Is there a causal connection between religion and the use of force? Yes. In that connection, is there a significant difference between Christianity and Islam? Yes—but it lies in the distinction, not between the Bible and the Koran, but between today’s Christians and Muslims.
In the Medieval era, when the authority of the Catholic Church was virtually unquestioned, those who did question it were put to death. The Church recognized no freedom of thought—indeed, it recognized no concept of freedom as such. Freedom is a state of personal autonomy, in which each individual decides, without outside coercion, what ideas to accept and what actions to take. The underlying premise is that everyone is entitled to his own life and to the pursuit of his own happiness. This premise, however, was anathema to the Church, which held that the individual has no autonomy—that he has no right to arrogate to himself the decision of how to lead his life—that he has no right to form his own views—that he must follow the will of God. Thus, the Church eagerly carried out the Biblical command to kill blasphemers, using such tools as the Crusades and the Inquisition to wage a Christian Holy War against the faithless.
Because freedom essentially means freedom of the mind, people lose their freedom whenever religion holds political power. Religion requires you to subordinate reason to faith. And faith means belief without—or in defiance of—rational evidence. It means that you must follow commandments, not when you think they make sense, but precisely when you think they don’t. Religion demands the surrender of the intellect. It instructs you to yield to an authority higher than your independent mind. It orders you to act not on what you understand, but on what others tell you to believe. Instead of the freedom to think, there is only the duty to obey.
There is no way, therefore, to deal with disagreements except by force. There is no way to point to facts, to use logic, to persuade. Is there any means of proving that one person’s religion is true and another’s is false? “True” and “false” have no meaning when the standard is not reason, but blind faith in divine decrees. If one person devoutly believes that we must all follow the word of the Pope, while another believes just as devoutly that we must all follow the word of the Archbishop of Canterbury—or of a supreme ayatollah or of a chief rabbi—how can the conflict be settled except by force? Can each party grant the other the freedom to follow his own viewpoint? That is precisely what religion forbids. Religion contends that everyone exists to serve God. And a servant who defies his master’s orders must be compelled to submit. He has no right to refuse any demand made by whoever speaks in God’s name. So medieval heretics were burned at the stake for the glory of God—an act no different from today’s machine-gunning of infidels to the chants of “Allahu akbar.” (See also “Faith and Force.”)
Only with the flowering of the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment did the Church’s authority wane. Reason came to be elevated above dogma, a development that affected all institutions of the West, even religion. Reason was allowed to temper the worst irrationalities of faith, and religious dissent came to be tolerated. The advice offered by Thomas Jefferson became the accepted approach: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” The Biblical commandments to kill blasphemers—and witches and homosexuals and violators of the Sabbath—were no longer taken seriously. In time, political freedom took root, culminating in the founding of the United States with its radical idea of separating church from state.
But the Islamic world did not go through an Enlightenment. That world still clings to its dogmas the way it did many centuries ago. This is the central fact distinguishing Muslims from Christians today. The Koran is taken more seriously and more literally by its followers than is the Bible by its followers. In the West, even the religious retain a certain respect for reason. They generally understand that religion should be a private, not political, concern (though that understanding has been unfortunately weakening). They would oppose, say, making the Bible America’s official Constitution—as the Koran is officially Saudi Arabia’s. This is why there are no Christian theocracies today, while there are numerous Islamic ones.
(Of course, secularism is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for freedom. Religion is one manifestation of mysticism, but there are secular ones as well. Marxism, for example, which claims that the individual is a mindless entity whose ideas are determined by the material means of production, and that there is no objective logic but only a “proletarian logic” and a “bourgeois logic,” dismisses reason as man’s means of knowledge—and thereby ushers in its own system of enslavement.)
What about so-called moderate Muslims? They exist, but let’s first define that term. It cannot refer merely to those who refrain from beheading infidels. In today’s context, there is a simple way to distinguish a moderate Muslim: he is someone who acknowledges the categorical right to repudiate Islam. And as a logical corollary, he regards Osama bin Laden and his ilk as monsters who deserve to be executed. The crucial point is that he disavows the essence of jihadism: the idea that Islam is to be imposed by force.
There are such people today. For example, Zuhdi Jasser, author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam, is a self-proclaimed Muslim, but a staunch advocate of the separation of mosque and state. He does not uncritically accept the Koran. Instead, he recognizes the danger posed by Islamic jihadism and wants to eliminate it. Whatever contradictions he has between his religious and political views, he is much more of an ally in this war than are the many non-religionists who refuse to grasp the danger.
But in the Muslim world such people are the exceptions. Look at the governments of Muslim nations. In Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, blasphemers are put to death. Other Muslim countries impose prison sentences or public floggings. In Saudi Arabia, the law defines as terrorists all atheists and anyone “calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.” What are such policies if not legalized jihadism—that is, the forcible imposition of Islam upon unwilling victims, simply done under the sanction of law? (See “Saudi’s ‘Legalized Jihad’ Is Still Jihad.”)
And these policies have popular support. In the famous Pew poll of 2013, which asked Muslims whether apostates should be put to death, a majority of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories said yes.
We see numerous protests in the name of Islam against critics of Islam—but where are the protests in the name of Islam against the savage killers of the critics? The religious leaders of Islam readily issue fatwas against the ridiculers of Mohammed—but where are the fatwas against the people who abduct schoolchildren, firebomb synagogues, make sex-slaves of girls, decapitate journalists and otherwise fail to practice a “religion of peace”? (Let me note that an excellent source of information about the pervasiveness of the jihadist mindset among Muslims, although I don’t agree with her proposed solution to the problem, is Pamela Geller; her website is PamelaGeller.com.)
America’s enemies are those who seek to institute Islamic totalitarianism—and those who support them. People should be free to pray to Allah and praise the Koran. But if they act to abet the users of force in any way—from contributing to “charities” that fund the terrorist training camps, to designing jihadist websites, to using mosques as recruiting centers for ISIS—they then become “immoderate” Muslims and are part of the threat. All who make the Islamic totalitarians possible—particularly the states, mainly Iran, that sponsor them—should be regarded as America’s enemies.
Philosophically, one can show that the demands of religion are incompatible with the principle of freedom. Philosophically, one can show that when reason is replaced by faith, disagreements can be dealt with only by brute force. Philosophically, one can show that the jihadists are the ones consistently implementing the dictates of Islam. But politically—i.e., with respect to the action that government should take—it does not matter whether the jihadists are practicing a “true” or a “false” religion. What matters is that millions of Muslims accept the ideology of Islamic totalitarianism and that it is a demonstrable threat to us. There are those, like President Obama and former President Bush, who insist that “authentic” Islam does not countenance violence. Fine. Let them call it pseudo-Islamic totalitarianism. Nonetheless, it remains the driving ideology of the people who want to impose their religion—whether “true” or “false”—on the rest of us by force. The followers of that ideology, from the aggressive beheaders to the milder abettors, are the enemy—and our government must stop them.♦♦
[A shorter version of this article was published at Huffington Post on Feb. 3, 2015. The additional material consists mainly of elaborations on the issue of faith and force.]