Authorial Note: My father and Michael Coren have been friends for a number of years, and with such being the case, my father, whom I love and respect, invited Coren to speak on his most recent book, Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity” (McClelland & Stewart: 2014). My father and myself came to varying opinions on the work after having both read it. Having myself grown up in a largely Muslim immigrant community, having a number of good friends and acquaintances who are Muslims, having studied the Qur’an for a semester at the University of Toronto, and being extremely concerned with the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Canada and throughout the world- I felt a strong conviction to write a review of this work. While critical of the work in the most important matters, my review will nevertheless attempt to be more charitable concerning the argument in the work than Coren was toward Islam within it to illustrate a much larger lesson concerning public dialogue and criticism, that, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrow’s of Young Werther (1774), “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” [daß Mißverständnisse und Trägheit vielleicht mehr Irrungen in der Welt machen als List und Bosheit. Wenigstens sind die beiden letzteren gewiß seltener.] It is in that spirit that I will approach Mr. Coren’s work, its criticism, and perhaps try to illumine both sides of this discussion, as someone who is an intellectual Christian much like Mr. Coren himself, but will argue that i) because Mr. Coren’s work misunderstands, social location in determining ‘religion’, the nature of violence, and Islamic, as well as Christian, theology Mr. Coren’s work is deeply flawed and in some respects, even if unintentionally, dangerous, and that ii) his misunderstandings should not be attributed to any deep racism, but rather just to that- misunderstandings, that were most likely the result of legitimate outrage over the suffering of those around the world, whom we call brothers and sisters. Lastly, much reference will also be made to the panel discussion concerning this work- ‘Who Speak for Islam?’ on The Agenda with Steve Paikin on Nov. 5th, 2014, because in many respects Coren is more concise in this discussion and the criticism of his work poignant.
“Some radical Muslims do see a place for ancient Christian communities…” is half a sentence one would not expect to see in a book titled Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity (McClelland & Stewart: 2014) while the second half of the same sentence, “but few if any will allow and tolerate Muslims leaving their faith for another” (80), most certainly is. It is this confused, and half-answered questioning nature of Michael Coren’s work that leaves the reader either angry at the argument presented in it, or sympathetic to the general outlook of the work because it does seem well moderated. The only entirely clear aspect of the work perhaps is that it is not a scholarly work, nor simple objective journalism- it is a work of advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world- an issue which most can agree does not get enough coverage in the media for reasons of either outright anti-Christian bigotry or simply because, as well expressed by Ron Csillag in the Toronto Star,* “Persecution of Christians just doesn’t compute. After all, it’s the faith of record in the world’s richest and most powerful countries, where Christians have been ensconced for centuries.” However, when advocating for a cause there must be three things entirely clear and reasonable/desirable, none of which, unfortunately, are in Coren’s work: (1) on whose account one is advocating, (2) for what cause is one advocating or what problem one is trying to address, and (3) what are the proposed solutions to the problem. To give a simple illustration as to why it is vitally important to get these three aspects correct: imagine if you will someone wanted to advocate (1) on behalf of the minority Muslim community in Myanmar, (2) to address the violence and genocidal-like policies implement against them by the largely Theravada Buddhist population and government,** and (3) to eradicate Buddhism from the region through counter-terrorism operations and forced conversion to Hinduism. Now immediately we can see the problematic nature of having not defined and made reasonable/desirable any one of the three aspects here. In this example, defining the group for whom one is advocating solely on the basis of religious affiliation misses entire strands of ethnic conflict and makes it appear as if the Islamic identity of this group is the sole sufficient factor to explain this phenomenon.*** If the second aspect of the problem is not made clarified by reference to the nationalist pride many have against this population, then the problem will be construed as a problem of ‘religious’ ideology and not one also based in problematic state power and governance. Lastly, the solution was construed as a response to the problem of ‘Buddhism’, and it would be a terrible solution because it would create more problems than it solved in trying to eradicate it. We can see then that it is vitally important that in a work of journalistic advocacy such as Coren’s book, that the three aspects of who one is advocating for, what problem is being addressed, and what solutions to the problem are being proposed, are clearly defined and reasonable/desirable.
On whose account Coren is advocating for, one would think that it is a fairly straightforward answer: Christian populations persecuted by Muslims throughout the world. To Coren’s credit he is quite critical even of US foreign policy with regards to the Middle East, writing in relation to the 2003 Iraq war that it was, “A war fought ostensibly to keep Christians safe in Ohio and Alabama” but “has made the lives of Christians living in Baghdad and Mosul completely unbearable” (56). However, even with regards to this first aspect, it is not entirely clear. Towards the end of this work Coren tries to argue that Islamic persecution of Christians occurs even throughout North America and Europe in the form of recent attacks such as The Fort Hood massacre in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombings, and much more. Coren puts these attacks in essentially the same category as all the other attacks mentioned throughout the work because they “All evince a total contempt for Christian values…the perpetrators refer to the need for Islam to dominate and conquer Christianity” (160). It is here where Coren’s problem lies because his work is not merely a work of advocacy in defence of persecuted Christian populations, it is a work in defence of the Christian tradition and ‘Western Civilization’ in general. Despite being critical of US foreign policy, Coren’s work begins with a minimizing of the cruelty and importance of the medieval Crusades (27-41). The discussion of this history should not be at all necessary in a work that desires to stand on behalf of persecuted Christians of the present time- it would however be necessary in a work that sought to portray Christians as inherently peaceful and Muslims as inherently violent- something which, despite Coren’s constant protesting on Steve Paikin’s The Agenda, is something which this work constantly engages in. The question Coren consistently asks throughout this work is,
“…whether the persecution of Christians by Muslims is a modern aberration, an abuse of the Koran, a misunderstanding of the teachings of Mohammad, or something intrinsic and integral to the Muslim faith. In other words, are moderate Muslims the true believers or is it the fundamentalists who have properly understood the message correctly?” (80)
While this is an interesting question, it is a dangerous question for someone who is not an adherent of the Islamic faith to answer in a work concerning advocacy. It is dangerous precisely because it should not be left up to an English Catholic to decide what is orthodox Islam and what is heretical, for this is a properly theo-ethical question that should be left to those of the Islamic faith to decide for themselves concerning their tradition, not a question that can be answered by an appeal to the ‘essence’ of Islam, as discerned by someone who does not privilege the truth value of Islam in the first place. Coren himself would immediately recognize the inappropriateness of someone who is not a Catholic to tell a Catholic, such as Coren, what he should believe and what he should not believe according to Catholic teaching- the question of what is orthodox and what is heretical according to a faith tradition is a essential theo-ethical question that should be left to the adherents, not to an outside tribunal.+
To Coren’s credit he quotes a number of different people who all give various answers to the question posed, but it is the very fact that he feels its a question that could be decided by everyone is a form of cultural imposition that engages in a colonial discourse of the worst kind. Not only does Coren highly suggest that Islam is inherently violent, but according to his reading of Christian theology and Christian history, one would think that the Christian faith has seldom ever been used to justify violence. Coren has a seeming complete lack of awareness (or admittance) to the fact that Christian Dominionism is currently one strong component in the ideological justification for US militarism. The recent film American Sniper (Warner Bros, 2015), depicts but one example of how the Cross of Christian theology was turned into an emblem of war for the justification of violence in our most recent military conflicts. Now while any Christian is free to rejoice in Coren’s estimation that “…Christians behave violently in spite and not because of the teachings of Jesus Christ” (20), it does take a special form of historical privilege to ignore and underplay, as much as Mr. Coren has, the role that some forms of Christian theology have played in justifying militarism and violence.++
As for the second aspect of advocacy, that of what problem one is trying to address, again, one would think that the answer would be quite clear: the persecution of Christian populations by Muslims around the world. With regards to this, it must be clearly said that Coren is to be commended for drawing more attention to this reality- any attention that is given to any persecuted and discriminated minority around the world is a step-forward. Despite Shabir Ally’s protestations on Paikin’s panel and his improper invocation of Candida Moss’s work The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (Harperone: 2014), the reality of Christians being persecuted throughout the world is not a paranoid dream of the Christian right in the United States- the paranoid dream of the Christian Right in the United States is that they themselves are being persecuted. In addition, what we cannot do in this instance is protest that Coren should have addressed in full manner other instances of Christians being persecuted by non-Muslims such as in China or North Korea- books of a popular nature need to be limited in scope. What then is the confusion with regard to this second aspect? It simply comes down to what is the nature of the ‘persecution’ of which Coren writes about? Coren gives an impressive litany of instances of Christians being discriminated against, injured, raped, and killed throughout the world in a panorama of violence only differentiated significantly by geography. He has one simple purpose in presenting it in this manner, in order to show that “…the notion that Islamic hatred toward Christianity is purely a geographical or politically local phenomenon is simply untrue” (13). Framing it in this manner then signifies the problem as Islam itself- the problem then Coren is addressing is not simply Christians being persecuted by Muslims, but the fact that in Coren’s estimation there appears to be something inherent in Islam, which when fully imbibed by the adherent, would compel them to commit violence against Christians, and that therefore, its not simply that some Muslims use Islamic theology and rhetoric as part of their ideological defence for their violence, its that Islam itself creates and not merely supports the very violence that these people commit. Coren’s perspective is not only problematic in terms of its strong idealism (in the philosophical sense) but also in terms of Christian theology. In terms of the strong idealism, as Mohammad Fadel, the associate Professor and Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto on Paikin’s panel rightfully points out, its doubtful how much Islamic theology really has to do with this issue because most people frankly are rather ignorant concerning theology, and furthermore, in addition to Fadel’s point, it is doubtful how much a person’s study of theology would impact their behaviour at all- just because one reads the Qur’an daily does not mean one will more likely persecute Christians then does one reading the Sermon on the Mount everyday mean that one will more likely ‘turn the other cheek’.
From the perspective of Christian theology, there are two extremely odd aspects in Coren’s work, the first of which is related to this second aspect of advocacy. One would think that Coren is advocating for these persecuted Christians as a Christian himself, but while Coren is a Christian it does not appear as if Coren is arguing within a Christian theological framework at all. For Coren to centralize the problem of the persecution of Christians by the hand of Muslims at the feet of Islam betrays a profound ignorance, whether intentional or unintentional, of the nature of evil as well expounded by in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with strong resonance in Christian theology, that ““If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago, Part 1, “The Bluecaps”). What Solzhenitsyn saw was the same truth articulated by the Apostle Paul that “…there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:22-23, RSV). For Coren to effectively argue that Islam is the problem is actually not only necessarily ‘off the mark’ according to ‘secular’ reasoning but even dangerously confines of the problem of the manifestation of this evil to Islamic ideology rather than to human sin and rebellion against God, which much of Christian theology would teach and suggest.
Lastly, concerning the third aspect of advocacy, that of what are the proposed solutions to the problem, it is here where Coren is most obscure, and once again where Coren does not seem to argue within a Christian theological framework though he is a Christian advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians. Near the very end of the work Coren writes, “Christian forgiveness is vital in all this but the new equation has to begin with the cessation by Muslims throughout the world of their hateful campaign against innocent Christians.” (176) One cannot help but wonder what the ‘new equation’ is. For the sake of being charitable we shall refrain from speculating as to what Coren might mean by the ‘new equation’ and why it, as opposed to the older equations, requires more than just forgiveness, but all the same it seems as if part of the solution in Coren’s view is not only do Muslims need to speak out more, but for North American and European governments to overcome their guilt-complex of their Christian past and in some manner intervene on the behalf of the Christian minorities throughout the world whether through boycott or sanctions (quoting approvingly Farzana Hassan, 166-167). If Coren thought that Muslims throughout the world were falsely accusing the ‘West’ of conducting crusades in the Middle East before, it can be said with absolute certainty that if North American and European governments were to begin to explicitly advocate and intervene on behalf of Christian minorities in the Middle East that not a single soul would be mistaken in labelling the campaign a crusade. In Fulcher of Chartres’ account of Pope Urban II’s speech at the council of Clermont in advocating for the first of the crusade campaign in 1095, the Pope argues that,
“…you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire.”+++
It is not too much of a stretch to say that much of the discourse in which Coren and others engage in replicates a similar call for action with little difference other than the use of less explicit ‘religious’ language and without an explicit call to military action- though, in the only moment of speculation of Coren’s views we shall engage in here, that call cannot be too far from the surface.
The second of the odd aspects of Coren’s work in relation to Christian theology aforementioned in relation to this third aspect of advocacy, is the complete absence of any thought that Muslims could be converted out of Islam by missionary activity or that Islamic theology could be reformed. The call to proselytize or evangelize the Islamic world is exactly what Coren does not advocate for, and that is extremely interesting because in spite of his defence of the Christian faith he does not argue for the most easily associable Christian proposition that Muslims need to be converted to Christianity through preaching and persuasion. Instead, it would seem, that Coren, in desiring to cater to the values of ‘Western civilization’, appeals to human rights and other such values of the ‘Enlightenment’ while at the same time despising the ‘liberalism’ to which he is appealing to! The call to missionary activity and conversion, it could be argue, would be actually more controversial than proposed military action or sanctions, as it would be called a form of cultural imperialism by those who despise ethnocentrism and a denigrating of Islamic culture, and yet Coren does not appeal to this despite his own distain for aspects of Islamic culture. If the common rallying cry in relation to ‘terrorism’- that the ideology of Islamism must be fought with an ideology be true, as Coren does seem to agree to some extent- then the Christian tradition, which as Coren acknowledges has produced a strong pacifist stream of thought and adherents (18-19), can be but one of many bases to be appeal to in order to counter-act the ideology of Islamism- instead Coren appeals to and wants to employ secular state power in the service of the Christian tradition rather than appeal to the God and the call of the great commission, which the Christian tradition by-and-large argues one should appeal to. Even in a secular ideological framework, there should be no argument against the right of people from various ‘religious’ traditions to evangelize and share their faith through speech and persuasion, rather than coercion and state-power, in order to convert people from one tradition to another- no matter how much you yourself may disagree with that tradition.
More than this however, Coren seems to display an utter willingly ignorance of Islamic history and theology, if he truly believes that, in quoting approvingly of the Roman Catholic priest Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, that “The absolute nature of the Qu’ran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.” (174) In the spirit of charity one cannot fault Coren for not knowing Arabic, for not giving an exhaustive history of Islam, for not quoting every passage in the Qu’ran or the Hadith and much else in such a brief and limited-in-scope work- however, one can fault Coren for not looking to basic authorities on Islam and its history of interpretation in those instances in which Coren does wish to make authoritative and argumentative statements concerning those topics. To appeal to a Roman Catholic priest to make an authoritative statement concerning Islamic theology is as grave an insult and stupidity as ‘new atheists’ who appeal to the historical myths propagated by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as authoritative in discussion of Church history. Jane Dammen McAuliffe’s (Ed.) The Cambride Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge University press: 2006), an introductory scholarly text often given to undergraduate students, would more than suffice to show that Islamic history and interpretation is much more complex than many in the ‘mainstream’ media, including Coren himself, appear to think. For instance, it may come as a great surprise to Coren and others that one of the most influential works of Islamic exegesis of the past century, namely In the Shadow of the Qur’an of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), which influenced the Iranian revolution (1979), the Shi’i Hezbollah (hizb Allah, ‘party of God’) in Lebanon, and the Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, explicitly appeals to western concepts such as ‘revolution’, ‘social justice’, and ‘democracy’.^ It is Coren’s nihilism about the potential for future Islamic theological reform, ignorance about current Islamic theological reform, and ignorance about past Islamic theological reform that lead to views such as Coren’s which see Islam and its adherents as irredeemably violent and in need of quelling and control by Western intervention.
We have striven to critique Coren’s work in the most charitable and fair manner possible, treating it as a work of journalistic advocacy, not as a scholarly tome- and it is in this vein that we very carefully discerned and found wanting all three aspects of advocacy in Coren’s work, namely: (1) on whose account one is advocating, (2) for what cause is one advocating or what problem one is trying to address, and (3) what are the proposed solutions to the problem. However rather than delving into much more that could have been discussed concerning this work, it is proposed here that the principle of charity, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount of “…whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them…” (Matt. 7:12, RSV), is a necessity in criticism. Coren’s work, if it had been conducted in this manner would have treated Islam with the same fairness, respect, and knowledgeableness that Coren would expect critics of Catholicism to have when they speak on Catholicism- it obviously did not. Advocacy is difficult to navigate not because there is not enough to be angry about, but because our own anger is inevitably entangled in the process of perpetuating the very problems we seek to resolve. Coren is extremely sincere in his advocacy for those whom we consider brothers and sisters. Christians around the world are being discriminated against, persecuted, and killed because of their ‘religious’ affiliation, and it is something which much of our media simply ignores out of cowardice or simple disbelief. In advocating for the relief of their suffering however it is extremely important that we do not become merely those who advocate for the ‘other side’ of the struggle, but that we become the type of people who see the struggle entirely differently- that we do not become merely those who advocate that we need to be more assertive in the imposition of our values, but instead seek ourselves to be more faithful to our values- and finally, that we do not merely become those who will implement the cross as a weapon, but those who would be willing to die upon it.
* Csillag, Ron. “Christianity arguably the most persecuted religion in the world.” The Toronto Star, December 4, 2010, sec. News/ Insight. http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2010/12/04/christianity_arguably_the_most_persecuted_religion_in_the_world.html#.
** For more on this see: Ellick, Adam B., and Nicholas Kristof. “Myanmar’s Persecuted Minority.” The New York Times. June 16, 2014, sec. Opinion. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/16/opinion/nicholas-kristof-myanmar-documentary.html.
*** Not to say that it is not ‘a’ important part of the account. In Kristof’s reporting we can see how these genocidal-like policies of the Myanmar government are in part ‘justified’ by appeal to the fear that this Muslim minority will become violent because Islam is inherently violent. An important appeal and set of policies to look out for when we survey our own North American context, and something which we can only pray will not be advocated for or occur here.
+ The principle equally applies to those politicians who are not Muslims that nevertheless designate ISIS as ‘monsters’ not Muslims. The fact is that as to whether or not ISIS and groups like them are Muslims or not is an issue that the Muslim community should decide for itself. The Muslim community does not need the guidance of western Christians to determine who is a ‘true’ follower of THEIR faith. We can only go off the basis of their own self-proclaimation, and ISIS claims to be Muslim, and therefore we should take them at their word- it is up to the rest of the Muslims community to judge ISIS’s claim.
++ For more on Christian Dominionism in the United States and Canada see: Hedges, Chris. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. (Free Press: 2007); McDonald, Marci. The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Vintage Canada: 2011); Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. (Penguin Books: 2007).
+++ Halsall, Paul, ed. “Medieval Sourcebook: Urban II (1088-1099): Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, Five versions of the Speech.” Fordham University Press, December 1997. Internet Medieval Source Book. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/urban2-5vers.html.
^ Wild, Stefan. “Political interpretation of the Qur’an.” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Cambridge University Press: 2006), 282-283.; For more on ISIS’s modern influences in particular see: McDonald, Kevin. “Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy.” the Guardian, September 9, 2014, sec. Comment is Free. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/09/isis-jihadi-shaped-by-modern-western-philosophy.