Debunking the Religious Equivalency Fallacy

Or, Why there are no ‘Podvig’ terror attacks.

On the Islam and Christianity blog, the author, Abu Daoud (a Christian evangelist living in the Middle East), offers critical remarks regarding an interview given by an Orthodox Christian priest/professor/author, who was presenting guidance for Christians in their interactions with Muslims. Some of it was useful, some of it was familiar, but the standout moment concerned this priest’s assertion that:

Muslim fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists defile their religion in the same way.

 To which Abu Daoud replies:

OK, here’s a load of crap… They certainly both defile their religion, but one group becomes intolerant and arrogant, the other intolerant and violent.

 At first glance, this seems an adequate refutation of the “religious equivalency” fallacy, and we could stop right there. But since the tendency to see all religions as essentially equivalent is so prevalent, I think it will be very helpful to unpack this comparison a bit, and “drill down” into some component issues.

Fundamentalism and Zeal

First of all, perhaps the term “fundamentalist” is open to discussion. I personally prefer the adjectives “devout,”  “pious,” “observant” or “zealous.”  The reason for my preference stems from the observation that when one hears of fundamentalistChristians, one typically connotes Bible-believing, sola scriptura Protestants, which could include Baptists, Evangelicals, etc.

Muslims celebrating the Festival of Ashura. Zealously.

Granted, when used in a pejorative manner, we have an understanding of what the speaker intends to say. But at the same time, I personally know many fundamentalist Christians who exemplify qualities of charity, generosity, kindness, peacefulness, and with their lives refute the various caricatures that have become attached to the word fundamentalist. That they base their faith on thefundamentals of the Christian kerygma is to their credit, when so many “nuancey” Christians seem to get it all muddled up and one can’t tell if they really stand for something, or if they’re liable to fall for anything.

Interestingly, in Orthodox Christianity, one does not really see fundamentalism so much as what the New Testament calls “zeal not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). That is to say, that Orthodoxy (along with the Eastern/Oriental/Coptic Christian communities) is so rich and varied with its many sources of tradition — Scripture, oral tradition, early church writers, worship, liturgical texts, Church councils, canon law, iconography — that the termfundamentalist does not comprehensively describe the phenomenon of one who is somehow getting worked up over issues of observance and correctness. 

Thus, in the Orthodox Church we sometimes speak of the “crazy convert” syndrome, or the “correctness disease,” where strictness of observance and proper fulfillment of the externals of Christian life become the focus, to the point of judging others, and ultimately to the exclusion of basic Christian virtues of warmth of heart, forgiveness, and charity towards one’s neighbor. In Biblical terms, this can also be termed Pharisaism, holding to the letter of the law while denying the heart of it. (This is much of what Jesus Christ warned against, and to this day this wrong-headed attitude turns people off to Christianity.) 

Hopefully, for those who fall into this temptation, these syndromes are merely a passing phase, and over time the example of one’s brothers and sisters and the guidance of one’s priest or teachers will soften and smooth the rough edges, and help the believer suffering from this “zeal not according to knowledge” to combine mercy and tenderheartedness with their admirable but unbalanced focus on correctness and rigor. Some Orthodox describe the Church experience as a “lapidary” one, as one’s rough ways are ideally worn smooth over time through their interactions with others combined with their internalization of the Gospel and the teachings of the fathers, etc.

Christian Podvig

For many, this struggle is one of the most difficult Christian battles they will wage, and in the Russian tradition there is a word for this sort of inner effort: podvig

Unable to be conveyed in a single English word, “podvig” essentially means “ascetic spiritual struggle”. In Orthodox Christian theology, it applies especially to the inner process of purification from sinful passions, which are understood to be a sickness, which is treated in our hospital, the Church. For a Christian, “zeal not according to knowledge” is a passion, a sickness of the soul to be rooted out. For someone predisposed to this sort of aggressive fervor, their podvig will be the awareness of this tendency, and repenting of it, with the help of their priest or confessor, or of good friends or other mentor figures. For those who reject such help, if they are fortunate and really do yearn to know God, God Himself oftentimes steps in, leading them through years and even decades of humbling life circumstances to soften their hearts and break their stubborn will. As C.S. Lewis said, 

Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn.

Podvig can also have an expanded meaning. In our contemporary Western world, the Christian must struggle against the spirit of the age. The late Russian Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory spoke in 1985 of The Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World:

The situation of an Orthodox person, an Orthodox Christian who lives in the contemporary world, may be described, without any exaggeration, as extremely difficult. The whole of present-day life, in all its tendencies, in one way or another is directed against a person who is trying to live according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. In life around us, in our environment, in our heterodox surroundings, everything is essentially a total denial of Christianity. If, in the beginning of the Christian era, Christ’s beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, could write, “… the whole world lieth in wickedness” (I John 5:19), then how much more justified we are in speaking thus of our times.

Being a faithful Christian, prepared to preserve unto death one’s faith in Christ the Saviour, is much more difficult in our day than it was in the first centuries of Christianity. Today we see that everything connected with faith in God, with the teaching of God’s Word, with following Christ’s teachings and example, in one way or another is being driven out of a person’s life. This process that is taking place in the contemporary world is a process of apostasy, and it can be detected in every aspect of life.

Pretty zealous, “fundamentalist” stuff, eh?

As visually hinted in the comparison photo at top, the most “extreme” form of Orthodox Christian “fundamentalism” — both interior and in rejection of the world — is monasticism. The most common form of Christian monasticism is cenobitic, in which monks or nuns live in a community, under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in order to live out the Gospel teachings of Christ as fully as possible, and to strive to know God through unceasing prayer. Stillness, even in the midst of activity (and monastics work hard, with daily chores, or “obediences” assigned for the upkeep and provision of the monastery’s needs) is foundational; one will often see at a monastery little signs reminding one of the rule: “Prayer — Work — Silence.”

 … versus Islamic Jihad

One can see in the monastic movement, and in the remarks of Metropolitan Laurus, a similarity to Islamic criticism of contemporary Western culture. In fact, the decadence of the West is one of the most oft-cited offenses being rejected and fought against by devout Muslims, along with what is described as the West’s war against Islam. As Raymond Ibrahim documents in his book, The Al Qaeda Reader, these two memes are key to the propaganda fed to the West by AQ’s founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This justification of murderous terrorist acts is summed up in the pithy rhyme on the sign held by a devout Muslim protester: “Europe is the Cancer — Islam is the Answer!”

Yet as Raymond Ibrahim also documents in The Al Qaeda Reader, through previously untranslated texts by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri directed to their Arabic speaking audience:

Al-Qaeda’s chilling ideology calls for a relentless jihad against non-Muslim “infidels,” repudiates democracy in favor of Islamic law, stresses the importance of martyrdom, and mocks the notion of “moderate” Islam.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these works is how grounded they are in the traditional sources of Islamic theology: the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet. The founders of al-Qaeda use these sources as powerful weapons of persuasion, reminding followers (and would-be recruits) that Muhammad and his warriors spread Islam through the power of the sword and that the Koran is not merely allegory or history but literal truth that commands all Muslims to action. (From the publisher’s book description.)

Muslim apologists in the United States seek to convince non-Muslims that jihadmerely means an interior struggle, and that the term has been hijacked by Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. They often cite a hadith in which Muhammad, after returning from battle, said “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When his followers asked him “What is the greater jihad?” he replied “The jihad of the heart, the jihad against one’s ego.”

Yet, in Islamic jurisprudence, the hadith supporting this statement is not considered a sound hadith and is rejected by such authorities as the 14th century classical Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya, and significantly also by Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and by Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of Al Qaeda and mentor of Osama bin Laden. The understanding of warfare against infidels as the “higher jihad” is codified in The Reliance of the Traveller,the Shafi’i manual certified by the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Al Azhar University in Cairo, which states:

Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada signifying warfare to establish the religion.

The scriptural basis for jihad, prior to scholarly consensus (def: b7) is such Koranic verses as:

“Fighting is prescribed for you” (Koran 2:216); “Slay them wherever you find them” (Koran 4:89); “Fight the idolators utterly” (Koran 9:36);

and such hadiths as the one related by Bukhari and Muslim that the Prophet said:

“I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah”;

and the hadith reported by Muslim,

“To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.”     (Reliance of the Traveller, o9.0, o9.1, o9.8, o9.9)

Indeed, seen in the light of traditional, mainstream Islamic teaching, and understood in the context of Islam’s history of jihad warfare against non-Muslims, the inner jihad is a devout Muslim’s pious preparation for the external jihad of war against non-Muslims.

Regarding this pious preparation, Nicolai Sennels writes:

Both the Quran and Muhammed… mentions several times how important it is for Muslims to be willing to give up everything, even their lives, in order to wage jihad for Allah…

Greater jihad is thus an inner psychological process of removing emotional obstacles, such as the survival instinct and the natural biological attachment to offspring, spouses and a safe and comfortable dwelling, making the believer ready and willing to submit and give up every personal desire and attachment to spread Islam.

The greater jihad, the mental replacement of personal desires with an absolute loyalty towards Allah and his prophet and laws, is aided by what could be called the cultural psychological spine of Islamic culture: the recitation of the Islamic scriptures (some even learn the whole Quran by heart), expressions of loyalty through prayer five times a day by repeating the salah (“O Allah, how perfect You are and praise be to You. Blessed is Your name, and exalted is Your majesty. There is no god but You.”), and the well-known and severe religious and social control that ensure the rule of Sharia in Muslim societies…

Seen from a psychological perspective, the greater jihad is nothing but self-radicalisation — an inner holy war of brainwashing oneself that is deeply ingrained in Islamic tradition — to go against human nature, which includes basic survival instincts and the natural aversion — also among animals — to the killing of members of one’s own species.

Thus, according to canonical, legitimate Islamic sources, the inner jihad is meant to prepare the true Muslim for the external jihad of warfare against non-Muslims. This is the whole purpose of devotion, piety, zeal and the interior struggle, as the Muslim follows the teachings and example of Muhammad. Muslim terrorists are revered in the Islamic world as Mujahideen, “strugglers,” or more literally, “people doing jihad.”

Peaceful Jihad?

Before concluding, we must address the objection that the Sufi tradition is an example of a more mystical, peaceful form of Islam, the better to be compared with Orthodox Christian monasticism. For many Western writers, the Sufi strain seems like a ray of hope, holding potential for reform within Islam.

Is Sufism mystical? Yes, but peaceful? Not so much. In fact, as Andrew Bostom shows in his exhaustively researched 2005 article Sufi Jihad?, Sufism is just as committed to Islamic supremacism and jihad as the most extreme Wahhabist or Salafist sects:

Throughout the 20th century, and at present, Sufi ideologues and mass movements (especially the Naqshbandiya) have been engaged in defensive-offensive jihad campaigns designed not only to expel real (or perceived) ‘colonial powers’, but also to create supra-national (regional) shari’a states, or even a frank Caliphate (i.e., a single unified global shari’a state). The restored Shi’ite theocracy in Iran, whose contemporary shari’a-based system of dhimmitude was drafted by a leading Sufi — Sultanhussein Tabandeh — provides a sobering example of what ‘Sufi ecumenism’ towards non-Muslims means in practice.

Why No Podvig Terror Attacks?

So, turning back to Eastern (and Oriental) Orthodox Christianity, which has a lively and vigorous tradition of interior struggle, why is it we never once hear of apodvig terror attack? This is an especially relevant question, as the demographics are so similar; there are relatively the same number of Orthodox Christians in the United States as Muslims, and many of each group consider themselves members of a “diaspora”: Russian, Greek, Serbian, Lebanese, Syrian, Coptic Orthodox —Somali, Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, Indonesian Muslims.

Even when bishops of the Orthodox Church call for “podvig” against the corrupting influences of the contemporary world, we never see that described by the bishops as offensive, physical warfare, and we never see it manifested in attacks against people or property. We see it through increased prayer, fasting, charity, kindness, as Christian strugglers internalize the teachings and example of Jesus. 

Nor out of geo-political motivations do we see podvig terrorist attacks. 

Even though President Bill Clinton led the United States into war against the Serbians (an Orthodox Christian people), siding with the Bosnian Muslims during the wars of Yugoslav succession, we have yet to see Serbs or other Slavic sympathizers playing the victim card and waging podvig on American streets with suicide vests, cleavers, bombs and guns. And we certainly do not see sedition being preached against the United States in Serbian (or Russian, Greek, Syrian, etc.) Orthodox Churches in America (compared to four separate studies over the last decade which reveal that 80% of mosques in America preach violent jihad and Islamic supremacism).

Instead, it is axiomatic that as an Orthodox Christian grows in piety and zeal according to knowledge, the more peace-filled they should become. One of the most beloved saints of the Church, Seraphim of Sarov, condensed this teaching down to the following saying:

Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand will be saved around you.

 It should be clear that in Orthodox Christianity, the 2,000 year tradition of inner ascetical struggle — “podvig” in Russian — has as its goal deliverance and purification from the passions, so that one can ascend to illumination, and eventually to union (theosis) with God. There is no double-speak (taqiyya) in Christianity, beguiling outsiders with platitudes about “inner struggle” while preparing believers through that very inner struggle to wage harsh warfare against the unsuspecting infidels. Individual Christian believers may have challenges due to “zeal not according to knowledge,” but the goal is to be healed of such ailments.

Conversely, as a devout Muslim grows in knowledge of his faith, the more he realizes he is called to wage jihad. Proper zeal, and worship pleasing to Allah —“Zeal according to knowledge” — for a Muslim means joining the ranks of the Mujahideen. In contrast to the irenic saying of St Seraphim of Sarov, a zealous Muslim might use these words, adapted from the section above from The Reliance of the Traveller:

Fight the idolators utterly, and a thousand will be slain around you.

Defiling or Honoring?

Now, let’s look again at the one line refutation of the “religious equivalency fallacy”:

They certainly both defile their religion, but one group becomes intolerant and arrogant, the other intolerant and violent.

Although this is a clever spontaneous rejoinder to purveyors of the religious equivalency myth, I think we have seen that zealous Muslims, the Mujahideen, do not defile their religion at all. Rather, by waging jihad they honor the teachings of their religion and their prophet in the most fervent, traditional, way.

We ought never hear of a Podvig Terror Attack, whereas, as surely as the sun rises, we will continue to see multiplied before our eyes ever more Jihad Terror Attacks, especially as Islam’s Rule of Numbers is borne out in Europe, the U.K and the United States, and zealous Muslims feel ever more emboldened and compelled to openly honor the actual teachings and commands of their prophet and their religion.

 _____

Ralph Sidway is an Orthodox Christian researcher and writer, and author of Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad. He operates the Facing Islam blog.

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3 Responses to Debunking the Religious Equivalency Fallacy

  1. θ says:

    In Islam being moderate is one choice of preference of the God’s mercy above other non-moderate choices (e.g. nonviolence, extremism, pragmatism).
    In Christianity being violent is the sin, there’s no choice to be violent, not even if other option is death or slavery.

  2. madmanna says:

    “In Christianity being violent is the sin, there’s no choice to be violent, not even if other option is death or slavery.”

    This is not true. It is not the teaching of the bible. This is another lie of Islam against Christianity.

    The law of Moses gives every man the right to self defence either individually or for his country.

    Jesus teaches for Christians that they should allow themselves to be injured for his name’s sake but only to the extent of a non-serious injury. A slap on the cheek but no further than that.

    Also the teaching of the bible is that the state has authority to use violence to punish violence or to punish other crimes in accordance with the law of Moses.

    Paul assumes this right in Romans 13:

    3For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

  3. θ says:

    Jesus does practice a self-destructive pacifism by stating:
    Mt 26
    52 Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
    Jn 18
    11 Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

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