansion as some Muslims likely saw it: as a great flanking movement in response to Islamic advances into the continent of Europe:
When Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut he explained that he had come “in search of Christians and spices.” It was a fair summary of the motives that had sent the Portuguese to Asia, as perhaps also, with appropriate adjustments, of the jihad to which the Portuguese voyages were a long–delayed reply. The sentiment of Christian struggle was strong among the Portuguese who sailed to the East. The great voyages of discovery were seen as a religious war, a continuation of the Crusades and of the Reconquest, and against the same enemy. In eastern waters, it was Muslim rulers—in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and India—who were the chief opponents of the Portuguese, and whose domination they ended. After the Portuguese came the other maritime peoples of the West, who together established a west European ascendancy in Africa and southern Asia that lasted until the twentieth century. (9)
Or, as Lewis asks later in his narrative, were the Barbary pirates who so exercised Thomas Jefferson independent operators out for loot, as is suggested by the term “pirates”—and most of our history books? Or are they more accurately understood, in a long view of history, as “privateers” in the ongoing jihad against Christendom, engaging in a maritime form of asymmetrical warfare against the first frigates of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps at a time when Muslim power was in retreat? (10)
Islamic supersessionism is one of the theological ideas that distinguishes Islam from Judaism and Christianity in an important way. It is also an idea that has had profound consequences in history. When an Ottoman Muslim historian referred to the Poles who had come to the rescue of Vienna in 1683 as “the people of hell,” he was drawing on one powerful strand of a tradition of religious thought that dated back a millennium—even as he foreshadowed Osama bin Laden. (11)