Armstrongism has always mocked every other religion, especially mainstream Christianity, for not possessing its special brand of “truth.” It holds a magnifying glass up to the absurdities of other faiths, one the COG has never turned on itself.
But there is no other religion the modern-day COG despises, fears and studies more than Islam.
The reasons why are obvious. The COG is an American cult, and the United States is naturally suspicious of radical Islam after a slew of terrorist attacks and several wars in Middle Eastern countries over the decades. There are deep-seated animosities between Muslims and Jews and Christians, where Armstrongism borrows heavily from the latter two. Muslims have also taken fire not only from American troops, but from rightwing politicians and media personalities since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the COG is fairly closely aligned with those ideological forces. There’s good old institutionalized racism and a fear of outsiders mixed in there too.
And then, most importantly, are COG interpretations of prophecy, specifically the End Times notion that the Biblical “King of the South” will emerge from the Middle East, provoke the so-called European “King of the North” and ignite World War III. Armstrongites have viewed a radical Islamic caliphate as the fulfillment of that prophecy for decades and have since jumped at multiple suspects, from the Ayatollah to Al Qaeda to ISIS. Awhile back in UCG, following the 2001 attacks, we were told the cult was even thinking of publishing that the 200 million man army was to be reinterpreted as Muslim, because “those Arabs reproduce like flies” and would easily have enough soldiers to fulfill the prophecy. Fortunately, it’s a doctrinal push we never saw launch.
The aggression of ISIS in the Middle East and another round of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians have reignited the COG’s schadenfreude news voyeurism as the cults drill down into yet more apocalyptic paranoia regarding Muslims.
Oddly, on this issue, the COG finds itself aligned on the subject of Islam’s danger to the world — regardless of the specifics — with some strange bedfellows: the flag-bearers of New Atheism.
Recently, one of the remaining three Four Horsemen of New Atheism, neuroscientist Sam Harris, has been under fire from the American left and Muslims alike for his hard-line criticism of Islamic cultural values and extremism and perceived racism on his part and that of rational atheists.
A few weeks ago, Harris and actor Ben Affleck got into it over Islam on Bill Maher’s Real Time:
So how is it that rightwing militarists, new atheists and the COG all find themselves on the same side aligned against the whole of the Islamic world? Is there something to the notion that Islam, more than any other religious force in the world right now, is a threat to Western civilization?
Affleck’s claim about the number of ISIS militants barely filling a minor league ballpark is significantly underestimated, though his point is well-received. If any notable percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were violent extremists, we would be in serious trouble and American streets would be torn apart by religiously-motivated violence. Instead, we have Muslims living peacefully in the United States, and in even in Western Europe where there’s currently more religious-versus-secular tension on display. During Egypt’s iteration of the Arab Spring, Christians and Muslims worked together in peace and many challenged and disapproved of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Indonesia, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, we barely hear a peep out of when it comes to violence, and the younger generation in Islamic countries tend to be relatively freewheeling if not outright secular. So statistically, terrorism is a paltry threat.
Additionally, while Islamic honor killings, the persecutions of those who leave the Muslim faith, the hideous way women are treated in counties like Saudi Arabia and absurd death sentences in Iran are all horrendous crimes against humanity and basic civil rights, Muslims are far from alone on that score. For instance, Christians in the U.S. and Uganda have collaborated to violently persecute homosexuals while Jews have persecuted women in Israel and the occupation of Palestine certainly has religious overtones. Then there’s the Arizona preacher who recently advocated the execution of all gay people. Pope Francis just wrapped up his trip to Turkey, where he decried religious extremism, acknowledging that all religions have their own sects of lunatics, to paraphrase. And those are simply some modern-day examples. Christians historically are responsible for atrocities during the Crusades and 600 years of Inquisition against non-believers, while Zionist Jews practiced terrorism against the British Empire and Arabs.
Islamic history has been one described by conquest, its empire forged partially by way of the sword, and the Koran contains scriptures viewed by some as advocating violence against non-believers. Yet, there are also many scriptures of peace in the Koran. The Bible, which is also filled with scriptures of peace, is also notoriously filled with violence — for example, the Israelites took their “Promised Land” by way of genocide against the native peoples.
The idea that the Islamic world today is regressive and backward compared to the western Judeo-Christian world also misses the parts of history where Roman Catholicism persecuted scientific advancement for centuries, and also ignores the fact that despite the Islamic Empire’s violent history, it also allowed math, astronomy and other academics to thrive.
The bottom line is that religious extremism, violence and regressive thinking is and has been present in all three major world religions — in roughly similar percentages in the modern world — and it’s all horrible. Nobody gets a pass. It’s by and large been rational, freethinking scientists, philosophers and benevolent rulers who have advanced civilization in spite of religious authorities or their personal faith, not because of them.
Where people get in trouble is when they try to say that Islam represents a special threat against peace and societal advancement. Debates over Islamophobia tend to occur between those attempting to paint Muslim extremism as a microcosm of larger cultural issues in the Islamic world and those who argue such views are inherently racist.
In our view, Islamic extremism and terrorism and the horrors inflicted upon women and nonbelievers by Muslims are indeed rooted in deep-seated cultural problems. Harris is right when he says that Muslim extremism isn’t on an x-axis, but instead can be viewed as a Venn Diagram of overlapping beliefs among different schools of religious thought — and there are many in the fractured, disorganized ideological stew that is Islam.
But the same can be said of Christianity and Judaism. How many COG members have heard someone terrible like Pat Robertson prattle on about all things homophobic, racist and bigoted about “the world” and nodded their heads in agreement, even though they would traditionally view him as a “deceived” mainstream Christian? How many Reformed Jews make a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in their lives, even though its roads have been paved with blood from religious war between extremists?
All three dominant schools of religious thought are broken into scatterings of different theologies, denominations, churches and sects. But they all share underlying premises and despite their differences tend to tolerate one another and have several planes of common ground — and some of that common ground is pretty dreadful. Even while the Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats for hundreds of years in Europe, they would largely agree that witches, scientists and other heretics should be burnt at the stake, just as the different schools of Islam from Sunni to Shiite to Wahhabi might at their most extreme tolerate or promote honor killings.
Islamaphobes are also very paranoid about demographics. The nearly 2 billion Muslims on Earth — an estimated 23 percent of the human population — is a scary thing to Christians who are used to being the world’s religious plurality and Jews who fear being wiped out. Muslims have large families while the Western world in general makes fewer babies, though the hyperbolic numbers used by anti-Muslim champions are usually false, out of context or overblown. But even if there were significant demographic shifts, the idea that Sharia Law is coming to a township near you misses some fundamental realities, such as the fact that a unified Islamic Empire could never exist among today’s granulated and divided Muslim sects. There is no central organizational body akin to the Roman Catholic Church in Islam. In fact, there are no churches at all, much less a universal concept of Sharia. If there were to be a joining of Islamic theology and state on a more global scale, there would likely be a hundred years of disagreement over which brand of theology to institute.
“The King of the South” expected by the COG won’t emerge from a unified caliphate (or at all), because despite some aforementioned awful common ground among some Muslim schools of thought, the divisions between those sects still run very deep. Inter-denominational and internal political strife is still more commonplace among Muslims than lashing out at those beyond the fold. The idea that the Muslim nations of the world, or even just those in the Near and Middle East, are going to unify under a single banner ever is a joke that demonstrates fearful ignorance about Islam among Armstrongites, adjacent ideologies and right-leaning wingnuts.
Harris, Richard Dawkins and others, meanwhile, when invoking Islam as a special threat, are very much focusing on present-day geopolitical and social ills they can connect to Muslims as a means of driving their point home that religion is a destructive force for delusion and regression. In doing so, they — perhaps unintentionally — align themselves with rightwing forces who criticize Islam for less than noble reasons, because it’s clear in their worldview and from their writings that they place all religions in the same boat. Extremist Islam is merely a simple, immediate example of the harm religion can cause, because despite bad examples to be found among other religions, those aren’t dominating the headlines, and some of the more hideous acts perpetrated by Christians and Jews are their past, while Islam is currently suffering from a spate of violent extremism. The voices of new atheism also don’t tend to have the same background in religion as those they criticize, and while they certainly can see things from the outside looking in that the faithful miss, not having a religious upbringing robs one of some perspective when critiquing it.
In short, the COG and new atheists are right that Islam has some cultural problems regarding human rights and some violent elements within. But the history and present-day reality of the other “Abrahamic” religions suggests that religious extremism among Muslims is unlikely to be an apocalyptic force set to crumble western civilization, regardless of demographic or political shifts now or in the future. The COG, once again, is cherry-picking the news and allowing their thirst for their theology to be proven right to blind them to the facts.