We agree with Joshua Ralston that all forms of religious fundamentalism demand both universal and unconditional condemnation as well as regional and global responses to help all the victims—irrespective of their faith. We also agree with him that it is wrong to judge age-old religious traditions by modern secular, liberal standards and that essentialized notions distort complex cultural and historical realities.
However, to claim that “Islamophobia aids and abets Radical Orthodoxy’s theo-political project of renewing Christendom” is a grave charge. This accusation is closely connected with Ralston’s rather insidious insinuation that Radical Orthodoxy is but a reactionary plot aimed at restoring the absolute power of the papacy and launching a new crusade against Muslims.
For all his talk about the need “to muster a more honest and coherent theological and political analysis of the forces that threaten the lives and well-being of people” in the Middle East and beyond, Ralston completely caricatures our position and misconstrues the current context.
1. Confronting the Current Threats
To start with the present predicament, Ralston is quick to point the finger at Israel but fails to acknowledge that Hamas are fully signed up to a jihadist ideology scarcely distinguishable from that of ISIS. The aim of Hamas is to destroy the state of Israel and to recruit as many people as possible to their extremist cause. Of course Hamas are not synonymous with the whole Palestinian people, who have been the principal victim of the conflict with Israel. It is also true that successive Israeli governments have waged military campaigns with a brutality that is morally indefensible and militarily counterproductive, as it has served as a recruiting sergeant for fundamentalists. However, Hamas’s ideology draws on a perverse interpretation of Islam and as such cannot be blamed on Israel or any others. It needs to be confronted and defeated by Muslims, and far too many Muslim scholars have been ambivalent at best in their responses to terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and other Hamas-led operations.
Ralston also mentions senior Sunnis (including radical ones) who condemn the new caliphate. But he conveniently fails to add that this is often no repudiation of the caliphate per se but only of the new Islamic State as envisioned by ISIS. Such a mode of condemnation is not about the existence of a caliphate, but about the fact that it does not include the entirety of the Sunni world. These Sunni scholars also object that the Caliph should represent the faithful and be appointed by consultation, but what form such a “consultation” would take is left open. Crucially, what is missing is a clear commitment to the distinction of political from religious authority in ways that most strands in Judaism, Christianity, and indeed Shia Islam defend.
Moreover, Ralston claims that consequent to this condemnation of the caliphate, it is unreasonable to compare radical Sunnis and ISIS, but this neglects the extremist outlook of a number of Sunni strands and states—above all Saudi Arabia, where women and non-Muslims have few legal protections to speak of, churches may not be built, ancient Islamic shrines are demolished, despotic theocratic rule is enforced, and brutal punishments handed out. The highly puritanical creed of the Wahhabis has created a climate of persecution of which many Muslims are the victims—whether on Saudi soil or in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kingdom’s rulers have also financed jihadists in Syria and supplied weapons to ISIS. Of course one of the West’s gravest errors over the past decades has been a largely uncritical alliance with the House of Saud and other related regimes in the Persian Gulf. But let’s not pretend that the legacy of radical Sunni thought is blameless in all this.
2. The Caliphate and the Spread of Islam
In his “riposte,” Ralston goes on to defend the actions and history of past Sunni Caliphates whilst at the same time accusing us of “romanticizing” the Christian legacy. Not only does this smack of double standards, it also edits out all the bits that don’t fit his narrative of a predominantly peaceful spread of Islam. Thus he seems to imply that there was no literal conversion by the sword, and that Muslim troops didn’t demolish other religious structures.
The fact that Islam—in unarguable contrast to Christianity—was constituted on the basis of military conflict and territorial expansion, and united behind a religiously ordained military commander and political ruler (the caliph) is apparently incidental. So while our post-national vision for Christendom is reprehensible and “Islamophobe,” Ralston’s apology of the caliphs is apparently a sign or tolerance, respect and religious pluralism. This post-9/11 historical revisionism is little more than an inverted Orientalism, involving a tacit presupposition that the Christian West is synonymous with colonial oppression while the Muslim East is a beacon of peace and diversity.
What is most troubling is the way in which Ralston accuses us of sanitizing the history of Christendom (nowhere do we actually do so) before proceeding to sanitize the history of Sunni caliphates. There’s no mention of the assassinations of two of the “righteously guided” caliphs by rival factions, which led directly to the Sunni-Shia split, or the violent invasion of both Persia and Byzantium. The fact that the early history of Islam is dominated by violence against both non-Muslims and Muslims, in the name of an inextricable religio-political unity is wholly glossed over in Ralston’s account. The double standards that Ralston applies are most clearly evident when he accuses us of defending the Christian slaughter of Muslims. Writing that “the echoes of Pope Urban II cannot go unheard,” he equates Christendom with the crusades—an essentialist argument of which he elsewhere accuses us.
The same logic is at work when Ralston makes wild claims about how a fear of Islam barely masks our attempt to overcome intra-Western conflicts. Here his analysis is so shrill and hysterical that it might in fact conceal his desire to deflect from the divisions that beset Islam. It is worth pointing out that those most adversely affected by a radical Sunni project are Muslims, most especially the Shia, the group currently most threatened by ISIS. Once again this is evidence that Ralston inverts Orientalism and thereby reproduces the ahistorical logic which underpins the legacy of Edward Said—the imagination of an East that is miraculously both utterly “other” and yet entirely not “other” from the West and must now be “emancipated” and “liberated” from her, contradictorily in the name both of this difference and of this universal sameness whose Western-enlightenment origin goes semi-suppressed. It is no coincidence that the whole post-colonial discourse about “emancipation” and “liberation” is, by virtue of this origin, entirely compatible with secular liberalism and capitalism.
This might be counterintuitive, but it turns out that radical Sunni Islam exhibits the same tendency. Like Calvinism, Wahabism/Salafism in fact colludes with the very forces of secularism that it purports to oppose. That’s because, as Pope Benedict XVI suggested in his Regensburg address, secular extremism and religious fundamentalism are mirror images of one another. For both separate faith from reason, and privilege the primacy of will over intellect. Far from refuting Ratzinger, Ralston’s claims confirm Benedict’s case for recovering and extending the Hellenization of Christianity—and also Islam. Without Greco-Roman philosophy and the synthesis of faith with rationality, we are left with a blind fideistic religion that fuels fanatical fundamentalism and an absolute, unmediated and impossibly unsituated and emotionless reason that informs secular extremism.
Ralston condemns our point that a new mode of Christendom would be better than a secular polity, on the basis that the conflict between Christendom and Islam produced persecution and mutual bloodshed. He falsely reads Theology and Social Theory‘s claim “that ecclesiology must be rooted in attention to the actual lived practice and history of the Church” as an argument for a wholesale replication of the political conditions and values of the 11th century. He also shows his ignorance of relatively tolerant Christian societies like Sicily, the Crusader Kingdom of Outremer and parts of the Byzantine Empire, whilst extolling the tolerance of the caliphates. The problem is that this does not correspond to the experience of people living under Islamic rule in Persia, Byzantium, or India. None of this is to deny the existence of very real persecution and intolerance in Christendom’s history, but rather to argue for the restoration of what was best in medieval Christendom.
3. Hellenized Christianity and the Challenge of Religious Fundamentalism
Ralston’s case against Radical Orthodoxy rests on his claim that we essentialize Christianity. The following quote sums this up:
Milbank ties the church and the Gospel far too strongly to its Greek philosophical heritage and the ecclesial sacramental hierarchy developed in the patristic and medieval period from this. For Milbank, like Benedict XVI, Christianity and the Church are not only accidentally Western and Greek, but essentially so. Thus, to defend Christianity is to defend the West—at least it its classical and medieval forms before it was corrupted by nominalism, Protestantism and modernity.
Presumably he thinks that the Hellenization of original Christianity was one big mistake that inaugurated Christian imperialism—from Constantine via the crusades to the Reconquista. Not only is this historically illiterate. It also uncritically accepts modern—Reformation and Counter-Reformation—dualism, i.e., the sundering of nature from the supernatural, faith from reason, and philosophy from theology. Quite why such an impoverished theological tradition can help interfaith dialogue and genuine mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims is left unaddressed by Ralston.
Ultimately, the thrust of his argument is that we are seeking to establish an oppositional narrative between Western Christendom and Eastern Islam. He feels that
such a theology is ill suited for our globalized and migratory world, where the Islamic umma and Christian ecclesia (not to mention hosts of other religious and non-religious communities) increasingly share political life together. What is needed in this challenging context is a humble, prophetic and politically pluralistic theology that seeks out areas of overlap and shared concern, instead of exclusively noting rivalry and conflict.
In fact the opposite is true, and so far globalization is often having a regrettably illiberal and divisive impact. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and of course that includes Christianity and Hinduism, not just Islam. So is secular extremism. Religious minorities are under threat—whether the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, Jews in Europe and attacks on Muslims in various parts of the world. It is no surprise that there are certain Sunni groups that wish to bring about a pan-Islamic, post-national vision, drawing on the vision of the caliphate. For this perennial aspiration chimes with the globalized, cross-border era better than the dominance of supposedly ideologically neutral nation-states, in particular the French secular republic. In any case this model never fitted the circumstances of the Near East, and the worst colonialist mistake of the French, British and Americans has been supposing that it did so.
One can add here that the apparent unity of the nation state around an ascription to formal procedures rather than a substantive organic identity linked to cultural and religious tradition is mostly an illusion. In reality the nation-state—as much based upon initial conquest as any empire—tends to be dominated by one cultural strand and is less able than overarching imperial structures, committed to some shared notions of substantive justice, to embrace a real federal pluralism of various self-governing cultures, religions and ethnicities. The United States may seem to be an exception to this. But the United States is a strange and unique hybrid. The reason why it is apparently so successful in integrating other faith traditions is because it is not a nation-state but some peculiar form of “empire of immigrants”—with a vast marketplace in which a typically American “civil religion” and “gnostic” spirituality produce a vague sense of religiosity compared with Europe’s distinctly—if by now vestigially—Christian legacy. In reality, the United States is characterized by a Manichean moralism that is taught in mainstream churches in order to reinforce a sense of national exceptionalism on which the state bases its messianic mission and to which all faiths must de facto submit. In large part, this explains the tendency of many U.S. Catholics, Jews, and perhaps certain Muslims to become more like Protestants—even if current and future waves of immigration might change this.
The main point though is that the triumph of Westphalian-type sovereign states is over and that imperial forms of political power and economic exchange are resurgent in novel forms—for both good and ill. Ralston’s defense of post-colonialism has not caught up with this, and in any case is completely at odds with the tradition of the Islamic caliphate that he celebrates. Of course one must accept that these circumstances leave open the question of whether there could be a different, more tolerant Caliphate, yet more respectful of purely political law emergent in the future. For the moment however, it would seem that Europe and the U.S. are needed to play a role in the Near East, in alliance with Israel, Iran, the Kurds, and religious and business groups, in trying to forge defensible cross-border structures of true fairness and legitimacy
4. Christendom and Pluralism
Our fundamental point that Ralston misrepresents is that Christian-orientated polities would be better able to affirm religious values in public life. Secular societies tolerate by treating religion as a purely personal and private phenomenon that is best left to the individual in his or her home. However, Islam is a coherent polity, not just a confession, and religious duties and laws exist communally. Ultimately Christian-orientated polities in Europe could deal with Islam in a manner that better encompasses these demands, and could mediate between the sacral politics of Islam and the sacral polity of Christians. A secular society will never comfortably encompass orthodox Islam—as the French case exemplifies.
Thus we have consistently argued that a proper integration of Islam into Western societies cannot be achieved on either secular liberal or post-secular pluralist terms. Instead it may be a fundamentally Christian cultural outlook and practice that would paradoxically be more able to accord to Islam and other religions respect as unique faiths. A vestigially Christian polity clearly cannot go so far as adopting Islam’s own historically typical standards about what is acceptable representation in public of its specific beliefs and practices. But a novelly renewed Christendom could be far better for Islam and other faiths than a secular polity or a post-secular public square, both of which tend to subordinate groups and communities to the power of the individual or the collective—or indeed both at once.
So strangely enough, what other faiths require for their proper recognition in Europe is the public recovery of the indigenous European religious tradition—Christianity. Only Christianity can integrate other religions into a shared European project by acknowledging what secular ideologies cannot: a transcendent objective truth that altogether exceeds human comprehension and is therefore open to a never foreclosed rational discernment and debate in which all can participate. This acknowledgment grants legitimacy to other faiths and holds open a space in which religious and non-religious alike can debate the nature of the common good. This permits a far more effective defense of religious pluralism than does secular multiculturalism. For what many Muslims and other members of religious minorities most object to is not a difference of belief but its absence from European consciousness and the political realm. Thus the recovery of Christianity in Europe is not a sectarian project but instead the only basis for political integration of Muslims and peaceful religious coexistence.
To further specify. Unlike secular liberals and militant atheists, Christians can hold positive views of Islam or other faiths precisely as religious believers who realize that they have much in common with what Muslims and other followers believe—a sense of the sacred, the sanctity of life and land, the ultimate unity despite difference of religion and politics, or the integral, holistic nature of human existence. This, however, does not necessarily lead Christians to claim that there can be a Christian or secular basis for acknowledging specifically Muslim sacrality in the public realm, nor to suppose that a Christian polity (which Europe vestigially remains) should pass laws respecting specifically Muslim sensibilities about the sacred (such as a ban on depictions of the Prophet). It is clear that a Christian polity can only demand general respect for the “sacrality” of other religious communities insofar as they approximate Christianity’s own sense of sacrality (or are not incompatible with it). That is why Islamic-inspired anti-blasphemy laws are constitutionally illegitimate and politically unacceptable to Europe.
Nevertheless, even a vestigially Christian polity can go further in acknowledging the integral worth of a religious group as a group than a secular polity can. Christians can validly see analogies to churches in mosques and temples, similarities that lead them to accord a considerable measure of respect to these institutions. Conversely, Jews, Muslims, and other religious believers not only welcome the European tradition of civil law but often, in addition, the political recognition of Christianity in Europe. The law and the public role of the Christian churches protect all believers from secularist extremism and preserve for them a social space for religious practice. Many of them recognize, along with British Hindus and others, that the idea of an alliance of all religions against secularization is advanced where there is one religion that is culturally and politically pre-eminent. Since they are not dominated by a modern liberal mindset, they realize that a genuinely “religious culture” has to be religious in a specific way. There is, for them, no such thing in practice as a “general religiosity” (as in the USA), and they regard a neutral religious pluralism of the multiculturalist variety as inevitably an expression of secularism.
Our intent, in both the article in question, and in our broader work on the nature and relationship of Christendom and Islam, is not to simplify or manipulate. What is most important is that we deal honestly with the intellectual and political legacy of these two faith traditions. We do not deny a problematic legacy of imperialism in Christian history, but by the same token we must recognize a similar, and arguably more constitutive legacy in Islamic history. Slavery, violent conquest, genocide, and religious persecution are part of both our histories, as well as scholarship, culture, peaceful trade, and toleration. To criticize Islam’s current political and religious situation is not to be an enemy of Islam, but the best kind of friend. Perhaps the worst aspect of Said—reflected strongly in Ralston’s article—is the assumption that no outsider or alien should be permitted to critique or explain other cultures, especially by drawing on their own culture and values. This is not a recipe for dialogue, but for a deadening mixture of shouting and silence.
Ralston ultimately proves himself not only a poor recipient of his own, Western, Christian, traditions, but a poor scholar and friend of Islam. The current violence and horror engulfing the Islamic world is victimizing Muslims above all, and if a coherent response is not available from Christians, we will see a repeat of all our worst errors towards the Islamic world. Indifference, poorly informed interference, making friends of those who should be our foes, and foes of those who might be our friends. Only a Christian world that moves beyond pure nationalist statism or liberal interventionism can engage sympathetically with an increasingly borderless Islamic world. For the sake of those of all faiths and none we must find a way to restore moral leadership and clarity to Christian civilization. 
3. See Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of the Country,” The Independent, July 13, 2014.
4. See, for example, John Milbank, “Shari’a and the True Basis of Group Rights: Islam, the West, and Liberalism,” in Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney, eds., Shari’a in the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 135–58.
5. We are indebted to conversations with Sebastian Milbank for a number of arguments in this essay.