The European media are crowded with editorials condemning the Swiss for voting to prohibit the construction of any more minarets in their country. Here in Norway, the newspaper Dagsavisen went furthest of all, devoting its entire front page on Monday to a comparison of the entire nation of Switzerland with Nazi brownshirts. The front-page illustration did not admit to misinterpretation: the Swiss were Nazis, period.
Virtually all of the media went on autopilot in their abuse of the Swiss. What is at issue is the supposedly “sacred” freedom of religion, which has become an icon especially among left-wing intellectuals and the European niceness industry as a whole. But hold it for one second: As far as I’ve noticed, no major commentator or intellectual who has blasted Switzerland for this plebiscite has taken into account Islam’s political content. Can anyone in my own country of Norway, for example, point to a single — I repeat, a single — Muslim congregation within our borders that is secular? That is, a single congregation that rejects Sharia and Islam’s political ambitions?
In any event, thanks to the Swiss minaret vote, Islam and Christianity are yet again being brought together in a forced marriage. A minaret, we keep being told, is just like a church spire. Nothing new there: When it comes to Islam, the editorialists, columnists, and talking heads simply can’t or won’t face reality. These “decent” people are appalled by the Swiss people’s rejection of minarets — period. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that the case is a disagreeable one — but if so, it’s because Islam is itself disagreeable. To put it bluntly, a mosque with minarets is not the equivalent of a church with a spire. Why? Because Europe’s churches have no political agenda, and because they aren’t obsessed with the painstaking study of ancient “divine” laws that are consistently placed above secular law.
It is precisely this disagreeable aspect of Islam, in contrast with Christianity, that I think we would profit by discussing openly and honestly. Because if I could be sure that a Muslim congregation (with or without its own minaret, even though the minaret adds an extra dose of religio-political power) was founded on the same freedom-based values as, say, the Norwegian state church, and that any “struggle” involving that community was limited to arguments about things like same-sex marriage and whether Muhammed was born of a virgin, they could build as many minarets in my neighborhood as they wanted — because in that case Islam would not represent a challenge to Norwegian liberty and democracy. But unfortunately Islam does represent a challenge. Therefore I pose this challenge to the elite of my country: Of the over 100 Muslim congregations in Norway, name one that will forever fight tooth and nail against Sharia and for a secular Norway. If such a faith community exists, it’s doing a very good job of keeping itself hidden.
What the people of Switzerland have understood is that Islam, in its fundamentals, does have political ambitions. By contrast, elsewhere in Europe — and certainly here in Norway — the media have been almost entirely silent about the real-world conditions that help to explain the Swiss vote to begin with. Switzerland already had three mosques with minarets. Then the Turkish cultural association in the town of Olten bought a lot outside of town and applied for permission to build a mosque with minarets. It thereupon emerged that the association’s ideological lodestar was the ultranationalist Alparslan Türkes, founder of the racist National Movement Party and the paramilitary group “The Gray Wolves,” which was responsible for several assassination attempts in Turkey and elsewhere. As several observers have noticed, the ties between totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism, fascism, and Islamism (i.e., political Islam) are intimate. It is not surprising, then, that this so-called “cultural association” is infected by extremism.
The links between this cultural association in Switzerland and nationalistic fascism in Turkey is thus attested to by the fact that this faith community in Olten practices far more than just religion; there is also a great deal of politics in the mix. And this takes us straight into the heart of the issue: To condemn the Swiss people’s “no” on minarets — as virtually every public figure in Europe seems to be doing — because the vote supposedly represents an assault on religious freedom, is not just imprecise but completely wrong. Europe’s minarets have every bit as much political and legal significance as they do religious meaning.
Allow me to mention a case in which the media and intellectuals should have reacted firmly to Islam’s mingling of religion and politics. One of the largest and most important Muslim congregations in Norway, the Islamic Cultural Centre (ICC), recently opened a new mosque in downtown Oslo that has resplendent minarets. What is the ICC? Well, it’s directly connected to the Jamaat-i-Islami movement in Pakistan, which was founded by one of the world’s leading Islamist ideologues of the last century, namely Abu Ala Mauwdudi (1903–1979). Jamaat-i-Islami is also an Islamist political party, founded by the selfsame Mauwdudi. The ICC’s ideology, then, is precisely the same as that of Mauwdudi and Jamaat-i-Islami.
That the world’s largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mauwdudi are ideological twins is confirmed by several of Mauwdudi’s works. For those of us who live in countries where women enjoy equal rights, his 1939 book Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam is a masterpiece when it comes to degrading women’s status. Mauwudi writes, for example, that a woman’s eyes are an “erogenous zone” that can lead to adultery. Ditto perfume. And the same goes for her voice, which is the devil’s agent. And don’t forget the sound of her heels. Unsurprisingly, then, gender segregation is absolute for Mauwdudi — and for the ICC. Those of us here in Norway were all granted a special insight into this congregation’s mentality when our queen, Sonja, visited the ICC’s new mosque in the Oslo neighborhood of Grønland earlier this year. Picture this: As Queen Sonja enters the building, she amiably offers her hand to a male representative of the congregation. The man grimaces and twitches, and his hand zigzags feverishly in the air before ending up on the shoulder of a boy at his side, whom he asks to greet the queen. Thus did he avoid breaking Mauwdudi’s prohibition against touching strange women.
“Islam is an all-encompassing ideology”: this is Mauwdudi’s motto. In other words, a society has not been Islamized until all manifestations of life — all social and political institutions — are governed according to Islamic principles. The objective is not only to develop an Islamic state with Islamic law, but also an Islamic economy, Islamic science, and so on. Will anyone dare to liken such an ideology to the established church community in the West or to mainstream contemporary interpretations of Christianity?
One has to wonder: What is it about Islam that makes this religion — especially in its organized form — tip over so easily into politics and law? The problem began with its founder, Muhammed, his principal message, and his actions, which make Islam far more difficult to reform and secularize than Christianity. As the Danish philosopher Kai Sørlander has observed, Islam and Christianity are not at all similar phenomena, but are, on the contrary, radically different. In fact, Sørlander maintains that Christianity’s core message itself played a critical role in the revocation of the clergy’s temporal power, while the opposite has happened in large portions of the Islam-dominated parts of the world.
But why should we care about such things in these modern times? Can’t people just be allowed to believe that a church spire and a minaret symbolize pretty much the same values and ways of thinking — that the religions, in short, are twins? Sørlander’s answer to this is as follows: It’s important to understand that if democracy “has developed and put down its roots in certain societies, but not in others, it can be because of a difference between the religions that have prevailed in those different places. If one prefers that people who live in democracies be blind to this difference, then one is not helping to strengthen democracy. On the contrary, one is helping to weaken its ability to preserve itself.”
Before I go further, I want to make one thing clear: I realize that I am entering an area here that has already become a minefield in public debate. Many think that it’s better, in the interests of harmony and understanding, to avoid discussion of Islam’s basic premises and thus steer clear of needless conflict and keep from offending Muslims.
I believe, however, that if we don’t have this debate about the challenges Islam poses to our democratic societies, we will one day discover that key elements of Islam — elements that make it difficult for an Enlightenment to occur among the Muslim population — have taken root in our own backyard. What is the greater danger: That an open discussion will intensify tensions for an unforeseeable period, or that the problems will be allowed to grow until they are past any hope of resolution — all because we retreated from an uncomfortable situation? Besides, if it’s really true that our democracy can’t tolerate an open discussion of this topic, doesn’t that mean that our democracy is already critically weakened?
I wish to make yet another major point: To discuss Islam and Christianity from the perspective of secularism and democracy is not to view Islam as being of lesser value than Christianity. On the contrary, it is a question of examining historical events that may help us to understand and be aware of the ways in which these two religions have functioned under different sociopolitical systems. What is condescending is not to take Islam seriously as a belief system.
How to comprehend the key difference between Islam and Christianity in regard to the separation of politics from religion? Kai Sørlander’s answer is to look at the two religions’ core messages, as expressed at the time of their founding — in other words, to go back to the religions’ first messengers, Jesus and Muhammed. Christianity is based on Jesus’s life and preaching, as recounted in the New Testament, while Islam is based on Muhammed’s life and preaching, as recounted in the Koran and the various hadith collections (accounts of Muhammed’s acts and sayings). These two men’s lives and teachings are radically different. Jesus never sought political power, but must rather be characterized as socially engaged. He drew a clear line between this world and the next, which is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the passage in Matthew about “render[ing] unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Jesus was, moreover, a pacifist who allowed himself to be crucified without resistance. Nor did he introduce a new set of laws; on the contrary, he revoked brutal edicts that dated back to the time of Moses and that were set down in the Old Testament.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in John’s gospel, in which the scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman taken in adultery: “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” Jesus’ reply: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” When the scribes and Pharisees left, Jesus told the woman: “Neither do I condemn thee.” Indeed, Jesus commanded his disciples to “turn the other cheek,” told them “judge ye not,” and said “love thine enemy.” These commandments cannot easily be translated into legislation. As Sørlander points out, in fact, such commandments would undermine the power of any state. For example, Sørlander asks: “What good is an army that turns the other cheek?”
Muhammed’s life tells an entirely different story than that of Jesus. For Muhammed, religion and politics were one and the same. Muhammed led an army and was the supreme judge in his realms. He introduced legislation that covered every area of life — marriage, divorce, child custody. He established financial regulations, including a prohibition on interest (for this reason Muslims in Europe have founded banks that offer interest-free loans). He formulated criminal laws that prescribed amputation and whipping. Unlike Jesus, who rejected the Mosaic law about the stoning of adulteresses, Muhammed directed that extramarital sex, among other things, should be punished by stoning to death. Consider the account of a woman who went to see Muhammed and told him she had been unfaithful to her husband and gotten pregnant out of wedlock. The story goes that Muhammed refused to forgive her. She visited him again, at which time he supposedly instructed her to return when her child was born. She did, and was then told to nurse the baby until it was weaned off of breast milk. When the woman had done this, Muhammed took the child from her and gave it to another Muslim, and arranged her punishment: She was buried up to her neck and Muhammed ordered her to be stoned to death. Even today this kind of punishment is carried out by, among others, the violent Islamist group called al-Shabab in southern Somalia (which enjoys support among the Norwegian Somalis who worship at a major, but minaret-less, Oslo mosque, the Tawfiiq Islamsk Senter). Recently a man in Somalia was stoned to death for having extramarital sex, while the woman he allegedly had sex with has been spared — for the time being, anyway: first, in accordance with Muhammed’s example and teaching, she must give birth to the child she is bearing.
Muhammed also drew some clear lines when it came to the difference between men’s and women’s rights, and between the rights of Muslims and infidels. The society he created on the Arabian peninsula 14 centuries ago was thoroughly Islamized — and is thus considered divine and worthy of emulation for all time.
The title of the film Ayaan Hirsi Ali made with Theo van Gogh in 2004, Submission, was far from casually selected. The word Islam means “submission” — no surprise, then, that the religion allows little room for doubt or rebellion. As the American author Paul Berman says: “In Islam, submission is all. Submission to God allows Islam to create a unified, moral, and satisfying society — at least potentially, even if the flesh-and-blood Muslims in any given era have forgotten their religious obligations. Submission is the road to social justice, to a contented soul, and to harmony with the world.”
Christianity’s legitimization of rebellion paved the way for Luther’s revolt against church leaders. Luther went to the heart of the New Testament, founding his arguments on Jesus’ life and teachings. At first the Reformation caused ecclesiastical authority in Protestant countries to be transferred to the king, but — as a result of the same kind of argumentation — the king, too, eventually lost that power. The fact that the Bible, during the same period, was made available in several languages, and that ordinary Christians were therefore able to interpret it themselves, further contributed to a process of secularization that had its breakthrough in the Enlightenment.
It is not necessarily the case, then, that Christianity, as is often said, was “forced” to accept Enlightenment ideas. On the contrary, the demand for the separation of the religious and political spheres sprouted from within the church itself — because Christianity made room for such a separation. Islamic reform, on the contrary, has an entirely different political dynamic, which is strongly connected to the diametrical difference between Jesus and Muhammed.
The secularization of Christianity was a process that was motivated and influenced by Jesus’ own life and teachings. To focus on Muhammed’s life and teachings, however, as part of any attempt to reform Islam would have precisely the opposite effect — namely, the political sphere would be thoroughly Islamized. A reformation of the sort that Christianity experienced, then, would lead to a pure Wahhabism of the kind that exists in Saudi Arabia, not to a modern, secularized democracy. It is for this reason, argues Sørlander, that any movement in the Islam-dominated world in the direction of freedom and democracy based on secular law has never been motivated from within.
This does not mean that Muslims cannot be secular democrats, or that it is impossible for Islamic countries to move toward secularization. But such a development is far more difficult for Muslims and for Islamic countries because the process requires them to violate key precepts of their faith. What is especially challenging is that the process demands that God-given law, Sharia, be discarded — a problem that does not exist in Christianity.
It is these dramatic differences between Christianity and Islam that Europe’s elite either fails or understand or has chosen to sweep under the carpet — at the cost of the continent’s ability to preserve liberal values. This conduct on the part of the elite is especially damaging to freedom-loving European Muslims who wish to be liberated from their repressive houses of worship — with or without minarets.
One final point: In many European countries, Norway included, religious communities enjoy the financial support of the national government. In other words, tax money is being used to spread the ideologies of people like Mauwdudi and al-Shabab in supposedly free countries. It is absurd — and dangerous. But for the political, media, and intellectual elite, alas, this would appear to be an inconvenient truth.
This essay originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of Human Rights Service, www.rights.no, and was translated into English by Bruce Bawer.