Islam vs Western culture: How to mitigate the hidden theological war

With President Donald Trump at the helm in the US, it is likely that the conflict of ideologies between Islam and Western culture will spill over into an armed conflict.

A member of a militia kneels as he celebrates victory next to a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by ISIS militants (photo credit: REUTERS)
A member of a militia kneels as he celebrates victory next to a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by ISIS militants
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a theological war raging below the surface – hidden from the sight of the secular and indeed most of the religious world. We can all feel something very troubling is rumbling around us, but do not know where the center of disturbance lies and so have no idea how to deal with its adverse effects. The source of the disturbance is a secret war of ideology, and it is a cause for violence directed at destroying Western values and killing a lot of innocent people – Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We call it the “SIC War” because it is Stealthy, Illegal and Concealed.
The war is “stealthy” because its clandestine purposes are covered by a theology that makes detection by ordinary scholars and citizens difficult. The war is “illegal” because religious laws, secular rules, and cultural customs forbid it. The war is “concealed” in secrecy because the perpetrators are afraid of public wrath should their illegal aggression be discovered. They fear a secular and religious retaliation.
With President Donald Trump at the helm in the US, it is likely that the conflict of ideologies between Islam and Western culture will spill over into an armed conflict.
In a 2014 article in The New York Times, then Maj.-Gen. Michael K. Nagata, US Special Operations Command Central commander at the time, admitted that the US had hardly begun figuring out the appeal of Islamic State (ISIS). “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”
The idea behind ISIS and behind all radical Islamic groups for that matter rests on a solid bedrock of Koranic exegesis.
To ensure the legitimacy of the ideological fight between Islam and Western culture, the Holy Koran is made into a potent weapon.
The Koran, however, cannot be used as a weapon against Western culture without certain modifications and tweaking. Hence the introduction of the Islamic science of Naskh (abrogation) and the careful selection of out-of-context Hadith that allows the Koran to be turned into one of the most violent books in history.
Imagine for a moment the Hebrew Bible stripped down to only one book: 1 Samuel.
In 1 Samuel we find statements like: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:3). That is approximately how the Koran tends to be interpreted after the cancellation of about 250 Koranic verses that promote mercy, empathy and kindness. Such verses are rendered null and void through a process called Naskh.
The application of Naskh has a more lethal side effect as well. When the Muslim ulama, or scholars, employ the rules of Naskh to the Koran, we find that Ahlul Kitab (Jews and Christians), who are spoken of highly in the Koran, become kafir (apostates) and fair game for Muslims to destroy.
Western culture, during most of its history, has been almost equivalent to Christian culture, and many of the people of the Western hemisphere could broadly be described as “cultural Christians.” The concepts of “Europe,” “America” and the “Western world” have been closely connected with the notion of Christianity and Christendom. Christian values such as love of God, love of neighbor, fidelity in marriage, renunciation of worldly goods, renunciation of violence, and unconditional love are viewed favorably by Muslim ulama.
However, Muslims consider these values as absent in practice. They point to the occupation of Palestine and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to Abu Gharib prison and Guantanamo Bay, as examples of the absence of such values.
The Muslims waging this religious war think that there are two sides – on the one hand, the Muslim ulama (supposedly good religious scholars that lead the Muslim peoples) and on the other those Muslims who embrace “Western culture.” Both sides affirm, not incorrectly, the indisputable fact that collisions between expanding cultures are inevitable, and that it is impossible to quarantine our diverse value systems and tribes – to evade mutual influence or contamination.
But contrary to utopians that presume religious and cultural incompatibilities will soon melt into social-political consensus, they think we are beginning to realize the enormous political and economic consequences of irreconcilably divergent worldviews.
Crucially, their term, “war,” reflects their aggressive “winner take all” attitude in their struggle to preserve and expand their view of the highest way of life.
However, I here interject most emphatically that the Koran prefers another way of engagement: namely, a perpetual persuasion contest of moral preaching and action that impresses rivals to choose a higher way (da’wah) freely. This quite traditional reading of the Koran yields a realistic vision for this world that was providentially designed to grow diverse incompatible cultures and ideologies. Until Allah brings the curtain down at the Final Hour and lets everyone know what’s what, all humanity is charged to learn to live with integrity, engaging in a contest of respectful persuasion (Koran Sura 5:48).
Back now to the currently hidden war: we might ask, from the combatant’s point of view: “What did the other side do, intentionally or unintentionally, to foment violent war instead of engaging in a righteous persuasive contest?” I will try to describe this briefly.
To be sure, Western culture with all its problems can be confident and grateful for its achievements in social welfare, economic stability and science and technology that have blessed many societies in our world. The long lines of outsiders at Western embassies attempting to gain entry attest to these achievements.
But contrary to the prevailing stereotype, many Islamic values are truly in sync with Western values and vice versa. The Koran opens the way to what might be called temporary religious pluralism until Allah brings all things together at the end of worldly time. Its teachings revere Jewish and Christian moral codes, explicitly honoring Moses and Jesus as the greatest prophets to humanity and boasting of the Torah and Gospel as books of guidance and light.
However, many prominent Muslim ulama spin and distort the Koranic text to say that today all Jews and all Christians have become hypocritical kafir, heretics rebelling against God. Instead of appreciating and acknowledging Western advancements in almost every facet of human life, many Muslim ulama, with some mixture of envious resentment, have seen the expansion of Western influence as a dire threat to a thriving Muslim culture. This is a deep and dangerously unacknowledged reality. These ulama have embarked on a course to diminish and discredit Western religion and culture in every possible way. This results in a spiral of negation – bringing down the strong rivals without elevating the surviving combatants.
Of course, the West has developed no utopia. The materialism, poverty, nihilism and selfish immorality of Western culture provide an easy target for all critics, yet the secret war is not primarily aimed at the human weaknesses and social evils of hypocritical Christians and Jews.
This religious war (jihad) – strange as it seems to secular minds – is directed straight at the deep root of Western culture: the Holy Bible. (To be continued)
The author is the president of Ibn Rushd Institute and the author of The Missing Peace: The Role of Religion in the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2016). He is a member of the World-wide Association of Al-Azhar Graduates and a research fellow at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. When not traveling to the Middle East, he lives with his family in New Haven, Connecticut.