RUS
 

Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Borderless Believers

national interest​​​

by Dov S. Zakheim
Jonathan Laurence, Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). 606 pp., $35.00.
UNLIKE CHRISTIANITY or Judaism, Islam has never had a true reform movement. It certainly incorporates a variety of streams within both of its main Sunni and Shia branches. Nevertheless, none of these streams can be termed truly reformist. Many scholars have therefore argued that the absence of a true reform version of Islam has contributed to the difficulties Muslims have experienced in coming to terms with the modern nation-state, and in particular, recurrent outbursts of Muslim radicalism—most recently embodied by the likes of Al Qaeda, ISIS, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Jonathan Laurence summarizes this argument—which he rejects—in his thickly documented volume, Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State, “much of the scholarship on Islam and politics today either implicitly or explicitly argues that Islam needs to undergo a Protestant Reformation style of political theology or asserts that such a development is intrinsically impossible.”
Laurence instead offers a novel thesis. He argues that the reemergence of Islamic radicalism is not due to the failure to reform Islamic theology as much as it is the result of Sunni Islam’s inability to come to terms with the disappearance of a central religious authority—the Turkish caliphs—and of subsequent nation-state oversight if not control of religion. He contrasts the Sunni experience with that of the Catholic Church which, he argues, was a temporal power like the Ottoman Empire, but unlike Sunni Islam, ultimately came to terms with its relegation—if that is the correct word—to that of providing spiritual leadership to millions over whom it did not rule.
LAURENCE DESCRIBES how the Catholic Church, long a force for political conservatism, if not reaction, having managed to survive theological attacks from Protestants as well as temporal attacks from the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, found itself once again under assault from secularist governments, including, indeed especially, the forces of the newly formed Italian state. Ultimately, the church found it could no longer prevail and, in order to survive, accepted temporal jurisdiction over what became the tiny Vatican state, while reaching a modus vivendi with European governments that enabled it not only to survive but to thrive.
Nevertheless, as Laurence observes, it was only with the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, that the church began to shed in a serious way many of the norms and prejudices that it had preserved even in the face of encroachment by secular governments. The American Catholic experience was a major factor in what emerged from Vatican II. Until 1908, the United States had been under the supervision of the Holy Congregation of Propaganda Fide, the office that the Vatican had established in 1622 that was “devoted to minority Catholic populations and missions to oversee the propagation of the faith.” By then, Catholicism had long become America’s largest religious denomination, and, perhaps as a result, American-born bishops had become increasingly restless under Rome’s efforts to maintain direct control of the American church’s activities. Moreover, bishops became increasingly prominent in American political society at the expense of the Vatican’s own representatives. Laurence points to James Gibbons, the first American-born member of the College of Cardinals, who maintained a close public relationship with both presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft: “By embracing the American cardinal over the Italian [nuncio], two US presidents endorsed the Americanist school that Gibbons represented.”
Protestant-led America initially was hostile both to the church and to the millions of Catholic immigrants, the preponderance of whom, like Gibbons’ parents, arrived from Ireland and southern and Eastern Europe. Because most Catholic immigrants settled in the cities and many urban Catholics discarded their faith to become socialists or, even worse, anarchists such as President William McKinley’s assassin, “the American city was the Catholic Church’s third modern nemesis, after Lutheranism and the nation-state.”
These developments, coupled with the growing independence of the American bishops, led the church finally to recognize that it could no longer exert the same degree of control over the American hierarchy, and that it needed that hierarchy to ensure the support of the American Catholic community. The American Catholic leadership became increasingly influential, to the point where, as Laurence points out, the American Jesuit priest John Courtney Murray “had considerable influence on discussions at Vatican II,” particularly regarding religious freedom. And Murray was hardly alone: “Half of all international experts invited to Rome came from the United States, in addition to 246 US bishops,” all of whom both accepted the notion of separation of church and state and, more generally, that of liberal democracy.
LAURENCE ARGUES that the Sunni Muslim response to the pressures on what had long been its central religious authority was entirely different. He asserts that until the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted on March 3, 1924, to terminate the caliphate, the Ottoman caliph commanded the loyalty of Sunni Muslims. Laurence then goes on to link the absence of a caliphate with the radicalization of Muslims who seek religious authority beyond that of national leaders whom they view, with considerable justice, as nothing more than employees of the state in which they reside or, in the case of European Muslims, of the state in which they once resided. He argues that younger Muslims are especially susceptible to Wahhabi and Salafi teachings. From there it is but a short jump to radicalization and a readiness to join the forces of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Without saying so explicitly, Laurence is postulating that the authority of the pope and that of the caliph were roughly similar in both temporal and spiritual terms, and that once their temporal rule was effectively extinguished, the church maintained its central spiritual role, if not control, while Islam lost both. Whether this view holds up under closer scrutiny is an entirely different matter. For a start, the caliphs were never recognized as infallible, as were the popes after the First Vatican Council of 1869–70. Moreover, Laurence himself quotes the last Turkish caliph’s assertion that his own role was quite different from that of the pope. Facing the loss of his temporal powers, Mehmet VI stated that “The Sultanate and the Caliphate are two complementary parts of a single whole … not like the Papacy.”
Laurence’s premise that the Catholic Church has been able to retain its spiritual authority even as its temporal territory has been reduced to the small confines of Vatican City is also unpersuasive. The church continues to lose followers. These include not only lapsed Catholics, notably in the United States and Western Europe, but also those who have joined Protestant Evangelical churches, especially in Latin America. Moreover, the church continues to be wracked by both scandals and internal fissures. Some Catholics have left the church as a result. Others view the church as either too conservative or as too liberal. The latest trigger in this decades-old battle was Pope Francis’ decision to severely restrict the right of priests to recite the traditional Latin Mass, which naturally upset traditionalists. His two predecessors were far more conservative, taking hardline stands on contraception and abortion that alienated many liberal Catholics in Western Europe and America.
At the same time, Laurence’s assertion that the absence of a centralized caliphate, such as that which existed with the Ottomans, is a major contributor to the radicalization of young Muslims who chafe under state-managed Islam also does not fully stand up to scrutiny. He rightly chooses to focus on Sunni Islam, to which about 90 percent of the world’s Muslims adhere. But he does not address all Sunnis or even all states with Sunni majorities. In doing so, he creates a major analytical void.
LAURENCE’S RESEARCH, including his numerous interviews and observations, is almost entirely restricted to four Muslim states: Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Laurence goes into considerable detail to delineate how each of the four Muslim states not only has sought to replace the caliphate with its own version of state-managed Islam, but also has sought to export that version to its nationals who have emigrated to Europe. There actually are profound differences between state-managed Islam in Morocco and its counterparts in Tunisia, Algeria, and Turkey. Islam in Morocco is led by the king, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed; his title, Emir al-Muminim, which translates as Commander of the Faithful, is virtually unmatched in the Muslim world. His family has continuously ruled Morocco, whether directly or under a French protectorate, since the eighteenth century. The other two North African states have been led by secular rulers since they achieved independence from France, while Turkey likewise has been a nominally secular state since the fall of the sultan and his removal as caliph a few years later. The vast majority of Sunnis in the three North African states follow the Maliki branch of Islam; most Turkish Sunnis belong to the Hanafi branch, both of which are far more moderate than Salafism.
Laurence also focuses on the Sunni experience in several European states with significant Muslim populations—namely, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. On the other hand, he did not examine to any degree of depth the Muslim experience in other European countries with significant Muslim populations. Belgium and Sweden, for example, have a higher percentage of Muslims than do several of the European countries that he examines in depth. In fact, on a percentage basis, both have roughly three times more Muslims than does Italy. Even in absolute terms, both countries have roughly as many Muslim residents or citizens as does the Netherlands. Laurence does not explain why he chose some European countries and excluded others.
As for the four Muslim states that were the author’s primary focus, even when taken together they hardly constitute the majority of Sunni Muslims. The three North African states—Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria—were formerly under French rule. Algeria was actually part of Metropolitan France. All three remain Francophone. With the possible exception of Algeria, they have long been considered among the more “moderate” of Muslim states. In that regard, they have differed sharply from what were once the “rejectionist” Arab states such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen, all of which are currently going through various stages of murderous civil war.
One wonders why Laurence did not pay more attention to the Indonesian Muslim experience. Indonesia is, after all, the world’s most populous Muslim state. He seems to be relatively less informed about that country. Indonesia’s Islamic community is quite moderate, though many Indonesians have become considerably stricter in their religious practice. Surely it was worth examining to what extent Indonesia’s Sunni Muslim community felt both the absence of a single distant caliph and the need to revive the caliphate by supporting the claims of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to the caliphate.
Laurence also has little to say about Indonesia’s neighbor, Malaysia, a majority Sunni Muslim state with Islam written into its constitution. Like Indonesia—indeed, even more so and over a longer period—Malaysia has become increasingly Islamized. The author does not examine these trends, much less their cause. The reader is left to wonder whether Malaysian Muslims, or their Indonesian counterparts, for that matter, ever looked to the Ottoman caliph for spiritual leadership, and whether the absence of a central Islamic authority in any way explains whatever radicalization has manifested itself among Muslims in either country.
Perhaps even more surprising, Laurence does not devote the same in-depth analysis of developments in Egypt as he does for the francophone North African states. Yet Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and for centuries has been its cultural leader and, in the form of Al-Azhar University, the leading center of higher Islamic studies. Laurence did not conduct a single interview with an Egyptian, although he might have met not only with both Egyptian government officials and opposition leaders, but also perhaps with those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who escaped the country after the 2013 military takeover. He might also have interviewed Coptic Egyptians who have, on the one hand, had leading roles in many Egyptian governments yet have been subject to victimization as well. He did none of these things.
“Egyptian Islam’s multiple layers of authority,” he writes, “proved too unwieldy to fit neatly into this comparative work.” Surely, if that is the case, perhaps the premise underlying the work requires some adjustment. Laurence adds that he “also shied away from fieldwork in Egypt or Libya during the turbulent decade of the 2010s.” While he could certainly justify keeping clear of Libya once it became engulfed in a civil war that has yet to be resolved, Egypt has been stable since the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power in 2013. His explanation rings somewhat hollow.
IT IS understandable that Laurence was concerned about traveling to unstable societies suffering from endemic terrorism. That would explain not only his concern about undertaking research in Libya, but also his avoidance of Somalia, whose population is 99 percent Sunni. It does not explain his failure to examine Indonesia and Malaysia, which, like Egypt, are relatively stable. And most notably, it does not explain his neglecting to examine Saudi Arabia in any great detail.
Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, plays no more than an ancillary or at best supporting role in Laurence’s narrative. He views the kingdom’s efforts to spread its Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as essentially subversive, if not the primary source of contemporary Islamic radicalization, especially among younger Muslims. He acknowledges the Saudi king’s role as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina, but implicitly challenges the al-Saud claim to that role since the family is not directly descended from the prophet. In truth, it makes no claims to that effect.
Whether Laurence’s characterization of the Saudis and their royal family is accurate is another question. He does not demonstrate to any quantitative degree that radical Islamists were influenced by their attendance at Saudi-sponsored madrassas. Not all Saudis who joined radical Islamist groups were from the disadvantaged classes: the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were middle-class Saudis. And surely not all Saudis who have joined ISIS—Saudi Arabia is the second-largest contributor of foreign fighters after Tunisia—were drawn from the country’s poor. It is also noteworthy, as Laurence himself points out, that the al-Saud family has been the target of radical Islamists, among whom the Yemeni-born Osama bin Laden was certainly the most notorious.
Given Saudi Arabia’s central role in Sunni Islam, indeed in all Islam, as the host of the annual hajj and the king’s role as custodian of the religion’s two most holy sites, Laurence surely should have paid far more attention to the desert kingdom. His explanation for not focusing more on Egypt certainly does not apply to Saudi Arabia, where there are few if any “multiple layers of authority.” Precisely because his primary focus is on majority Sunni former Ottoman territories, Laurence certainly should have devoted at least a full chapter to the kingdom.
THERE ARE other nations of note that stand out in their absence. Laurence has relatively little to say about Jordan, which, like Saudi Arabia, was under Turkish Ottoman rule as part of the Syria vilayet, or province. He does address the role of Emir Faisal, the founder of Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty, but subsequent to the country becoming independent it virtually drops from his radar screen. Yet King Abdullah II remains the custodian of Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Moreover, relative to the country’s population, Jordanians have comprised the largest single group of foreign fighters under the ISIS flag.
Nor did Laurence examine in greater depth whether those men who joined ISIS did so because they felt a need for a universal caliphate, or whether their motives were far less exalted and focused instead on war, wealth, and women. Was the problem of “multiple layers of authority” here as well? As in the case of Saudi Arabia, the author does not even bother to explain why he did not include Jordan in his analysis.
Pakistan is yet another Sunni-dominated state that Laurence completely overlooks. He includes passing references to India’s Muslims, but none to Pakistan’s, although Pakistan broke away from India precisely so as to become a sovereign Muslim state. Laurence could have focused on the attitudes of Pakistanis after partition and explored the degree to which Saudi-supported Wahhabi influence on the country’s ubiquitous madrassas, coupled with a longing for a new caliph, led to the support that many Pakistanis gave to the Islamic State. Laurence does not even bother to explain why he did not attempt to interview Pakistanis, or examine Pakistan, in-depth.
Laurence limits his relatively brief discussion of the Indian Muslim minority, which comprises the world’s third-largest Muslim population, to pre-independence India. Perhaps he does so because India’s Muslims are a minority. Perhaps he does so because in the aftermath of World War I there was a movement in India to preserve the Turkish caliphate. A century has passed since that movement was at its height, however. It certainly would have been worth asking, as Adil Rasheed, a research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi put it:
How can a country with the third-largest Muslim population in the world, which was partitioned over the issue of Islamism; has had a history of communal violence since independence; suffered a spate of terror attacks by homegrown and Pakistan-backed terrorists in recent decades; witnesses a continuing insurgency in the Muslim-majority Kashmir; and whose polity is still deeply divided over the Muslim question produce fewer adherents of ISIS and Al Qaeda than many Western states having a much smaller Muslim population?
Out of a Muslim population that exceeds 172 million, only 100 joined ISIS. Rasheed argues that 
…the call for reinstituting the Caliphate also does not appeal to most Indian Muslims. This is because Indian Muslim rulers never paid allegiance to any West Asian caliph, nor did they send their forces to foreign lands to fight for the glory of Islam. 
Certainly, this phenomenon, which also may apply to Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, does not conform to Laurence’s thesis.
Laurence also overlooks the Sunni populations of the former Soviet Union, both those within Russia and those in the Central Asian states. Russia’s Muslim population totals some 25 million, 90 percent of which are Sunni. Sunni Islam overwhelmingly dominates the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with a combined population numbering about 75 million. Sunni residents of these states comprised a significant proportion of all foreign fighters in the ISIS forces. More than 2,500 of those fighters came from Russia; another 7,000 had resided in the Central Asian states. It would have been useful had he assessed the impact of the Ottomans, Czarist Russia’s historic rival, on Russia’s Sunni Muslim population and on the Sunnis residing in the Central Asian states as well as the motives that prompted these fighters to join ISIS.
Perhaps Laurence’s reasoning for not conducting interviews in Libya due to its instability might have applied to any research in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where interviews with Chechens, in particular, might have unearthed unflattering findings concerning Moscow’s conduct of its two Chechen wars. Perhaps, as well, Laurence might have also encountered difficulties when seeking to undertake research in at least some of the former Soviet Central Asian republics that have been ruled by authoritarian leaders. Again, he does not appear to have even made the attempt to conduct research in any of these states.
Laurence’s thesis—that because Islam became nationalized North African Muslims were prone to radicalization due to the attractiveness of the concept of an international emirate—overlooks the Afghan experience since the USSR attacked and occupied that country in 1979. Many foreign fighters who joined the Mujaheddin, including bin Laden, did so to fight and expel the Soviets, not necessarily to recreate the caliphate. Indeed, it was only in 1988 that bin Laden established Al Qaeda; his initial targets were America and Israel and he was of course spectacularly successful on 9/11.
Nevertheless, when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it did so without universalist ambitions, even if it did permit bin Laden to operate from its territory. The Taliban has never indicated a thirst for governance beyond Afghanistan’s boundaries, yet it continues to attract foreign fighters to this day. Clearly, there are other motivations for Muslims to be radicalized apart from a desire to support an international caliphate.
One such motivation, to which Laurence devotes far too little space, is the reason why the disorientation that afflicts younger European Muslims did not affect their elders to anything like the same degree. The previous generation of Muslims who emigrated to Europe generally accommodated themselves to their new environments, most of them by willingly joining the working class. This was the case with respect to the thousands of South Asians who moved to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s—a large number of whom had been expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, where they had long been the country’s merchant class.
On the other hand, French-speaking North Africans who moved to Belgium and France during and after the 1970s have found themselves alienated from the host population that tended to ignore them. They live in Muslim ghettos, such as the Paris banlieues, and suffer from poor educational facilities and high unemployment. Arguably, these factors have led to their susceptibility to the preaching of radical imams and the blandishments of radical websites as much, if not more, than a desire for a new supranational caliph. Unfortunately, Laurence does not evaluate the economic and social, as opposed to religious and cultural, variables that could influence the radicalization of young Muslims.
LAURENCE IS at his best when writing about the Catholic Church’s slow, tortuous, but ultimately successful effort to come to terms with the modern world. He clearly views Italian and French anti-clericalism with considerable distaste. For example, in discussing French efforts to control the church, he says nary a word about the Dreyfus Affair, which tore the country apart between those who defended the unfortunate captain and those, which included most church leaders, who bitterly opposed his vindication. He describes the Italian nationalist seizure of Rome in 1870 as “the latest wave of infidels to vandalize the city.” Similarly, he describes without comment Pius IX’s programs to strengthen the church’s educational and organizational infrastructure in the face of its loss of temporal power as an effort to “recover control from the nation-state—and to fend off competing religions and other modern ills [my emphasis].”
Laurence does provide a wealth of detail regarding the church’s evolution from the emergence of Protestantism through the secularization of Western Europe, from the papacy’s travails with staunchly secularist Italian governments to the emergence of the American church as a key player in Vatican affairs. He does the same with respect to the development of Islamic institutions in the four countries that are his primary focus. Indeed, he does so to such a great extent that one wonders whether the welter of detail is really necessary to buttress his case.
Withal, Laurence’s method is more descriptive than analytical. He rarely if ever challenges the assertions put forward by the various government officials with whom he has met. On the contrary, he takes their statements at face value, even those from religious ministers who clearly have a message they wish to convey, whether or not it is wholly, or even partly, accurate. In contrast, his list of interviews includes a relatively small number of non-governmental officials and an even smaller number of opposition figures or critics of any one of the four governments that are his primary focus. While he will sometimes quote government critics, he rarely does so by name, and even less so interviews; he relies instead on secondary sources. It is also rather frustrating that he does not always identify his interviewees: when he refers to a “government official,” the reader has no idea whether the person in question is a minister or merely a lower level functionary who is mouthing an official line rather than offering his or her own views.
COPING WITH Defeat is larded with throwaway lines that reflect either the author’s inability to come to terms with non-Catholic denominations and religions, or simply his inability to understand them. At times he is simply unaware of their specific histories. For example, he postulates that “other religious communities did not have their ideological networks scrutinized, as has happened with Islamic associations’ trustees, or faced a demand that they form an Einheitsgemeinde (a single united community).” He seems unaware that post-Soviet Russia, like the Soviet Union, not only carefully scrutinizes both Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but actively persecutes them; while Prussia, and then Bismarck’s Germany, for decades would only recognize a united Jewish community until the Orthodox Jews finally were able to obtain legislation that allowed them to form a community of their own.
Nor does he seem to understand the nature of Judaism when he asserts in the sentence immediately following that “most European citizens do not recognize any spiritual authority of the pope because they are Protestant, Orthodox Jewish or atheist” (my emphasis). To begin with, many European Jews, like those in America, adhere to other streams of Judaism, usually lumped together as Progressive Judaism. Or surely, he cannot mean that if a Jew is not Orthodox he or she recognizes the “spiritual authority of the pope” as such!
Indeed, Laurence’s attitude to Jews, Judaism, and, for that matter, the state of Israel is at best rather curious. In listing Napoleon’s unfriendly acts against the church, as a result of his annexation of the Papal States, Laurence lists emancipating the Jews alongside abolishing the Inquisition and shuttering convents and monasteries. He refers to the twentieth century’s “solution … to the Jewish question,” an awful-sounding term unless properly explained as the creation of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Laurence does nothing of the kind, however.
Laurence also erroneously asserts that “at the turn of the twenty first century … there were no private Islamic spaces permitted to exist outside the home—that is, there was no religious civil society.” In fact, Indonesia’s Nahdlatal Ulama (NU) is the largest Islamic non-governmental organization in the world. Founded in 1926, the NU is a true civil society institution that funds schools and hospitals and assists the impoverished.  Most importantly, it advocates for a moderate version of Islam. Yet Laurence does not even mention the NU in his 575-page volume, although its 90 million members outnumber the populations of Turkey and equal those of the three north African nations combined.
ULTIMATELY, THE case that Coping with Defeat propounds simply is not proven. It falters because the book’s limited focus on but a few Sunni states and their diaspora in Europe is insufficiently broad for the vast scope of its argument. Readers interested in the recent evolution of the Catholic Church and the manner in which it came to terms with Europe’s secular reality certainly will find much in the book’s pages. So too will those who wish to learn the details of religious management in Turkey and three francophone North African states, and the efforts of these four countries to influence their former citizens now residing in selected parts of Western Europe.
On the other hand, this book is unlikely to satisfy those seeking a detailed analysis of the socio-economic factors that arguably more credibly explain why so many followers of Sunni Islam—who can be found elsewhere in the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa—have become radicalized. Nor will it offer much insight for readers who might wish better to understand the nature of Shia radicalism throughout the Middle East in particular and the factors that distinguish this form of extremism from that of its Sunni arch-enemies. Unfortunately, any attempt to address either or both of these issues by means of comparison with the historic vicissitudes of the Catholic Church is likely to be even less fruitful than the author’s valiant but ultimately unconvincing attempt to do so.

Dov S. Zakheim served as the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Planning and Resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as the DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.

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    Mr.BadGuy   Publicist


    I don’t think it will come to serious clashes. They will chat and forget.