A few days after Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture on faith and reason at Regensburg University, I was invited onto PBS’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” to discuss the ensuing controversy with Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR]. During our exchange, Mr. Awad said that “the word ‘jihad’ does not mean holy war.” No one, he suggested, had ever been forced to become a Muslim. Equating “jihad” with “holy war,” he argued, was a notion “born within Christianity.”
Time constraints precluded my answering this directly, but on my return to my office in downtown Washington, I read an Associated Press story which began with this suggestive lead: “Al-Qaida in Iraq and its allies warned Pope Benedict XVI on Monday that he and the West were ‘doomed’ and proclaimed that the holy war would continue until Islam dominates the world.” The Al-Qaida statement was, shall we say, robust: “You infidels and despots, we will continue our jihad and never stop until God [permits] us to chop your necks and raise the… banner of monotheism, when God’s rule is established governing all people and nations…We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, [and] then the only thing acceptable [will be] a conversion or the sword.”
In other words, surrender to jihadist Islam or be murdered. As for the time-line involved here, Iraqi Al-Qaida took the broad view: “…jihad continues and should never stop until doomsday, when [Islam] ends victorious.”
I have neither the capacity nor the desire to engage in an exegetical exercise with Mr. Awad about the Qur’an and what it enjoins on Muslim believers. That can be done by specialists. But, had time permitted, I would have said to Mr. Awad that, irrespective of his understanding of “jihad,” there are tens of thousands of jihadis throughout the world who take a drastically different view: who believe that the murder of innocents in the name of God can be pleasing to God — indeed can be commanded by God — if it advances the cause of Islam.
Christians have developed, over the past centuries, a deep theological critique of past Christian attempts to advance Christianity coercively. The deepest taproot of that critique can be found in something Joseph Ratzinger wrote, in 1987: “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” The God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, who comes into history in search of man and who invites men and women into a dialogue of salvation, wishes a free choice for himself. Anything else, as the pope suggested at Regensburg, would be contrary to the nature of God, who creates the world (and us) through Logos, the Word, who is reason itself. God cannot command the unreasonable or the irrational; God cannot wish, much less command, the death of innocents in God’s name.
This is the kind of internal theological critique, based on Islamic warrants, that Mr. Awad and those who wish us to believe that “jihad” has been misunderstood, must foster in their own Islamic communities. It is not sufficient to deplore over-heated rhetoric in response to the pope’s Regensburg address (as CAIR) did; nor is it sufficient to say, as Mr. Amad said on the Lehrer program, that he and his organization condemn the murder of nuns and the burning of churches. More is needed — and what is needed are clear statements that these depredations are religiously offensive because they are the result of a distorted understanding of what God wishes and commands.
Unless Islamic leaders find the intellectual resources and the moral courage to condemn, on religious grounds, those who would murder in the name of God, more than a billion Muslims will be held hostage to the fanatics among their co-religionists. So will the rest of the world. It is long past time for Muslim leaders to stop quibbling over (or in some cases, dissembling about) the meaning of “jihad” and to condemn the jihadis who are turning the planet into a free-fire zone — and imagine that they’re doing God’s will in the process.