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Richard John Neuhaus and Toby E. Huff -- A Christian-Muslim Exchange

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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Shortly before he died on November 23, 1976, André Malraux said, "The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all." I'm not sure what Malraux meant by it, but it is one of those oracular pronouncements that have about them the ring of truth. At the threshold of the Third Millennium, it seems that the alternatives to religion have exhausted themselves. That is true of the materialistically cramped rationalisms of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, which, along with ideological utopianisms, both romantic and allegedly scientific, have been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. The perversity of the human mind will no doubt produce other ideological madnesses, but at the moment it seems the historical stage has been swept clean, with only the religious proposition left standing. That is certainly the intuition that informs John Paul II's repeated exhortation, "Be not afraid!"--an exhortation addressed to the entire human community.

It is an intuition that some condemn as "triumphalistic." But one can make the case that, as a world force, Christianity offers the only coherent, comprehensive, and compelling vision of the human project. Except for the others. The chief other is Islam. Christianity and Islam are the two religions that are large, growing, and universal in their culture-forming ambitions. Not without reason are thinkers in the West paying increasing attention to Islam. Which brings me to a new book that has already received notice in these pages, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude by Bat Ye'or (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 522 pp., $45 cloth, $19.95 paper).

We recently sponsored a meeting to discuss the book with Bat Ye'or, and it has been much on my mind. She is a very impressive scholar, a Jew born in Egypt who now lives in France, where the book was first published in 1991. She thinks the West has not begun to understand the challenge of Islam, that Europe is afraid to understand it, and that the best hope rests with Americans who still sense that they are part of a Christian--i.e., Judeo-Christian--culture.

On the challenge of Islam, the French legal scholar and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul strongly agrees. He wrote the foreword to the book, one of the last things he wrote before he died. "It is most important to grasp," wrote Ellul, "that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society. . . . The world, as Bat Ye'or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, the 'domain of Islam' and 'the domain of war.' The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war." The Koran allows that there are times when war is not advisable, and a momentary pause is called for. "But that," writes Ellul, "changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit."

While grateful for Ellul's endorsement, Bat Ye'or says he puts the matter somewhat more starkly than she would. In France and in Europe more generally, there is a growing anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, sentiment, and she wants to carefully distance herself from that, which does her honor. On the substantive questions, however, the book leaves no doubt that she and Ellul are of one mind. In the Islamic view, Jews and Christians are "Peoples of the Book," which distinguishes them from other infidels. Where Jews or Christians are in control, there is dar al-harb, the domain of war. Where Islam has conquered, Jews and Christians are dhimmi, meaning subject people who live under the dhimma, which is the pact or treaty granted by the Prophet Muhammad to the Peoples of the Book whom he conquered.

What Really Happened

The Decline is a big book, sometimes rambling but always informative. For many readers it will be an eye-opener, not because it is revisionist history but because it tells the story straight, thus countering the Islamophile histories that have dominated Western thought for so long. About half the book is given to a telling of the story, and the second half to a fascinating collection of documentary evidence from the beginning of Islam to the present. Most of the standard texts speak about the "rise" of Islam in the seventh century, and relate its spread as millions "embraced the new faith." This is usually joined to positive comment on Islam's "tolerance" of non-Muslims, especially as contrasted with the atrocities of the Christian powers with their crusades and "expulsion" of minorities from Europe. This, Bat Ye'or persuasively demonstrates, is a radical distortion of what happened. Islam's spectacular spread was brought about by brutal military conquest, rapine, spoliation, and slavery, joined to a regime of "dhimmitude" that was based on deep contempt for the subject infidels, including the Peoples of the Book.

She begins by reminding us of the Christian civilizations of the Middle East (what Europeans call the Near East) and North Africa--the world of, for instance, St. Augustine. "On the eve of the Islamic conquest, a certain degree of homogeneity emerged from the civilization of the Near East and North Africa, despite the bloody religious conflicts. Heir to Hellenistic culture, it had assimilated the spiritual values of Judaism via Christianity. Although Greek and Pahlavi were the official languages of the Byzantine and Persian empires, respectively, the native inhabitants of Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine spoke and wrote Aramaic. Being a vernacular, liturgical, and literary language, Aramaic was used by the Jews to compile juridical works such as the Talmud and by the Christians to write the historical and theological works of the Nestorian and Monophysite Churches in its Syriac version. In Egypt, the native inhabitants used Coptic, their spoken and written national language." In short, the "rise of Islam" did not happen in a vacuum. Islam violently displaced the vibrant, if internally conflicted, Christian culture of a large part of the then known world.

Nor was Islamic aggression limited to North Africa and the Middle East. "For centuries after its conquest in 712, Spain became the terrain par excellence for the jihad in the West of the dar al-Islam. . . . Breaking out of Arabia and from the conquered regions--Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine--these successive waves of [Muslim] immigrants settled in Spain and terrorized southern France. Reaching as far as Avignon, they plundered the Rhone valley. . . . In 793, the suburbs of Narbonne were burned down and its outskirts raided. Calls to jihad attracted the fanaticized hordes in the ribats (monastery--fortresses) spanning the Islamo-Spanish frontiers. Towns were pillaged and rural areas devastated."

The Painful Particulars

Of course that was a nasty era. Islam did not invent the massacre or enslavement of vanquished peoples. Burning, pillage, spoliation, and the imposing of tribute were practiced by most of the armies of the time, whether Greek, Latin, or Slav. "Only the excess," says Bat Ye'or, "the regular repetition and the systematization of the destruction, codified by theology, distinguishes the jihad from other wars of conquest or depredation." After the first great wave of conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam gained new force with the accession of the Ottoman Turks. "Possessing an intrepid army and remarkable statesmen, the Ottomans were able to take advantage of the lack of unity and economic rivalries in the Christian camp. The final conquest of the Balkan peninsula was undertaken from 1451 by Mehmid II and his successors. Constantinople was encircled and fell in 1453; Serbia was conquered in 1459; then Bosnia and the Empire of Trebizond in 1463, and Herzegovina in 1483. Turkish expansion continued in Europe with the conquest of Wallachia, Moldavia, and eastern Hungary and was finally checked at Vienna in 1683 and in Poland in 1687." The particulars are worth mentioning, for they underscore the continuity of the jihad and its impact on the world of today, as we are reminded by, for instance, the presence of U.S. troops in Bosnia.

Much of the book is a detailing of the practices of dhimmitude, correcting the conventional wisdom about Islamic "tolerance" of religious minorities. The dhimmis were treated variously in different times and places, depending upon what the Islamic rulers thought expedient. Bat Ye'or emphasizes how Christian disunity played into the hands of their conquerors. Not only the conflicts between East and West, but also between Monophysites, Nestorians, Chaldeans, and others led to many instances in which Christians collaborated with their Muslim masters against other Christians. The regime of dhimmitude was marked by a trade in hundreds of thousands of slaves, as well as minute regulations requiring Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing, and excluding them from any access to the law whereby they might seek redress against Muslim cruelties and injustices. The entire system was pervaded by a teaching of contempt toward the infidels.

She notes the irony that the Koran and other sacred texts of Islam had no specific rules for treating conquered infidels, so Muslim rulers in many cases simply took over the rules that the now-conquered Christians had previously applied to heretics. This is not the only way in which "Islamic civilization" was derived from the vanquished. "The historical role of these hordes drained off from the dar al-harb by the conquering Muslim armies should not be underestimated. The Christians and Jews driven from the Mediterranean countries and Armenia--scholars, doctors, architects, craftsmen, and peasants, country folk and town dwellers, bishops, monks, and rabbis--belonged to more complex civilizations than those of the Arab or Turkish tribes. The military and economic power of the caliphs was built up and the process of Islamization carried out through the exploitation of this slave manpower."

Islamic Civilization

Bat Ye'or emphasizes how little that is admired in Islamic civilization is original, how much of it is derivative. Even the great Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a design taken from Byzantine Christianity. The dhimmi peoples made available to the culturally underdeveloped Arabs the knowledge that had once made their own cultures great. "Zoroastrians, Jacobites (Copts and Syrians), Nestorians, Melchites, and Jews translated into Arabic treatises on astronomy, medicine, alchemy, and philosophy, as well as literary narratives and stories. This work necessitated the invention of new words and the forging of the Arabic language and grammar into new conceptual molds, not only philosophic, scientific, and literary, but also administrative, economic, political, and diplomatic. . . . The first known scientific work in Arabic was a treatise on medicine, written in Greek by Ahrun, a Christian priest from Alexandria, and translated from Syriac into Arabic in 683 by Masarjawayh, a Jewish doctor from Basra (Iraq)." And so it was with many other "Islamic" cultural and scientific achievements.

The common view is that, during the so-called dark ages of European Christendom, Islam preserved the philosophical, literary, and scientific wisdom of the classical period. Bat Ye'or offers a somewhat different perspective. "And yet dhimmitude reveals another reality. Here are peoples who, having integrated the Hellenistic heritage and biblical spirituality, spread the Judeo-Christian civilization as far as Europe and Russia. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, conquered by nomadic bands, taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries, the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, . . . the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge--in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization." Later, some of those whose civilizations had been ravaged by the barbarians went into exile. "The elites who fled to Europe took their cultural baggage with them, their scholarship and their knowledge of the classics of antiquity. Thenceforth, in the Christian lands of refuge--Spain, Provence, Sicily, Italy--cultural centers developed where Christians and Jews from Islamized lands taught to the young Europe the knowledge of the old pre-Islamic Orient, formerly translated into Arabic by their ancestors." By this account, then, the classical heritage that was presumably preserved by Islam was in fact rescued from Islam by those who fled its oppression.

Bat Ye'or is at pains not to appear anti-Islamic. At one point she goes so far as to say she refuses to make any "value judgments." But the story she tells speaks for itself. However tortured the historical relationship between Christians and Jews, each community is identified by the same biblical narrative. In addition, common geography and communal interaction make the institutions and values of each inexplicable without reference to the other. Especially from the Christian viewpoint, Judaism and Christianity are in chronological continuity. Not so with Islam.

Islam claims to be anterior to the Peoples of the Book. It is claimed that, through the Koran, the Prophet restored the divine revelation that his Hebrew and Christian predecessors had falsified. The dispute with Christians and Jews is not over the interpretation of a common text; their text is rejected by Islam. Moreover, Islam's origins in the customs and values of the Arab Bedouins and of nomadic tribes have left it with the jihad as the only way of relating to the non-Islamic world. The spiritual, moral, and sociological commonalities among the three religions should not be underestimated. At the same time, I believe Bat Ye'or and others are right to caution us against delusions; for instance, the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades.

Of the two assertive and culture-forming religions in the contemporary world, Christianity has enormous advantages over Islam, quite apart from the question of theological truth. There are approximately twice as many Christians as Muslims (two billion and one billion, respectively). Christianity is growing at least as fast as Islam and has greater evangelizing prospects, notably in Asia, especially if China really opens up. Moreover, today's world is not hospitable to jihad in the form of conquest, but is increasingly susceptible to the communications technology mastered by the Christian West. Moreover, the Christian movement is on the far side of modernity, having gone through and survived, not without severe damage, its secularizing and explicitly antireligious impulses. Islam, by contrast, has for three centuries been largely left out; it has been the object rather than the subject of world-historical change. As that intrepid scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us, Islam views the dar al-harb of Christendom as the Great Satan, meaning the Great Tempter. Militant Islamism is driven by suspicion and ressentiment. Which can make the world a very dangerous place, as it is already a very dangerous in, for instance, the Middle East.

A great question facing Islam--and for us as we face Islam--is whether there are authentically Islamic sources that can religiously legitimate democracy and religious pluralism. From the beginning, Christianity has had the great asset of what some derisively call its "dualism"--the conceptual resource for distinguishing between spiritual and temporal authority, which has given it enormous flexibility in relating to different political and cultural circumstances from Theodosius to Hildebrand to the religion clause of the U.S. Constitution. Islam is emphatically monistic. That is a great asset when joined to military and political power in the course of conquest, but a disabling weakness under the conditions of postmodernity.

This truth impressed me at a recent conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in which we were examining Islam and the democratic prospect in various parts of the world. As I write, the secular Kemalists (after Kemal Ataturk, who established the republic in 1923) have replaced an Islam-friendly government, and have done so in the name of democracy. The Kemalists control the army, and one Turkish participant at the conference observed with a straight face, "Turkey is in the peculiar circumstance that we may need a military dictatorship in order to preserve democracy." The assumption is that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It is an assumption that is given additional credibility by the Islamist insurgency in many Muslim countries. Of course there are other and very large parts of the Islamic world, such as Indonesia. I expect Bernard Lewis is right, however, in saying that any substantive change in Islamic doctrine must come from the Middle East, the world surrounding Mecca and Islam's constituting sacred story, a world still steeped in the Arab and Bedouin mindset of the Prophet.

There is yet another important dimension. A while back we held a meeting to discuss Samuel Huntington's seminal The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order. There Wolfhart Pannenberg, the noted German theologian, made a strong argument, contra Huntington, that the Christian West and Christian East should be viewed as one civilization. That they are today viewed as two is largely the fault of European powers, especially Britain, that in the nineteenth century sided with the Ottoman Empire in order to contain Russia. I am impressed by the number of thinkers who, like Pannenberg, hold "perfidious Albion" largely responsible for the dominance of Islamophile and "Arabist" attitudes among foreign policy experts, not least in the U.S. Department of State.

Heightened Christian Consciousness

So we come back to Malraux's prophecy about the twenty-first century. That it will be religious is not necessarily good news. Religion is as riddled with the possibilities of mischief as any other dimension of the human condition. The biggest problem in sight is Islam. People like Ellul and Bat Ye'or worry about the low-level jihad of Islamic immigration in Europe, which now includes millions of Muslims, and about the establishment of Islam in Bosnia. Unless one dismisses entirely the importance of civilizational clashes, that is something at least worth thinking about very carefully. The situation in the U.S. is very different. There are probably no more than two million Muslims in this country, and half of them are native-born blacks. That could change through massive immigration in the years ahead, but at present Muslims here pose no threat to the Judeo-Christian identity of the culture, or what is left of it.

In the several discussions I have touched on here, one notices a heightening of Christian self-consciousness as we approach the Third Millennium. This is evident in the witness of John Paul II, who carefully cultivates Muslim connections while at the same time repeatedly urging, "Open the door to Christ!" It is evident also in the new stirrings among Christians here in protesting the persecution of Christians elsewhere. Not incidentally, some of the most severe persecution and oppression of Christians is in "elsewheres" dominated by Islam--Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan being prime examples. In all these churnings of religion, culture, and politics, there is also a notable coming together of Christians and Jews. In the forefront of the movement against the persecution of Christians are Jews such as Michael Horowitz and New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal. Nobody denies--and some, such as Bat Ye'or make it quite explicit--that a strengthened sense of Judeo-Christian unity in the face of Islam also has obvious implications for our attitude toward the State of Israel. That consideration is not front stage center, but it is there.

I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive relations with Islam. As an institute and a journal, we have over the years tried to engage Muslims in the conversations of which we are part. It is an embarrassment that in a journal dealing with religion and public life, with a readership far larger than any comparable publication, the Muslim participation is almost nonexistent. I don't know what to do about it, except to keep trying. We consider articles by Muslim authors, but they are typically so defensive, or so belligerent, or so self-serving--or all three at once--that they would only compound misunderstandings.

As for conferences, it is not hard to get "Muslim spokepersons." There are teams of them flitting from conference to conference all over the world. They are part of the "Davos people" so brilliantly described by Huntington in his book. I have met them in Davos, Switzerland, where top CEOs and heads of state annually gather with select intellectuals to chatter about the state of the world in the esperanto of an internationalese that is not spoken by real people anywhere. The Muslims in such settings are for the most part westernized, secularized, academic intellectuals who are there to "represent the Muslim viewpoint" but have little more connection with living Islam than many Christians and Jews. The unhappy fact is that Muslim thinkers who can speak out of the heart of authentic Islam, and especially of resurgent Islamism, either do not want to talk with us or are prevented from doing so under the threat of very real injury to themselves or their families.

Meanwhile, the Islamic world stews in its resentments and suspicions, alternating with low-grade jihad in the form of the persecution of Christians, international terrorism, and dreams of driving Israel into the sea. This turbulent stand-off, beginning with the repulsion from Vienna in 1683 and embittered by centuries of Western imperialism, cannot last forever. It seems likely that in the new century of clashing civilizations there will be either heightened conflict or a breakthrough to something like the beginnings of a dialogue. Maybe the second can prevent the first. Or maybe the first will be required to precipitate the second. In any event, we in the Judeo-Christian West should be prepared. A good place to start is to understand the history that has brought us to where we are, and to that end I warmly recommend a careful and critical reading of Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 75-93.

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This article can be found on the Leadership U website.


Part 2. A Christian-Muslim Exchange

Islam and Religious Dialogue

Toby E. Huff

The tenor of Richard John Neuhaus' Public Square essay on the book The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam by Bat Ye'or ("The Approaching Century of Religion," October 1997) seems entirely misdirected if the intention is to encourage understanding as well as dialogue between the various religious communities. The essay contains several factual errors, misses a number of very important progressive social movements in the Muslim world, and demeans rather than encourages dialogue about important religious and social differences.

First, with regard to the hoary notion that the Islamic world did nothing but preserve and pass on philosophical and scientific learning from the Greeks and other ancient civilizations: Father Neuhaus has latched on to an outdated and faulty conception that he takes directly from the concluding pages of Professor Bat Ye'or's Epilogue--not the main subject on which Bat Ye'or is a specialist. To put it boldly and bluntly, it is now widely recognized that from about the eighth century till the end of the thirteenth century, the Arabic-Islamic world had the most advanced science to be found anywhere in the world. This was so in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, optics, and medicine.

In the field of astronomy, where the great theoretical breakthrough to modern science is usually located, the planetary models developed by the astronomers at the Marâgha observatory, culminating in those of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375), were virtually identical mathematically to those of Copernicus, with only minor differences in some parameters, though the Arab models remained geocentric. Nor were the Arabs lacking in technical or mathematical skills. In fact, their skills in trigonometry, which the Chinese lacked, resulted in the establishment of a Muslim bureau of astronomy in Peking in the thirteenth century.

But more: Professor Roshdi Rashed has shown that Arab mathematicians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries achieved mathematical innovations that were not accomplished by Europeans until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He lists the following achievements, above all in the work of al-Karajî (d. 1129) and al-Samaw'al (d. 1174): "the extension of the idea of an algebraic power to its inverse after clearly defining the power of zero, the rule of signs in all generality, the binomial formula and the tables of coefficients, the algebra of polynomials, and above all, the algorithm of divisibility, and the approximation of whole fractions by elements of the algebra of polynomials." In addition to this, the Arab-Muslims of this same period pioneered three forms of experimentation, in optics, astronomy, and medicine. In short, it is gravely mistaken to suggest that nothing of any intellectual significance was created in the Muslim world in the medieval period, roughly 850 to 1350--or that whatever creative advances did occur there were produced by non-Muslims.

Likewise, it is highly misleading to suggest that it was the cultural elites fleeing Islamic oppression who then "rescued" all of this knowledge for the West. Current historical scholarship tells a very different story, which includes many European intellectuals who traveled widely in the Muslim world and gained access to a great variety of Arabic manuscripts in science and philosophy and translated them into Latin, as they realized that Europeans had much to learn from this bounty of knowledge. There are many well-known books by contemporary historians of Arabic-Islamic science in which all of these widely understood facts have been spelled out--but to which neither Neuhaus nor Bat Ye'or makes any reference.

Speaking sociologically, Fr. Neuhaus has also entirely neglected the many elements of change and reform now going on in the Muslim world. One of the most notable concerns the feminist movement in the Muslim world, where there are highly trained and deeply knowledgeable intellectuals bravely mastering all the ancient scholars' sources--hadith and Quran--for the purpose of new interpretations of the Islamic message as it applies to women. Many of these individuals would be happy to advocate the notion of "Equal before Allah," the title of a collection of Muslim feminist writings (by Fatima Mernissi and Riffat Hassan) of the highest quality now appearing in Indonesia.

Likewise, there are many other intellectuals who are striving to understand the Islamic message as it applies to this day, and such efforts include a brave new hermeneutical study of the Quran by Mohammad Shahrour. Nor should we overlook the significance of the work of the prolific Sudanese scholar, Abdullahi An-Na'im, who calls for Islamic reform based on a deep knowledge of Islamic law. Other studies suggest that the traditional scholars--the ulama--are being displaced by a great wave of educated Muslims, fully fluent in Arabic, who, probably for the first time in the history of Islam, outnumber the traditional scholars. This is likely to have a positive influence on Islamic thought in the future.

Lastly, I would bring to the attention of your readers the extraordinary legal reforms recently brought about in Malaysia, whereby the Qadi courts--the religious courts--have been dramatically upgraded and made intellectually equal to the secular courts in every respect, while eliminating the many disparities between male and female legal rights. The legal scholar Donald Horowitz has discussed these changes in some detail. None of this sounds to me like Huntington's phantom "clash of civilizations."

If the Institute on Religion and Public Life truly wishes to engage Muslims in a dialogue, perhaps it should start with a radically revised image of contemporary Islam, while issuing a much more cordial invitation to Muslims and others to participate in it. In my view, tremendous good could be accomplished for the world if Muslim intellectuals from all over the world were brought together here and elsewhere to participate in prolonged intellectual dialogue in a truly open public sphere.

Toby E. Huff
Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology
Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth
North Dartmouth, MA

The writer is author of The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 2-8

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This data file may not be used without the permission of FIRST THINGS for resale or the enhancement of any other product sold.

This article can be found on the Leadership U website.


Part 3. A Christian-Muslim Exchange

Islamic Encounters

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

"Venomous diatribe." "Hateful xenophobia." "Doing the work of Adolf Hitler." "Agitating for a new crusade." "Obviously mentally ill." Such were among the sentiments expressed in response to my review in the October 1997 issue of Bat Ye'or's important new book recently published in this country, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press). In my comment I indicated the difficulties in establishing a respectful dialogue with contemporary Islam, but it really need not be this difficult.

To be fair, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) should not be taken to represent contemporary Islam. The attack initiated by CAIR produced dozens and dozens of letters from as far away as Australia, some of them accompanied by hundreds of signatures of Muslims who claimed to be deeply offended by the review. The campaign stopped short of issuing a fatwa against the editors, although there was a little nervous joking around here about who would get to open the mail. The campaign obviously had the aim of intimidating into silence anyone who dares to say anything less than complimentary about things Muslim. Just as obviously, such an effort is entirely counterproductive.

Many of the protesters made a point of saying that they were converts to Islam, usually from Christianity, and some had most uncomplimentary things to say about the religion they had left. The spokesman for CAIR stressed, in several telephone conversations, that he is an American-born convert and resents my "instructing" him on how we conduct civil conversation in this country. For all I know his family came over on the Mayflower, but the fact remains that issuing press releases and flooding the internet with condemnations of those with whom one disagrees is not the best way to nurture a constructive dialogue.

The first press release called on the Catholic Church to investigate, disown, and otherwise do something about this renegade priest who had written not nice things about Islam. Amazingly enough, the monsignor who is general secretary of the bishops conference responded to CAIR by distancing the conference from the review in FT and offering assurances of the bishops' exquisite sensitivity and eagerness for dialogue. Quite predictably, CAIR seized upon his letter as the occasion for another press release trumpeting that the bishops of the United States had repudiated my review of Bat Ye'or, which no doubt came as a surprise to the bishops. As it happens, several bishops had indicated to me their appreciation of the review, and my own bishop, Cardinal O'Connor, was entirely supportive. Nonetheless, the letter from the conference secretary created a little flap in the Catholic press. It's not every day that the office of the bishops conference issues a review of a book review or, however inadvertently, makes itself party to an attack on a priest who has editorially displeased a bullying interest group. Of course I am assured that that is not what was intended, but it is a curious little episode that should not be entirely forgotten.

As the Bat Ye'or book underscores, there are very important questions to be engaged in the complicated relationship between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and I will return to them in due course. Meanwhile, one hopes that everyone will learn from this incident a little something about what is not helpful. For instance, Imam Michael G. Kilpatrick, national president of the Islamic Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, announces his group's support for the CAIR initiative: "We call upon people of the Catholic religion and people of conscience worldwide to condemn Mr. Neuhaus for his extremist attitude toward the religion of Islam and Muslims here in the United States." Strong stuff, that. It is manifest that most of the protesters had not read the item in question, having simply reacted to the alert sent out on the internet (more than half the protests were e-mailed), and quite a few are confused about who wrote the offending article. Some demanded that "Mr. Neuhaus" editorially condemn the author and never let any such thing appear in FT again.

"Beware and be Forewarned . . . "

Almost all deplored my woeful ignorance of Islam, on which I readily admit I am no expert, and many charged Bat Ye'or, a distinguished scholar, of not knowing what she was talking about. "The fact that she says she is opposed to Muslim-bashing shows that that is what she is doing," one writer insists. It is hard to get an acquittal under such rules. Various parties contributed to my education by sending stacks of books and pamphlets on Islam, and one suggested that I visit a website devoted to educating Americans on Islam, which I did. There I found a discussion of terrorism in which I learned that those who "set themselves up as enemies of God and the Muslims . . . are themselves at least mild terrorists." "If they do so then Muslims have a duty to oppose this force--with force if necessary and if it will be effective and decisive. In this way only those who are themselves 'terrorists' have cause to fear the use of force by Muslims." That was not terribly reassuring.

Mark Bober writes, noting that his Muslim name is Umar Hussam Al Deen and describing himself as "a white American Muslim and former member of the 'Catholic' Church." "I assure you that you are not dealing with the poor folk duped into trinitarianism every other Sunday. Now beware and be forewarned that Islam is on the rise in America as well as around the world." This was typical of many warnings that there is big trouble ahead if we non-Muslims don't watch our step. Ayman Sokkarie of the Islamic Center of South Florida declares, "Let me tell Mr. Neuhaus that Islam will be re-established whether he feared that or not and the world will see how just Islam is and how false all other ideologies are. It is just a matter of time."

Most of the writers expressed particular outrage that I had written that there are probably about two million Muslims in the U.S., half of them being American-born blacks. "Everybody knows," I was instructed, that there are eight million, and one writer asserted that it is "well documented" that there are twelve million. Needless to say, no documentation was supplied. In their 1993 book, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, based on the largest survey of religious self-identification ever conducted, Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman reported that there were 1.5 million Muslims, half being American-born blacks. (They discovered that many people with "Muslim sounding" names turned out to be Christians who had fled the Middle East.) Taking subsequent Muslim immigration into account, my guesstimate was "about two million." Quite possibly there are considerably more. Nobody knows, and the U.S. census does not ask about religion. A reporter at a national newspaper tells me, "We usually say four to six million, which has the merit of warding off protests from Muslim groups. But nobody really knows." The majority of protests received here claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion both in the U.S. and the world, a claim that is very doubtful on both scores. But I am impressed by how important this "triumphalist" reading of history is to many Muslims.

In the review I alluded in passing to the significance of this discussion for politics in the Middle East. For the protesters, this factor is of much more than passing importance. A petition of protest from the Islamic Center of Long Island includes more than three hundred signatures and declares, "It is obvious that such anti-Muslim writers [Bat Ye'or and Neuhaus] want to poison the relations between Muslims and Christians in America and the world for their racist political agenda in Palestine." The echo of the infamous UN resolution on Zionism as racism is, to put it gently, troubling. The reactions to FT are divided between those who present Islam in America as nothing more problematic than another participant in the gorgeous mosaic of American religion and those who present it as a world-conquering force arrayed against everyone else, especially against Jews and their Christian dupes.

For some, Islam is the historic champion of liberal tolerance. One almost expected those letters to be signed by John Stuart Muhammad Mill. For instance, "Islam completely did away with slavery and treated all human beings as equal, despite their race, color, creed, or origin, and treated everybody the same, with respect and brotherhood, from the very beginning, i.e., the seventh century, whereas the West could not do so till the nineteenth century." The key role of Muslims in the African slave trade over the centuries and slavery today in places such as Sudan are conveniently overlooked, as of course is the entire history of "dhimmitude" so carefully documented by Bat Ye'or and others. One may sympathetically try to understand the reasons for such defensive denials of the undeniable, but it does not help the discussion of these matters.

Against Self-Deception

A few protests acknowledge that some Muslims have at times done some bad things, but then quickly add that that has nothing to do with Islam. This, too, is understandable. Some Christians have done horrible things over the centuries, and we Christians insist that Christianity should not be judged by what they did--or by what some still do. The facial symmetry between Islam and Christianity in this regard does not bear close examination, however. Contra secularist claims, the liberal democratic tradition is in largest part the product of Christianity, especially the Christian imperative of self-criticism and openness to the other. It is no accident, as our Marxist friends used to say, that liberal democracy and constitutional government arose in cultures that understood themselves to be Christian. To date, there have not been similar developments in Islamic societies. This does not mean that Islam is necessarily incompatible with liberal democracy, although some who protested what I wrote do not disguise their contempt for democracy and other alleged diseases of what they view (with some justification) as the decadent West.

These are excruciatingly difficult questions. We cannot allow our consideration of Islam to be dominated by much that is today done in the name of Islam. At the same time, we deceive ourselves and do not help anyone if we join those Muslims who excuse or deny what is done. An editorial in Strategic Review of Fall 1997 notes that, of the almost one billion Muslims in the world, there is a radically politicized faction, and in that faction there are those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives by suicide in waging what they believe to be a war of the children of light against the children of darkness.

"Where the United States is concerned, the cost has already been unacceptably high. The suicide bombing of the Beirut-American headquarters in October of 1993--241 U.S. servicemen killed; Pan American Flight #103 at Lockerbie, Scotland, where 250 were killed; the Khobar Towers residence at Dharan in Saudi Arabia--19 Americans killed and 118 wounded; the World Trade Center in New York, where 19 were killed and 500 injured. And now, by sheer good luck, a frightened Middle Easterner led the New York police to two suicide bombers, complete with five bombs. One was killed while attempting to detonate his bomb. Their aim was to attack the busiest subway junction in New York City. It is plain that the terrorism crescendo is growing. It has reached the United States and we are doing too little to control it."

Of course it is necessary to guard against alarmism, but it would be foolish to deny the legitimate concern about Islamic terrorism (meaning terrorism committed by Muslims and claiming to be inspired by Islam) both here and elsewhere in the world. At this point a discussion that is already dicey gets dicier. The executive director of CAIR, Mr. Nihad Awad, writes me: "In view of Mr. Emerson's past history of false and defamatory attacks on the American Muslim community and on CAIR, we would consider the irresponsible repetition of his unsupported charges as evidence of 'actual malice' on your part. Similarly unsubstantiated charges from other sources, published with reckless disregard for the truth, would be regarded in the same light."

A Matter of Credibility

I expect the lawyers would tell me that CAIR is threatening to sue if I mention charges by Mr. Emerson and others. Since I may have already crossed the line by quoting Mr. Awad's letter, I might as well go ahead--with utmost responsibility and careful regard for the truth, and certainly without malice. Steven Emerson has written in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere about the entanglement of Muslim groups in this country with terrorist groups, such as Hamas, in the Middle East. I have read with care a packet of materials sent by CAIR, attacking Emerson and others who allege that CAIR is, at least indirectly, supportive of terrorist activities. I have also read with care the charges against CAIR. Satisfactorily sorting out all the details would require that I devote the rest of my life to the study of Middle East politics and the connection with certain Muslim groups in the U.S., and even then I would surely not get to the bottom of things. My best judgment is that the critics of CAIR are credible and that CAIR is less than candid about its connections with the politics of the Middle East. Confidence in CAIR is not enhanced by its hamfisted efforts to intimidate and silence its critics.

Turning from CAIR itself to the criticisms generated by its campaign, one is struck by the importance of the Jewish factor. In some instances, this is chiefly a matter of animus toward Israel. Others, however, give expression to a poignant desire for Muslims in this country to be recognized, along with Christians and Jews, as full partners in America's religious triumvirate. This, too, is perfectly understandable. Some were upset by my reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many were outraged by my speaking of "the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades." In fact, it is pointed out, Muslims have in several parts of the country joined local Jewish-Christian dialogues, and everyone gets along very nicely. I do not doubt it.

There are dialogues and then there are dialogues. Some Jewish-Christian dialogues are exercises in niceness, pretending that differences make little or no difference. To such dialogues Muslims, or for that matter almost anyone else, can be invited without difficulty. Then there is dialogue that is in service to the truth, and the truth is that Islam is not to Christianity what Judaism is to Christianity. For starters, Islam is not, as Judaism is, an integral part of the Christian understanding of the story of salvation. In view of the attention given in these pages to Jewish-Christian relations, I assume readers can readily come up with other differences that make a big difference. Does this mean there should not or cannot be Muslim-Christian dialogue? The answer is emphatically in the negative. Such dialogue becomes increasingly imperative, and we must hope it will become increasingly possible with Muslims who recognize the wrongheadedness of reactions such as that orchestrated by CAIR.

An Opening Comment

Among the numerous responses to the internet alert is a letter by AbdulraHman Lomax, an American convert to Islam in Sonoma, California, and addressed to other Muslims. "Scholarly and respectful replies to the article [in FT] would be helpful. Hostile or disrespectful comments would be counterproductive and harmful to the image of the Muslim community." After responding to specific assertions in the article, Mr. Lomax notes my statement that "I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive relations with Islam" and he writes, "We are obligated to take Neuhaus at his word. Perhaps we can take his article as an opening comment in a dialog which will ultimately clear the air. Before they can develop a deep communication, friends sometimes must air the grievances and fears that have been kept hidden, and, in the light of open conversation, these can be relieved." The people at CAIR forwarded his letter. One wishes they had followed his counsel.

Not long ago, Prof. David F. Forte of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law testified before a congressional committee on Islam and human rights. The subject was what some call Islamic fundamentalism (an unhappy term that imposes an American Protestant experience on Islam), what others call Islamism (a term mainly limited to scholars), and what yet others refer to simply as radical Islam (which, it is objected, is radically un-Islamic). It is the Islam of terror and despotism, and, whatever it is called, Forte says it is a heresy. "It has gained the reins of power in Iran and the Sudan. It threatens Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia. It cows a timid government in Pakistan to accede to its program. It persecutes minorities, particularly Christians. But its real objective is to steal the soul of Islam, to change that great religion's tradition of art, culture, learning, and toleration into its own image of rigid and tyrannical power."

It is for Muslims to protect "the soul of Islam." We can help by not equating Islam with the evil done in the name of Islam, while, at the same time, not letting an "ideal" Islam obscure the Islam of historical and contemporary fact. We can help by recognizing the diversity within Islam and the claims made for its more humane social expression in places such as Indonesia, while not forgetting that country's massacre of Christians in Timor, and not forgetting the politics of Islam in the lands mentioned by Prof. Forte. We can help by reaching out to Muslims here in America, in the hope of engaging within the bonds of civility our commonalities and differences, always, as St. Paul says, speaking the truth in love. And we can help by informing ourselves through the reading of books such as Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 80 (February 1998): 62-78.

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