Islam Right Now

EDITORIAL, 5 Sep 2016

#445 | Johan Galtung

Watching Christianity nearly a century–fundamentalist Christians fighting ritualistic Christians fighting secularism, generally moving fundamentalism–>ritualism–>secularism–maybe the same for Islam?  Their similarities make “Islam right now” a repetition of Christianity; their differences shout, Watch Out! Let us see where this leads us.

Violence-prone fundamentalist evangelical Christians are still on top of the USA and some Nordic countries; but much less in ritualistic Catholic-Orthodox Christianity, meaning by far most of Europe. Beauty of worship, the psychology of confession, less verbalism; all help.

Secularism makes faith so metaphorical for many that Christianity becomes only a ritual for Christmas-Easter, baptism-marriage-funeral (if there are no secular alternatives).  Result: empty churches.

Our secular age makes literal faith in dogmas difficult, and that tears at the faith.  But this is where two major differences enter:

  • Islam is much less dogmatic, there is much less to tear at, only the readily acceptable shahada, faith in one Alla’h and his prophet Muhammad;
  • If that faith turns metaphorical, Islam has the other four pillars of Islam to fall back upon: prayer together, sharing, fasting, pilgrimage, every day, a whole month every year, once a life.

The point of gravity in Islam moves more easily from faith to practice; and may stop there. There is much built-in outer practice that will survive a decrease in inner faith. Result:  full mosques.

Moreover, the four pillars are compatible with key secular values:

  • prayer together: with more we-, less I-culture less loneliness;
  • sharing: with more altruism, less egoism;
  • fasting: with more solidarity for those in misery and self-control;
  • pilgrimage, with the sharing of something sacred, above our selves.

A “good Muslim” does all that; what does a “good Christian” do? Going to mass and to the confession booth are church, not social, answers. The clear social answer is monastic orders, monks and nuns dressing, living apart from others, doing Samaritan work. Others are invited to do the same, but where-when-how? Easier leaving it to the state.

The West should stop talking about jihad and jihadism as “holy war”, even if also abused by some Muslims, and try to understand[i]. Jihad means “to strive, exert oneself in the path of God”[ii]. There are four aspects: inner, greater jihad fighting the evil in oneself; spreading Islam by the word; by good deeds, like honest business; and defensive jihad if Islam is trampled upon with moderate retribution. No aggression: “Fight in the way of God against those who fight you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggression.” (Qur’an 2:190).

Jihad accommodates honest business a religious duty.  Like chosen people, promised land (Genesis 15:18) in Judaism makes fighting for Israel from Nile to Euphrates a religious duty. Like warfare to protect the West is a Christian duty, for God, King and Fatherland.

God is divine, King semi-divine as rex gratia dei, Fatherland not. The gap between Christianity and secular Fatherland has been bridged by preventive war as sacrament[iii]; reactive war against attack not needed.  In EU, however, there is a mix of Fatherlands with no King and no God. Hence Br-exit for her to continue to Rule the Waves, for God or not.

Imagine Muslims abusing a Western sacred word, democracy, calling Western wars “democratism”.  They would be right because people who profess democracy also often go to war.  And they would be wrong by missing the whole idea. Like “jihadism”, “democratism” would locate the cause of war on the other side, and not in the relation between them; making the relation even worse instead of appreciating the profundity.

Christians give to Caesar that of Caesar and to God that of God, opening for secularism. Islam does not, but moves from fundamentalist true faith to ritualistic true practice are compatible with secularisms.  Such as democracy, in Muslim Egypt and Turkey; Islam embracing “all equal under the law” as a special case of “all equal under Alla’h”.  USA did not like it but preferred a military coup. To Washington, national evangelist, “true” democracy means “pro-USA” democracy.

How about IS, is it more I for Islamic faith, or more S for State with institutions for the other four pillars?  It could be both, making transitions from true believers to true ritualistic practitioners easy. The problematic word is not “Islamic” but “State”.  Pitted against USA and EU IS may take on their attributes; after Brexit more USA than EU.

The historical record is terrifying and long-lasting, including:

  • Islam expanding East-West to the Iberian peninsula 711-1492, north but beaten at Tours (732), Lepanto (1571), Vienna (1683); stopped in the Balkans;
  • The Catholic Christian Crusades 1095-1291 against Muslims but also against Orthodox Christians and Jews;
  • Three centuries across the Mediterranean to Barcelona-Genoa-Napoli to catch Christian slaves for heavy road work[iv];
  • West colonizing Islam (except Iran) 1830-1960, starting with Algeria;
  • The massive US-led coalitions attacking in Afghanistan from 2001 and in Iraq from 2003 with 9/11 as a pretext, killing, displacing millions;
  • IS now killing a small fraction, as retribution with moderation[v].

Six violences, three by each.  The first four lasted centuries, a bad omen for the last two.  But have a second look.  In the first two the two religions played major roles; in the last two the state system, United States vs Islamic State[vi].  State wars are shorter; decades, not centuries. However, the wisdom of challenging the USA as an Islamic state rather than as an invincible ummah with provinces can be disputed[vii].

We have given reasons that Islam will survive secularization better than Christianity, having much to fall back upon; how about IS vs US?

We might argue that both will lose because the state system itself is yielding to regionalism and localism. Islam is ready, with ummah regionalism and imam localism.  Christianity, however, is split between Latin and Anglo America, US and EU, Catholic-Protestant and Orthodox Europe–much more than Sunni vs Shia and Arab vs non-Arab. And local churches are more for spiritual, not also for mundane affairs[viii].

On top of that: the world, even USA, is tired of endless warfare.  Let Islam settle.  The West and Christianity have serious work to do.


[i].  Gary Wills, the famous columnist, took the trouble to understand: “My Koran problem”, NYRB, 24 March 2016.  His Koran problem was that he knew nothing: “–we Christians begin with the greatest deficit of knowledge /whereas/those who know the Koran have quite a lot of knowledge about Torah and Gospel, since Allah sent them both to earth before he sent the Koran.–we Westerners cannot even remember it unless we learn something about the Koran. It’s about time”.  Indeed.

[ii].  Professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali, chairman of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia, in a lecture and in articles like “Concept of ‘jihad’ misunderstood”, New Straits Times 14 July 2014.

[iii].  Look at who comes to the funerals of Norwegian soldiers with mandate to kill in Afghanistan: the King, top bishops.

[iv].  Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800, Palgrave Macmillan.

[v].  Sarah Birke, “How ISIS Rules”, NYRB, 5 Feb 2015: armed resistance being difficult, the alternative from the inside was silent resistance, or migration.  Or what we have now, open US/IS warfare.

[vi].  But religious discourse did not wither away, here are two:

* George Bush 10 Feb 2003, on a possible attack on Iraq: “Liberty is God’s gift to every human being in the world”. (Washington Post, 10 Feb 2003);

* Osama bin Laden 11 Feb 2003: “victory comes only from God, all we have to do is to prepare and motivate for jihad”. Audio message conveyed by

[vii]. For a deep analysis of the present situation, see Abbas Aroua, “The Salafiscape in the Wake of the Arab Spring”,

[viii]. In a play, Maria og Magdalena; Lidelseshistorien og kristen=dommen (the Passion Story and Christianity) Oslo: Kolofon 2016, this author tries to liberate Crist, driven by conscience and compassion, from the Church as Mary’s son, not God’s begotten by the Holy Spirit–as inspiration for us all.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published over 400 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service and over 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Sep 2016.

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9 Responses to “Islam Right Now”

  1. A lot of disconnected statements without proving anything. A real waste of time reading this. God bless youl

  2. Theo Alham says:

    Some sound points but rambling and showing a lack of understanding of Islam. Also a strange insistance of trying to put “US” into everything he writes. More analysis and less us-us-us please prof Galtung!


  3. Though brief yet, excellent piece of writing based on stark realities. It is in fact result of wrong and vision-less policies of US and UK who for the lust of might, oil and due to immense hatred against Islam, that brought humanity especially the Muslims at cross roads. Even Palestine-Conflict dispute which is mother of all modern day conflicts and epicenter of so called global extremism, has not been properly and diligently handled. Perhaps in stead of hating one- another, loving, appreciating one another ways of life, and showing kindness and forgiveness is better way for the peaceful co-existence of all.

  4. I just returned here to read it a second time to make sure I got it alright. Since some readers here seem to be incapable of getting it, here are my takeaways.

    Observation 1: Religious fervor evolves in time and space. Right now, Christianity has clearly lost its spiritual preponderance and has been overtaken by Secularism in Europe and the West.

    Observation 2: Secularism tolerates and allows some christian rituals to be continued as folklore – devoid of spirituality and metaphysical belief.

    Observation 3: Protestantism in Scandinavian countries and in the US tends to be more prone to legitimizing violence than Catholicism.

    Observation 4: On Violence: Catholicism right now may be less violent than Protestantism because of the types of rituals involved in its catechism.

    Question 1: What if Islam were also to be overtaken by Secularism?

    Question 2: Given the differences between Islam and Christianity, what would secularized Islam look like?

    Enough for now. But this is what this piece is about.
    Not stuff for everybody I presume. It takes an acquired taste in thinking outside the box to entertain such thoughts.

  5. Liram Khan says:

    Mr Galtung and other commentators seem to want a “secular” Islam. Meaning Islam wirhout Islam, just as protestant christianity in (North) Europe is wirhout any spiritual content wharsoever.

    Bur this is meaningless. Christianity (protestant) may have two parallel tracks but Islam is whole and unified. I dont think mr. Galtung has evil intend but his disrespect for the core and the fairh of muslims is disgraceful.

    • Apart from the fact that Islam has been split since 60 years after the death of your prophet (PBUH) and needs no weekly editorial to claim splits in Islam, did you read the article? Did you really read it? Where does the article above state that the author wants islam to become secular? Rather the author observes that Islam has bridged that divide between christianity and secularism by including social & societal worldly norms into it from its inception. Strange how people don’t take the text as is.

      Anyhow: here’s Galtung on Islam again

      This site is pretty darn diverse and mindboggling. One minute it is liberal. Then it is progressive. Then it is leftist. then it is environmentalist. Then it is geekish. One thing it is not is retrograde.

  6. Rehmat says:

    A positive narrative of Islam from a western educated non-Muslim scholar – but misses a lot of Islamic teachings and Muslim history, and scientific knowledge which lifted the West from its Dark Age.

    I listened to Dr. Galtung’s interview at Democracy Now! I think his views on Danish cartoon were totally out of reality. I would like him and the readers to read an article by American professor Dr. James Petras to find out that the cartoons were creation of Israeli Mossad agent Flemming Rose to fuel further hatred between the Christian West and the Muslim world.

    • Leejah Singh says:

      This “Peacepalestine” piece is among the most idiotic conspiracy-driven piles of horses*** if have read for a while. It is an impressive illustration of the “conspiracy theory” mind set that is hurting Moslims in general and Arabs in particular. Each perceived “insult” against Islam will be traced back to some mirage of “Mossad-controlled” evilness by willing un-critical/un-ethical authors.

      Johan Galtung’s call for a more secular Islam is as urgent and important than ever!