Leading up to the coalition of the willing waging war against ISIS much noise was made about getting the Muslim leadership to speak up.

Whenever there is any violent crime committed by someone suspected of being Muslim, like the recent beheading in Oklahoma, there are predictable calls for the Muslim leadership to speak up.

There is one major problem with this tried and found wanting method: there is nobody on the other side of the phone to pick up. It is not that someone is sitting by the phone, anxiously hoping the phone will stop ringing. No, there is no phone! Nobody there, either.

The vaunted Muslim leadership is clearly like a griffin in two ways:

1. It is as brave and magisterial as both a lion and an eagle.

2. Nothing in reality (outside of our imaginations) actually corresponds to it.


There is nothing new about civilizations or religious traditions projecting their own expectations onto its Others. In fact, there is a whole academic cottage industry built around dismantling the category of religion as a universal. Its best representative is Brent Nongbri's Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Nongbri argument pivots around demonstrating how religion is a recent, mostly mainline Protestant scholarly invention. Its main assumptions are that private feeling and sincerity toward the infinite are the essence of something that is called "religion" that exists across cultures and can be found lurking behind all the various "religious" traditions as their secret core.

It is fascinating to see how much responses to ISIS seem to display the opposite tendency toward Islam. They nonetheless project prejudices as if they were universals. There is something I would call the "papist temptation" in interpreting Islam and what it is capable of doing in response to wrongdoing by its adherents.

The problem here is recognizable for someone with even the most rudimentary historical background, even someone who has not read Bernard Lewis.  The problem of authority is the fundamental problem of Islam.

The problem of rightful leadership emerged right after the death of Muhammad and was never satisfactorily resolved. The inability to resolve this fundamental problem created the Sunni-Shiite divide, with each group having its own series of rifts.

The irony is that the ISIS drive toward creating a Sunni caliphate is actually an attempt to create the sort of "Muslim leadership" that could take responsibility for its adherents.

A further irony, on a more general level, is that because of its perpetual crisis of authority, Islam is a much more democratic religion than Christianity. This means, for reasons that I have discussed in detail, that it perpetually lacks a "Muslim leadership" with any real authority, spiritual or temporal, to enforce or even proclaim edicts against wayward adherents. Power in Islam is extremely local and usually does not extend beyond the mosque, because that is its basic unit of authority.

Sure, there are groups of Muslim scholars who are perpetually apologizing after 9/11 or for ISIS, but nobody listens to them.

Perhaps a papacy or a caliphate would be just the thing?