Side Show

Michael Metzger

As 9/11 fades from public attention, we’d do well to remember jihad is what happens when religion is treated as a side show.

This past weekend we remembered the brave men and women, in and out of uniform, who give their lives in face of Islamist terrorism on 9/11. They deserve our gratitude and admiration. But they also deserve a fair reckoning regarding how 9/11—and the ensuing 20 years up to our haphazard disengagement from Afghanistan—came about.

It’s a story that starts, in part, with the Western Enlightenment (c.1700s) and the separation of church and state. The mid-20th century thinker Sayyid Qutb believed this contributed to a fatal error, a society that divided the spirit from the flesh. He was essentially correct.

In the Muslim world, Qutb argued, body and soul should not be split asunder. They should instead live united in a resurrected caliphate, governed by Shariah law. In its more temperate forms, clerics would rightly exercise political power.

Prior to the Western Enlightenment, Christians also believed it is a fatal error to divide the spirit from the flesh for the Word became flesh. It was also believed that pastors and priests could rightly exercise political power. In fact, they should—and did in many cases.

But what emerged in the 19th and 20th century was an American evangelical form of the faith that divided the spirit from the flesh. Iain McGilchrist uses irony in describing it: Flesh became Word. The faith became didactic—discussed, dissected, debated—over embodied experience through disciplines, traditions, and thick liturgies.

This form of the faith exploded in popularity in the West. Much of this lie in its willingness to assimilate with Western thought, especially the Enlightenment. But this presented a crisis, for religion was treated as a side show versus being the center of the shape of society. This explains Islamic rage at the West. It explains 9/11. It explains Afghanistan.

America should have seen this coming. First the British at the beginning of the 20th century, and then the Soviets in 1970s, attempted go to impose Western thought on the Middle East, including Afghanistan. In February 1930, The Economist warned, “It is clear that Afghanistan will have none of the West.”

I’m not saying jihad is justified. Rather, I’m saying it gets part of the story correct. C. S. Lewis recognized everyone is made in God’s image, so every religion gets at least part of the story right. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true.”[1] Islamist jihad gets the division of spirit and flesh right.

But it has overplayed its hand. A 2013 Pew study across 11 Arab lands reveals only 13 percent of Muslims have a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda. If American Christianity became less Western and more like two-thirds of the worldwide Christian communion, it might help the western world stop treating religion as a side show.


[1] C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Eerdmans, 1970), 54.


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  1. Mike please clarify: “A 2013 Pew study across 11 Arab lands reveals only 13 of Muslims have a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda.” Something somewhere needs an edit.

    I will add that totalitarian-sponsored massacres of Christians and/or Muslims – by Muslims and by non-theist regimes – would be likely in many places where your favored two-thirds of the worldwide Christian communion exists – if not for a fear of punishment from US armed forces or US economic sanctions. American Christians may not be all you have hoped for but others around the world come here rather than stay where they are for fear of their lives.

    That’s a link to a real book by a journalist who grew up in the Middle East:
    The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. This book, by Neil MacFarquhar (I think it’s a Scottish name), largely argues that including “The Middle East” and “Muslim Central Asia” in world economic trade would be the best solution longterm toward political unrest. I recall he supports your quoted stats about Al Qaeda as accurate chiefly because of economic depression. Granted, inclusion in trade with corrupt administrations enriches the corrupt – but that’s where “silent but soundly devout leadership” in Western trading giant governors can put the screws to the corrupt to change poor patterns of trade.
    It may be that American religion allows some to behave like religion is a side show – but most Americans treat their faith seriously and act accordingly in worldly affairs. We’re all slow to think and act differently and reform practices – but better slow than radical. All in all the side show will “always be” in the US given our freedoms. But supporting sound governing to guide (but not control) our leading economy is where our best people should be. Martin Luther said we should send our smartest offspring into governing – and send our second best into church leadership. ~ Third-class goobers like me never seem to leave school.

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