By Jack Kerwick
As Robert Spencer, Pamela Gellar, and others have shown, as far as Islam is concerned, neither this infamous attack nor others before and since are anomalous. Rather, from its origins in the seventh century to the present, from Muhammad to bin Laden, Islam has been animated by a violent impulse.
Authors defending this thesis invariably allude to the military conquests of the Prophet, the particularly harsh punitive measures by which Islamic societies deal with transgressors of Islamic law, and any number of passages from the Koran calling for the death of unbelievers. And to be sure, all of this supports their case.
But while such writers may have shown that Islam sanctions violence and oppression, to my knowledge, no one has yet to question, much less explain, why this is so.
Yet when we consider that, historically, geographically, and, most importantly, theologically, Islam is remarkably continuous with both Judaism and Christianity, we should see that this is a question that must be raised. After all, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are of one mind in affirming the divine origins of the Hebrew Scriptures, monotheism, the personal nature of God, God’s justice and compassion, the creation of the world, the orderliness and goodness of the world, and the irreducible individuality of the human person.
Despite these fundamental similarities, it is the followers of Islam alone that have never stopped slaughtering in the name of their God. Why?
To answer this, I think that we must shift focus from the substance or content of Islamic theology and toward its form or style.
As some critics have plausibly argued, monotheism, being a sort of one size-fits-all concept, expresses a moral universalism that, like all such universalisms, can and has bred arrogance and intolerance in those who endorse it. Judaism and Christianity, however, have tempered this vision. Islam, though, has not. In fact, it is precisely in the Muslim’s objections to Judaism and Christianity that this becomes most clear.
From the Muslim’s perspective, neither Judaism nor Christianity is truly monotheistic. Judaism has always revolved around the historically and culturally-specific experiences of a particular people—i.e. “the Chosen People,” the Jews. And Christianity, with its doctrines of the Blessed Trinity (God is Three Persons in One) and the Incarnation (God entered the flux of history by becoming a man in Christ), compromises monotheism even further.
Islam, on the other hand, steadfastly eschews the messiness of all of the contingencies of time and place with which Judaism and Christianity are ridden. It refuses to trouble itself with “the earthiness” in which its predecessors are mired. That this is true is further gathered by the glaring structural differences between the Koran and the Bible.
The Bible is a historical narrative. It is this narrative framework that constrains the range of interpretations that the text lends. It is the Bible’s sequential ordering of events, its meticulous attention to details, to context, that informs its message regarding the One, True God.
The Koran has no narrative. Rather, it is essentially a collection of divinely issued moral precepts that, devoid as they are of context, are meant to pertain to all peoples—everywhere. In ignoring the context of its emergence and development, Islam also neglects the contexts of those upon whom it seeks to impose itself.
This explains why Islam has not, cannot, assimilate to any institutional arrangements that allow a separation of some sort or other between the eternal and temporal spheres. It is this that accounts for why Islam appears incapable of co-existing for long with any and all potential competitors.
The robustness, indeed, the aggressiveness, of Islam’s universalism stems from the highly abstract character of its theology. That this is the case is borne out by considering that Islam’s disregard for context, for particularity, is shared by the least likely suspect: the modern Western secular ideology.
From at least the time of the eighteenth century to the present, the Western world has been besieged by one sort of utopian fantasy or another that has left blood in its wake. In fact, it was precisely in response to the abstract ideology of the French revolutionaries that modern conservatism arose. The great Edmund Burke credited “the armed doctrine” of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality,” with fueling the Jacobin’s lust for “universal empire.” Had he lived, Burke would have doubtless seen that all “doctrine” that is divorced from the nit and grit of everyday reality, whether that of the Jacobins, socialists, communists, or fascists, is potentially “armed.”
And he would have recognized that Islam, with its abstract ideology, and regardless of its focus on God, can only be armed to the teeth.