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No More Crusades: Rethinking Islam in the West

Dr. Bruce B. Lawrence, a professor or religion at Duke University, writes of the need to shift the Western mindset on Islam. In doing so he critiques both Christian and Muslim perceptions of each other, laying out his own vision for how the religions can interact more harmoniously in the future. The article concludes with a response from an American Muslim and Dr. Lawrence's reply.

By Bruce B. Lawrence

"No More Crusades" first appeared in the Harvard International Review, Volume 25, Issue 4, Winter 2004 and appears here with the author's permission. Permission to further republish the article is not granted in this publication and must be arranged with the author.

No enmity is natural. Each arises from a specific set of historical circumstances. We in the West have fallen prey to the idea that Islam was not just a historical foe but also a natural enemy of Europe and later of the West. It was not so with the "red" enemy. When the Communist threat ended in 1989, the antagonism between the United States and the USSR turned into a quasi-alliance. By the mid-90s there was no longer a red menace; instead, there was a green enemy: Islam. Always lurking in the shadows, it emerged as a real foe during the Iranian Revolution of the late 70s. The band of bearded ayatollahs and their leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, became the clerical counterweight to a secular, pro-Western, capitalist world order. Yet neither Iranians, Libyans, Lebanese, Sudanese, nor Iraqis proved to be the real menace. When September 11, 2001 brought the green enemy out of the shadows and into the headlines, it was a non-state Saudi related group that attacked the United States in the name of Allah. Al-Qaeda seemed to justify the worst fears of crisis managers and civilization watchdogs. There was an Islamic enemy, with a Saudi face and modern weapons that was real and determined. September 11 seemed to confirm the major theories proffered in the aftermath of the Gulf War: Samuel Huntington's clash between civilizations, Bernard Lewis's replay of the Crusades, and Francis Fukuyama's reemergence of fascism with an Islamic face.

Since September 11, the "Clash of Civilizations" theory has dominated and incorporated all others. It seems to explain Muslim-Western hostility as both ancient and irreversible. It is neither. This enmity is made by humans and thus can be unmade by humans. The historical events over the past millennium can and must be retold from a broader perspective that includes multiple interpretations of the same events and their sequels. There is no single Christian view and no single Muslim counterpart; both exhibit an internal variety.

What is needed to advance beyond pseudo-dialectics and interminable warfare is a double critique - internal and external - that must begin with the symbolic event that haunts the memory of Christians and Muslims alike: the Crusades. The Crusades began over 900 years ago and still continue today. Pope Urban II's call for Crusaders in 1095 was not an isolated message from the European Middle Ages, but an awakening of Christendom to the threat of Islam. To quote Pope Urban II, "In our days God has fought through Christian men in Asia against the Turks and in Europe against the Moors." By Crusader logic, Christians must fight on and on, in every continent and in every age, against Turks, Moors, Saracens or their 21st century collective successors: the Muslims.

Protestant and Catholic Crusaders

Who are today's Crusaders? They are both Protestant and Catholic. News headlines have featured the raw provocations of evangelicals, from the Southern Baptist President who derided Muhammad as a pedophile to Franklin Graham lampooning Islam as an evil, misguided religion. Until 1995 the Californian Baptist minister Tim LaHaye was best known for his leadership of the Christian Family movement. He has now become the bestselling author of a whole line of apocalyptic fiction, including Left Behind brigade. LaHaye, of course, does not project Left Behind as fiction but as fact that the end will come. It will come in the near future and it will be marked by a soul harvest. The few who survive the Tribulation, the AntiChrist, and the Armageddon, will be saved, while the rest will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

What does all this have to with Islam? Ostensibly nothing. The goal of the Christian Right is purely religious: to reclaim Jerusalem for the Jewish people, as in the 1999 title of sixth installment of Left Behind: Assassins: Assignment Jerusalem, Target Antichrist. Yet the fact behind this fictional account involves real people. The real people to be targeted are Arabs. It is Arabs who occupy Jerusalem and mark it as the territory of the Antichrist. It is the Arabs who represent the forces of evil. It is Arabs who have to be killed in the Battle of Armageddon. Only with the removal of the Arab/Muslim beast can the Holy Land be reclaimed for the People of God.

By comparison to Protestant doomsday sayers, Catholic sabre rattlers may seem almost anodyne in their view of both the last days and Arab adversaries. But are they? Consider the Vatican. It has often been suggested that the current Pope is well disposed to Muslims in general and to Palestinians in particular. But Papal pronouncements also include beatifications; one recent beatification, announced in April 2003, elevated an obscure Capuchin monk/priest named Marco d'Aviano. Brother Marco is alleged to have inspired the now famous cappuccino coffee, but he was also a seventeenth century Capuchin monk, and he helped to defend Vienna against a Turkish assault in the 1680s. The Turks were Muslims and they were allegedly defeated because Brother Marco rallied both Protestants and Catholics to oppose the Muslim invaders. The Turks, defeated in the 1683 Battle of Vienna, never again besieged Western Europe. In his April pronouncement Pope John Paul II celebrated that moment as a Christian victory. He lauded Brother Marco as a true Crusader, asserting that he had helped defend the "freedom and unity of Christian Europe," reminding today's Catholics that the continent is founded on "common Christian roots." The Holy Father's commendation had an unspoken trailer: "Muslims are not welcome; go home, to Asia or to Africa, but depart from Christian Europe!"

Beyond papal pronouncements there are Catholic polemicists at large. William F. Buckley leads the pack. No sooner had the U.S. completed its invasion of Iraq than Buckley wrote a provocative article for The National Review (27 May 2003). It was entitled "Onward, Christian Missionaries!" echoing the words of the 19th century Anglican hymn, "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" In the article Buckley declared that in present day Iraq, Protestant missionaries are right to tell Christian men and women "to spend their lives, and even to risk them to pass on the word of the Christian faith." A special difficulty, laments Buckley, "is that the moderate Muslim voice arouses the antagonism of the militant, which antagonism seeks satisfaction, from time to time, in mayhem. The wrath of the militants is feared not only by non-militant exegetes of the Koran, entire governments are intimidated." The only safe haven for moderate, as for militant, Muslims is conversion to Christianity.

Islamist rhetoric as Crusader logic

Crusades are reciprocal warfare: Crusader logic is matched by Islamist, or Islamic extremist, rhetoric. Islamists claim to speak on behalf of eternal Qu'ranic values, even though they do not speak for all Muslims, nor do they speak in unity. Militant Muslims are a fractious minority. The sine qua non of Islamic belief is "No god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God." Once a person has made that affirmation with total sincerity, he or she becomes a Muslim. For most Muslims, the very next obligations after professing faith are peaceful: prayer, fasting, almsgiving and perhaps pilgrimage. Islamic observance is a rigorous daily regimen, yet for the militant minority of Muslims, it is not enough to say "No god but God." For the militant Muslim minority, the necessary sequel to professing the faith is defending the faith. Instead of daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting or pilgrimage, the next step required of all believers in Allah and his last prophet, Muhammad, is to wage war, holy war, or jihad.

Militant Muslims are in effect Crusaders for Allah. They are everything to the Crusaders that the Crusaders are to them: unflinching warriors of the faith. They embrace the term jihad as holy war. They project themselves as holy warriors. Other Muslims contest that definition of jihad as too narrow and bellicose. Yet militant Muslims prize jihad as the flip side of faith. First you believe, and then you fight for what you believe. Holy war must be waged against all unbelievers. This is the model and the legacy of the earliest Muslims. Those who first accepted God's revelation to Muhammad and became Muslims were compelled to wage war against their adversaries. They fought to ensure the toehold of Islam in Arabia. For militant Muslims, there is no separation between 7th century Arabia and 21st century America. Both are marked as realms of ignorance. Both are battlegrounds, pitting good against evil, them against us.

And so the creed of Crusaders - to kill the infidel Saracens - is matched by the creed of militant Muslims - to kill the infidel Christians. Both creeds attract warriors for the faith and each side is willing to preach and to act on behalf of their sacred trust against all enemies. Their enemies are not just outside others; they are also internal dissenters. Indeed, it is the internal dissenters who are the most dangerous. For militant Muslims, as for Christian Crusaders, the first task is to confront co-religionists who claim to be believers but are unwilling to fight for the faith. They are viewed as hypocrites, backsliders, heretics.

If religion is about peace, neither Crusaders nor their Muslim counterparts are religious. They seek war, not peace. The cardinal tenets of apocalypticism are war in the name of God, my faith over your faith, the end of the world in our lifetime. They will not go away soon. And in the aftermath of September 11, currents of religious hatred and violence that threaten to engulf our world seem to justify fear of Muslims, and to mark Muslim fanatics as the enemy auguring the end of time

We need to have religion unshackled from dyads and diatribes. We need to move beyond proclaiming the end of the world as certain because God decreed its end, and instead consider making the world a better place for pagans as well as pietists, for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, but also for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Why? Because Mystery is the first and last name of the divine and demanding humility rather than hubris is the litmus test of faith. The true problem is neither Islam nor Christianity; the enemies are not those who identify as Muslims or Christians. The enemies are those who claim religion as the basis for conflict, faith as the motive for violence, and Armageddon as the outcome of war. The enemies are the militant defenders of the faith, at once blinkered and blinded to divine mystery. It is not a mock war, but rather a serious, protracted war, and those on the sidelines need to move beyond their own religious labels and grapple with the militants of both camps, reclaiming a truth, which is also a truce, beyond their grasp.

Beyond Crusades and Crusaders

Since September 11 images of Islam have proliferated in the media in the United States. The very act of bombing the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was theater. Those planes were meant not only to destroy buildings and to kill people, but also to send a message to the largest possible audience through modern media. The message was as stark as it was simple: the United States is the enemy of Islam, and the core of the United States is business that is privileged by the capitalist world system. And so the attack on the United States had to be an attack on its core, its center: the World Trade Center.

The print and TV and cyber media have all dutifully gotten the message. It would be impossible to catalogue all the ways in which Islam has become an evil religion, and Muslims the enemy of the US since September 11. But the most thought provoking essay has come from a leftist turned social critic, Paul Berman. Berman's essay "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" appeared as the New York Times Magazine's lead story on March 23, 2003. It focused exclusively on the lessons to be learned from a single dissident Egyptian scholar and activist, Sayyid Qutb. According to Berman, the power of Qutb's prose derives from his mixed education, which combined traditional religious training in Egypt with modern secular education, including a stay in the U.S. during the late 40s when he earned his M.A. from the Colorado State College of Education. Berman touches on many issues, but he keeps returning to the central difference between East and West: unlike their US enemies, Muslim zealots have no fear of death; in fact, they welcome death, especially the death of martyrdom. "The death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood," writes Qutb. "Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life. There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live."

For Berman the martyrdom logic of Qutb is not just scriptural, based on an interpretation of certain verses from the Holy Qur'an. It is also cultural, reinforced by political events of the past fifty years. While Bin Laden and his suicide warriors came from Saudi Arabia, their broader roots came from Egypt via Afghanistan. Al- Qaeda, notes Berman, was created in the late 1980's by an affiliation of three armed factions - bin Laden's circle of Afghan Arabs, together with two factions from Egypt, the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the latter led by Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's top theoretician. The Egyptian factions emerged from a school of thought within Egypt's fundamentalist movement, the Muslim brotherhood, in the 1950s and 60s. At the heart of that single school of thought stood, until his execution in 1966, a philosopher named Sayyid Qutb - the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide.

Berman has no answer for the martyrdom logic of Qutb. "The terrorists speak insanely of deep things," he laments. "The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse." It is left to philosophers and religious leaders to speak up, loud and clear. The challenge, in other words, is to articulate what it means to be antiterrorist, to defend religion as a force for collective good and preservation of life, and not as a motive for violent destruction and the end of the world. We must be willing to engage the enemy, and to fight the real enduring battle of ideas.

To fight a war to end war, the contestants must gather like-minded Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists together against other religionists equally drawn to divine guidance but mistakenly intent on apocalyptic doomsday brands of scriptural truth.

Berman's diagnosis is apt but it needs a prescriptive sequel. If the real battle is the battle of ideas, then surely there must be Muslim warriors who also join in this combat. To fight a war to end war, the contestants must gather like-minded Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists together against other religionists equally drawn to divine guidance but mistakenly intent on apocalyptic doomsday brands of scriptural truth.

In this anti-Armageddon battle a formidable Muslim warrior is the Shi'i activist and university professor, Abdul Aziz Sachedina. For Sachedina, as for a growing number of Muslim pluralists, the Qur'an must be read as a whole book of coherent intent and not as a scrapbook of conflicting messages. The largest intent is inclusive: to marshal all humankind on the path to peace, and that message prevails despite the contexts of aggression that evoked Chapters 8 and 9. The Qur'an presents Islam as the affirmation and the summation, not the denial, of earlier religions. Even later Medinan Chapters declare that Muslims have no monopoly on divine grace, either in this world or the next (2:62, 5:69); they also invite Jews and Christians to join Muslims in emphasizing the essential similarities in their beliefs (e.g., 3:64).

In his most recent book, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism(Oxford 2002), Sachedina shows how Qur'anic ideals are formulated and also how historical developments rather than initial intent has limited their application. Again and again, the key interpretive move is not to dwell on individual verses but to read and understand all verses in their full context. To counter the verses used by medieval jurists to rationalize discrimination against non-Muslims, Sachedina discloses how the Qur'an projects an overriding concern with justice, as in the following passage:

God does not forbid you, with regard to those who do not fight you because of your faith, nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them, for God loves those who are just (60:8).

The linchpin of Qur'anic logic is the universal scope of humanity. There may be separate tribes and languages, races and polities, yet all humankind was created to be one community, linked together and sustained by prophecy:

The people were one community (umma), then God sent forth the Prophets, good tidings to bear and warning, and He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide among them touching their difference. (2:213)

Difference is therefore not social waywardness, but divine prescription. Within the overarching notion of a common community, above all marked through Abraham, the Transcendent intended there to be differences among the children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Those who could have been one united community are instead destined to be linked communities, each with its own law and its own way, in order that God might be the judge. In the meantime, believers are instructed not to fight each other, but to compete with one another in good works.

Looking Ahead

In all, there are three broadly divergent perspectives that claim the mantle of Muslim legitimacy. First, there are the ones whom Berman and other media mavens depict as the militants. For them Islam is self-empowerment in a world where Muslims are bereft of power. They invoke links to a scripturalist purity that they alone defend; they assert its truth in order to confront a shattered present with apocalyptic solutions. Only Armageddon is the answer, the route is different but the answer is the same, for Muslim terrorists as for their Christian counterparts. Second, there are devout Muslims who do identify with their own past but see that past as sacrosanct and not subject to debate or to change. Democracy for them is a Western power play, human rights are a US-backed ploy of the United Nations, women's liberation or feminism is an American subversion of Muslim women's dignity. These traditionalists are no less anti-American than terrorists, but they are opposed to physical violence or armed conflict except when authorized by extant Muslim governments. And finally, there are pluralists. Are they a minority? Perhaps. But they are not a belligerent minority like the Jihadists or Islamic extremists. Sachedin, with other Muslim pluralists, prize universal values, ascribing them to Qur'anic sources and applying them to contemporary contexts. The pluralists may be in the minority of all Muslim spokesmen but they are a zealous, restless minority. We do need religious voices to speak to the current fault line between East and West, Islam and America, and it is Muslim pluralists who are the philosophers and religious thinkers with whom non-Muslim others can and should make common cause.

To make a plural world safe both for democratic citizens and religious rivals demands nothing less than a hardy inter-faith coalition of good-willed Abrahamic advocates. The only victory that counts in the war on terror will come off the battlefield, in the minds and hearts of moral combatants who recognize their internal enemies as well as their external foes. All those who seek to be winners in this, the ultimate war must first acknowledge the power of Crusader logic: Catholic irredentism remains the clone of Protestant rapturism, and both are reinforced by media negativity as well as by political expediency re Islam and the Muslim world. These institutional blockages limit the vistas for spiritual utopianism. Without attention to the fault lines of human caprice, including those within the churches, there can be neither peace nor its necessary concomitant, sustained Muslim-Christian cooperation, which also includes Jews and Buddhists along with others dedicated to pursuit of the collective good. It is a jihad, in the truest sense, a struggle against our own demons as well as others. It prohibits a Crusade. Indeed, it will only succeed when Crusades, Crusaders and Crusading have been understood for what they are: a bygone chapter of world history not to be repeated, except as a cautionary tale, for our own and for all future generations.

Bruce B. Lawrence is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion at Duke University.

Anonymous response from a professed Muslim:

Are pluralists who ascribe 'universal values' to "Qur'anic sources" really legitimate scholars (or philosophers) in the eyes of most Muslims? Is this sort of crude, inaccurate categorization really any more helpful than the 'Clash of Civilizations' disourse that Professor Lawrence so rightfully criticizes in his essay? Is it any different than our own President's "you're with us or against us attitude"? (You're either a pluralist with us or an anti-American Militant/unthinking traditionalist.) And how many of us still believe such a think as 'universal values' really exists?

Dr. Lawrence's reply:

I did not use my three category distinction to provide a demographic profile of all Muslims. That would be absurd, and I am sad to see such reductio ad absurdum logic from someone as good hearted as the questioner appears to be. My point, which is echoed again and again in many circles (Omid Safi, Progressive Muslims, could and should be added to Hashmi, Sachedina, Taji- Farouki for written sources), is that there are many ways of reckoning Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or pagan) axes of loyalty, belief and practice. Above all, pluralism is not a nonsense term to be paired with Huntington's CLASH as though one were equivalent to the other, any more than war and peace are finally the same, equivalent options for every religion. I am hopeful of common sense and visionary courage among ALL Muslims, not just the tolerant few, but I continue to believe that pluralism as a pragmatic option is better than closet fideism or spiritual jingoism, whether under the cross, the crescent or the torah.

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