An Encyclical on Islam?

An Encyclical on Islam?


It was heartening to hear Pope Francis denounce the Armenian genocide even though he knew it would incur the anger of the Turkish government (which denies the genocide charge). Dr. Lawrence Franklin, who was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, took the occasion as an opportunity to pen an article suggesting the Pope might do more to combat radical Islam.

One of his suggestions is for the Pope to issue an encyclical condemning radical Islam. This, says Franklin, could be modeled on two encyclicals issued by Pope Pius XI—Mit Brennender Sorge and Divini Redemptoris. The first condemned the Nazi doctrine of racial supremacy, and the second was a criticism of communist ideology. Among other things, Franklin suggests that the Pope could “challenge Islamic leaders to institute specific reforms which would root out theological justification for violent and intolerant behavior.”

Considering his generally accommodative attitude toward Islam, it’s difficult to imagine Francis taking such steps. But supposing that a pope or a bishops’ conference were to “challenge Islamic leaders to institute specific reforms,” what should those reforms look like?

Michael Weiss, the author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror observed that ISIS warriors had a casual attitude towards death because of their certainty that their jihad activities would be rewarded in a paradisiacal hereafter. We often hear that we must defeat the ideology that inspires ISIS, but virgins-in-paradise is a central part of that ideology.

So, should Islamic leaders be challenged to “root out” this theological justification for violence? And how likely is it that they would comply? After all, the virgin-reward theme can be found in numerous passages in the Koran (yes, I’ve heard the argument that “virgins” really means “raisins,” but I don’t find it very convincing). It’s not just ISIS warriors that yearn for the Islamic version of the afterlife.

The problem with rooting out jihadist ideology is that its roots are firmly wrapped around the Koran, the Hadith, and the Sira (The Life of Muhammad). Speaking of the latter, it’s a central tenet of Islam that Muhammad was the perfect man in every respect. Muslims are expected to model their lives after his example. But that is what ISIS and similar groups claim to be doing. If you’ve read the Sira, you know that it’s filled with accounts of raids, mass beheadings, and assassinations ordered by Muhammad. As recorded in detail in the Sira and in the Hadith, Muhammad also sanctioned the rape of captives and ordered that women and children be sold into slavery. So the jihadists have an excellent case that they are merely following in the founder’s footsteps.

In short, Muhammad himself is a large part of the “theological justification for violent and intolerant behavior.” Will Islamic leaders renounce Muhammad and root him out of their religion? That’s not likely to happen, since the validity of the faith stands or falls with him. Can Muslim teachers and imams work instead to soften the image of Muhammad by emphasizing his kinder, gentler side? Yes, they can and they have. In many popular accounts of Muhammad’s life, he is portrayed as a saintly figure who spent much of his time caring for widows and orphans and bringing freedom to the oppressed.

But it’s exactly because some Islamic leaders have diluted Islam in this fashion that they command little, if any, respect from the jihadis. Jihadists claim that such people are apostates who have betrayed Islam and corrupted its pure message. In his article, Franklin says that the Pope “could call upon Muslims of good will to summon their courage to recapture their faith.” But recapturing the faith is exactly the project to which jihadists and the theorists of jihad have dedicated themselves. In short, how can you write an encyclical condemning radical Islam without condemning Islam itself?

There may come a time for a pope to issue an encyclical on Islam, but now is probably not the right time. Right now, Catholic leaders (and that includes the Pope) do not seem to have a clear understanding of Islam or what, if anything, distinguishes it from so-called “radical Islam.” Many Catholic leaders still subscribe to the good Islam/bad Islam dichotomy which absolves Islamic theology of any connection to Islamic extremism and intolerance. As long as they persist in this erroneous belief, they will continue to be surprised when “good” Muslims suddenly morph into “bad” Muslims.

An encyclical at this time would only further muddy the already murky water which surrounds the subject of Islam. It will take some time for the Vatican to gain the clarity necessary for such an important undertaking. But it’s becoming painfully clear that a change of course is needed. The current policy of treating Islam as though it were simply a rough-around-the-edges variation on the Judeo-Christian tradition has failed completely.

If and when an encyclical is to be issued, it could, as Franklin says, be modeled on Mit Brennender Sorge or Divini Redemptoris, but that would mean critiquing the totalitarian nature of Islam as Pius XI criticized the oppressive nature of Nazism and communism. That would also mean talking frankly about what is wrong with Islamic theology—showing where it goes off the tracks and itemizing its misunderstandings about the nature of God and man. Such an encyclical would also have to condemn many aspects of sharia law as being opposed to the goodness of God and the good of mankind. This would be in keeping with Pius XI’s condemnation of the Nuremburg racial laws. The blasphemy laws and apostasy laws should come in for particular condemnation.

An encyclical on Islam could acknowledge that in different times and places, Muslims have succeeded in humanizing Islam to some extent. But it should be noted that this softening of Islam was largely the result of contact with other cultures and religions, not because of any virtue inherent in Islam itself. Credit should also be given to those individual Muslims who by following their consciences and the laws of the true God written on their hearts have managed to rise above the crueler aspects of their faith.

This may sound harsh and, to some ears, triumphalist. However, the primary purpose of an encyclical is to teach, not to please. Encyclicals are often written to address crises about which there is a good deal of confusion. They are meant to shed light on disputed issues. Moreover, the primary audience for an encyclical is Catholics, followed by other Christians. An encyclical on Islam should not be written with the aim of avoiding offense to Muslims, but with the aim of preventing harm to Christians who, because of confusion about Islam, are susceptible to conversion or interfaith marriage, or who, because of ignorance of its tenets, are unprepared for attacks and persecution.

Would such an encyclical go against the spirit of the times? It certainly would, but then, so did Mit Brennender Sorge, Divini Redemptoris, Humanae Vitae, and numerous other encyclicals. Would it offend many Muslims? Again, yes. But then, Mit Brennender Sorge offended many Germans (recall that it was published in early 1937 when Nazism was popular not only in Germany, but also among many Western elites). It could be countered that although there were only 70 million citizens in Nazi Germany, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. And—how does the question go—“do you want to criticize the faith of 1.6 billion people?” Well, yes we do. And the reason that we should criticize this rapidly growing and aggressively proselytizing faith is that, if we don’t, it may soon become the faith of 7.6 billion people—that is to say, the entire population of the planet.

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