Western ‘Tolerance’ is Contributing to Islamic Radicalization

By Tom Gilson Published on April 15, 2018

“Islam is a religion of peace.” So say an army of Western heads of state and diplomats. But it looks like such “tolerance” encourages even more Islamist intolerance.

That finding comes via Ian M. Hartshorne and Stackey Philbrick Yadav’s report on their own research in the Washington Post. Yes, Western leaders meant well, they inform us. Their efforts, however, turned out not only ham-handedly ignorant but dangerously counter-productive. The authors are political scientists who have written scholarly books on Islam in the Middle East and Africa.

How Did We Not Know This Sooner?

So, how did so many Western leaders not realize the harm they could be causing? Probably because the West has failed to take Islam seriously for what it is, a major world religion. We’re full of hasty reassurances that Islam is a “religion of peace.” It comes out sounding a lot like what the West wants Islam to be. What would happen if we dug in and learned what Islam wants to be, in itself?

How did so many Western leaders not realize the harm they could be causing?

Western leaders have tried to define it from the outside, according to Hartshorne and Yadav. Angela Merkel, for one, says that terrorists from Muslim-majority countries have “falsely understood Islam.” When he was Secretary of State, John F. Kerry called ISIS radicals “apostates.”

“By engaging in a war of accusations,” say Hartshorne and Yadar, ”the United States entered a centuries-old debate about who counts as a real Muslim, with potentially violent reprisals for those who don’t.”

Let us not speed too quickly through the first part of that. Violent reprisals are bad enough. But why on earth are U.S. diplomats getting bogged down in a centuries-old religious debate? The answer, I would suggest, is that they probably never even noticed that was what they were doing. They’re stuck in thinking in familiar political terms, rather than taking Islam seriously as a religion.

Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland illustrates this effect in his book Kingdom Triangle. He describes a session with Daniel Pipes, an expert on Islam and (at the time) chief advisor to President George W. Bush.

Pipes’s “central thesis,” says Moreland, was that we “must stop seeing our war as one against Muslim terrorists.” Instead, as Moreland reports it, Pipes said we should consider it a battle against “an extremist form of Muslim ideology that has to be fought ideologically.” Therefore, said Pipes, we must “persuade Muslims to adopt the views of Western democracies.”

To which Moreland responded drily that “Western democracies … tolerate religion as long as commitment to it does not rise above the level of a hobby.”

“Western democracies … tolerate religion as long as commitment to it does not rise above the level of a hobby.”

Not Just an Odd Hobby

Indeed, right here at home, many of our leaders tend to treat Christianity as an irrelevant — if somewhat annoying — hobby, a pastime we use to amuse themselves. Why would we expect American elites to regard Islam as anything more substantial? It’s just another religion, right? And religion doesn’t really matter, does it?

Wrong. It’s not “just another religion.” It’s no hobby, either, casually amenable to outsiders’ redefinitions, like a knitting club that might consider doing crochet instead. It’s also no mere political system, easily swayed by outsider’s expectations. It is its own major world religion. It has a deep self-understanding, and a long history as a distinct faith. It’s not a “religion” in the sense western elites carelessly define religion.

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We do Islam no favors by trying to redefine it in terms foreign to itself. We do ourselves no good, either. Hartshorne and Yadav warn us:

State-led efforts to articulate an explicitly “moderate Islam,” can spur precisely the kind of extremist competition it seeks to avoid. When Saudi Arabia asserts itself as the main source of religious leadership, research shows how this may actually prompt extreme groups to compete with it. If this is true of states that legitimize themselves in relation to Islam, consider the ramifications when it is the United States or Germany endorsing a particular religious interpretation.

It’s Not “Tolerance” to Treat Islam in Western Terms

I wonder whether they realize that for Muslims, Islam comprises a definite set of convictions, which they hold to be true about ultimate reality.

Again, do Western leaders realize they’re endorsing anything religious at all? Do they realize that for Muslims, Islam is a deep set of convictions that they believe fits ultimate reality? As such, those beliefs must have downstream effects in politics, history and of course doctrine. They won’t easily be swayed by the rhetoric of German politicians or American Secretaries of State. Especially when that rhetoric seeks to define Islam in terms that serve the interests of others.

The West shows contempt for Islam when we treat it as if it were a version of Western liberalism. Western leaders owe Muslim the respect of learning their beliefs, and how those beliefs determine their view of reality. And they need to do it before slapping hasty feel-good Western assurances on a religion they still don’t really understand.

Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor

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  • James

    Which Islam? Sunni? Shiite? Wahhabi? Sufi? Alawite? Druze? Do you even know the difference?

    Lumping all Muslims together is like lumping liberal Episcopalians in with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

    • My point is that Western leaders haven’t paid attention to all these differences.

      • Andrew Mason

        Do liberal Western leaders know or care about the differences within Christianity? The elite consider Christianity an irrelevant annoyance so why should they be expected to be more proactive in regards to Islam? The differences between liberal UMC members and conservative SBCers for instance are very real, but perhaps all they see is that the former support their agenda, while the latter are a bunch of redneck bigots who vote the wrong way? If liberals cannot comprehend the chasm between sides of a culture they’ve been raised in, why should they have any knowledge, or authority, about a culture they know nothing about? Can you be militantly ignorant?

        • You’re right. The “hobby” comment applies to Christianity as well. Western leaders don’t “get” religion in any of its forms.

      • James

        My point is that you are making the exact same mistake.

        • Bryan

          I disagree for the obvious reason that Mr. Gilson’s article was written to draw the conclusion that we (in general) have not taken the time to understand the differences with in Islam. So the question “which Islam?” is moot. The obvious answer is all of them.

          • James

            You too.

    • Kevin Carr

      It is the dominant strains Shiite and Sunni (with the Wahhabi dominating the sect) that are the most problem. Islam itself does not and will not play well with others. In it’s end time eschatology believes the Mahdi cannot return unless they are fomenting chaos and ridding the world of the unbeliever. Listen to the words of those that have lived it, Kamal Saleem, Nonie Darwish, Brigitte Gabriel, Mosab Yousef.

  • Mr Cleats

    Religion of pieces.

    Body parts, shrapnel, charred remains, etc.

  • Kathy

    This article is a timely one for me. I participated in a Gospel-centered family event yesterday in a relatively poor area of town, complete with all kinds of entertainment, games, free food and shoes, etc. A woman was loudly proclaiming the Gospel message for all to hear the entire 4 hours, being very forthright…no sugarcoating. There were a number of large Muslim families present and of course, they were treated as well as all other attendees. That puzzled me since, as a Christian, I would never attend an event where Islam is “preached”. I got the impression that their religion was possibly a “hobby” for them.

  • Bryan

    We have forgotten what religion is because we no longer understand the definition of religion. I think if we better understood, then it would be easier to see the religion of the far left for what it is: a religion as strict and intolerant of others as many other deistic religions. It’s not just the people who worship God or gods who are religious. Everyone worships something, even if it is ultimately only themselves.

  • Trilemma

    If the absolutely intolerant are given tolerance, they will most likely see it as weakness or surrender.

    Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. – Karl Popper

  • NO NO NO!!!!! Tolerance does NOT lead to radicalization!!!! All it leads to is the presence of more IZSLIME. There are no radicals in izslime! ALL of them are jihadists they are simply at different levels. The isis are at the top and all others strive to be there. IZSLIME is the danger we simply must stop calling any of them radicals. EVERY muzslime wants you DEAD, if we cant see that we will meekly allow them to take over. NO muzslime should EVER be allowed to live among civilized humans!!!!

    • Trilemma

      What is your final solution for all the Muslims currently living in the United States?

      • LEAVE, get out and don’t come back. Take your stinking stupid vile sharia and go home.

        • Trilemma

          Go home?? For all the Muslims who are natural born citizens, the United States is home. Would you deport your fellow citizens? And what about the approximately 3500 Muslims serving in the United States military?

          • Of course for ALL every single muzslime is an enemy to the constitution, they ALL desire sharia, every muzslime in our military should be removed immediately. They will be deadly dangerous if we have to fight any of the izslamic nations. Please educate yourself to the ABSOLUTE danger of muzslime among us. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones!!! We could be only months out from civil war ourselves.

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