Islam’s Outdated Domination Theology

Yossi Klein Halevi is author of "At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land" (Harper/Collins, 2001).

With the globalization of Islamic terrorism and mob violence, it is becoming increasingly absurd to ascribe the threat to a fanatic fringe. Yet between those who dismiss the growing Islamic assault on the West as marginal and those agitating for a war of civilizations, a third way exists: offering Islam the respect it deserves as one of the world’s great faiths while insisting that it confront its outmoded theology of domination.

Muslims who note that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance are right, but only in a medieval sense. Muslim law does indeed permit freedom of religion for Jews and Christians, who are cited in the Koran as “peoples of the book.” But the prerequisite for Muslim tolerance is Muslim rule. Even Muslim Spain, the medieval world’s most inspiring example of religious coexistence, was premised on the primacy of Islamic dominance.

Like Christianity, Islam is a universal faith that envisions the ultimate transformation of the world in its image. But unlike large parts of Christianity in our time, Islam has yet to consider the option of religious pluralism based on the equality of faiths.

For Islam, historical experience reinforces theology. As historian Bernard Lewis notes, Islam is the only monotheistic religion whose founder lived to see the triumph of his faith. Because Islam knew power from its very inception, Muslims came to see dominance as their birthright. In the past, Islam proved capable of magnanimity toward its non-Muslim subjects. But it hasn’t proved its capacity for equality. For Islam, only two options exist: to dominate or be dominated.


The Palestinian terrorist war against Israel is the most extreme form of that mind-set. The terrorists’ goal isn’t ending the occupation of the West Bank and creating a Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel but the destruction of the Mideast’s only Western, non-Muslim state.

For normative Islamic theology, the very existence of a Jewish state in the Muslim heartland -- “Dar al Islam,” the House of Islam -- is an offense. Al Qaeda statements against Israel don’t refer to its policies as much as its very existence.

Yet Islam, along with other faiths, is capable of adapting to changing circumstance. The Koran, like other scriptures, contains verses that reinforce religious exclusivity but also verses that can be summoned to justify a new Islamic pluralism. Religions grow subtly when their adherents begin emphasizing certain parts of scripture to support their new spiritual insights. That is precisely what happened after the Holocaust to the Catholic Church, which stopped citing the New Testament’s anti-Jewish verses and instead began emphasizing those verses affirming God’s love for the Jewish people.

Islam’s challenge is to balance its vision of itself as a faith that dominates the world with a humility that concedes the need for religious restraint in a world threatened with nuclear destruction.

Humility is a profound trait in Islam. More than most faiths, Islam inculcates in its believers a frank acknowledgment of their own mortality. Muslims live with a constant awareness of human transience.

The dark side of that awareness is the demonic phenomenon of the suicide bombers. But at its best, the Muslim ability to accept death produces spiritual generosity. Palestinian Muslims have repeatedly told me how foolish it is for Arabs and Jews to fight over land when in the end the land will claim both. That acceptance of mortality offers hope for Muslim restraint in addressing the ambition of universal domination.

Those who want us to believe that the anti-Christian riots in Nigeria and the terrorist atrocities aimed at international tourism in Indonesia and Kenya are merely the work of a frustrated fringe are weakening the West’s ability to recognize the scope of the threat and to defend itself from a new totalitarian onslaught. But those who label Islam as inherently violent and intolerant are denying its capacity for spiritual growth. And they are abandoning those still-rare but extraordinarily courageous voices within Islam calling for theological modernization.

Winning this war, then, requires a two-pronged approach. First, the West must respond to aggression without sentimentality or self-recrimination. At the same time, we must support those who are struggling to help Islam evolve so that it can become again a crucial shaper of civilization.