A large number of people in the United States, most prominently in Colorado, recently defeated Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton, and many participants in the debate over a proposal to build a Muslim community center near the World Trade Center site in New York City, see the current war on terrorism as equivalent to, or at least an element of, a larger war on Islam. Neither President Obama nor President George W. Bush before him, confused the two, but lots of people do.
One can see the attraction. Internationally, lots of morally repugnant things are done in the name of Islam. Many different terrorist groups around the world have taken up that mantle. Islam has been used to justify gross denials of women's rights around the world. There are scriptural sources in the Koran that can be marshaled to favor harsh, undemocratic, authoritarian political systems, and regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran have done just that.
Yet, the United States is constitutionally committed to freedom of religion, and while Islam was not contemplated by the drafters of the First Amendment, there is no doubt that it protects the free exercise rights of Muslims, just as much as it does the right of Christians and Jews to practice their religions. And, the First Amendment has worked very well in the United States to serve as a guide for accommodating Islamic religious practice in a sensible way into American life without leading to ethnic strife. American communities with large Muslim populations have not seen the kinds of religious clashes between Muslim and non-Muslim populations that have been observed in places like Germany and France, for example.
Islam also looks much more monolithic from typical American perspectives than it is in practice. Turkey, for example, is an almost entirely Muslim country, but the urban elites, the Kurdish population, the mostly rural Northern Turkish population's cultural influences from pre-Muslim Central Asia, and spill over Shi'ite populations in areas near Iran, live their faiths in very different ways in practice. The Sufi influenced Islamic practice of most of Pakistan differs greatly from the way that Islam is practiced in Saudi Arabia, and these in turn both differ greatly from the way that Islam is practice by most Iranians.
While both Bangladesh and Pakistan are comprised mostly of South Asian Sunni Muslims, other cultural differences helped push them to a civil war that split the nations in my lifetime.
Even in places like the college I attended, where I had several history courses that paid special attention to Islam's role in history, and took two courses on Islam, few Americans, myself included, have much familiarity with the practice of Islam in places like Indonesia where President Obama's mother worked as an anthropologist, or in Kenya, where his father was born. But, what I have learned makes clear that it is not safe to assume that Islam as practiced there is more than superficially similar to Islam as practiced elsewhere, when it comes to the influence that religion has on daily life and political identity.
Still, avoiding an implicit War on Islam, even when explicitly it is disavowed, isn't easy from a conceptual perspective. American power remains deeply entwined in the soft power that flows from the success of its ideologies and way of life, even if it isn't fashionable to mention this any more. The West may no longer be interested in open colonialism, but it does still want to spread its ideas.
Many of the ideas that the West would like to spread to improve the state of the world seek to dismantle ways of living and ways of viewing the world that are justified through Islam, whether or not that is the only way to live an Islamic life.
In truth, a lot of these enlightenment and modern ideas in the West aren't really comfortable companions with either Christianity or Judaism either. The scriptural support for slavery in the Bible, for example, hasn't gone away, it has simply been reinterpreted for so long that most people aren't aware that it is still there. There is Judeo-Christian scriptural support for religiously motivated genocidal war. There is scriptural support for treating women and children as second class citizens or property. There is scriptural support for radical anti-capitalism. Many of the writings of Martin Luther, one of the crucial figures in the Protestant Reformation, which was in the long run an important liberalizing force in Christianity, come across as the rantings of a bigoted conservative extremist today.
Centuries of doctrine and habit and intellectual workarounds worked out by clergy week after week in pulpits in churches big and small, and by rabbis in Talmudic conversations have largely secured a truce between ancient religious writings and modern religious life, although there are still tensions, such as the cultural clash in much of the Western world over gay rights.
While it is perhaps somewhat unfair to say so, the Judeo-Christian world has found peace between modernity and faith through carefully cultivated hypocrisy, picking and choosing the important lessons to be learned from their faiths.
The point of this is not to make the blanket statement that Islam is intellectually immature. The point is to make clear that it is perilous to conclude that a religious text will always and everywhere imply a particular conclusion about how people should live their lives.
But, the challenges of encouraging other nations to adopt cultural practices that produce respect for justice, compassion and prosperity in the predominantly Christian countries, which are already daunting, are even more daunting when one tries to overcome them without directly attacking the Islamic faith that is used to justify the status quo.
Millions of people in the world see a path to a politically pluralistic, economically modern, humane society that is consistent with Islam. But, much of the vanguard of people with these ideals in the Islamic world have changed their worldview and embraced these ideals only in connection with a more secular religious outlook. When the West backs its ideals abroad, it can help but to usually end up siding with an elite, non-religious, extremely liberal faction (by local standards) in any particular foreign political ecology that we encounter.
The question of how to reconcile modernity with Islam is one that no one in the American political scene is equipped to answer or even contribute very meaningfully to, yet the resolution of this question is central to the future of American foreign policy.
The share of Muslims who will ultimately persevere in maintaining a feudal society like the on the Prophet lived in when he, according to tradition, dictated the Koran, is unlikely to be any larger than the share of Christians who like as the Amish do. But, how this huge share of the world's population will get from where we are now, to an Islam more at peace with modernity is not at all clear. The world rejected the approach of colonialism in the 1960s, but has not yet found a great comprehensive ideology to govern the diffusion of the technologies and positive aspects of Western culture without doing as much harm as good.
This ignorance would seem to argue for a minimalist, non-interventionist foreign policy, but, fear of violence dramatized in the 9-11 attacks and other terrorist incidents, dependence upon oil much of which is controlled by predominantly Muslim countries, as well as the specter of the potential use of nuclear weapons in the name of Jihad, makes a hands off approach largely unworkable politically. We have no choice but to do something.
There is room to support a secular but not anti-religious agenda that shares our ideals, but the path is narrow, however necessary it may be.