Friday, August 15, 2014

Pope Francis, Islam and jihad

A troubling passage in Evangelii Gaudium

Andrew Bieszad, a scholar on Islam, seems to believe Pope Francis is teaching error — or, at least, opiniones intolerata — about the “Ishmaelites”:

For Islamic scholars, there is a statement in the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, which is particularly troubling:
Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence. (p. 253)
As the situation in the Middle East escalates, and the violence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) spills rivers of innocent Christian blood, this statement seems incongruous with reality.

From Bieszad’s perspective, Francis is apparently taking an attitude not taken by our forefathers in the faith; to assert this, Bieszad not only quotes the defiance spoken by a big handful of martyrs, but also theological heavyweight Saints John Damascene, Thomas Aquinas, and Alphonse Ligouri, not to mention latter-day hero Hilaire Belloc. If Bieszad doesn’t go so far as to call the pope a heretic, he does manage to imply that Francis is both wrong and a Neville Chamberlain-type appeaser.

The funny thing, though, is that the Islamic scholar doesn’t directly dispute Francis’ assertion, “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” with any citation of the Koran or mainstream Islamic scholars. Rather, he seems content to let the juxtaposition of Francis’ words and ISIS’ deeds do the work for him.

Another funny thing: When I began writing about eleven years ago, I was initially writing to defend the Catholic faith against the slanders and misunderstandings of Protestants and non-believers. Now, I spend an increasing amount of time correcting fellow Catholics. And thereby hangs a point.

Clusters and cleavages in religious groups

Bieszad correctly notes:

It seems that there has never been so much division within the Church over basic doctrine. Catholics today argue over long-established teachings which, as recently as fifty years ago, were accepted without dissent. This division appears to permeate the Church, and can be seen not only amongst the laity, but also within the ranks of Catholicism’s highest prelates.

Exactly. If you only look at broad political outlooks, you have at least two or three clusters among self-identified Catholics in the US. Factor in frequency of Mass attendance, liturgical traditionalism, and doctrinal orthodoxy, and the two clusters break apart into further clusters, especially as doctrinal adherence fractures the common understanding of the “liberal/progressive” and “conservative/libertarian” political categories. Nor are such cross-cutting cleavages a feature only of American Catholicism; analyze other Christian communions, look across the sea at our Western confreres, and you’ll find statistical clustering. Even non-Christian groups have factions.

Then why, I wonder, are we supposed to treat Muslims as if they all (at least implicitly) believe in conversion by the sword?

The lesser jihad

Jihad, in its broadest sense, also refers to the struggle to achieve moral and spiritual perfection, and is known as the “greater jihad”. In fact, jihad has various shades of meaning and application within the lives of believers, most of which are internal to the Islamic community and even personal, while in reference to non-Muslims it also has non-violent applications. Unless you recognize this distinction, the statement “All Muslims believe in jihad” will be misleading.
Salafi not shown. (Copyright: Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us know of two major divisions, Sunni and Shi’a; some of us know of a third, mystic sect called Sufi (or Sufic Islam). But within these major divisions are lesser clusters, or schools of thought. Most schools stress the internal and non-violent aspects of jihad; jihad bis saif,jihad by the sword” (aka "the lesser jihad"), only takes its ominous implications with Salafi Muslims, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

As Catholics, we know — or ought to know, at any rate — that certain claims of Islam are incompatible with our Faith: one or the other can be true, but not both. So far as they remain ignorant of Christianity, salvation is yet possible for the just Muslims; yet they need to be evangelized as does every nation (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 841, 846-848; Lumen Gentium 14-16). We need no list of quotes from saints and martyrs to illustrate this for us, nor is the Pope claiming that Islam is “true” in that sense.

The key phrases in Bieszad’s citation are “true followers of Islam” and “authentic Islam and proper reading of the Koran”. These phrases have nothing to do with Islam’s conformance to the objective truth of God and the universe. Rather, so far as he can without getting too complex, Francis is apostrophizing ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and (by extension) Salafi Islam as “false Muslims” and their emphasis on the “lesser jihad” a moral and spiritual corruption of Islam.

Distinctions and beliefs matter

Is this distinction important to us? Yes!

First, the primary reason we evangelize is that our beliefs are especially important so far as they motivate our behavior. An interpretation of Islam that prompts mercy, charity and justice, in absence of authentic Christian teaching (“invincible ignorance”), is a Muslim’s best hope for heaven.

Second, as Christian Caryl points out in Foreign Policy, “The history of past attempts to create Islamic states is not particularly inspiring;” in fact, the ones that have succeeded did so under limited conditions that secured the people’s consent. The odds are that, even without Western intervention, the Caliphate will eventually rot from within and collapse; even now, Islamic counter-terrorists are beginning to form and fight back.

Beliefs matter; as distinctions between Christian and Muslim beliefs matter, so do those between Salafi and non-Salafi Islam.

As a refreshing change, Bieszad’s argument isn’t openly disrespectful, as was Adam Shaw’s hit piece on FOXNews. However, it’s a straw-man fallacy: he spends over a thousand words disproving something Francis never asserted. If there’s any cause for concern, it’s in Bieszad’s and other conservative Christians’ failure to make the proper distinctions.

What should we do?

Before we do anything — before we start advocating any policy — we need to stop talking bloody nonsense about Islam. Specifically, we need to stop talking about Muslims as if they were a monolithic, unvariegated mass, and Islam as if it were the same thing to all who profess it. Being Catholics and Christians doesn’t excuse us from doing our homework on the subject.

Bridgette Gabriel of Act! for America recently made the valid point that, in all the countries of the 20th century that saw the rise of a murderous, tyrannical power, the “peaceful majority” couldn’t stop them; they were essentially paralyzed by their own conscientiousness. Nevertheless, I don’t think we’ve yet reached a stage where we have to throw out all distinctions and adopt a kill-them-all-and-let-God-sort-them-out mentality. Even when Islam was at its most ferocious, along the borderlands Christian and Muslim could find peace and harmony.

Finally: Pope Francis may not be as dadgum brilliant as his two most immediate predecessors … but that doesn’t make him a dummy. Let’s stop trying to teach him his job, stop waiting for him to pronounce the shibboleth correctly (Judges 12:5-6), and, literally for St. Peter’s sake, start listening for once to what he’s really saying.