A recent CBS News poll about President Donald Trump’s immigration action also discovered that Americans are divided along partisan lines about whether Islam encourages violence. A large majority of Democrats think the religion does not inspire violence more than other religions, such as Christianity.
“Generally speaking, do you think the Islamic religion encourages violence more than other religions around the world, less than other religions around the world, or about the same as other religions around the world,” the poll asked. Two-thirds (66 percent) of Democrats said Islam inspires violence about “the same amount” as other religions, while 62 percent of Republicans said it inspires violence “more than other religions.”
Unfortunately, the poll did not ask respondents to compare Islam to specific other religions, so it is impossible to know exactly which religions these Democrats were considering. Due to the predominance of Christianity in America, it is likely respondents were implying that Islam is no more violent than Christianity — or perhaps Judaism. It is less likely the respondents were considering atheism or communism as a comparably violent religion.
According to a recent report from Open Doors USA, Islamic extremism is the dominant driver of Christian persecution in 35 of the 50 worst countries. The organization also listed nationalism in East Asian countries as another driving force behind Christian persecution — especially in India and communist totalitarian state of North Korea.
In June of last year, the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism found that more than 55 percent of terror attacks in 2015 took place in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria. The report also found that 74 percent of deaths due to terror attacks that year took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria.
While tribal disputes and power squabbles also drive conflict in these states, many of the most violent groups (the Islamic State/ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, and others) are driven by a radical terrorist interpretation of Islam which seems uniquely suited to that religion. After all, Islam spread through conquest since its inception, and most versions of the faith are inherently political. The very concept of sharia — an Islamic law which encompasses all of life, from politics to economics to social life — explicitly links politics and religion, according to most interpretations.
Nevertheless, only Republicans reported that Islam is more violent than other religions. Even 53 percent of Independents in the CBS poll said Islam encourages violence only “the same amount” as other religions. Even 25 percent of Republicans said the same thing. By contrast, only 14 percent of Democrats and 28 percent of Independents said Islam is more violent than other religions.
Overall, a full half of Americans (50 percent) said Islam encourages violence “the same amount” as other religions, while only 33 percent described it as more violent. Some Americans (6 percent, 2 percent of Republicans, 9 percent of Democrats, and 5 percent of Independents) said Islam inspires violence less than other religions, but these numbers were remarkably small.
There are many explanations for Americans’ tendency to downplay the violence of Islam across the world. Most American Muslims are not terrorists, and most openly decry acts of terror across the world. Indeed, there are many peaceful sects of Islam, and some Muslims even fight for the separation of mosque and state, insisting that sharia should be a personal moral code, rather than political law. These Muslims remind Americans that Islam itself need not mean violence, and so they might inspire Americans to downplay the global threat of radical Islamic terror as somehow not inspired by Islam.
President Barack Obama maintained that “no religion is responsible for terrorism,” attempting to drive a wedge between all religion on the one hand and terrorism on the other. While this is a commendable goal, the fact of the matter is that certain readings of Islam have inspired more terror globally than any other religion in recent years. Islam has a violent history, spreading by the sword.
This does not mean most Muslims are terrorists, and Americans need to do a better job of understanding and working with the Muslims in our communities. But is it really a non-Muslim’s place to say that terror groups which claim to be inspired by Islam are somehow not? We cannot deny the terrifying fact — that Islam inspires violence across the world.
But there is a subtle and more insidious reason why Americans are reluctant to say Islam inspires violence more than other religions. In 2015, President Barack Obama infamously compared the Crusades and the Inquisition to radical Islamic terror. “Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” the president said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
Last year, Pope Francis even compared the Great Commission — Jesus’ order to the disciples to baptize all nations — to jihad, saying that “it is possible to interpret” Jesus’ commission “in terms of the same idea of conquest.”
With all due respect to the pontiff, it is not possible. Horrors have been committed in the name of Christ, but Jesus’ teachings themselves do not condone these things. In fact, the Crusades happened 1,000 years after Jesus’ ministry. In the decades shortly after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, early Christians were tremendously peaceful. They willingly suffered death to spread their faith by words and miracles, not by the sword. They founded the first orphanages and cared for the sick and dying when the pagans would not.
Jesus himself, though he claimed to be the Messiah and Jews expected the Messiah to conquer the Romans by force, insisted that his “kingdom is not of this world,” told his disciples to pay taxes, and even suffered the brutal Roman execution of crucifixion.
Even the Crusades themselves (which were based on the false premise that Christians could win forgiveness of sin in war, something Jesus never taught) were started as a defensive war, to protect peaceful pilgrims who were reportedly being raped and killed along the pathway to Jerusalem.
In the cases of the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and Jim Crow, Christians read their own historical biases into the Bible. This is why these were largely one-off events, as opposed to grand trajectories in Christian history. Yes, some Christians in the 1800s applied the curse of Ham as a justification for slavery. But Christians in the 800s had read the letters of Paul (and the gospels) as emphasizing the equality of all people under Christ, and fought to abolish slavery. The same thing happened in the 1800s as well.
Finally, there are some religions or ideologies which have ugly track records similar to Islam’s. In the 20th century, totalitarian communism killed more than 100 million people. Nationalism has long taught the superiority of one’s own people over any other, and has killed countless people over the long train of history.
Radical Islamic terrorism is a global threat today, as is North Korea’s oppressive regime — and the nationalism which oppresses millions belonging to religious minorities in India and other countries. But most Americans do not think of communism and nationalism as religions, so it is unlikely the 50 percent who say Islam inspires violence as much as other religions were thinking of communism and nationalism.
Americans should welcome Muslims and treat them well, but we should not overlook the threat of radical Islamic terrorism or pretend that Christianity has the same track record. At the same time, we should be cognizant of other ideological threats, and champion the principles of freedom and limited government as an antidote.