Is Islam Strong Enough to Handle Freedom? Are We?

By John C. Rankin (July 13, 2006)

In order to honor the Arab and Muslim soul, we need to grasp the reality of “inner jihad” and then make the challenge, “Is Islam strong enough to handle freedom?” But we cannot do so with integrity unless we first ask ourselves – Jews, Christians and all others – “Are we strong enough to handle freedom?”

We need first to understand how the world’s greatest social evils are rooted in “the chosen absence of the biological father,” whether physical or emotional in nature. This reality of broken aspirations permeates the full spectrum of human life and history.

I address this reality elsewhere, in terms of the shame-based culture rooted in the pain of Ishmael’s upbringing, through no fault of his own. Indeed, as the Arab peoples have descended from Ishmael (directly by bloodline and/or more indirectly in cultural terms), their corporate psyche has been shaped by the burden of shame, and only true honor can overcome it. This reality of the shame versus honor conflict in the Arab soul is clear to this day. When Islam arose out of Arabia nearly 1400 years ago, this sense of shame has continued to influence Islam as it expanded into non-Arab cultures.

The social consequences of Ishmael’s shame are summed up as Genesis 16:12 says of him:

“He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”

In contrast, Isaac did not grow up in such shame, being honored as the heir to Abraham’s lineage. Indeed, his name means “he laughs” – a freedom produced by honor given. But he also had an honest sense of guilt, the knowledge of what it means to suffer due to faults we know are our own. The power to look at our own guilt needs a measure of freedom from shame as a prerequisite. And the only way to overcome guilt is through acknowledgment of our faults and the embrace of forgiveness.

Here we face the great disjunctive between Islam and the post-Christian portion of the West – the heirs to shame without honor on the one hand; and the heirs to guilt without forgiveness on the other.

In response, we need to honor the Arab and Muslim soul at a deep level, at a level that is both honest and surprising at the same time.

On the one hand, we need to eschew the folly of a merely political thinking that “dialogue” will cut it. It is viewed by Islam as a sign of weakness to be taken advantage of. The Qur’an and the Hadith have no tradition for dialogue with dissenters; no tradition for welcoming questions concerning core Muslim beliefs from insiders, not to mention outsiders.

In contrast, the rabbinic nature of loving hard questions concerning core biblical beliefs is the central pedagogical tool in Jewish faith, and is also seen with great clarity in the teaching style of Jesus.

On the other hand, to engage Islam at the level of a merely military response to “outward jihad” is both wrong and will not cut it. We become hated “Crusaders,” and the Muslim world feels more justified yet and accuses us of hypocrisy in the goal to make us feel guilty. They can thus engage in outward jihad without a sense of guilt as they destroy the innocent lives of Jews, Christians and “infidels.”

The way to honor the Arab and Muslim soul is to challenge Muslims directly at the level of inner jihad, to debate them head-on concerning truth claims. To engage Muslims at the level of inner jihad is a profound sign of respect of a mutual humanity, if approached honestly.

Jihad is an Arabic word for “struggle,” and it can be applied in a range of contexts in struggling to be faithful to the Qur’an. The most well known form is the outward or military jihad, which is how Islam grew from the outset. This distinction between “outward” and “inner jihad” reflects my own terms, and they serve my best understanding of a distinction Islam knows well.

Since Islam has always claimed intellectual, cultural, theological and political superiority, part of inner jihad is the expectation that all possible questions are answered in Islam. The irony is that such an inner jihad is only allowed to find the answers in what is given to Muslims up front, not in what they can learn by a freedom to challenge Islam.

What would happen if a devout and well-educated Muslim were challenged: “Is Islam strong enough to handle any given issue?” The answer would be yes. But what about the specific question: “Is Islam strong enough to handle freedom?”

The shari’a law of Islam does not allow Muslims to convert, upon penalty of death. Yet when Islam has historically had the power to enforce shari’a, it has demanded the submission of all peoples to its religion, whether by forced conversion, paying a regular tax, or being enslaved. It gives no freedom of dissent. Thus, I believe this is the one question that can penetrate the Islamic veil of resistance to questions. The human soul yearns for freedom, and Muslim peoples are no different – we all share a common humanity.

In the opening pages of Genesis, the language of freedom is the metaphor of an unlimited menu of good choices, and later the nation of Israel began as a community of choice – no one was forced to become an Israelite. The Christian church began under the fire of Roman persecution, and honored this history of freedom. Only when the church became legal under Constantine in the fourth century, did it then begin to merge with the state under Theodosius and Justinian, and pollute the biblical heritage by coercing both Jews and pagans into becoming “Christian.” In fact, this so weakened both church and state, that the Byzantium part of Christendom was too weak to fight the initial spread of Islam with any energy.

From its origins in the seventh century A.D., and until the end of the 17th century, Islam was a religion spread by the sword for the purpose of demanding submission to Allah. Muslim armies conquered Syria, Palestine, Persia, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, Anatolia, Constantinople, Russia, much of Eastern Europe, invaded France and Italy, sacked Ostia and Rome, and reached as far as the gates of Vienna. So the nature of Islam has never considered that strength means the ability to allow freedom for non-Muslims.

If Islam cannot handle freedom, what strength does it ultimately have? When coercion is employed, is this not a forfeiture of an intellectual confidence to win an argument on its own merits? The posing of this core question can upend the balance of worldwide Islam, and such an intellectual turmoil has the greatest power to overcome Islamic outward jihad.

But the posing of this core question to Jews and Christians should be easy to answer. Jews have consistently honored freedom, and since the Reformation, the church in the West has largely returned to it biblical roots in this regard. Religious and political freedom are largely honored for Muslims in the West today.

If the hope of freedom gains access to the Arab and Muslim soul, if the historic shame rooted in Ishmael can be overcome by showing true honor to challenge Muslims at the intellectual level of inner jihad, thereby producing a level playing field to address issues of guilt and forgiveness, at the individual and national levels – then the need for military conflict is greatly lessened.

The religious, political and economic liberties of the United States are rooted in the “unalienable rights” given by the “Creator.” To the extent that U.S. citizens are faithful to such an appeal, we celebrate freedom, and desire it for all people equally. But are we in the West always strong enough to handle freedom? Unless we are, we have no ability to challenge Islam. Do we realize how many social cancers in our own midst sap our strength to handle the birthright of freedom? For example, how many political leaders and movements in the West truly celebrate a level playing field for all ideas to be equally heard, especially those of their dissenters? How can freedom fully exist otherwise?

Military wars against outward Islamic jihadists are interminable, as the Middle East continues to give evidence. But if we in the West truly embrace freedom, we need to know our own heritage, and we need to challenge Islam at the level of inner jihad. In so doing, we will enter a huge intellectual and spiritual contest, but its potential for serving stability and peace is far greater than mere politics and war.

For Jews and Christians who want to serve our biblical heritage of religious, political and economic freedom, we need to know how to respond biblically to the outward jihad of worldwide Islam against Israel and the West.

  1. We need to understand the radical difference between a shame-based culture and a guilt-based culture.
  2. We need to know the difference between outward jihad and inward jihad.
  3. To communicate with the shame-based culture of Islam, we need to know how to show honor to Muslims.
  4. An invitation to the mere politics of “dialogue” will not work – this is not the territory of jihad, and it is viewed as weakness, whether in the inner or outward capacity. Peace through appeasement leads to greater war.
  5. A mere military offensive by the West, seen as an attempt to conquer Islam, is both wrong and will not work – calling to the Muslim mind the stereotype of the Crusades. (This is a distinct issue from national defense and the defense of allies from aggression.)
  6. The challenge to debate Islam at the level of inner jihad is a proactive embrace of religious, political and intellectual turmoil, and it honors the Muslim soul. Either we tackle a controversy on our terms, or we wait for it to tackle us on its terms.
  7. The defining questions is: “Is Islam Strong Enough to Handle Freedom?” The subsequent question of “Are We?” indicates an equanimity – both Islam and the West are accountable to the same question.
  8. Are we in the West courageous enough to tackle this question head on, or are we too guilt-laden to deal first with our own accountability?
  9. In the United States, here is a question to be asked of Muslim citizens and immigrants: “Do Muslims unequivocally affirm the unalienable rights of life, liberty and property for all people equally as given by the Creator?”
  10. This process and these questions invite us into one of the most compelling debates facing the 21st century. As Os Guinness has stated, this century will fall or rise on the hinges of how three issues are addressed. Will the West reclaim its Christian heritage? Will Islam modernize peaceably? What religion will prevail in China? These and other questions interface at many points, but historically, the lighted fuse for all of it leads to Jerusalem.
  11. If worldwide Islam can answer these questions in such a way as to embrace freedom for all people equally, then much good has been accomplished.
  12. If Islam is not strong enough in its own articulation to handle freedom, then a moment of needed clarity has been achieved; and the universal thirst for freedom in the human soul can be more readily perceived by non-elitist Muslims. This too would accomplish much good.