You are hereSome Musings on Christianity, Islam, and Iraq
Some Musings on Christianity, Islam, and Iraq
by John Evans
U.S. policy in Iraq has reached a turning point. There is general agreement that the policies pursued since the spring of 2003 have not worked satisfactorily and that something has to change drastically. Baghdad is in turmoil, sectarian strife is a huge problem, and the government of Iraq has fallen far short of becoming what we had hoped for. Although life in much of Iraq has changed for the better and continues to improve, we do not hear much about that, and that is not what most Americans care about. What they want to see is a reduction in our military involvement.U.S. policy in Iraq has reached a turning point. There is general agreement that the policies pursued since the spring of 2003 have not worked satisfactorily and that something has to change drastically. Baghdad is in turmoil, sectarian strife is a huge problem, and the government of Iraq has fallen far short of becoming what we had hoped for. Although life in much of Iraq has changed for the better and continues to improve, we do not hear much about that, and that is not what most Americans care about. What they want to see is a reduction in our military involvement.Most of them, of course, would like to see the troops brought home victorious, but increasing numbers have become willing to accept a Vietnam-type outcome; i.e., an American defeat, and to write the experience off as another illustration of why the United States should avoid military adventures in foreign lands whose governments have not been directly involved in attacks against the United States. That we are in a war that may take decades to resolve and that what is going on in Iraq is a major aspect of that war do not seem to be well understood by most Americans.
I number myself among those who firmly believe that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power was essential. I also realized from the outset, however, that in removing him, we were launching ourselves on a course whose outcome could not be predicted with reasonable certainty. When President Bush and those around him spoke confidently of the desire of all people for freedom and the prospects for democracy in Iraq, I hoped they were right, but I always worried that we might be repeating mistakes made during the time of Woodrow Wilson in overestimating the readiness of nations for democracy. An effort to establish some kind of rough approximation to democracy in Iraq that safeguarded the rights of minorities was probably worthwhile, I thought, but we needed to be thinking of alternatives in case that effort failed. Unfortunately, it now looks like our government staked all on the democracy gambit and did not work out much of a plan B.
Immediately after 9/11/01, President Bush called Islam a religion of peace and pursued a path of conciliation toward it and the nations where it predominates. Politically, this may have been advisable at the time, but I hoped that the leadership of our nation had a far greater understanding of Islam than they had demonstrated publicly. In the years that have followed, I have reluctantly concluded that, with few exceptions, those in charge of running our government do not possess a sound understanding of Islam and have consequently made serious mistakes in dealing with Muslim nations. Because the general public’s understanding of Islam is growing rapidly in the West, however, and is doing so in the face of massive political correctness and various other obstacles that, intentionally or otherwise, have tended to prolong the state of ignorance, there are encouraging signs that some of those among our policymaking elite have revised their thinking. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before the conduct of public policy conforms to the reality of the problems that confront us.
I obviously lack on-the-scene experience in Iraq, and neither do I have credentials that certify that I am an expert on the Middle East and Islam. I like to think, however, that I have certain insights, including a greater understanding of Christianity than commonly exists among our policymaking and media elites, that allow me to make sounder judgments about the situation in Iraq than I find being offered by many of our leading politicians and pundits. Therefore, for what it is worth, I offer herein some observations about the situation in Iraq that I judge to be of particular relevance for Christians. I hope that these observations will stimulate feedback and discussion from regular visitors to this site.
For some years now, my study of Islam and its history has convinced me that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy as we in the West understand that term because its theology and history are incompatible with the separation of mosque and state. In contrast, American democracy has always rested on the assumption that neither should religious organizations be directly involved in running the government nor should the government be directly involved in running religious organizations. The founding fathers of this nation were Christians who believed that the nation’s political life should be conducted within the framework of Judeo-Christian morality, but they crafted a Constitution that carefully avoided the explicit mixing of religion with the operations of the national government. Thus, they rejected the European practice of having an official state church, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founding fathers did not seek to eliminate the influence of the Christianity on government, but they did seek to limit the extent to which religious organizations might acquire governmental powers. Just where to draw the line that separates church from state has given rise to much controversy, but that such a line should exist in American democracy is not open to doubt.
By contrast, Islam is a faith that mandates the conjoining of “church” and state. In Islamic theology, the Quran is the very word of Allah as dictated to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. Mankind is commanded to live according to the Quran’s mandates, and the political mechanisms that men set up for the conduct of their affairs must conform as closely as possible to Quranic specifications. Because men are fallible and the Quran is a very difficult work to fully understand, it is the “holy men” who are recognized as the greatest Quranic scholars who are the most obvious choice for being entrusted with the basic responsibility for determining the specifics of the Quran’s mandates. These “holy men” are not necessarily to have direct control of the day-to-day operations of government since it can be assumed that their religious duties demand most of their attention, but they are understood as properly having supervisory powers over those charged with actually conducting such operations. The Iranian regime in existence since 1979 provides one prominent illustration of the conjoining of “church” and state within the framework of Islamic theology. The Sunni regime of Saudi Arabia provides another example. Of course, in all nations where Islam prevails, Islamic theology requires that the legal system should be that of Islamic Law (Sharia), as interpreted by those who are most knowledgeable about the faith.
Although Islamic theology clearly points to the most knowledgeable religious authorities as the men who should have the responsibility for enunciating and interpreting Sharia and for setting up the guidelines for the operation of government, considerable separation between “church” and state has often existed in practice in Islamic nations. For one thing, powerful monarchs and dictators have not cared to have their hands tied by “holy men” who do not answer directly to them and may seek to oppose them. For another, substantial disagreements have tended to emerge among the different “holy men” who have enjoyed high standing in the Islamic community. These disagreements have led to the development of different Islamic sects, the best-known of which are, of course, the Sunnis and the Shia, and to the development of different contenders for leadership within particular sects. Consequently, those who conduct the operations of government have been provided with opportunities to assert some independence from the religious authorities by playing them off against each other. Then, too, there have always been some “holy men” on the fringes of power whose services are potentially for sale. A clever ruler can always round up at least a few of them for the purpose of reconciling his operations and behavior with the predominant faith. In practice, therefore, some separation of “church” and state has tended to exist within Islamic societies, but nothing approximating the religious freedom that we take for granted in the West has emerged.
Christians regard the Bible as being divinely inspired, but their reverence for it differs greatly from the reverence that devout Muslims exhibit toward the Quran. In large part, this difference reflects the fact that while the Quran presents itself as the very word of Allah, Christians generally view the Bible as a work compiled by divinely inspired men. Only a small part of the Bible is presented as the very Word of God as dictated by a heavenly angel. It does contain passages, particularly in the Pentateuch, that are presented as coming directly from God, and much of the prophetic material of the Book of Daniel consists of statements from an angelic emissary. Overwhelmingly, however, the Bible consists of a collection of historical accounts, prophetic material that is divinely inspired but given in the words of the prophets themselves, and worshipful material in the form of supplications, songs, and poetry. Furthermore, its contents have been subjected to minute and searching critical investigations for over two hundred years, and scholars who view it with various degrees of skepticism dominate biblical scholarship in mainstream academia. By contrast, the critical study of the Quran and its history is not permitted in Islamic nations and has been severely constrained in the West in recent decades because of political correctness and other factors, one of which is the fact that scholars who become marked as being too critical of Islam risk persecution and even death by doing so. In general, Muslims believe that the practitioners of other religions should exhibit great tolerance toward them, but that the superiority of their faith entitles them to provide something less than full reciprocity.
Given the circumstances surrounding the treatment of the Bible in what we can loosely call “Christendom,” it is difficult to imagine a mob forming in a Western nation to protest a news story about the desecration of a copy of the Bible in, say, Saudi Arabia. By contrast, a single paragraph in a false story in Newsweek that claimed that a copy of the Quran had been flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo by U.S. prison guards sufficed to produce riots in several Islamic countries that brought about the deaths of at least nine people. Obviously, a great many Muslims have tender sensibilities! Also obviously, a question exists as to whether people who are so easily aroused to anger against infidels through propaganda and media manipulation and whose prevailing religion unites “church” and state should be seriously regarded as being ready for genuine democracy. I submit that the evidence suggests that the answer is no.
One reason for saying “no” is Iraq’s treatment of its Christian minority. The Christians of Iraq, often called “Assyrians,” have managed to maintain their faith since the time of the Prophet in the face of great discrimination and, at times, severe persecution. They live mainly in the north in the vicinity of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, though they also have had some presence in Baghdad. As of the spring of 2003, it is generally agreed, Iraq’s Christians constituted about 5 percent of the nation’s total population. The existence of this minority has been largely ignored by our mainstream press, which regularly divides the Iraqi population into three parts: the majority Shia, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni. One can cynically suggest, however, that the media’s ignoring the Christians simply reflected their lack of interest in them and their underlying assumption that they would not play a significant role in post-Saddam Iraq.
Following the occupation of Iraq by the Americans and their (primarily British) allies in the spring of 2003, it did not take long for the persecution of Christians in Iraq to become a serious problem. As anti-American sentiment grew, Iraqi Christians increasingly became a favored target for those who opposed the occupation. Perhaps because they did not want to be perceived as favoring Christians, the Americans do not appear to have offered them special protection, and Iraqi law enforcement officials clearly did not! There is evidence that voting in predominantly Christian areas was suppressed in January 2005, and incidents of violence against Christians and their churches became frequent. The reaction of many Iraqi Christians to their situation was to flee the country, and by the beginning of 2007, it is estimated that half of them had done so, mostly going to nearby Syria. Interestingly, the Iraqi government appears to be concerned about the Christian exodus, which represents a considerable loss of productive human capital, and it is now considering the establishment of a majority Christian province in the area around ancient Nineveh. It is noteworthy that since the proposed Christian province lies in the northern part of Iraq, the award of territory to the Christians would diminish the area under Sunni dominance.
Although most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam deposed, their gratitude to the Americans for ridding the nation of him proved quite restrained and short-lived. I suggest that some major factors explaining this are that the liberation from Saddam was accomplished by infidels, that the prevailing culture in Iraq instills an inordinate sense of pride among males, and that Arabs in general have managed, to a remarkable degree, to assign the responsibility for their cultural, political, and economic failures to others than themselves. In any event, the Americans soon found themselves bogged down in a complicated conflict with no easy resolution. From the beginning of their occupation of much of Iraq, they have had to fight jihadists and some of the remnants of the Baathist regime. And especially since the demolition of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in February 2006, they have had to cope with sectarian strife. That strife threatens to evolve into an all-out civil war, and the U.S. forces in Baghdad are taking casualties in their efforts to prevent this from happening. They also continue to take casualties in their fight against Sunni insurgents, particularly in Anbar province, and it has become increasingly evident that Iranian agents are active in operations against the Americans.
If Muslims are so dead-set on killing each other, more and more Americans are asking, why should the American military try to bring about peace between the warring sects, neither of whom appears to have much use for the U.S. government and the American people? The situation somewhat resembles the period of the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988, during which the Iraqis and Iranians fought a war that restrained their abilities to cause trouble elsewhere. If Sunnis and Shiites are kept busy killing each other, one can cynically suggest, they may seek assistance from infidels instead of attacking them. Moreover, all-out sectarian conflict would tend to focus greater attention on the inherent deficiencies of Islam and might accelerate its ultimate collapse.
I suggest that the although the idea of standing aside while Sunnis and Shiites experience of the joys of mutual slaughter may have some appeal to those who prefer a “realist” approach to the problems of the Middle East, such a course of action could lead to death and destruction on a scale not seen since the days of Saddam, but over a wider area. Sunnis greatly outnumber Shia, but the Shia are a majority in Iraq, and the government of Iran is a militant Shiite theocracy. Iran is stronger than any of the predominantly Sunni Arab states; it is allied with predominately Sunni Syria, it exercises great influence in Lebanon because of its control of Hezbollah; it has some influence with Hamas; it has gained respect among some militant Sunnis because of its recent actions; and it is in a position to assist Shiite uprisings in countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, with significant Shiite minorities. It goes without saying that an all-out Sunni-Shia conflict will imperil world oil production and cause a large increase in oil’s price. Beyond that economic fact, there is a moral consideration as well. I cannot see how sitting on the sidelines while non-Christians war with each other can be justified in terms of Christian theology. Perhaps those who are more knowledgeable about the matter than I am can explain how it can be.
There are those who say that the best way out of the mess in Iraq is to break the nation up into three parts assigned to the Shia, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds. This proposed solution, which was being advanced as early as the Gulf War of 1990-1991, would give rise to numerous problems that warrant relegating it to the extreme last resort category. Because the lands dominated by Sunni Arabs have no petroleum, it will never be acceptable to them unless they can somehow be given their unfair share of the oil revenues received by the other areas. There would be the question of what to do with Baghdad, which would probably have to be set up as some kind of international city. Then there would be the issue of what to do with the remaining Christians and another minority, the Muslim Turkomen, who also live mainly in the north. The government of Turkey, another country with a large Kurdish minority, might well choose to grab some Iraqi territory for itself in order to protect the Turkomen and drive out some Kurds. Moreover, the existence of an independent Kurdistan on the Turkish border would be an invitation to conflict. Ethnic cleansing would undoubtedly occur in locations where the local population did not consist entirely of the empowered group. And is it wise to create landlocked nations that lack friendly relations with neighboring nations with access to the sea? Obviously, I believe, it is a sounder strategy to try to build an Iraqi nation with a federal structure in which provincial/regional political entities have real power.
A common perception is that the present government of Iraq is dominated by members of Shiite religious parties and is unwilling and unequipped to deal forcefully with the Shiite militias, most notably the “Mahdi Army” that support Moktada al-Sadr, the most anti-American of the leading Shiite clerics. This perception has considerable validity, but I believe it is a gross error to assume that the government of Prime Minister Maliki will never oppose the forces allied with al-Sadr. For one thing, the politicians who represent the Shiite religious parties are not necessarily all the diehard Shiite Muslims that many appear to assume them to be. Many of the better educated Iraqis are religious “moderates” whose attachment to their faith is by no means as total as is commonly believed. That so many of these individuals wound up associating themselves with religious parties resulted from the fact that when the green light was given to the formation of political parties early in the occupation, the religious parties had advantages of organization and mass membership that proved attractive to politicians seeking a quick rise to prominence. Consequently, the religious parties attained a dominance of the political landscape that proved disappointing to those hoping for the establishment of a genuine democracy, but that does not mean that the politicians who run them are as ideologically inflexible as the rank and file party members who participate in street demonstrations. When and if the opportunity arises, some will alter their positions and their allegiances.
Although the Shia of Iraq share the religious faith of the rulers of Iran, they are Arabs, not Persians, and their clerics do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with the ruling mullahs of Iran with regard to the extent of clerical involvement in the affairs of government and the Iranians’ emphasis on world conquest. Moreover, the Shiite clerics of Iraq have to be aware of the abysmal economic performance of Iran under the mullahocracy and the immense amount of popular discontent that exists there; and I am confident that most of them do not care for al-Sadr, who appears to have close links to the mullahocracy. It is my surmise that if they felt secure against Sunni-inspired violence, most of them would not stand in the way of a political settlement in which the Sunnis receive a share of the power in the national government and a significant share of the oil revenues. Then, too, I instinctively feel that it ought to be possible for the Americans to work out a deal with the existing government of Iraq that provides for the crushing of the Sunni insurgency in exchange for the dismantling of al-Sadr’s “Mahdi Army.” Were that to happen, it might then be possible to construct an Iraqi society in which power is shared among leaders of different interest groups, including even the Christians, and one could, I suppose, call such an outcome a type of “democracy.” Realizing such an outcome is likely to prove very difficult, however, and I have my doubt that the Iraqi government can handle its part of any agreement. The bureaucracy of the Iraqi government has so far demonstrated that it is rife with incompetence and venality, and it may be unable to reform itself quickly. In that event, the U.S. government, under intense public pressure, could well be forced to pull out of Iraq regardless of the consequences.
The Democratic Party, with much help from its media allies, was able to capitalize on the public’s dissatisfaction with the situation in Iraq and various other Republican problems to gain control of Congress in the election of last November. Ironically, however, this puts them in the position of needing to demonstrate some responsibility with regard to our Iraqi policy. The Democrats in Congress will, no doubt, continue to criticize every move Bush makes that increases our commitment of resources to winning in Iraq and recognizes that we are in a long-term conflict with radical Islam that includes the struggle there. Nevertheless, in view of the likely consequences of an American pullout, I very much doubt that they are even close to cutting off the funding of the war there. That is the tactic that the Democrats used to end the war in Vietnam over thirty years ago. Following that decision, many of us still remember, several million people lost their lives because of Communist takeovers in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, but the huge loss of life seems not to have weighed very heavily upon the collective liberal conscience. And if the situation in Iraq continues for two more years much like it is at present, the funding cutoff route will probably gain support, with consequences that are potentially catastrophic.
I doubt, however, that the situation in Iraq will continue as it is for two more years; and even if it does, events elsewhere will probably prevent a withdrawal of American forces. The war of radical Islam against the rest of the world in general and against the United States and Israel in particular is taking place in other locations than Iraq, of course, and we can be sure that our Islamic foes will continue to pursue it whatever we do in Iraq. Mainstream Islam is a religion of world conquest by force, and it is being preached in thousands of mosques that the moment in history has arrived for Islam, at last, to finish the task it began in the seventh century. “We lost our way and were punished,” the radical clerics proclaim, “because we allowed the practice of Islam to become corrupted, but if we can now restore the observance of the faith to a sufficient degree of purity, Allah will reward us with the world.” This message is absurd, of course, but it carries sufficient weight with many of the faithful to be taken very seriously by them. We can be reasonably sure that new terrorist outrages will occur, persecutions of non-Muslims minorities will continue, and popular animosity toward Islam and those who practice it aggressively will continue to grow. Consequently, it will become increasingly difficult to sell the line that there will be no war if we take our troops out of Iraq and promise to be nice to all those people in the world who have real or imagined grievances against us.
The leadership of Iran's government appears to take very seriously the theology of Shiism regarding the apocalyptic arrival of the twelfth Imam to bring final victory to the forces of Islam over those of Satan; i.e. the United States. Just how seriously the mullahocracy as a whole takes this theology is open to some question, but it does appear that President Ahmadinejad and at least some of his Islamic mentors take it very seriously indeed. And that the mullahocracy is wedded to the belief that the Shiite version of Islam is destined to rule the world does not seem open to question. The members of this ruling establishment are well aware of the great opposition to the war in Iraq that exists in the United States and have taken strong encouragement from the Democratic victory in November. I am confident that they believe their own propaganda about the weaknesses of the infidels, especially their fear of death and their unwillingness to fight protracted wars. For reasons that I shall not go into here, the psychology of many Iranian males conditions them to take great risks on the assumption that Allah will take care of them. (I recall, for example, being told around 1960 that the Iranian equivalent of the game of "chicken" was very popular.)
Fortunately, radical Islam, which is also mainstream Islam, is so out of touch with the realities of the modern world that its long-term survival is unlikely. I could be wrong, of course, and it may be that most of the world is destined to wind up prostrating itself in prayer five times a day after first bowing in the direction of Mecca. As I see it, however, Islam, including its theology and its history, is extremely vulnerable to critical analysis, and it is becoming ever more difficult for its defenders to prevent such analysis from reaching people who were raised in the Islamic faith. Although no one knows the numbers involved, there is abundant evidence that there are a great many ex-Muslims, particularly among educated people, who became disillusioned with their faith and left it. The growth of Islamic apostasy is being vigorously resisted by violence, censorship, and intimidation, but the growth is still occurring. At some point in the not very distant future, this growth is likely to become explosive.
The awareness that mainstream Islam is badly out of step with the modern world and is highly vulnerable to critical study has spawned a reform movement in Islam, but Islam's reformation is going to be difficult, if not impossible. Reforming Islam means rewriting or abandoning major portions of the Quran, but on whose authority do you change the very word of Allah? And then there is the little matter of reconciling the behavior of the Prophet with what have come to be regarded as the desirable norms of human behavior in most of the world. Perhaps a genuine Islamic Reformation is possible, but I am inclined to doubt it.
If I were a gambling man and knew where one oculd place a substantial bet abouit whether Christianity or Islam will be the world's number one religion in twenty years, I know where I would put my money. For what it is worth, I predict a substantial boom in the distribution of Bibles in Islamic countries. And as for those who cannot envision a crisis in Islamic belief developing rapidly, I call attention to the fact that not many foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Empire during the 1970s. I concede that Islam has had a much longer time to perfect brainwashing techniques than the Communists had and that a heavenly paradise obtained through martyrdom has more psychic appeal than the secular utopia of Marxism, but I am confident that the light bulbs of reason have begun to flash in the brains of many Muslims and that the enlightenment process is only in its beginning.