“The assumption that there is a sharp divide between Good Islam and Bad Islam is a comforting [but] also a dangerous illusion. In the short run, holding such an assumption will make us feel good about our broad-mindedness. In the long run, we will be very sorry for having played this dangerous game of let’s pretend.”
“Good Islam vs. Bad Islam”, by William Kilpatrick, Crisis Magazine, May 4, 2016:
The February 11 edition of FrontPage Magazine contains an insightful piece by Daniel Greenfield on our failed counterterrorism strategy. Our policy, he wrote, is based on an artificial distinction between “Good Islam” and “Bad Islam.” Our aim, he continued, is to “convince Good Islam to have nothing to do with Bad Islam.”
Ironically, as Greenfield observed, “our diplomats and politicians don’t verbally acknowledge the existence of Bad Islam.” Instead they claim that the “bad Muslims” (the terrorists) aren’t really Muslims at all. To paraphrase various world leaders, the terrorists have “nothing to do with Islam,” “speak for no religion,” and have completely “perverted” the meaning of Islam. Technically, they’re not bad Muslims, because they’re no kind of Muslim. At least, that’s what the theory says.
In other words, our strategy is based on a circular argument: if you start with the premise that Islam is a peaceful religion, then those who break the peace cannot, by definition, be followers of Islam. They must be motivated by something else: grievances over imperialism, lust for power, or even some kind of psychological defect.
What Greenfield says about government policy toward Islam can also be applied to Church policy. Church leaders are also in the habit of saying that terrorism is a “perversion” of Islam. They claim that the jihadists use religion as a “pretext” to disguise other motives. And, on occasion, they have even urged Muslims to be more faithful to Islam. For example, when speaking to a group of Muslim refugees in Rome two years ago, Pope Francis told them to study the Koran as a means of expelling bitterness, and to follow the faith of their parents. Here’s what I had to say on the topic a year ago:
Church policy should be aimed at weakening faith in Islam. This the reverse of the current policy which is built on the assumption that there is a good (authentic) Islam and a bad (inauthentic) Islam and we should therefore reinforce Muslims’ faith in “true” Islam and encourage them to go deeper into it.
This, as I argued at the time, is an impossible project: “‘Good’ Islam and ‘bad’ Islam are as intimately related as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde always predominates in the end.” Or, as Greenfield puts it:
Good Islam and Bad Islam are two halves of the same coin … we’re trying to convince Dr. Jekyll to help us fight Mr. Hyde. And Dr. Jekyll might even help us out, until he turns into Mr. Hyde.
The proof of this thesis lies in our fear that the slightest criticism of Islam will force the moderates (good Muslims) to join the extremists (bad Muslims). But if Muslims can so readily convert from Jekyll to Hyde, can there have been much difference between the two in the first place? Nobody worries that an insult to the Catholic Church or even to Jesus is going to suddenly turn moderate Catholics into masked terrorists. The almost universal fear that moderate Muslims can be easily driven into the radical camp is an acknowledgement that the distance between the two is not that great.
In short, Good Islam and Bad Islam are not separated by a gulf; they are on a continuum. Many of the things that the “bad” Muslims do are done by our allies, the “good” Muslims. Thus, as Greenfield points out:
Our Good Islam allies in Pakistan fight Bad Islam’s terror, when they aren’t hiding Osama bin Laden. Bad Islam in the Islamic State beheads people and takes slaves and Good Islam in Saudi Arabia does too… The moderate Iranian government signs a nuclear deal and then the extremist Iranian government calls for “Death to America.”
Is the moderate Muslim nothing but a mirage? Not exactly. But there are probably far fewer of them than is generally assumed. It’s true that at any given time the vast majority of Muslims are peacefully going about their business. But “not-currently-killing-others” is a poor gauge of moderation. If the peaceful Muslims subscribe to more or less the same tenets as the “bad” Muslims, they should not be assumed to be moderate.
Numerous polls have shown that the majority of Muslims worldwide are supportive of extreme (and therefore immoderate) sharia punishments such as amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, and death for apostasy. There is also widespread support for blasphemy laws, which are often used as an excuse to persecute Christians. In Pakistan not long ago, 100,000 people attended the funeral of a man who murdered an opponent of the blasphemy laws. The victim was what we would call a moderate but his murderer seems to have been far more honored. About the same time, representatives of more than thirty-five religious parties and groups called for the revocation of a new Pakistani law protecting women from abuse. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Senate rejected a gender equality bill because Muslim senators said it was un-Islamic.
Such “moderate” Muslims may not be willing to kill, but they may be willing to support those who do. After the bombings in Brussels, it was revealed that the terrorists enjoyed wide support in the Muslim district where they were hiding. And, according to a New York Times article, ninety percent of teens in Muslim districts considered the attackers to be “heroes.” On the other side of the Channel, a poll of UK Muslims revealed that two-thirds of them would not report someone with terrorist ties to the police.
Are there any Muslims who would qualify for the more rigorous definition of moderate? There are indeed. But they are nowhere near a majority and their moderation often reflects a lack of commitment to mainstream Islamic beliefs. Many moderate Muslims are like “cafeteria Catholics.” They pick and choose those aspects of Islam that suit their inclinations and ignore the rest. For them, as for many a liberal Christian, religion is often a personal construct that bears little resemblance to the official version. While we may look upon such people as good Muslims, their co-religionists often look upon them with contempt.
Why, in the face of so much evidence, do so many in the West and in the Church believe that mainstream Islam is a model of moderation? The answer, in a word, is “projection.” When John Kerry says “the real face of Islam is a peaceful religion based on the dignity of all human beings,” he is projecting Western and Christian values onto a culture that is decidedly anti-Western and anti-Christian. When he says that “our faiths and our fates are inextricably linked,” Kerry, a Catholic, may be influenced by the many Catholic prelates who hold a similar view.
Catholics who hold to the more optimistic view of Islam like to think of themselves as champions of multiculturalism. But far from being sensitive to diversity, they are, in reality, being ethnocentric. In short, they assume that everyone else is just like them. They look at Islam through Catholic eyes and conclude, contrary to 1,400 years of evidence, that Islam is just an exotic form of Catholicism. They seem convinced that the vast majority of Muslims share the same concern for social justice, human dignity, and women’s rights that Christians have.
Again, this is an ethnocentric and even egocentric way of viewing the “other.” As Greenfield puts it, “moderate Islam isn’t what most Muslims believe. It’s what most liberals believe that Muslims believe.” Moderate Islam or Good Islam is an invention—“an imaginary religion that they imagine Muslims must practice because the alternative is the end of everything that they believe in.”
The assumption that there is a sharp divide between Good Islam and Bad Islam is a comforting illusion, but it is also a dangerous illusion. In the short run, holding such an assumption will make us feel good about our broad-mindedness. In the long run, we will be very sorry for having played this dangerous game of let’s pretend.
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction; Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com