Published in Vital Speeches of the Day, LXIX (April 1, 2003), 375-82
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
www.moreC.com/schall – 28 February 2003
BELLOC ON THE “APPARENTLY UNCONVERTIBLE” RELIGION
“Islam is apparently unconvertible. The missionary efforts made by great Catholic orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual Mohammedans....”
– Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies, 1938.1
“Muhammad’s monotheism began, no doubt, as a rejection of paganism; yet it was highly positive. It was, as he never ceased repeating, the monotheism of Israel. The god of Islam was Yahweh, without those truths about Him revealed by Christ. ... The Qur’~n denies the Incarnation: ‘God is one, eternal. He did not beget and was unbegotten’ (Qur’~n, 112.3). For Muhammad there was no redeemer, no need for redemption, no original sin.”
– J. Kritzeck/C. Wilde, “Islam,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (2d Edition, 2003), V. 7, 608.
“But there is no hiding the fact that bin Laden, his lieutenants, and his foot soldiers have repeatedly stated their aim to impose their values of Islam on, first, the Muslim world and, then, the rest of the world. They want each country to accept or be forced into submission to their version of Islamic Shari’a law.... Their public statements, their strategy and recruitment, the notes and prayers left by the airplane hijackers, all show a deep religious commitment. They do not lament inequality; decry poverty, or call for democracy. They do not rant about globalization or consumerism or capitalism. They explicitly name and target Christianity, Judaism, and moderate Islam. By all means let us call this inauthentic religion, perverted religion, hijacked religion. But, at the cost of blinding ourselves, let us never forget that it is religion.”
– Islam at the Crossroads, 2002.2
One of the most difficult exercises in political prudence, I think, is philosophically to describe accurately a regime in which one is visiting or in which one lives or in which one finds a formidable adversary. For, to delineate a regime correctly, we must have some criterion of judgment according to which we can decide whether any regime is good or bad. Without this standard, without a universal philosophy and political philosophy in other words, we are engaged merely in name-calling without substance. This possibility of describing regimes as they are implies a universal political philosophy based on foundations independent of, though not unrelated to, actual regimes, with enough civic freedom to articulate them, hopefully without fear of prison or death for doing so.
As philosophers, beginning with Socrates, have led us realize, this effort to examine the nature of a regime can be a dangerous exercise. Deviant princes and rulers, whatever we call them, do not like to know what they actually are. And citizens do not like to articulate the real nature of their rulers, often themselves agreeing with the principles of regime, a truth Plato taught us long ago when he spoke about the relation of our souls to our regimes. Princes and people prefer to be told that they themselves already embody the highest of moral norms, that they do God’s will or are the “best regime,” whatever it is they embody in fact according to classic philosophic standards. This endeavor to identify the type of polity before us becomes doubly difficult when the regime is also directly or indirectly said to be a regime that arises from or is devoted to the implementation of a rule rooted in a revelation or religion. We no longer, in this case, deal with a regime as a mere political entity, but with one that claims transcendent origins or justifications. The grounds for the truth of any revelation cannot be avoided.
Leo Strauss has noted that medieval Muslim philosophers, aware of this particular difficulty in pronouncing in public the theoretic character of a regime in which they lived, chose, for safety’s sake, to do their philosophy in private. The philosopher externally did what was expected of him in terms of devotion and pious practices. But, even though he dissembles about religion in public, he preferred in private philosophy to religion as an explanation of the truth of things. Indeed, that alternative to choose privacy in Islam was the philosophers’ only viable alternative if they wanted to live and philosophize, albeit cautiously.
This move to philosophy meant, in Strauss’ view, that the philosopher had to come up with a theory in which the presumed revelation that ruled the public order was itself subordinated to philosophy. Philosophy judged revelation. This judgment meant that the philosopher had to explain the purpose and content of the revelation’s terms on rational grounds alone. The explained terms of religious credibility, the political theology of the religion, in other words, were unsustainable intellectually because they could be fully understood by philosophy. The notion that the Koran, for example, is a book, the text of which is directly spoken to Mohammed in Arabic with no intermediary is, even without examining its content for contradictory or false teachings, unbelievable on any rational grounds.
This task of letting the public life be whatever it is, even if not credible, was accomplished by treating the way of life depicted in the Koran to be a “myth” specifically and artfully designed to enable rulers to keep the intransigent masses in line. This understanding of myth was an ancient formula dating back at least to Epicurus. Aristotle himself said that the tyrant, if he wants to stay in power, should observe the local pious customs; he should keep the masses busy, exhausted, and entertained, while not allowing anything to be spoken in private. A similar position occurred in late medieval Europe in what is known as Latin Averröism. This was the position that there were two “truths,” one of revelation and one of reason. The two could contradict each other, what ever that view might eventually do to the unity of the human soul. We need not “reconcile” them. If everyone played the game, this theory allowed the philosopher to philosophize and the believer to believe with no worry about evident contradictions.
The myth of religion, thus, is useful politically but it is not true or compatible with philosophy. The philosopher lived a secret or private life, as Socrates, in his Apology, affirmed that he also did, lest he be killed sooner. It is taken for granted that no vocal philosopher accused in the mythic religious polity will survive. These are the rules of the game. It was thus not possible that more than a few philosophers would know the falsity of the myth explaining the particular revelation. On the surface, all would be calm. This difficulty in knowing the truth about our being conformed more or less to what we know about the opaqueness of human nature, with or without the notion of The Fall.3 Religion was in effect a useful way to control the inevitable turmoils in the masses, those who did not know or rule themselves. Philosophy and truth are not intended for everyone. It is instructive to recognize that when we come to St. Thomas, it was first necessary for him to establish that revelation and philosophy were not contradictory to each other before the truths of revelation and reason could be coherently seen to belong to the same world of truth and reality. Unavoidably, this position also required some position on the very truth of the respective revelations.
Considering that, in many ways, Islam has been the oldest and most persistent enemy of Christianity, the one from which there is rarely a return if we look back at the lands once conquered by Muslim armies or traders in whatever century, it is surprising how little the official Church has said about Islam. St. Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles still seems like the major Christian effort to define what Islam is. Though Islam is a huge historical fact, the fastest growing religion in the world today, including at least a fifth of the world population, with new mosques regularly appearing wherever they are permitted, we have, for example, no encyclical or letter on “What Is Islam?” We have nothing that parallels Mit Brennender Sorge or Divini Redemptoris, no Syllabus of Errors, or Canons of the Council of Trent. It is almost as if the Church has never considered the truth claims of Islam important. From a theological point of view, we trace multiple Christian heresies in our documents, but not Islam, which was, in a way, itself a Christian heresy. On the surface, this lack seems curious almost as if Islam was not important enough to take seriously or that there was a certain danger in doing so.
We do have, to be sure, recent exhortations about what we have in common with Islam and other religions. Our contemporary mode of approach is liberal and irenic, dialogue, when and if that is possible, never any confrontation, even when provoked. We are loathe to mention any problem, including the vast numbers of Christians killed in Islamic countries in the past century, except when it is posed in the most general terms that often make the problems sound to be caused by western ideology, not Muslim belief or practice. We impose western philosophical or ideological methods of analyses on Islamic lands and expect this formula to explain their inner ethos. We use scientific method that blind ourselves to what is going on. In short, we do not really dialogue with Muslims but with ourselves. It frightens us to hear ourselves called “infidels” by Muslims because of what we believe about God and Christ. It is not merely a case of exaggerated rhetoric but the definition of what seems to threaten Islam, namely, another understanding of God, particularly the Trinitarian God and the Incarnation. Much of the appeal of Islam seems to depend directly on the denial of this complex understanding of the Deity which we are bound to hold and propagate.
The 21st Century, it seems clear, will more likely be a century of confrontation with world religions rather than with world ideologies, as was the 20th Century. Few intellectuals expected this event. In terms of morals and vitality, the West has already declined. Roger Scruton’s remark strikes home: “The intrusion of the media into the battlefield has had a shattering effect on the perception of war. And the declining birthrate and increasing longevity of the population have made Western societies ever more reluctant to risk in combat their dwindling supply of sons.”4 An abundant supply of sons is something that Islam has, many of whom seem surprisingly willing to die defending or expanding it. Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, and Buddhist movements seem to have grown stronger not weaker during the supposedly skeptical 20th Century.
Christian populations are under pressure in India, China, in Buddhist and Muslim lands. Many Christians in these lands leave voluntarily, usually under pressure to do so. Most of Christians once in Arab lands are now in the West. They voted with their feet. Meanwhile, the Muslim presence, due in part to their comparative increase in numbers, is found everywhere in Europe and America, along with Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, and other representatives of various world religions. The modern secularist seems almost like a cultural oddity confined to small academic enclaves in small corners of the world. It is ironic that much of modern political philosophy was premised on the notion of reducing the importance of religion to prevent religious and civil wars. In the light of the stringent closure of these religions in on themselves in their historical locations, together with their lack of any real sense of religious freedom based on the dignity of the person, the alternative of skepticism or atheism almost seems healthy in comparison to the lands in which there is no escape, except perhaps inwards, as in the case of the medieval Muslim philosophers.
In this light, it may be of some merit to take a further look at Belloc’s discussions of the future of Islam made back in the 1930's. What is remarkable about Belloc’s comments on Islam, as we read them today, is his ability to judge historical trends on the basis of a spiritual force or power. Though he was a soldier and a military historian who loved the knowledge of battles and battlefields, generals and soldiers, Belloc never thought that it was material power that ultimately determined what would happen among men and civilizations. “Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it – we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today”5 (132). He is aware that, for some three hundred years after the Battle of Vienna on September 11, 1683, the Muslim lands had gradually dropped out of the modern picture as serious threats. They were seen to be backward lands and in fact were backward. In spite of the oil, the cause of whose value they had little or nothing to do, this is still largely the case.
Yet, Belloc was aware that Islam did not change in spite of centuries of western influence. When it came to the fundamentals, it was utterly unaffected by western occupation. As Belloc wrote in Survivals and New Arrivals:
we thought of its (Islam’s) religion as a sort of fossilised thing about which we need not trouble. That was almost certainly a mistake. We shall almost certainly have to reckon with Islam in the near future. Perhaps if we lose our Faith it will arise. For after this subjugation of the Islamic culture by nominally Christian nations had already been achieved, the political consequences of that culture began to notice two disquieting features about it. The first was that its spiritual foundation proved immovable; the second that its area of occupation did not recede, but on the contrary slowly expanded (1929)..
Suffice it to say, we are reckoning with Islam today. Europe and much of America did largely lose the faith, as Belloc observed even before World War II. The expansion of Islam is also into Europe and Africa, as well as in Asia and even in North America.
The solidity of Islam, its inner coherence, whatever its cause and the methods by which it was kept, was something that struck Belloc. As he wrote in the same book,
Islam would not look at any Christian missionary effort. The so-called Christian governments, in contact with it, it spiritually despised. The ardent and sincere Christian missionaries were received usually with courtesy, sometimes wit fierce attack, but were never allowed to affect Islam. I think it true to say that Islam is the only spiritual force on earth which Catholicism has found an impregnable fortress. Its votaries are the one religious body conversions from which are insignificant.
Belloc recognized that Islam flourished because it did have some basic truth about God, however that be interpreted. “Mohammedanism struck permanent roots, developing a life of its own, and became at last something like a new religion...,” Belloc wrote in The Great Heresies. “Like all heresies, Mohammedanism lived by the Catholic truths which it had retained. Its insistence on personal immortality, on the Unity and Infinite Majesty of God, on His Justice and Mercy, its insistence on the equality of human souls in the sight of their Creator – these were its strength” (128). Belloc saw the strength of Islam in its virtues.
It is for this reason alone, the impregnability of Islam to Catholicism, however, that the Church needs to take more cognizance of what is this growing force in the world. It is not enough to condemn violence in the abstract. “Go forth and teach all nations” is not possible if the nations will not allow themselves to be preached to. The western theories of freedom of religion, whether secular or religious, have made no headway in Islam, and only rarely are they criticized for this lack. Those few who are Christians or members of other religions, in most Muslim lands, in practice must be content to remain second-class citizens and are constantly subject to the pressure to convert to Islam.
Belloc’s thesis is that Islam began as a Christian heresy which retained the Jewish side of the faith, the Oneness and Omnipotence of God, but denied all the Christian aspects – the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, who, as a result, became just a prophet. The denial of the church, the priesthood, and the sacraments followed. Islam succeeded because, in its own terms, it was a simple religion. It was easy to understand and follow its few doctrinal and devotional points. The expansion of Islam was almost always by arms; after each conquest, the Muslim Califs or Sultans ruled. They were intolerant but they more or less accepted political submission in return for tribute. At least twice in the history of the West, Islam almost overran Europe, once at Poitiers in the 8th Century and once at Vienna in the 17th Century.
Interestingly, the Church since that period has celebrated certain feast days precisely in memory of these victories, the most notable is St. Pius V’s establishment of the Feast the Holy Rosary, on October 7, 1571. This feast commemorated the naval victory at Lepanto. “The name of Lepanto should remain in the minds of all men with a sense of history as one of the half dozen great names in the history of the Christian world” (122). In these days of apologizing for practically everything, one wonders if some pope someday will not rescind this feast on grounds of good will. The cynic might hope that we at least wait till Islam first apologizes for the initial slaughter and conquest of Christian lands from Spain to Africa and Asia.
These earlier popes, in any case, understood that they had an enemy and that they were blessed not to have fallen under Muslim army rulers. Urban II’s call to the Crusades, though much misunderstood, can largely be judged as a belated and mainly unsuccessful effort of the European Christians to defend themselves against Islam. Belloc, in fact, thought that the Crusaders were from the beginning undermanned and rather poorly led, though often with much heroism. Their final defeat at the hands of Saladin at Hattin in 1187, he considers to be one of the most significant battles in the history of the world because it confirmed Muslim rule across a wide stretch of the world, most of which it still controls.
Unlike Stanley Jaki, Belloc did not think that there was something in Islamic theology that militated against Islam’s ever becoming a major industrial or military-technological power by itself. (133). The fact that it never accomplished this transformation was for Belloc merely an accident, whereas for Jaki it was rooted in the relation of an absolute notion of divine will to its consequent denial of stable secondary causes. Jaki sees much of the rage in modern Islam to be due to its failure or inability to modernize itself by its own powers.6 Most of the weapons and equipment found in Muslim states are still foreign made, usually inferior, and paid for with oil money.
The “new” weapon that Islam has displayed with September 11, 2001, is a kind of fanatic willingness to use any method of terror even if it costs the lives of individuals who are often popularly considered to be “martyrs” for killing Infidels. This method needs little technology. The West has minimum moral equipment with which to respond to such tactics. Indeed, as both Aristotle and Machiavelli saw, that if someone does not fear for his own life, it is very difficult to stop him. But neither of them thought of the idea of sacrificing one’s life specifically for this purpose. Indeed, in the history of the West, Islam has always sent a kind of terror through the hearts of those on its borders who were about to be attacked or in the hearts of those who had to live under its control. Belloc alludes to this phenomenon:
These things being so, the recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, seems fantastic. Who in the Mohammedan world today can manufacture and maintain complicated machinery whereby the religion of Islam can play an equal part in the modern world? (131).
The question seems less rhetorical today because numbers, in the end, count as does the willingness of people to die using modern machinery like normal airplanes to carry our what is attested to be a religious mission, however much we choose to identify it as simply “terrorism” without a cause. What is also true is that this terrorism, or its threat, is now everywhere. Thus far, at least, we see within Islam itself little effort to control its own “terrorists” or to sympathize with those who suffer from tem or who must defend themselves against them.
The inconvertibility of Islam leads us to several perhaps radical reflections. It is a common saying among Christians that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the faith. There have been many, many Christian martyrs by Islam over the centuries and currently. As in the case of the slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks, there will always appear some justification – the Christian blasphemed Allah – in one sense. The very existence of Christianity is a blasphemy in Muslim terms if we insist on the truth of the Incarnation, that God became man. These historical martyrdoms have had little or no effect in terms either of conversion or even acknowledgment, even by ourselves often.
Moreover, we have the parallel phenomenon of the Muslim martyr, the man who kills in the name of Allah, whether it be in a suicidal attack in a church in the Philippines, French Trappist monks whose throats were slit in Algeria on Christmas eve, or the pilots who flew into the World Trade Center. In some basic sense, these killers are pictured as martyrs. Nor is the notion of “holy war” unknown in Islam. However much the Church tries to argue that such actions cannot be considered to be justified, still within at least some branches of Muslim opinion, they are considered to be genuine martyrs seeking to defend or propagate the religion and therefore worthy of Allah. When we try to oppose this position on say natural law terms, we find that our mode of discourse is itself alien to what much of Islam conceives itself to be. The basis of our arguments are not admitted to be valid.
Belloc thought that Islam began as a heresy and became a new religion culturally when it had to account and explain its successes on the field of battle. The stunning successes on the field of battle had to be administered. “Mohammedanism was a heresy: that is the essential point to grasp before going any further. It began as a heresy, not as a new religion. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church: it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was – not a denial, but an adaptation and misuse, of the Christian thing” (76-77). As most scholars recognize, the main parts of what Islam took from revelation are from Judaism rather than Christianity. Islam kept much of what Christianity has in common with Judaism – the transcendence of Yahweh, creation, divine justice and punishment, the devotion of the people to God.
But Islam was itself not like Arianism and other early heresies. It arose from without the old ancient Christian world. For it, Christ was not God but rather a human prophet. This is the explicit denial of the root principle of Christianity. “With the denial of the Incarnation went the whole sacramental structure. He (the Muslim) refused to know anything of the Eucharist, with its Real Presence; he stopped the sacrifice of Mass, and therefore the institution of a special priesthood. In other words, he, like so many other lesser heresiarchs, founded his heresy on simplicity” (79). Though it is not often attended to, saying Mass itself is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, even in private, and, even when permitted in other lands, it is restricted and constantly hemmed in by various formal and informal practices. “Freedom of religion” is not a concept that rises naturally in Muslim theory but it is a Western idea, even largely a modern Western idea. In Islam, the very practice of freedom of religion is thought to be a species of not giving submission to Allah, even where some non-Muslim churches are permitted.
Belloc thought that Islam expanded rapidly for the very good reason that “it won battles.” (81). This success should give modern pacifists pause, but it usually does not. Yet, to call Islam a religion of “simplicity” is, in Belloc’s terms, rather a compliment. He notes that it freed many people from the complicated clutch of usury, from the lawyers. It freed slaves if they converted and made them
brothers within the system (81-82). The brotherhood of faith trumps other relationships. Belloc distinguished between the character of the spread of Islam initially in the near East and that expansion into Persian and Mongol lands – the area from Mesopotamia to India and the Eastern Roman empire (85). “The uniformity of temper which is the mark of Asiatic society, responded at once to this new idea of one very simple, personal form of government, sanctified by religion, and ruling with a power theoretically absolute from one center” (86). It was from these conquests that Islam learned of Greek philosophy and other cultures and was the origin of much of its science and art. “Islam was the one heresy,” Belloc wrote, “that nearly destroyed Christendom through its early material and intellectual superiority” (88).
Much has been made of the “tolerance” in Islam, especially for religions of the book. This tolerance was often merely the inability to change large conquered populations in a short time. Belloc thought that “the Mohammedan temper was not tolerant. It was, on the contrary, fanatical and bloodthirsty. It felt no respect for, nor even curiosity about, those from whom it differed. It was absurdly vain of itself, regarding with contempt the high Christian culture about it. It still so regards it even today” (90). The practical compromise in this situation was to allow the Christians to remain but within very confined areas and occupations. They had to pay a tribute. Many were gradually absorbed into Islam (91).
This record of Islam’s own consistency, its closed nature, its remaining itself had to be reconsidered in some detail, Belloc thought. It has been “the most formidable of the heresies” (92). The question is now why has it survived? “Millions of modern people of the white civilization – that is, the civilization of Europe and America – have forgotten all about Islam” (92). This could be written in 1938, but not in 2003. The questions must now be asked not merely “why has it survived?” but “why has it flourished?” Belloc can only be said to have foreseen the problem: “It is, in fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past” (93). Neither our modern culture or the modern Church allows us this frankness.
Usually, Belloc thought, heresies make an initial impact then they decline and disappear. Islam did not do this (94-95). When Islam was defeated, it remained strong in numbers and in convictions (95-96). How then is Islam different? Some westerners say it is because it is simple and founded on justice and improves on Christianity. Belloc did not think that this reason works because every heresy maintains the same thing but they still fade, not Islam (98). Historically, Islam constantly gained new recruits: the Turk, the Mongol. “The causes of this vitality (of Islam) are very difficult to explore, and perhaps cannot be reached. For myself I should ascribe it in some part to the fact that Mohammedanism being a thing from outside, a heresy that did not arise within the body of the Christian community but beyond its frontiers, has always possessed a reservoir of men, newcomers pouring in to revivify its energies. But this cannot be the full explanation” (129) Today, I suspect, they gain new recruits largely from their own population growth which expands to fill the vacuum left by the low birth rates in the West. The Crusades did not split Islam geographically. Belloc held that if the Crusades (1095-1200) had cut Africa from Asia, Islam may have declined (103). It is interesting how many of the advocates of occupation of Iraq today use this theory of the need to split Islam and hence reduce its geopolitical power.
Yet, Belloc maintained that, though based on the army, Islam did have a cultural force. ‘The success of Mohammedanism had not been due to its offering something more satisfactory in the way of philosophy and morals, but, as I have said, to the opportunity it afforded of freedom to the slave and debtor, and an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses who were perplexed by the mysteries inseparable from the profound intellectual life of Catholicism, and from its radical doctrine of the Incarnation” (103). This position is not unlike that of Eric Voegelin, who argued that the susceptibility of western Christians to modern ideology was due to the practical disbelief of many Christians in the ultimate transcendent goal of the faith.7
Belloc, in fact, saw a relation between the failure of the Crusades and the rise of modern Europe which at first turned in on itself before finding the technological means of bypassing Islamic lands with the discoveries of America and the sea route to Asia. Belloc even held that the success of the Reformation in part was due to the defeat of Catholic and papal policies in the Crusades (107-09). Belloc’s book on The Crusades remains one of the most poignant accounts of a failed enterprise. “Had the crusaders’ remaining force at the end of the first Crusading march been a little more numerous, had they taken Damascus and the string of towns on the fringe of the desert, the whole history of the world would have been changed. The world of Islam would have been cut in two, with the East unable to approach the West.”(114) North Africa, the old Roman lands, was not recovered. “They failed ... but they made modern Europe” (115). The Reformation was due to the weakness at the Center (115).
What Belloc was most conscious of, however, was that, unlike Islam, that Christianity did not retain its inner coherence, its faith. “Christian Europe is and should be by nature one; but it has forgotten its nature in forgetting its religion” (116). Belloc connected this loss of inner coherence in the West to the opportunity for Islam to rise again. It is partly the downplaying of the importance of religion in the West that it has been unable or unwilling to understand the attraction of Islam in its own inner coherence. “It has always seemed t me possible, and even probable,” Belloc wrote,
that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.... The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam. Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralysed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable (127-28).
It is interesting that even with the return of Islam to the forefront of our consciousness, we do not want to see this return as a religious thing explained in terms of Islam itself.
How are we to assess these potent reflections of Belloc? Stretched half-way across the world, Islam is divided up into many “nations,” though that concept of nationalism is not an Islamic idea. The central organs of the Church seem to be against doing anything radical about any Islamic threat, preferring diplomacy and not forcefully noting the widespread attacks on Christians throughout the world. It is interesting that several Vatican officials give as a reason for not using force is the fear of the rising up of Islam and the potential terror it can cause everywhere in the world. They are right, the danger is real. Normally, this view would be an argument for doing something about the problem when we can, before something more terrible happens, particularly if the problem lies in Islam itself and its inability to accept the normal peaceful structures of society. Almost all the minor wars today have some Islamic component. Within Islam, there are various schools of interpretation from the well-financed Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia to the more mild versions of the Shiites.
Geo-politicians and theologians alike argue that, since we really have no common philosophy, we must seek ways to reinterpret Islam within itself, using its own texts and traditions to mollify the extremists who now see an opportunity to establish Muslim dominance all over the world. At first sight, this seems preposterous. But as Belloc said, surprising things happen, like the rise of Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism in the first place. It makes us wonder whether there is not something objective to be said for the reality of salvation history after all.
For Catholics in particular, Belloc’s estimate was sobering. He lived before “ecumenism,” but he certainly wondered about its effectiveness in the case of Islam, however politically wise it might be to proceed as the Muslim philosophers and not mention any truths outside the Koran. “Missionary effort has had no appreciable effect on it (Islam),” Belloc concluded.
It still converts pagan savages wholesale. It even attracts from time to time some European eccentric, who joins its body. But the Mohammedan never becomes a Catholic. No fragment of Islam ever abandons its sacred book, its code of morals, its organized system of prayer, its simple doctrine. In view of this, anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a rival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam on Christendom (130).
These words are strong and historically true. They also today strike us as prophetic. Few paid much attention to Belloc in his time. No Muslims are converted. No one ever abandons the book or its ritual.
In the end, I cannot help but have a gratefulness to the “apparently unconvertible” religion, to radical Islam for waking us up. We could make the case that all our studies, all our concern with western ideology and power may have been misplaced. What we should have been paying attention to are our souls and what is the best explanation of our existence and destiny. Islam has another soul and another destiny which it seeks to spread, by its own proven means, to the ends of the earth, an idea that it probably got, ironically, from the end of the Gospel of Matthew.
3See Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1973, 11-24; Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi, “Introduction,” Medieval Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 1-21.