The politician who declares Islam a “religion of peace” almost certainly has no idea what he’s talking about. He makes the claim assuming that some Americans await the excuse to release their inner Islamophobe, which though true doesn’t settle the vexing question of what Islam is and where its beliefs lead. The popes have not been as helpful in answering the question as they might have been.

Genuine Religions

Most westerners assume that all religions are basically alike, not just in being oriented to the divine but in what they think that divine requires. (See here for more on this.) We take Christianity, and to a great extent Judaism, as the template. As Pope Benedict told Muslims in Cameroon in 2009, “genuine religion”

widens the horizon of human understanding and stands at the base of any authentically human culture. It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason's full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.

This describes Christianity, the religion we know, but whether it describes other religions is a question. We believe in this idea of genuine religion because we believe that God has told us certain truths through his Scriptures and his Church. Those who believe he has said other things through other sources—Muhammad would be one—may wind up with very different beliefs. They may reject the idea that reason purifies and structures religion, for example. One legitimate response to Benedict’s definition is that if this is genuine religion, Islam is not a genuine religion.

A religion might assert dogmas that lead to violence, oppression, hatred, or an unjust social order. A religion may be a crazy religion. That Islam is a religion does not mean that it is a faith and life that recognizes human dignity and leads to human flourishing. It may do so imperfectly, partly, or not at all. If it does so, it may do so for some but not everyone, for the insiders but not the outsiders.

The Second Vatican Council gave us in Nostra Aetate an optimistic description of Islam that does not answer concretely the question of what it believes and where those beliefs go. Indeed that section of the declaration begins “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems,” not Islam. “They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself,” it says, but someone might adore the one God and mishear most of what he’s said.

Islam and the Christian Template

Here—I don’t say this happily—the prudential judgments of recent popes seem to me over-optimistically to reflect the assumption that Islam is a religion fitting the Christian template. That is, at least, the natural reading. I will take Benedict as my example because he observed more of recent history than St. John Paul II and is less controversial (to some) than Francis, and because he has a mind of astonishing penetration and subtlety.

Here are a few examples, taken (as was the quote above) from the USCCB’s helpful collection of statements on Islam.

“Since the Second Vatican Council,” Benedict told the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 2008, “attention has been focused on the spiritual elements which different religious traditions have in common. In many ways, this has helped to build bridges of understanding across religious boundaries.” He said that working together lets the different religions—including Islam—express their “highest ideals,” mentioning “helping the sick, bringing relief to the victims of natural disasters or violence, [and] caring for the aged and the poor.”

Benedict uses “highest” in the Christian sense. What if for Islam these are not its highest ideals or are only among its highest ideals? What if its highest ideals include the spread of Islam throughout the world, if necessary through forcible conversion and the oppression or killing of infidels and apostates? Suppose its highest ideals include the kind of sexually segregated society we see in Saudi Arabia?

Benedict’s Call

In a message to Muslims at the beginning of Ramadan in 2006, the pope called them to defend and promote “the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity. . . . [B]y recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.”

In another address to Muslims, he said that in pluralistic societies, “care must be taken to guarantee that the other is always treated with respect.” This respect

grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular the inviolable dignity of every single person as created by God. Such agreement does not limit the expression of individual religions; on the contrary, it allows each person to bear witness explicitly to what he believes, not avoiding comparison with other

What if Islam doesn’t recognize what as a Catholic Benedict sees as “the central character of the human person” and “the inviolable dignity of every single person”? The way Benedict puts this suggests that he is not sure they do, but the average reader will take the words as a statement that they believe this, just like Christians and Jews.

Benedict’s other remarks are of the same sort with the same apparent meaning. He doesn’t define Islam and much of what he says consists of appeals to Muslims to act like Christians without actually saying so. The effect is to present Islam as a religion understood through the Christian template, and not to consider whether its beliefs direct it to peace or to war, to freedom or to slavery, to equality or to oppression.

What Islam Is

Islam is the religion we need to understand at the moment. Some Muslims kill innocent people and a greater number wish innocent people to be killed. They’re also the religious group most likely to suffer harassment and abuse and to find themselves the targets of louts, fools, and demagogues (and demagogues who are also louts and fools).

Is Islam capable of growth into a modern universalistic religion like Christianity that respects the dignity and freedom of every human person in a pluralistic society? Or isn’t it? Or is substnatially shaped by the society in which it finds itself? Are Islamist terrorists the Muslim equivalent of the Christian inquisitors of the past, something the religion will outgrow, or are they something the religion itself creates? Are they are a perversion or a product of the religion? Are they in its DNA or are they a mutation that can’t long survive? Can it develop? Will it be universalized by modernity or directed by the natural law?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t have even enough knowledge to venture a very amateur opinion, and people I trust disagree on the matter. I’m not even sure how authoritative is what seems to me the papal assumption, since as far as I can find we have no Magisterial statement on the nature of Islam. But it’s a question that must be asked, difficult though the answer may be.

Further Reading:

The Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate

Benedict XVI’s Faith, Reason, and the University (his “Regensburg Lecture”)

The USCCB’s Vatican Council and Papal Statements on Islam

David Mills’ One Religion’s As Bad As Another

Pater Edmund Waldstein’s Fiction, or the Future of France?

John M. Owen IV and J. Judd Owen’s The Truth About an Islamic Enlightenment

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s Christians, Campaigns, and Collateral Damage

Robert P. George’s Muslims, Our Natural Allies