Almost immediately after the attacks on 9/11/2001 federal officials, beginning with the President of the United States, assured the world that the views held by and motivating the attacks by those who perpetrated the attacks did not represent true or genuine Islam. In the early days of the “War on Terror,” it was not immediately clear whether this claim, that violent attacks in the name of Islam are an aberration from the teaching of the major sects of Islam was made for political reasons or whether it was a genuinely held position. After all, the US has relations with Middle Eastern governments (e.g., Saudi Arabia) who look unfavorably upon associations of Islam with terror and who might be less inclined to cooperate in the “War on Terror.” It was clear too that officials were worried about the possibility of domestic attacks upon Muslims. Immediately after 9/11 there were some such attacks but, though the news media has reported “hate crimes” (e.g., graffiti on mosques) there were proportionately few (in a nation of 300 million people) acts of physical violence. Indeed, remarkably, according to the Pew Center, since 9/11 the number of Muslims in the USA has increased dramatically. If the USA was inhospitable to Muslims, one would not expect to see such a strong growth in the number of Muslims.
Recent comments by the President, the Attorney General, and even the FBI agent in charge of investigating the Orlando attack, which was conducted by a man who identified himself as a Muslim, who declared in recorded phone calls to a 911 call center that he was conducting the murderous attacks in the name of Allah (which the transcript translates somewhat misleadingly as “God”), have each announced that the attacker’s actions are entirely inconsistent with the true meaning of Islam. Two things about the renewal of this theme, first initiated by the Bush administration, should trouble all Americans. The first is a matter of fact and the second is a matter of constitutional limits.
Let us consider them in order. The claim that Islam is a “religion of peace” and not inherently violent is contradicted by even the most rudimentary knowledge of the history of Islam. Richard A. Gabriel writes,
The idea of Muhammad as a military man will be new to many. Yet he was a truly great general. In the space of a single decade he fought eight major battles, led eighteen raids, and planned another thirty-eight military operations where others were in command but operating under his orders and strategic direction. Wounded twice, he also twice experienced having his positions overrun by superior forces before he managed to turn the tables on his enemies and rally his men to victory. More than a great field general and tactician, he was also a military theorist, organizational reformer, strategic thinker, operational-level combat commander, political-military leader, heroic soldier, and revolutionary. The inventor of insurgency warfare and history’s first successful practitioner, Muhammad had no military training before he commanded an army in the field.
The prophet of Islam was a military commander. He conducted military operations. Contrast that indisputable historical fact with the indisputable historical fact that, presented with repeated opportunities to lead a military uprising against the Romans, Jesus of Nazareth refused. His entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey was interpreted by the populus as the beginning of a revolt but Jesus had no such intent. When the authorities came to arrest Jesus, Peter did cut off Malchus’ ear (John 18:10), but Jesus not only rebuked Peter for using the sword inappropriately (not that Jesus was opposed to buying or owning weapons, see Luke 22:36 where he said, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”) and healed Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:51).
The history of Islam after Mohammad is a history of violent expansionism. This is not in dispute. More than a century of the “history of religions” dogma that all religions are essentially the same has convinced people, in the absence of historical fact, that the histories of Islam and Christianity must (a priori) have been identical. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thomas F. Madden and Rodney Stark have both argued that the Crusades were a response to violent Islamic expansion and terrorism. There is nothing new about Islamic violence. There is nothing new about terrorism as a tool to bring infidels into submission. The word Islam means submission. Those who argue that the Qur’an is a religion of peace must do so in the face of 109 Surahs exhorting the faithful to the use of violence in the service of Allah. We might argue about how to relate the Old and New Testaments but there is not a single such exhortation in the New Testament exhorting the use of violence. In fact, the New Testament (e.g., Romans chapter 13) counsels submission even to pagan authorities who, just a few years later, would put Christians to death merely for the fact that they were Christians.
Second, the most distressing thing about these official proclamations by governmental officials about what constitutes “true” Islam is that it is being made by government officials in the conduct of their offices. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The President and the Attorney General (and the FBI SAC in Orlando) are speaking in their capacity as public officials in the execution of their offices as authorized by the Congress. My objection is not to their private opinions. We are not discussing their private views. George W. Bush is entitled to say now whatever he will about Islam. What is in question is how to square with the first amendment public announcements by public officials about what is or is not the true understanding of Islam.
To understand how bizarre and unconstitutional this is, let us substitute Orthodox Presbyterian for Islam. Imagine a president or attorney general proclaiming that the true Orthodox Presbyterian view of the Lord’s Supper is that it is a mere memorial of Christ’s death but not an eating of his true body and blood by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, through faith. What? Did the General Assembly of the OPC elect the president to speak on their behalf? We could check the minutes of the GA but it seems safe to say, no, they did not. Has any assembly of Muslims anywhere in the world authorized the President or the Attorney General or the FBI to make pronouncements on behalf of Islam? If so, it has not been reported in the news media. If so, the religious leaders of Iran, which is one of the major state-sponsors of violent Islamic expansion, has not read the memo. One is not aware that the United Methodists have issued any fatawa against critics but Iranian clerics did issue a fatwa sentencing Salman Rushdie to death for perceived slights against Islam. The Saudis have funded madrassas which teach the use of violence the service of Islamic expansion. One study claims that 84% of mosques in the USA use materials advocating violence in the service of Islamic expansion.
Such pronouncements by government officials, in the official course of business, about what is or is not the true understanding of Islam come perilously close to the government establishment of an official understanding of a religion. At this point the liberals, those who once upon a time defended dissent and freedom of thought and expression (which is the definition of liberal), in this country should have been up in arms but instead one hears nothing from the ACLU or related organizations condemning a near established interpretation of a major world religion. Should we expect officials next to adjudicate the competing claims of the Shias and Sunnis?
All Americans who value their religious liberty, who value the constitutional protection of free speech and the American tradition of free thought (relative to civil life) should resist and reject attempts by civil authorities, for whatever reasons, to establish an official interpretation of Islam. If we allow them to interpret Islam, how shall we oppose them when authorities side with the ELCA against the Missouri Synod or the Old Catholics against Pope Francis?