by Raymond Ibrahim
During the pope’s recent Mideast visit, the media reported that he has “deep respect for Islam.” That exact phrase appeared in the Associated Press, AFP,BBC, Jerusalem Post, Washington Times, and Al-Jazeera.
Yet he said no such thing; instead, he mentioned his “deep respect for the Muslim community.” There’s a world of difference between respecting a religious group and respecting their religion, and the pontiff knows this.
As a Christian — indeed, as pope — by evoking his “deep respect” for Muslims, Benedict probably meant that Muslims, who believe in one God, pray, fast, and follow a strict set of moral principles, are, from a religious perspective, worthy of “deep respect.”
Even the non-religious uphold this position. In fact, that is what makes the secular West unique: the right to follow any (or no) religion is guaranteed, is “respected.”
Due to this, however, a subtle conflation has come to dominate our way of thinking: respect for people’s right to believe any religion has somewhere along the line — and thanks to political correctness — morphed into respect for the religion itself (excluding, of course, cheek-turning Christianity, the secular West’s “punching bag”). It was therefore only natural for the (increasingly sloppy) media to portray Benedict’s respect for Muslims as respect for Islam.
But is this logical? Does respecting a person’s right to believe necessarily lead to respecting what they believe?
Consider: billions of non-Muslims adhere to other religions or are simply atheistic; by default, this means they do not believe in the veracity of Islam. A Christian following Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, cannot also believe that the Koran, which fiercely denounces the Trinity, is the word of God, while an atheist believes all religions and their scriptures are not divinely inspired (i.e., all euphemisms aside, are built on lies).
At the same time, however, Christians and atheists cannot “empirically” prove their position; faith is required — even for the atheist (accounting for the origins of the universe requires “faith”). As such, it is only logical that non-Muslims should respect Muslims’ right to believe what they will — and, ideally, vice versa.
But short of truly believing Islam’s first premise — that the Koran is the verbatim word of God and Muhammad his messenger — how can one “respect” Islam itself, considering it is entirely built around this assumption? In other words, if you yourself believe a particular system of belief is built atop lies, how can you also respect it?
If the Koran was not dictated by an angel to Muhammad, what is it? If Muhammad was not sent by God, who was he? As with all who profess to be men of God, Muhammad must have been either who he said he was (prophet of God) or else the antithesis: a false prophet, a fraud. The first possibility is not a logical option for active non-Muslims. Nor are silly “postmodern” mantras — “just because I do not believe something does not necessarily mean it is nottrue, in its own existential way” — very meaningful.
Of course, this position applies to all religions and their founders. Without believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God, everything contained therein becomes suspect, including the person (and nature) of Jesus. As Christians themselves have long maintained, Jesus can only be viewed as lord, liar, or lunatic — nothing in between. Likewise, Muhammad was either messenger, mendacious, or moonstruck. Admittedly, most people are not comfortable thinking out such thoughts to their logical conclusions; they’re happy to end it with an “it’s not for me” attitude, without any further ado.
So why scrutinize Islam and its founder in the first place? Because unlike all other major religions, Islam is daily associated with violence, beheadings, misogyny, child marriage, and hostility for infidels and their ways. Pseudo-respect shields it from open analysis.
Moreover, though non-Christians must ultimately conclude that either Jesus or (as Islam maintains) the Gospel writers were deceivers or delusional, the fact remains: As with most religions, Christianity revolves around the spiritual, the metaphysic; true or false, it does not impose itself on politics. Islam, on the other hand — as embodied in Islamic law — is politics, indeed, dominates all aspects of human affairs.
As such, Islam’s connection to “unpleasant” daily headlines becomes clear once non-Muslims allow their thoughts to develop logically and sequentially. Stripped of its hagiographic veneer, the history of Islam is the history of a warlord and his followers who conquered, subjugated, and plundered much of the old world, insisting that God told them to do it. For Muslims, it is only logical to rationalize this 1,400-year jihad as a means to an end — the establishment of Islamic law, from a Muslim perspective, the embodiment of all good. Non-Muslims do not have this luxury and must interpret the origins and essence of Islam a bit more cynically.
But why this philosophical exposition in the first place? To show that, while there have been countless talking heads, books, debates, seminars, and hearings dedicated to evaluating whether Islam is intrinsically at odds with the modern world, good old-fashioned common sense could have put the matter long to rest.
After all, do you really find it shocking that a comprehensive way of life, where right and wrong are meticulously based on the improvised “law” of a seventh-century warlord — who, according to your own unspoken conclusions, was an opportunistic liar or deluded megalomaniac — just so happens to be riddled with complications, especially vis-à-vis the 21st century?
This seemingly simple consideration has profound implications. Former Al-Azhar Muslim scholar and imam Mark Gabriel abandoned his faith by simplymusing on such matters:
Did the true God of heaven give him Islam, or did Muhammad invent it? … Did Muhammad express the heart of the true, merciful God, or did he merely express the dark corners of his own faulty human heart? The implication shook me to the core: If the true God never spoke to Muhammad, then I am a slave to the manipulative imagination of a desert tribesman from the seventh century! These were dangerous thoughts, and I had crossed a dangerous bridge in my mind that all Muslims are taught to walk away from.
In closing, let us respect everyone’s right to believe what they will; however, let us at least be sincere to our own convictions. It’s one thing to let political correctness stifle free speech; it’s quite another to let it stifle the development of our very own thought processes, to the point that we fail to connect such clear dots in the privacy of our own minds.
And while we’re at it, let’s not distort the well-measured words of the pope, who most surely knows the distinction between respecting the Muslim community and respecting Islam.
Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda