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Are You Even Aware of How Little You Know about Islam?

UN Photo/Jamil Shamou

William Kilpatrick - published on 10/25/13

It also makes a difference whether the world Islam means “peace” or “submission.”  One of the reasons Muslims find it difficult to leave their neighbors in peace is that, while Muslims are supposed to submit to Allah, non-Muslims are supposed to submit to Muslims.  In the Koran, Muslims are commanded to “Fight those who believe not in Allah… until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).  The jizya is a tax that non-Muslims must pay as a sign of their submission to Muslims.  Under colonial rule and under the subsequent rule of secular strongmen the practice was suspended, but it is now making an unofficial comeback in many Muslim areas where Christians dare not complain about their conditions.

Another “j”-word with which Catholics need to familiarize themselves is jihad.  Although the root of the word means “struggle,” it has always been primarily understood in Muslim tradition as a duty to fight unbelievers.  Recently, however, it has become fashionable for Islamic apologists to recast jihad as an interior spiritual struggle.

Since this dissembling definition of jihad coincides with the Catholic notion of battling with one’s conscience, it fits comfortably into the common ground narrative.  Not surprisingly, many Catholics have been quite willing to accept this recent innovation as the true meaning of jihad.  Thus, textbooks used in Catholic schools define jihad as “a person’s inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace” or as “a personal duty for Muslims who focus on overcoming immorality within themselves.”  One textbook widely used in Catholic colleges says that jihad means striving “to achieve personal betterment,” but then goes on to admit that it can also include “a fair, defensive fight to preserve one’s life and one’s faith.”  But a map at the bottom of the textbook page showing the extent of Muslim “expansion” from 632 to 750 AD gives the lie even to this slightly more honest definition.  What, one wonders, were Muslims doing fighting “defensive” fights 3,000 miles to the east of Arabia and 4,000 miles to the west?

The Reality Beyond the Rose-Colored Glasses

While Catholics in the West today are congratulating themselves on their enlightened “understanding” of Islam, Catholics and other Christians in Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other Muslim countries are experiencing a form of jihad that is a far cry from the interior struggle of the textbooks.  Their experience of jihad is disturbingly similar to the kind of jihad experienced by Christians at the hands of Muslim warriors for the better part of fourteen centuries.

Will Catholics in Europe and America someday find themselves in the same precarious position that Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq now occupy?  If they don’t overcome their knowledge deficit about Islam, that might well happen.  Europe is already undergoing a slow-motion capitulation to Islam. This cultural surrender is due in large part to the fact that European elites are ruled by the same simple-minded and largely fact-free narrative that guides elite thinking in America and in most of the Western world. Their highest priority is not finding out about Islam, but avoiding offense against it. The narrative says Islam is a religion of peace, and facts that conflict with the narrative are routinely suppressed. There is a price to be paid for such folly, and Europe is currently paying the price in the currency of appeasement and self-censorship in the face of rising violence and intimidation.

Catholics are in danger of falling into a similar folly if they are not willing to look beyond the limited scope of the common-ground narrative. As Alexander Pope observed, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Those who understand only a little about a subject seldom understand how little they know and, as Pope suggested, they may pay dearly for their ignorance. Catholics who are trying to get by with only a surface knowledge of Islam may be setting themselves up for an unpleasant surprise.

William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong and, most recently, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, the Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications.  He is on the Board of Experts at

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