Secularism Makes for a Better Islam?

Sometimes when we westerners look at the world, particularly at chaos in and emanating from the so-called Muslim world, we suggest that they need more secularism. Islam, it is assumed, must be the problem. If they can manage to tone down their Islam with a good bit of western secularism (sometimes we call it liberalism), they can be peaceful like us.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a native of Somalia, raised in a Muslim family. She is now a secularist and urges secularism as a strategy to defang militant Islam. Western Christians, who have pursued the secularizing strategy of privatization to moderate their own religion, should ally with secularists against the common Muslim foe.

Well, if being Muslim entails killing people and being hateful, sure, I’d like Islam to be moderated. If Islam is by its very nature murderous, the less Islamic Islam is, the better for all of us, Muslims included (since they kill more of their fellow religionists than outsiders), for them to be less Muslim.

I’m given pause, however, by putting the shoe on the other foot. Under what conditions would I see the Christian faith improved by becoming less Christian? Unless “being Christian” necessarily means acting like Saul of Tarsus before the Road to Damascus, or the Crusaders “liberating” Constantinople or Jerusalem, then I’d say Christians need to be more Christian, not less. In fact, picking on those Crusaders, a question arises: Can we imagine Jesus doing what they did? Jesus did, in fact, enter Jerusalem. He is described as “entering triumphantly.” How many did he and his forces kill when he entered triumphantly? How deep did the blood run? When I read the Gospels the only blood I see mentioned that week is his blood. Jesus’ triumph was precisely in his weakness, a weakness that allowed himself to be murdered on the cross. If Jesus is the center of the definition of what counts as “Christian,” I’d say the more Christian Christians are, the better.

If I say, “I want my tradition to be more itself, and your Muslim tradition to be less itself,” am I falling into hypocrisy? Yes, yes, you Muslims: you need to be secular. We Christians need to be less secular. On the face of it, that sure looks hypocritical.

But maybe Islam is the exception. We look at Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly and we see a man – him – on a cross. If we shift to the Islamic tradition how would we imagine Muhammad entering a city triumphantly? Could we imagine him, the prophet of Islam, triumphing like Jesus, suffering on a cross? Well, that would be more challenging. In the first place, many in the Islamic tradition even deny the crucifixion of Jesus. Such a horrible death is too demeaning for a true prophet of God (which they believe, on the authority of the Quran, Jesus to be). Since Jesus is a true prophet, the story of his crucifixion in the Gospels must be a corruption; or, perhaps, they were simply confused. God clouded the minds of observers so that Jesus could escape while another, perhaps Judas, perhaps Simon of Cyrene, was crucified in his place. The authorities thought they were crucifying prophet Jesus, but God tricked them. What the Gospels say happened to Jesus surely could not happen to a true prophet.

If what happened to Jesus, i.e., his death on the cross, which Christians see as his triumph, could not be conceived of as happening to Jesus, it is much harder for Muslims to imagine it happening to Muhammad. Muhammad not only taught the right way to God, according to Islam, but also did many other things in life. As a leader of the nascent Muslim community he was also a military commander and conqueror. When we speak of Jesus conquering, we slip into metaphor; when Muslims speak of Muhammad as conqueror, they need not rely on metaphor.

So, considering Muhammad, Islam is necessarily violent, right? Well, no. Though they get less press these days, there are many Muslims around the world who consider themselves completely Muslim, without an ounce of liberalism or secularism, who consider peace (and peace that non-Muslims would also call peace) as the appropriate lifestyle for Muslims, and the ultimate teaching of their prophet. So what we have had – and will continue to have – is an argument among Muslims, an argument within Islam, about the nature of Islam, what constitutes peace and how it can be brought about.

As a human who doesn’t want to be shot or blown up, I’m inclined to encourage Muslims to become good secular liberals. As one who seeks to avoid hypocrisy, however, I’m going to encourage them to continue to argue about the nature of Islam. I’ll be cheering for the folks who argue that Islam is all for peace (and all against violence). Even more, I’ll continue to try to demonstrate to the Muslims I’m around, the presence of Jesus and his offer of life to all who believe.

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