How to respond to political Islam

The vicious and violent feud over the Mohammed cartoons is a symptom of a larger issue: radical Islam constitutes a fusion of religion and politics, and we in the West have not learned to deal with this fusion.

Political rhetoric is about debate and compromise. But religious rhetoric is sacred. Many people believe that the word of their God is law, and that to disagree with that word is sin. When religion and politics operate in separate spheres, then these differences between political and religious speech don’t cause problems. But when politics and religion mix, when people hold their political beliefs sacred in a religious sense, we run into trouble. Now we can’t argue about politics anymore, because to argue is to commit sacrilege. And compromise becomes difficult, because religions aren’t exactly designed to meet in the middle.

What can we do about this? We have to try to remove religion from the debate, however difficult it may seem. That means no more talk about whether or not Islam is a religion of war. No more talk of “ideological struggle” or of good against evil. We need to recognize that radical Islam is in part a political movement, and political debate is the only way non-Muslims can respond to it.

That means we in the West have to refrain from using religious symbols for political ends, even if radical Muslims use these symbols. It means drawing the line clearly between free speech and incitement to riot, so that no one can claim, as an Iranian paper did, that the West extends the right of free speech only to its supporters. It means keeping both Mohammad and Jesus out of our editorials, and discussing instead how we can change the political climate that led us to the current polarization. Political Islam comes not only from Iraq and Palestine but from France and the United States; it has roots not only in the Koran but in Western foreign policy since World War I, and in the social and economic structures of Western societies. To acknowledge these roots is not to condone terrorism or to wallow in self-hatred. It is merely to understand that behind a group of extremists lies a much larger group of human beings distressed by issues we can and must address — if for no other reason than our desire for a safer world.

Riots start for many reasons, and religion is the only one we can do nothing about. So let’s talk politics.


2 Responses to “How to respond to political Islam”

  1. Eric Says:

    Well said. I’ll work this from the American angle and agree that if we really want to influence the politics of the middle east then we need to tone down our own religious rhetoric in the public sphere. On top of that, we need to address our foreign policy-cum-carpetbagging that leaves lesser-developed countries open to religiously-inspired political unrest. Call me a Marxist if you will (even though I’m not one) but we all know that the wide disparity between haves and have-nots in predominately Muslim countries is what makes Islam such a big factor in their political equations. Saudi Arabia, anyone?

    Let’s talk politics, and let’s talk about global economics like we really mean it. If we don’t stop carpet-bombing civilians and supporting dictatorships in the Muslim world because of petroleum concerns then religious fanatics will always have a hold on regional politics.

  2. Ben Says:

    Wow, such a powerful statement in so few words. Absolutely brilliant!

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