Obama Crusades for a New, Tolerant Islam

The president's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was a combination of profound insight and PC inanity.

By John Zmirak Published on February 5, 2015

If you’re listening to talk radio and reading the news, you have heard about this already: In the same week that ISIS burned a man alive for offending Islam, the President of the United States got up to warn us about the threat of Christian crusades and antebellum slave-owning. Go ahead and do your face palm, Tweet about “moral equivalency” and get your irritation out of your system.

Yes, this comparison by the president is anachronistic and silly — like a Danish gang member in 2015 citing the Vikings as a legal precedent for “raiding” a liquor store. But the National Prayer Breakfast this year served to highlight some deep and enduring problems in how we moderns understand religion and its role in our common life.

These troubles are not merely the result of “low-information” voters skimming the news, or of shallowly-educated, secular reporters getting the basic facts wrong when they report on religion. There is plenty of that, Lord knows, as any believer who has read MSM coverage of his own faith can testify. But there’s more than ignorance at play here.

The tone of mainstream media reports on orthodox Christianity (and sometimes orthodox Judaism) is often willfully aggressive, while accounts of Islam bear the careful deference due any religion whose zealots have been known to attack magazine headquarters with AK-47s. The result is that the Catholic church’s investigation of radical feminist nuns is reported as a worse assault on the dignity of women than thousands of “honor killings” across the Islamic world.

What’s ironic is that this double standard is profoundly insulting not to Christians but to Muslims. The subtext is that we in the West don’t expect much of “those people,” and so we’re willing to explain away or cover up their atrocities — while we hold “our own” folk to the gender inclusion standards prevalent at Wesleyan University.

Meanwhile, the genuine radicals in Islamic circles use this double standard to quite literally get away with murder.

The connection between faith and coercion is, of course, a complex one, summoning shameful memories for members of nearly every religious faith — with the possible exception of Quakers and Mennonites. Not even the Dalai Lama can avoid such a reckoning. His predecessors stretching back hundreds of years were absolute theocrats who ruled over millions of cringing serfs, while Buddhists are persecuting Muslims in Myanmar to this day.

In his speech, Obama rightly condemned the recent atrocities committed by the Islamic State, and violence in Pakistan against religious minorities. He even asserted the right of people to “change religions”—implicitly challenging the many Muslim nations that punish with death “apostasy” from Islam.

Obama also kept a reasonable balance in addressing the appalling attack in Paris against the editors of the cheerfully, callously blasphemous publication Charlie Hebdo — affirming the right of non-believers to mock the faithful, without condoning the content of those blasphemous attacks. No Christian who has seen the pornographic depiction of the Trinity that once appeared on Charlie Hebdo’s cover will have much trouble with what Obama said on this issue.

What was disturbing in Obama’s speech was his recycling of the happy-clappy falsehood that religious violence aimed at unbelievers is a “perversion” of Islam, rather than the literal application of the text of the Q’uran, of the relevant hadiths, and of the official interpretation given those sacred texts by the highest religious authorities in every important Islamic institution around the world.

It is easy to understand why frightened Westerners bleat about Islam as a “religion of peace.” They think that if they say it often enough, the millions of Muslims in our midst will look past the literal meaning of texts such as “slay the unbeliever” to find a “spiritual sense” that’s somehow compatible with life in the liberal West. Happily, many Muslims actually have opted for a more peaceful and tolerant mode of Islam, but it doesn’t follow from this that all Holy Books are equally oriented toward tolerance and peace. Even a cursory reading of the Christian Gospels and the core texts of Islam will demonstrate the unequivocal opposite.

Thus, a hunted Jew or “heretic” in medieval Italy might have told his Catholic persecutors that their behavior was not what Jesus would have wanted, and the poor dissenter would have been absolutely correct in saying so. Such persecutions clearly departed from the teachings of the Christian Scriptures about treatment of neighbors and loving one’s enemies.

But such distinctions are apparently lost on our president. Obama warned Christians not to “get on our high horse and think [intolerance] is unique to some other place, [but to] remember during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

“In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” he said. “It is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency, that can pervert and distort our faith.”

There is a profound insight there, no doubt borrowed by a smart speechwriter from an introspective Christian. That “sinful tendency” is all too real, and it rears its head in every sphere of human endeavor, and every kind of group — religious or secular. A perceptive reader will recognize it as Original Sin, though other names have been given to it which are also apt, including “the Will to Power.”

At the same time, it is deeply unfair to act as if arrogance, self-assertion, intolerance and cruelty were somehow more associated with believers than unbelievers — a claim that would have puzzled the clergy rotting in Hitler’s Dachau, or starving in Stalin’s gulag. The callous profiteering of American abortionists and pornographers today outweighs the combined misdeeds of every clergyman in American history, going back to 1492.

But what of Islam today? It took hundreds of years, the shattering of Christendom into thousands of denominations, the murderous Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolution and the rise of 20th century totalitarianism for the last major Christian church, at Vatican II, to renounce religious persecution as a tool of promoting orthodoxy and shepherding souls to heaven. We must ask ourselves: What will it take for Islam to renounce the words and practices of its founder — whose example Muslims consider morally perfect, and normative for believers? (For this reason, Khomeini’s Iran lowered the marriage age for girls to 9, since Muhammad married a girl at that age.)

Will the words of Obama move them? Will life in the West gradually infuse them with the profound respect for the human person that lies at the heart of Christianity — and lead to an Islamic version of Vatican II? While Christians who opposed the Inquisition, witch-trials or the segregation of Jews could pick up the Gospels and find that their faith’s founder was non-violent, loving and disdainful of worldly power, Muslims who read their scriptures find something very different. They find there a warrior-king who forged an international empire based on faith and the eradication of polytheists and the utter subjugation of Jewish and Christian dhimmis.

Those who are attracted to such an example have little reason to embrace Western maxims of pluralism and tolerance. Those who are repelled have a hard time explaining why they remain Muslims.

It would have been correct for Obama to speak to such realities, just not politically correct.

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