December 9, 2015

Winning the War of Ideas Against Radical Islam

Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Har...
Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram. Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the war of ideas between radical Islam (including Islamism) and democratic societies, some U.S. Christians have suggested that the only way we will prevail is through Christianity. Do they have a point, or is this merely self-serving on their part?

For some of these Christians, the only way to win a war of ideas against Islamic extremism is through Christian extremism. We atheists have dismissed this argument repeatedly. If the problem is religious extremism, hoping to solve it through more religious extremism seems ludicrous. Even though we have set aside this argument, we must keep an eye on those continuing to make it. Some of these Christian extremists pose a real threat when they find themselves in positions of power in our government.

There's another group of Christians making a very different argument in favor of Christianity as the preferred method for dealing with radical Islam, and this is what I'd like to address in this post. This second group of Christians tends to be more moderate in their preferred form of Christianity. They are not advocating Christian extremism, and most of them are not fundamentalist Christians. Their argument, at least as I have encountered it, seems to be that contemporary mainstream Christianity as it is currently practiced in the U.S. provides both a valuable model for ordinary (i.e., non-radicalized) Muslims and an opportunity to foster productive relationships with Muslims that might prevent radicalization.

With regard to the first point, some Christians suggest that mainstream Christianity can show non-radicalized Muslims what it looks like to integrate religious belief into a democratic society. There are many objections one could make to this claim, not the least of which is that it often smacks of condescension and cultural superiority. Even if many of the Christians suggesting it do not mean it this way, it can sometimes sound like they are suggesting that they are better than Muslims and that Muslims should simply work harder to emulate them. In fairness, I don't think that many of these Christians consciously feel this way or are necessarily aware that this is how their message can be perceived by at least some Muslims. Still, it seems like it will have to move far beyond "just be more like us" if it is going to accomplish much.

The second point is the one I find far more interesting. The suggestion here seems to be that mainstream Christians are in an ideal position to build the sort of relationships with non-radicalized Muslims that can win hearts and minds, perhaps even serving as a sort of inoculation against radicalization. One of the specific ways I've seen some Christians talk about this involves interfaith work. I find this an interesting approach and one that makes at least some sense. Developing productive relationships does appear to hold some promise in affecting attitudes. The part I'm not so sure about is whether one necessarily needs Christianity - or any other religion - for this to work.

Perhaps there is some truth to the suggestion some have made that the average Muslim might be somewhat more inclined to listen to or be interested in interacting with someone who believes in a different religion than an atheist. I don't know nearly enough Muslims to have much of a sense for this. If it was true, I suppose there could be some merit to the suggestion that mainstream Christians are in a good position to do this sort of thing. If it isn't true, then humanists, atheists, and other secular persons might be just as capable.

Over the long term, I see the primary path to prevailing against Islamic extremism as one of secularism. It is the same path I see as being essential to winning the war of ideas against Christian extremism here in the U.S. Regardless of which form of religious extremism one is focused on, increased secularism seems to be part of the answer. Still, I'm not prepared to say that it is the entire answer. Not only are there going to be limits to our ability to contribute to the secularization of other nations (e.g., Saudi Arabia), but I'm unconvinced that secular societies necessarily have much better ways for dealing with alienated youth than do religious societies.
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