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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