SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- SHOULD democratically elected leaders in more or less secular countries ever say that this or that religion is essentially good or essentially bad? The dilemma is especially acute, perhaps, if the religion that they want to speak about is one which they don’t happen to practise, and presumably don’t know about in any depth. But ever since September 2001, and especially over the last few weeks of intensifying conflict with Islamic State, it has been a question that Western heads of government cannot completely duck. The West is at war with an adversary which claims to be acting in the name of Islam. Does that mean that the West is, in any sense whatever, at war with Islam?
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11, arguments about the fundamental nature of Islam caused some acrimony between George W Bush and his evangelical supporters. The Bush administration’s line was that Islam as such was not the adversary. On the contrary, it was worthy of respect as a great and inspiring religious tradition in which millions of people found comfort. The White House dissociated itself strongly from the remark of Franklin Graham, an influential preacher, that Islam—regardless of who was interrpreting it—was simply “a very evil and wicked religion.” Meanwhile Tony Blair went through a phase of carrying a Koran around with him, and arguing passionately that Islam in its truest self was an inspiration to peace and altruism. He seemed convinced that his own passionate Christian beliefs gave him some insight into the problem of scriptural interpretation.
A few days ago, it was Barack Obama’s turn to make a solemn distinction between Islam itself and people who claimed to be waging a terrorist war in its name. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, he said:
The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims all over the world aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them, there is only us—because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.
That was enough to earn him some sharp rebukes not just from Christian evangelicals or “theocons” – but also “neocons” or secular conservatives. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who is now a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, declared that it was
…noxious that Obama—and for that matter, George W Bush before him—would use their presidential platform to define what any religion is or is not…Simply put, for the purposes of policy practitioners, religion should simply be what its practitioners believe it to be, and not what politicians or ivory tower academics claim it to be.
That is strong language, but there is a point in what Mr Rubin is saying. Noxious might be putting it too sharply, but it is somehow odd for a Western politician to be telling anybody, however horrible and unworthy of respect: “You don’t understand your own religion, but I do…”
Almost exactly the same rhetorical effect could have been be achieved if Mr Obama had confined himself to saying something like: “We know that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims in America and across the world who share our abhorrence of Islamic State…” That would be a statement about political science or religious sociology, rather than theology. And it might be a more appropriate line of argument for the leader of a country where the separation of church and state is a cherished principle.