Making Islam “As Banal as Catholicism”

I was once in Istanbul speaking at a conference on “The Coming Dialogue of Civilizations.” The Turks know (or knew before recent re-Islamization) that if Samuel Huntington’s “clash” of civilizations arrives, they’ll be caught in the middle.

Because I had to visit other Turkish cities, I missed participating in a call-in (actually FAX-in) show arranged for the non-Turkish speakers. The FAX machine spat out the first viewer comment: “You are all infidels and shall die tonight.”

A conference colleague, a Brit with much experience in the Middle East, related this to me later. None of the panelists were surprised. They knew it was just the kind of thing that often happened in the region, even in Ataturk’s semi-secular Turkey.

Now, following our president’s moral guidance, I don’t want to blame “all Muslims for what members of other faiths do as well.” And, full disclosure, I did once get a physical threat, presumably from a liberal Christian, after an appearance on Bill Moyers’ television show – a professional hazard of punditry.

But I often think of that Turkish episode when something happens like the recent massacre in Paris. Commentary quickly divides into familiar camps. One goes into “it’s a small minority” and “religion of peace” mode. The other rightly accuses the first of lying, but tends to side with vague general indictments of Islam.

The truth is that there are many Muslims who abhor this kind of violence. I’ve met lots of them: in Washington, Turkey, and elsewhere. Some are quite vocal – on this and other occasions. The press doesn’t give them nearly enough attention.

But it’s also true that the “tiny minority,” which we keep repeating, to calm our fears and proclaim our own tolerance, means tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of potential terrorists, around the world. Remember those Middle Eastern kids dancing in the street after 9/11? And there’s a steady series of Muslim threats and intimidation, like my Turkish experience, in several Western countries now, which are rarely reported.

The threats are not surprising, since surveys show large swaths of Muslims back radical Islam, young Muslims in particular: 42 percent in France, 35 percent in Britain, and – even in America – 26 percent believe suicide bombings are justified. Let’s hope they mellow with age.

Meanwhile, you can repeat “tiny minority” and “religion of peace” all you like. (“This has nothing to do with Islam,” a colossal lie, is beneath serious notice.) The reality, for the foreseeable future, is we’re dealing – or in the case of our leaders, not dealing – with a reality that will continue, globally, to inspire violence.

Of commentary about the Paris massacre, there seems no end. It, too, is not very enlightening. Charlie Hebdo was more than “satirical.” It was radically anarchist, with more than a whiff of its own kind of authoritarianism, which often pairs up with anarchy.

Parisians gathered earlier this month in protest against terrorism.
Parisians gathered earlier this month in protest against terrorism.

It has a special animus against religion. As the editor once put it, its goal was to make Islam “just as banal as Catholicism.” In the dark night of anarchism, all religion is equally black.

Except it isn’t. And radical Muslims don’t fear mockery. It’s a sign of Charlie’s unseriousness that it thought its tomfoolery made any difference to militant Islam. CH was not some bold voice of dissent. It’s basically – even to French politicians (who do fear mockery) – harmless, since it’s the kind of thing adolescents of all ages lap up. And adults swiftly ignore.

Among its many vices and stupidities, CH’s staff did have one large virtue: they weren’t intimidated by radical Islam, even after they were fire-bombed in 2011. Unlike our media, they didn’t flinch under Islamist pressures, or pretend that they’re doing so out of sensitivity towards religion.

France is particularly conflicted about how to deal with Islam. For years, it indoctrinated children against “racism,” as if following Mohammed gives you a special DNA. Why? The only real answer is that it was easier for politicians to use a term widely accepted as a no-no rather than take the harder path of dealing with a religious problem. They’re changing their tune now.

Here’s a telling example.

The apartment building of a close friend in Paris was engulfed a few years ago by a Muslim riot. (These are more common than we hear. French supermarkets are sometimes sacked, but press self-censorship suppresses such news so as not to feed “Islamophobia.”) My friend, an orthodox Catholic of liberal political views (he worked several decades for a Catholic charity in Paris), felt conflicted, but couldn’t help condemning the riot. The police allowed shops to be looted, property destroyed, streets to be blocked, etc. His own children, who had attended French Catholic schools, told him he couldn’t say such things. It was “racist.”

He is not alone. France’s National Front, usually described as a “far-right” party, won 25 percent of the votes (the largest French bloc) in the most recent European elections. Not, in my view, because its sometimes ignoble views have suddenly become more popular. Like Charlie Hebdo, the NF is a sometimes distasteful truth-teller, but says openly things that many have concluded from daily experiences. Suppressing “Islamophobia” has, unfortunately for the French, made Muslims even more feared and unpopular.

Other reactions are possible, if not much practiced. A former student, who has lived and worked in Muslim countries, writes from Paris that she feels more vulnerable living now in France than ever before. And also this: “The response to this attack was so interesting. . . .the French Catholic priesthood has been the object of much poisonous lampooning by [Charlie Hebdo]. Much of it has been personal, tasteless, and downright trashy. . . .Tonight [a group of priests she was with] prayed for the victims and their families. These prayers were for the persecutors by the very same men who had been persecuted. I wonder how many mosques around the world would have done the same thing.”

Ah, that banality of Catholicism.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.