Islam at nightIn the wake of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris that left 12 persons dead, Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared, “It is a war against terrorism, against jihad, against radical Islam.” President  Hollande, Valls’s boss, was more measured. “Those who committed these terrorist acts, those terrorists, those fanatics, have nothing to do with the Muslim religion,” he said during preparations for the Paris solidarity March.

There is more going on in the two comments than at first meets the eye. It is not just that Hollande’s is more accommodating to Islam. The two French leaders contradicted each other. From 9/11, to the London Underground bombing, to al Qaeda in Yemen and Boka Haram in Nigeria and the beheadings by ISIS in Iraq, two incompatible views about the role of Islam have saturated political views, the world media, and local coffee bars. Islam is the problem. Islam is not the problem. The horrific and well-planned Paris attack has made this serious bone of contention hugely public again, including comments by leaders such as Hollande and Valls.

Broadly speaking, behind the contradictory views lies, on the one hand, the organizing principle of “inclusion” found in multiculturalism, which too often makes excuses for jihadist violence, and, on the other hand, a religious, political, and social fundamentalism, such as is found in strains of American Evangelicalism, which has a complete and uncomplicated identification of Islam as a violent religion. In the former view, Islam is not the problem. In the latter, Islam is the problem.

The real problem, however, is that neither argument fits the facts. At the end of the day, both leak like a sieve. They lazily avoid the hard and time-consuming work of acknowledging and addressing all of the relevant facts. That’s half of my conclusion after more than a decade of work in the areas of Christian – Muslim relations and U.S. – Middle East foreign policy. The other half is this: Although it is wrong to say that Islam is the problem, it certainly is true that Islam has a problem.

Part of my work has entailed extensive research into this problem, and I recently began feeling brave enough to collect my thoughts about it in a formal essay. Besides writing deadlines and related pressing work, however, I hesitated to start the essay because, heart on sleeve, it would not be easy to write, to aptly cover what needs to be said. I also thought that someone wiser ought to tackle this.

And then I breathed a sigh of relief after reading John Azumah’s essay in First Things. Well written, tightly argued, amply illustrated, and covering all the cardinal issues in just a few thousand words, the essay ought to be required reading. Azumah is associate professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, and his essay, “Challenging Radical Islam, An Explanation of Islam’s Relation to Terrorism and Violence,” brilliantly subverts both the “Islam is the problem” and “Islam is not the problem” arguments.

Another crucial service Azumah performs for us is this. He deconstructs the is / is not arguments in a way that leaves us at the end of the essay taking away a fair, balanced, and clear understanding of the problems that Islam has, and he explains why only Muslims can solve them. Further, he is well aware that when you point a finger, three more point back at you. So I appreciated his humility, which at the end of the essay addresses ways in which we Christians also need reform.

Enough said. Read Azumah’s essay. He’s spared me a lot of work. And as a fellow writer, I can tell you he worked hard on this one.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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