Allahu akbar may be one of the most ironically well-known phrases from Arabic, largely because its use contradicts its meaning. The word, baldly translated, means “God is great.” Usually it is said by people who are engaged in behavior that is manifestly not great, like committing violence against ordinary civilians who are simply trying to mind their own business and instead find themselves caught up in a terrorist attack. It is generally not my intent to talk about matters that are being widely discussed elsewhere, as I prefer to discuss matters that are ignored and not focused on. Yet the fact that I am continually being presented with fearmongering appeals to hate Muslims as a result of the violence in France or bland liberal comments on how the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful (which is true, but also irrelevant) suggests that despite the fact that this story is well known that there exists some space of area that has not been discussed or thought of.
The proximate cause of this current turmoil in France was the response of some violent Muslim terrorists with a disrespectful French cartoon. Ironically, but perhaps appropriately, I appeared on local television recently discussing the matter of censorship and stated that Americans themselves were going to read what they wanted to read and watch what they wanted to watch no matter how it offended others . So, I am on the record as opposing such censorship. For better or for worse, being a contemporary Westerner means accepting the legitimacy of critical press (even if one does not watch it or read it) and that some people will abuse this freedom and use it merely to ridicule and insult others. I also know, as a student of history, that the willingness to accept criticism is limited and rare in human history and that the abuses of ridicule often lead to actions that reduce our freedoms because of hostile responses.
I do not know this merely academically, though, but very personally. For about fifteen months I lived in a village in Northern Thailand where I made $1 a day plus living expenses (at first it was $.50 a day) to teach Thai and Burmese hill tribe students in a variety of subjects, including public speaking, leadership, and the Bible, among other duties. Being the sort of American that I am, I read on the history and politics and culture of the Thai, and found myself highly critical of many aspects of their political culture, particularly the troubling way that speech judged as being inimical to the monarchy or to its supporting base in business and the military was strictly forbidden upon pain of exile or long prison sentences. It was rather predictable, then, that I should have to face this choice myself, despite the fact that I never wished harm on anyone nor had any desires to be involved in their political order in any fashion. Simply by being an honest and critical person, I was seen as a threat. It is not a happy place to be.
There is much that a person like myself could say against Islam. Without drawing cartoons and making an exaggerated portrait of Mohammed or any other Muslim, there is a lot about Islam that is worthy of criticism. The harshness of Sharia law as it is interpreted in the present world and the way that it often seeks to condemn the innocent (namely by the burden that raped women and girls face in adultery trials), fails to provide protections against cruel punishment for mere suspicion of guilt, and the way that it condones and bolsters tendencies for abusive behavior are all highly blameworthy. The fact that contemporary political Islam has forgotten its long historical role in preserving the intellectual heritage of the West and for its humane attitude towards outsiders (even those of other faiths) is very troubling in light of the horrors that vulnerable populations like the Assyrians and Copts face whenever an Islamic movement rises in the Middle East. Yet there is something still more fundamental that is troubling.
The fact that a powerful and at least tolerated minority of Muslims act in violence when Mohammed faces criticism or ridicule is itself highly troubling for the reason that Mohammed’s own behavior was itself not above question. For those Westerners who have read the Koran, the behavior of contemporary Muslims with regards to the memory and reputation of Mohammed is highly suspect on several grounds. For one, there appears to have been a two-faced appeal to tolerance and patience in dealing with unbelievers and also an appeal to violent struggle, leaving room for both moderate and just people as well as violent terrorists to appeal to his words as justification of their actions and loyalty to the original aims and intents of Islam. Additionally, Mohammed was extremely critical of the cultural and moral corruption of contemporary and historical societies, so to absolve him of criticism is quite hypocritical. For better or worse, defending the legitimacy of one’s own criticism of others simultaneously makes it legitimate for others to be critical in turn. Even more pointedly, Mohammed’s own behavior, specifically in his defiance of the laws enforced on other Muslims limiting the number and treatment of wives (he apparently did not think it was reasonable to limit himself to four like everyone else) and his marrying young children (his favorite wife, and the authoress of many hadiths, was about the age of nine when they married). These are not merely problems in projecting our values back on Mohammed, but were morally problematic in his own time, where other cultures (like Jews and Christians) even in those barbaric ages sought to protect children from sexual exploitation by their elders.
There is an even more fundamental problem here. Saying that the reputation of God is so fragile that it must be protected by a prickly defensiveness and a resort to extreme violence is itself an insult to the reputation of God. If God is great, and I believe that God is great, then He can defend His own reputation. He can, if He chooses, punish the wicked and bring them to judgment. He does not require our aid. He can, if He chooses, to overlook ridicule to Himself and His servants if He views that ridicule as coming from so contemptible a source that His contempt and action is not required. He is strong enough, in other words, to restrain Himself or to avenge Himself as He chooses. What then, does He want from us? He wants us to act in ways that bolster His reputation by showing ourselves to be loyal servants and followers, acting in ways that give Him glory rather than shame. What others do and say is not under our control–and they are responsible to God for judgment for their own deeds, as we are for our own. A God that is not strong enough to avenge His own prophets but requires vigilante justice against (relatively) innocent bystanders is not a God worthy of respect and admiration and worship.
Let us now discuss the matter of fear. Those who are terrorists use fear to manipulate others into a scenario that benefits them by dragging everyone down to their level and making it impossible to be friendly and open. When people cannot build relationships because of mistrust and fears about safety, then everyone is taken down to the sad and pathetic level of existence where a terrorist lives. The fear of death or retribution leads many people to act in craven fear over someone who has no fear of death. That is not a desirable situation to deal with, given most of us have hopes and dreams and goals and we want to live, yet that is what we who are citizens of the West have to deal with, and understandably some people have sunk into hatred about this sort of threat.
If I may be permitted to speak to the people of Europe who deal with these threats as an American, I understand that my calls for courage may be easily misinterpreted. As an American, I am used to being considered as a gung-ho cowboy with too high an interest in violence and the temerity to hold on to the tribal gods of nationalism that Europeans have largely given up. Yet the type of courage I am calling for from European citizens is not the courage to kill someone on a battlefield. No, instead, I am calling for Europeans to have the moral courage to stand firm to our culture and civilization and not let our openness and compassion to others be destroyed by the fact that some people are wicked and hostile. We must not feel it necessary to wipe out other civilizations because we feel ours is being threatened, but rather, we must have the courage to live our lives and make sure we have a civilization worth living for and, if necessary, dying for, which is a moral courage of a higher order than merely pushing a button or pulling a trigger.
You see, the terrorists think that we in the West will react in one of two ways, which they think will lead to victory for them. They think we are decadent like the Late Roman Empire, unable and unwilling to stand up for ourselves and our culture to a few violent groups like the Vandals and Goths that defeated and divided the Western Roman Empire. So if we do nothing while our people and institutions are attacked, they will turn us into dhimmi to pay taxes and be prey to their abusive and rapacious rule. I think we all agree that would be a bad idea, and a waste of centuries of civilization. On the other hand, violent attacks and countermeasures could very easily fall upon the large mass of Muslims sojourners in our nations, which would then potentially create many more disaffected potential terrorists who see little future for a life of dignity and are willing to die so that they may strike out at those around them. We also agree that this is a bad thing, and so our response must be both strong and restrained and focused, so as to deny terrorists the sympathy and support of their own people and preserve our own dignity and moral superiority.
Now I would like to speak a little bit to the decent Muslim populace of the West. Most of you did not come to Europe or North America to subvert our countries. You came seeking freedom and opportunities that were denied to you back home. As an American, that is why my ancestors came here as well. I can understand frustrations about feeling like a second class citizen, or feeling denied the opportunity live better lives because of language and cultural differences, and it is easy to give in to the siren calls of those who promise a better way through destruction and hatred. Do not listen to them. These are the same people who have disrupted the civil order of your countries back home, who have diverted effort that should be spent building a better future into wasting resources to conduct internal vendettas and destroying the physical and moral infrastructure of whatever nations they have targeted.
There is a still bigger issue here. The terrorists are using you, taking advantage of your shared identity to blend in with the many of you who want to share our freedoms and our well-being. The terrorists or the clerics who send them on to their deaths don’t really care about you or your well-being. They are just as happy to sacrifice your lives and happiness for their power as they are to harm the innocent Westerners that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As long as you let them speak for you without you policing your own communities, the easier it is for other voices of hate to say that you are the same. As long as you do not speak out against the violence directed from your own community, it will be easier for others to paint you with the same brush as those who deserve it. Without a base of would-be martyrs, the terrorists would have nowhere to hide, and would not be able to operate openly. It is your responsibility to deny them that base, so that we may all live a safer and less dangerous life. If you believe, as I do, that God is great, try serving Him by denying sanctuary to those who bring shame upon His name.