Islam is Not a Religion of Peace, But Cordoba House Should Be Built Anyway: Leon Wieseltier on Islam’s Responsibility for 9/11

At the New Republic today, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s literary editor and one of my all-time favorite essayists, makes an excellent distinction that I would endorse: he writes that, while he is prepared to release Muslims of collective guilt for 9/11, he is not prepared to let Islam qua Islam off the hook for 9/11. He notes that, just as Jewish terrorists come out of Judaism, so Islamic terrorists come out of Islam. No terrorist is an island. Each killer bears the “currents of culture”:

One of the most accomplished Jewish terrorists of our time, Baruch Goldstein, came from the Jewish universe in which I was raised. . . . The same was later true of Yigal Amir. . . . If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore.

And Leon Wieseltier castigates the following fuzzy-headed and glib distinction:

It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims.

And at the conclusion of Leon Wieseltier’s brief essay, he makes solidarity with moderate Muslims a category he recognizes (as any reasonable and educated person must):

Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are.

Wieseltier, I think, has struck exactly the right balance here: Islam is not a religion of peace, but Cordoba House should be built.

This is not an absurd position for two reasons:

  • it recognizes that all three of the traditional monotheistic religions bear in them the cultural seeds of both peace and war; and
  • it recognizes that most Muslim Americans are “struggling with the same poison” that other Americans are.

To think about this issue clearly, one must not only make distinctions, one must make the right distinctions. Leon Wieseltier does.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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25 Responses to Islam is Not a Religion of Peace, But Cordoba House Should Be Built Anyway: Leon Wieseltier on Islam’s Responsibility for 9/11

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Exactly! The only thing he left out was the appropriate summary, “religion spoils everything” (to quote Christopher Hitchins).

    – Colin

    • brooks says:

      riiight! ’cause, y’know, no murdering atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers out there, no sirree… .

      i swear to whoever, it’s not the religious or the areligious per se so much as the absolutists (of all creeds) who frustrate/bore the living crap out of me.

    • santitafarella says:


      But religion is not going away any time soon. Therefore, if the world gives you spoiled milk, you might still make yogurt!

      Pass the dates and granola.


    • santitafarella says:


      Exactly. All philosophical and religious positions bear the seeds of war and peace. Did you know that the environmentalist who shot up the Discovery Channel building appears to have been intellectually animated by atheism, Malthus, and Darwin, as well as environmentalism?


  2. Colin Hutton says:

    Brooks :

    Proportionately fewer, I suspect. Definitely fewer hypocrites, however, and they’re the ones who give ME the shits.

    – Colin

    • brooks says:

      i dunno, colin; i think hypocrtisy is s pecifically human failing, and no more represented by the religious than the irreligious.

      but even if you’re right, i think that stalin, pol pot and mao (among others) have really helped to make up in raw carnage for what they might lack in absolute representation.

      • Colin Hutton says:

        Brooks :
        I think that one of the reasons this blog of Santi’s works so well is that he sets frameworks within which short discussions/responses can easily be understood. We are leaving that framework and setting off into unchartered territory (which appears to be permitted, but it is more difficult to stay on track). I’ll try a response that is shorter than an essay.

        First, big-picture history (which I’ve never studied) but as I see it. The Greeks and then the Romans took the first big steps that would lead to Armstrong’s giant step on the moon. What happened then? : Religion, as we know it, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, between them, gave us the ‘dark ages’ – 1,500 years of feudal tyranny, religious wars and scientific stagnation, from which mankind is still struggling to recover.

        Hypocrisy? : One of the control mechanisms of monotheistic religion is that it claims the moral high ground –after all it has a direct line of communication with the all-loving, all-knowing, all-merciful etc. ‘creator’. The reality : Those setting the agenda within religions have always sought (and generally achieved) mutually beneficial pacts with those wielding political power, quite irrespective of any moral/humanistic considerations. A few of the outcomes : crusades, genocides, inquisitions, 1700yrs of witch burning, 1800yrs of slave trading, 1950 years of shelter for pederasts, 2000+yrs of building temples for the aggrandisement of churchmen and kings/emperors, 2010 years of priests, pastors, rabbis, muftis, etc. poncing around with their fairy-story books still preaching faith above rationality. Hypocrites.

        Stalin and Mao : (remembering that I’m no historian) : They did not, as far as I know, make claims to be acting from what I would define as ‘a moral high ground’. Remember that both were dismantling feudal societies which (certainly in the case of Russia) were strongly underpinned by religious authority (and, make no error, you would not want to have lived the life of an ordinary person in either). I suspect that both would have argued that the end justified the means, the end being a more equitable society. If the means resulted, directly or indirectly, in the deaths of 20-30m people – well so be it. So I don’t detect hypocrisy. Btw , keeping a sense of proportion, I doubt that the number of deaths, as a percentage of the global population, would have been any more than in campaigns during earlier times (Genghis Khan, the Crusades, “spreading the word of god to Africa and S America” etc.). I will probably get vilified for saying this, but I predict that history will ultimately judge both men more kindly than we do today.

        Pol Pot : I was living in Africa at the time, a continent with plenty of its own problems, and Cambodia did not feature on the radar. Was he an atheist? From the occasional thing I’ve read, he sounds to have been a psychopath with no particular aims or agendas which could be raised as redeeming features. However, I stand to be corrected.

        – Colin

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    Thanks for the thought – although I’ve always hated yogurt

    – Colin

  4. Let’s look at a quote from Wieseltier:

    “All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore.”

    Let’s grant that this is true (in fact, it is so obviously true that I doubt anyone would disagree with it.)

    But Wieseltier leaves out something important. He allows for variation in how peaceful or how warlike any given religion is at any given time — but he implies that these variations are only due to “varying historical circumstances.” In other words, NONE of the variation is due to intrinsic characteristics of that particular religion.

    How could this possibly be the case? How could all religions have precisely the same proclivities to war and to peace? It isn’t even a serious proposition, once stated explicitly, which is why Wieseltier does not do so.

    Obviously religions vary in their intrinsic qualities and not just in how they adapt to “varying historical circumstances”. Two of those intrinsic qualities are (1) tolerance, and (2) proclivity to violence.

    It only goes to reason that there is a spectrum over which religions vary in how tolerant they are and how violent they are. And everyone knows where Islam falls in that spectrum.

    • santitafarella says:


      But how far do you take your argument? If Islam is on the red side of the religious proclivity to violence scale, does it go far enough to be considered sui generis? In other words, is Islam, of all the religions in the world, uniquely unassimilable to Jeffersonian plurality? My argument is that, even if Islam has a greater contemporary proclivity for violence than other religions (regardless of whether it is from historical contingency or its essential nature), it is completely managable. We can make distinctions, we can identify friends and enemies, and we can assimilate Muslim Americans. Likewise, Muslim Americans can find ways to read their religious books so that they fit with their American pluralistic experience (as every other religion does).

      My issue is that we are on the verge, as a country, of concluding that Islam is sui generis (as Germans in the 1930s concluded about Judaism) and that we are in an inevitable clash of civilizations. I don’t like such conclusions. I think that they are wrong.

      What say you?


  5. “But how far do you take your argument?”

    Do you have some specific concern, or do you merely wish to grandstand and rely on vague lurid implications?

    For that matter, how far are you willing to go in running interference for people who refuse to distance themselves from Hamas or other terrorist groups?

    • santitafarella says:


      I wasn’t asking a leading question. I genuinely want to know. Do you regard Islam as a religion that is sui generis? Yes or no?

      As for Hamas, I don’t want to run interference for anyone who supports terrorism. I don’t think that Abdul Rauf does. I also recognize that Hamas is a grotesque antisemitic phenomenon in a tragic part of the world.


  6. Colin Hutton says:


    Apuleious asked : “how far are you willing to go in running interference for people who refuse to distance themselves from Hamas or other terrorist groups?”

    You ‘answered’: “I don’t want to run interference for anyone who supports terrorism”

    Your response is worthy of a politician, not, may I suggest, of an academic.

    It seems to me that Apuleius infers from the (I presume) silence of the ‘silent majority’ of muslims in USA that their sympathies lie with Hamas and muslim terrorists generally. (That, at any rate, is the inference I draw regarding the silence of muslim minority here in Australia).

    I suspect that your starting point is that silence can be presumed to mean that they are assimilated Americans with Jeffersonian views. (but what about Niemoller?)

    So I think that Apuleious’ question should be interpreted as ‘how far are you willing to go in defending muslims in USA, who should be, but are not, actively denouncing anti-Jeffersonian views held by their fellow muslims?.


    • santitafarella says:


      It’s a fair question. Let me just be clear: I assume that the average Muslim American, if you ask him or her about Israel and Judaism, will likely have views that I regard as noxious. Like a liberal asking a Texan about Mexico, I presume it’s an invitation to hearing things that you would prefer not to. And I don’t assume that Muslim Americans, on average, are more attune to Jeffersonian individualism and liberty than the average American (though they might be, as a besieged minority).

      Prior to 9/11, I would point out that Republicans were vigorously pursuing the Muslim vote and getting it. Muslims are, historically, family oriented, patriarchy friendly, “people of the book.” But now Muslims look to Democrats to balance out the anti-Jeffersonianism directed at them by Republicans.

      But my basic assumption about Muslim Americans is that a lot of them are more committed to a Herderian collective notion of identity than to Enlightenment individualism. But my guess is that this is true of most Americans (they see themselves as Christians, or Jehovah Witnesses, or Mormons before they see themselves as Americans or rational atomistic individuals).

      And few Americans, Muslim or otherwise, denounce anti-Jeffersonian views, period. Find a Mormon, for example, who speaks in Jeffersonian terms about gay marriage and rights. It does not follow that defending Mormons rights is a betrayal of gay rights.

      In other words, there is a presumption in your question that Muslim Americans must earn the right to be defended by unambiguously behaving in a Jeffersonian manner themselves. But from my vantage, the average person who works, pays taxes, and, as a practical matter, has a live and let live attitude in their day to day interactions with others, is sufficiently Jeffersonian to support. They may vote for anti-gay ballot initiatives or have noxious opinions, but these are things that can be said about most Americans (unfortunately).

      In short, I believe that the Muslim American community is not sui generis. Even as the majority of Muslims keep their Islamic religion and civilization in their hearts and collective practice, they are also completely assimilable as Americans. I have a confidence in modernism moderating people and wearing fanaticism down over time. Modernism is simply too beneficial to humans to chuck away, and most Muslims use American modernism to justify moderating old school practices. Christians, Jews, and Hindus do exactly the same thing.

      The world, over the next millenia, belongs to secular modernism, globalism, and urbanism. The Enlightenment milk is already spilled. Traditional civilizations and religions are intellectually defunct and playing catch up; the trick is to avoid blowing up the world before we get to the other side (which I’m guessing is within a century). A century from now every human being will have all the energy that they want (cheaply) and science will have control over disease. Religion will still be in the world, but it will be comfy with science and reason, and will respect diversity. Muslim Americans will lead the way on this transition.


  7. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    There you go again – forcing me to think!

    “there is a presumption in your question that Muslim Americans must earn the right to be defended by unambiguously behaving in a Jeffersonian manner themselves”

    Replace “defended” with “accepted” and, yes, that is what I have been saying ever since 9/11. Is that fair and reasonable? You make a good case for the answer to be “probably not”. As I generally try to be fair and reasonable (not ‘tolerant’ – too much of that around these days!), it raises the question of whether I am assigning ‘collective guilt’. Probably. Is that fair? …..

    All too hard. So for the moment I will sign off with the comment that while the whole debate you have conducted around the GZ mosque issue has, unsurprisingly (at my age), not ‘changed’ my views on Islam/moslems, it has moderated them!

    _ Colin

    • santitafarella says:


      Well, I believe that dialogue is the hope of the world. So long as people keep talking, I think they’ll find they have more in common, not less. That’s the whole premise of the Enlightenment: that one’s rationality and individualism are first, one’s tribal identity second. We need not be opaque to one another. We share a common humanity and dignity.

      And Islam, interestingly, shares this view that we share a common humanity and dignity, and sets this universalism in its own religious terms—which suggests to me a Jeffersonian bridge to explore together.

      I’m actually starting a group with a Muslim that I work with. I’ve known him for ten years. I approached him about a week ago and said to him: How would you feel about starting a monthly meet-up called “Take a Muslim to Lunch Day”?

      He lit up. He thought it was amusing and life-affirming: sort of like “Take your daughter to work day.” Muslims can meet at a restaurant at a predictable time each month and pair off with any non-Muslims who might show up in response to some advertising about it. Imagine two human beings, strangers to one another, having lunch and a chat. Then maybe coming back for lunch again a week or month later. The rule: ask and talk about anything you want. Anything.

      We’re tentatively planning our first lunch on September 17th, a Friday. It may just be me and him on the 17th, but we’ll start inviting others after we work out the kinks. He knows two Muslim restauranteurs who might host. And we might make it Friday dinner around 5:00 (as opposed to lunch).

      Maybe it will go viral: “Take a Muslim to lunch week”: an annual thing that accompanies the monthly habit. Wouldn’t it be nice if, all across America, Muslims and non-Muslim Americans got together and, you know, talked to one another and got to know their neighbors?

      Any thoughts on how to proceed?


      • Colin Hutton says:

        Santi :

        I love your idea. So-o-o American! (a remark that is not intended to be derogatory. Perhaps an Australian mix of admiration and cynicism, flavoured with a dash of mockery). It could work, who knows? Certainly worth a try by someone who runs a successful ‘bar’.

        Thanks for the invite to provide some thoughts. I will enjoy doing so. But give me a couple of days to get back to you. (Meantime : replace “take” with “meet” – I aint about to pick up the tab for no Muslim –am I?)

        _ Colin

      • santitafarella says:


        I hadn’t thought about how “take” might imply picking up the tab. You’re right: it should be something like “Meet a Muslim for Dinner Week” or “Have Coffee with a Muslim Day.”

        And each religion has its drink, doesn’t it? Muslims have coffee, Buddhists and Hindus tea, Catholics and Jews wine, Baptists grape juice in dixie cups, Mormons, eh, milk.

        “Meet a Muslim at Starbucks Day.”



  8. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    So-o-o American (this time without the dash of mockery!). My further response was 80% complete, mostly advice on leveraging off your blog and the GZ mosque debate, when I accessed Prometheus (I cut and paste from Word) to find that you have 90% anticipated me. I had even raised the foreshadowed, unseemly Koran-burning – as a negative, only to find that you have spotted it as an opportunity. That is a stroke of genius. Response on the scrap-heap, I will now, somewhat chastened, cheer you on from the side-lines.

    – Colin

    • santitafarella says:


      Well, darn. Jump right in. Don’t stay on the sidelines too long.

      Know any Muslims you might have a coffee with this week? I think you’re in Australia, yes?

      I’d love to hear your report of the experiment (and who picked up the tab).


  9. ustad053 says:

    Islamic thought and information platform

  10. wildan says:

    Proud to be moslem !!!

  11. Defaeco says:

    The mistake maybe is that you suppose Islam is like Judaism and Christianity, where you can basically pick & chose. I think it’s superficial and ungrounded. These religions hold different content that motivate people & shape there cultures (which in return shapes the commentary on the original books – a question of which is another question not raised here).

  12. Pingback: Collective Guilt Watch: If Muslims are Responsible for Osama Bin Laden, Are Anti-Muslim Bloggers Responsible For Anders Behring Breivik? | Prometheus Unbound

  13. Anonymous says:

    Islam is the Only Acceptable Religion in the Sight of Allah, Logically also & Impossible to Denied this truth..

    Islam is the only religion it doesnt metter if someone accept it or not but they must see in the day of judgement.
    May Allah give us Hidaya.

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