A Religion of Violence—but Not Terrorism

The original title of this post was “Wahhabi Islam and Snake Handling.” Alas, I have not come across any snake-handling imams. I just happened to be reading two little books at the same time: The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror by Bernard Lewis and Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. Despite vast differences of genre and topic, I noticed a thread connecting these two books. The short version: both Wahhabi extremism in Arabia and snake handling in Appalachia arose out of disenfranchised communities left in impoverished ruins thanks to the devastating effects of the modern industrial world. Both movements claim that they return to more ancient and purer versions of their respective faiths. Yet these reactions against and rejections of modernism are wholly new—as “reactionary” movements tend to be—and lack any precedent in the history of Islam or Christianity.

I put that post on the backburner while finishing Salvation on Sand Mountain (which, by the way, is fantastic) and never managed to come back to it. Wednesday’s horrifying massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris brought Islamic terrorism back to the fore of my mind. The regrettable editorial response by National Review made me think more specifically of Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam. What follows, then, is an adaptation and revision of my original, never completed piece—but with the snake handling dropped altogether. Before I get to the heart of Lewis’ book, I want to focus for a moment on the National Review editorial that provided the impetus for coming back to the topic.

The editorial in question makes a few good points. The editors point out that Islamic terrorism threatens non-radical Muslim leaders as much, if not more, than it threatens Westerners. They also brought out an insight that became mostly lost as the events of Benghazi became eclipsed by the political storm that is #Benghazi: an implicit justification of terrorism as a response to blasphemy ran underneath the State Department’s disengenous attempt to blame the attack on an obscure blasphemous flimmaker. Perhaps most significant for the topic at hand, the editors note that, despite the tendency of Western democracies to venerate freedom of speech and expression, free speech almost always loses whenever speech clashes with security.*

Much of the editorial, though, is more troubling. Among other things, NR recommends “winding down multiculturalism and encouraging patriotic assimilation” as well as “ensuring that schools, including ‘faith schools,’ conform to such national democratic values as education in science for both sexes.” Well, sure, let’s do educate both sexes in science. But I suspect there’s a lot more lurking in that ominous phrase, “national democratic values.” I suspect, in fact, that my own American history course doesn’t always inculcate my students with such ideals. For instance, I prefer the not-especially-democratic John Quincy Adams over his very-democratic-and-as-it-turns-out-quite-nationalistic successor, Andrew Jackson. There’s little in American history more national and democratic than the Indian Removal Act and the subsequent “Trail of Tears,” after all.

Nationalism is a scary creature—and an unpredictable one, at that. I’m not sure that the editors at National Review appreciate the malleability of “national democratic values.” The editors seem not have considered a great many educational restrictions that could be made under the auspices of “national democratic values.” I can’t imagine, for instance, NR endorsing that Christian “faith schools” conform to the “national democratic value” of educating all students about the arbitrary social construction of gender.

National Review’s embrace of “patriotic assimilation” flows from their view of Islam as a religion divided into a majority of peaceful Muslims and a minority of violent Muslims. In and of itself, that is neither a surprising nor unusual perspective. Although their estimation of the violent minority as “maybe hundreds of millions worldwide” seems larger than typically represented, this is an otherwise commonplace and widely held view.*

National Review, however, takes their case much further than standard narratives. They note that “Western political leaders try to dismiss this second death cult as a perverted or false Islam, or even as nothing to do with Islam at all.” This the editors of National Review deny and even reverse. Peaceful Islam is, they suggest, a less faithful, less devout version of Islam than their violent counterparts. Peaceful Muslims choose to emphasize peace because that interpretation conforms “more to the civil laws and social customs of their societies.” In other words, these Muslims care more about fitting in than faithfulness. “Most of the time,” the editors opine, “they don’t ponder much on religious texts but get on with the daily business of living.” The implication here is that jihadi terrorists are living out a more faithful and consistent version of Islam than peaceful Muslims.

The interpretations of Islam favored by American presidents and British prime ministers hold less weight, the editors suggest, than the ones presented by radical imams. That makes some sense. So to continue along the same line of thought: proclamations about what is or isn’t true of Islam by the editors of a conservative American political magazine are less convincing than those of Bernard Lewis, perhaps the English-speaking world’s most important living historian of Islam. But I would go even further with the concept: the statements of such a scholar carry more weight than those of Wahhabi imams—just as I would give more weight to the historical interpretation of a respected scholar of church history over that of a snake-handling pastor.*

Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam leaves the reader with a somewhat inconsistent picture of Islam. The incoherence is not due to any flaw in Lewis’ scholarship or prose—he is by all accounts a giant in the field, and he writes clearly and lucidly. What Lewis does in this little book is offer an explanation of and context for Islam’s recent history of terrible violence. In under two-hundred pages, he sketches out Islam’s militant origins and history, the beauty and brilliance of what was for a significant time the world’s greatest civilization, the relatively recent emergence of Wahhabism, and the very recent development of Islamic terrorism. Spanning nearly fourteen centuries and three continents, Lewis’ book captures Islam’s grand and fundamental diversity. From that diversity a degree of incoherence inevitably springs.

Ultimately, the portrait that Lewis presents shares some things with that of the National Review editors, but the divergences between the two are significant. Lewis’ book does highlight two competing interpretations of Islam—one peaceful, one more aggressive. He suggests, too, that the aggressive, militaristic interpretation of jihad has more textual and historical backing than those who interpret jihad to be a spiritual or metaphorical rather than martial struggle. But—and I can’t emphasize this enough—he makes it very clear that suicide bombing and the murderous terrorism of the past half-century have absolutely no precedence in Islamic history nor support in Islamic jurisprudence.

Lewis justly notes that, historically speaking, Islamic states have been far more tolerant of religious minorities than their Christian counterparts. “In modern parlance,” he says, “Jews and Christians in the classical Islamic state were what we would call second-class citizens, but second-class citizenship, established by law and revelation and recognized by public opinion, was far better than the total lack of citizenship that was the fate of non-Christians and even of some deviant Christians in the West.” While Apostasy by Muslim men is indeed punishable by death under Islamic law, this hardly differs from the practice of late medieval and early modern Christendom.

He finishes the book with a rather stirring defense of Islam as a learned and humane culture, despite the most infamous incarnations today: “The study of Islamic history and of the vast and rich Islamic political literature encourages the belief that it may well be possible to develop democratic institutions… deriving from their own history and culture and ensuring, in their way, limited government under law, consultation and openness, in a civilized and humane society.” In keeping with that conclusion, Lewis urges America and “what we like to call the free world” to do all we can to help and bolster movements towards freedom and liberal democracy in the Muslim world. Writing in 2004, he suggests that significant and capable democratic movements do exist in many Muslim countries, and that they merit Western assistance.

Lewis was keenly aware of the danger of democracy in Muslim countries. “For Islamists,” Lewis writes, “democracy, expressing the will of the people, is the road to power, but it is a one-way road, on which there is no return, no rejection of the sovereignty of God, as exercised through His chosen representatives. Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as ‘one man (men only), one vote, once.’” Even so, he exhibited a guarded optimism about democracy in the Middle East. Lewis is still writing at age 98, and I am curious what his thoughts are now, ten years later, particularly in light of the terribly depressing and ongoing failures of the “Arab Spring.”

Lewis notes that in Islamic history there has been no permanent peace with infidels—Islamic leaders can only sign temporary “truces,” since world dominance is both the goal of Islam and, in theory, the inevitable culmination of history. The militaristic vision of Islam as permanently at war with infidels is not new but rather ingrained in Islamic history:

Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. In a sense this is true—both were proclaimed and waged as holy wars for the true faith against an infidel enemy. But there is a difference. The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels. Christendom had been under attack since the seventh century, and had lost vast territories to Muslim rule; the concept of a holy war, more commonly, a just war, was familiar since antiquity. Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history—in scripture, in the life of the prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.

While Islamic military conquest begins with Muhammed, terrorism is a radical innovation that deeply contradicts Islamic law and history, according to Lewis. The lawless murder of mass numbers of innocents in terrorist attacks, the massacres of religious minorities, and the wholesale rejection of the rule of law seen in the Al Qaeda and Islamic State movements have no basis in Islamic Scripture, jurisprudence, or history.


Greatness might be too mild a word to characterize the first millennium of Islamic history after the life of Muhammed. “During the centuries that in European history are called medieval,” writes Lewis, “the most advanced civilization in the world was undoubtedly that of Islam.” Islamic culture thrived, as did the spread of Islam by the sword.

The conclusive end of this period of Islamic history did not occur until 1683 A.D. By this point, Ottoman control had pushed into the very heart of Europe. In the summer of that year, the Ottomans commenced a siege of Vienna, Austria. Two months later, Ottoman forces were resoundingly defeated by allied Polish and German armies sent to relieve the city. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Vienna, the Ottomans were swiftly and shockingly expelled from much of Europe. After this initial period of rapid retreat, the next two-hundred-thirty years witnessed the gradual decline and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the empire was long, agonizing, and in the end only accomplished by the shattering cataclysm of the Great War a century ago.

If the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed Islamic decline, the twentieth century reduced the Islamic world to utter subjugation under European imperialism. While the modern industrial world brought wealth and power to the West, the once-great civilization of Islam receded into weakness. Today, Lewis writes, “Almost the entire Muslim world is affected by poverty and tyranny.”

Naturally, the response has been to search for a reason or an explanation. In a general sense, two responses emerged. One is that the Muslim world insufficiently modernized and therefore fell behind the West. The other points to modernization as the very problem itself, a poisonous weakening of Islamic vitality. Wahhabism, which first emerged in the late eighteenth century, embraces the latter. Wahhabism might never have been more than an irrelevant extremist movement but for two unfortunate conditions. First, it emerged on the Arabian peninsula around Mecca and Medina—the two holiest sites for Islam. This granted immediate legitimacy to the other obscure sect. Then, the discovery of oil there in the twentieth-century lent the movement vast wealth. Through the prestige of the former and power accorded by the latter, Wahhabism has achieved a mainstream prominence and even dominance of much of the Muslim world. Islamic terrorism developed out of Wahhabi Islam, greatly influenced by the often successful political terrorism of European nationalist movements.

Thus, the story of contemporary Islamic terrorism starts not with Muhammad or early Muslim conquests but in the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The editors at National Review rightly note the mandate to spread Islam through the sword—through military conquest—begins with Muhammed himself. Militancy exists in Islam from its origins down through today. “Muslims,” Lewis notes, “are not instructed to turn the other cheek, nor do they expect to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

But the editors fail to note that, while all terrorism is violent, not all violence is terroristic. The texts and jurisprudence and history of Islam do indeed validate violence within certain prescribed limits. So, too, do Christian texts and jurisprudence and history, as does every political legal system in the world, including our own. It may be the case, as Lewis convincingly argues, that Islam endorses a more militant and aggressive approach to proselytization than Christianity. But that does not translate to an endorsement of terrorism. National Review, thus, is wrong in depicting the lawless and murderous violence seen in Paris earlier this week as an ancient and inherent feature of Islam. We would be wise to keep the distinction between the violence of military conquest and the violence of murderous terrorism distinct in our minds as the response to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo unfolds.

Originally published at porterperkins.blogspot.com on January 9, 2015.