In our ever-shrinking world, where the word ‘community’ means that more and more cultural and religious diversity is right beside us, we really have no choice but to find out who our neighbors are. Otherwise, we just hide from the world. This sort of isolation could be achieved in the past, but no longer in this fantastically close-knit world. Militant exclusivity, particularly in its violent forms, may make headlines – but it does not make much sense.
The heavy media coverage of violent activities by small groups of Islamic terrorists helps cement in the American imagination a stereotyped image of all Muslims as angry and dangerous conspirators, fixed on spreading hatred, destruction and murder. We often hear the claim that “Sure, I guess not all Muslims are terrorists, but how come the good ones never speak out? It seems as if they’re all willing to support terrorism, even if they don’t participate.”
I recently typed in the phrase “Muslims Against Terrorism” on the YouTube site, and it brought up 5,470 videos.
Then I went to the Google site and typed in the phrase “Muslims who speak out against Violence”, and it turned up 24,400,000 results.
The only reason some people have never heard Muslims object to terror and violence is that they do not listen and they have not looked.
Most Americans do not know very much about Islam, other than the sensationalism they hear about on the news, so it would be worthwhile to take a look at some of what the Qur’an actually says.
For instance, does the Qur’an sanction forced conversions? In fact, all Islamic jurists, without exception, have held throughout history that any attempt at coercing a non-believer to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin. This quote from Chapter 2 could not be any clearer: “There is no compulsion in matters of religion.”
The Quran does allow Muslims to fight against people who have attacked them or oppressed them (and by the way, the battles that are described in the Qur’an are not being fought against Christians or Jews: they are defensive wars against other Arabs who resented Muhammad because they did not want to give up their various idols and did not like the way his anti-idolatry preaching was annoying the pilgrims who came to Mecca each year and made them rich). So Muslims were allowed to fight back when attacked, but in Chapter 60 it says, “God does not forbid you to be kind and equitable to those who have neither fought against your faith nor driven you out of your homes. In fact, God loves the equitable.”
And as far as Jews and Christians and other peoples are concerned, in Chapter 49 God says, “We have …made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know each other and to honor each other, not so that you should despise each other.”
Does the Qur’an say “Kill them wherever you encounter them”? Yes, it does. But contrary to the wild imaginings of frightened westerners, and the lunatic fringe of Islamic terrorists, this verse is not condoning slaughter. It was said in the context of one particular battle. The immediately preceding verse says, “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for verily, God does not love aggressors.” The immediately following verse says, “If they desist, God is much forgiving: If they desist, then all hostilities shall cease.” In fact, every Qur’anic reference to fighting in a war is qualified by some moral condition of restraint: Muslims are commanded not to commit injustice, they are not to use violence disproportionate to that which threatens them, and they are not to use violence at all when credible avenues to peace are available.
Of course, God also says, “Terror and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of your arm shall they be still as stone.” But he said that in the Book of Exodus. And then there is this quote: “At that time we took all his cities and completely destroyed them – men, women and children. We left no survivors.” That was Moses in Deuteronomy.
Is the New Testament free of such language? In Luke, Jesus says, “I have come to cast fire upon the Earth… Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on Earth? I tell you No, but rather division.” Later he adds, “Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.”
What about stoning women who commit adultery? Actually, no such punishment is ever mentioned in the Qur’an. In fact, the Qur’an says nothing on the subject. There are a few times when stoning is mentioned in the text, but each time it is a threat being made by non-Muslims about what they might do to Muslims. Never does Allah or Muhammad condone such a thing.
To be completely transparent, there is an Islamic story, not in the Qur’an, where an adulteress comes to Muhammad asking to be punished, in order to be purified so she will not have to spend eternity in Hell. At first, the Prophet did not know what to do, since there had been no divine revelation on the subject. So he went to see some Jews he was friends with to see if they had any suggestions, and he found out that the Torah talks about stoning adulterers. The Jews tried to hide this from him – probably because the injunction had never been taken literally and was never enforced, and they did not want him to! But the story says he did follow the written Jewish law, had her stoned, and because no divine Revelation ever came to him in which God objected (or mentioned it at all), the punishment was later absorbed because of this silence into Islamic law. The story may or may not have been fabricated, or embellished. In any case, it is a unique story in that the victim asked to be punished, and nothing in the Qur’an itself ever permits such barbarity.
As to the famous Gospel story about Jesus preventing a mob from stoning an alleged adulteress, most biblical scholars agree that Jesus’ act of mercy was not out of keeping with the religious practice of the times. Other Rabbis would not have enforced the Leviticus code for stoning an adulteress; none would have said, “go on, stone her.” Jesus’ stance was well within his Jewish tradition.
It is certainly long past time for Muslim political authorities to take the same stance.
Some people are astonished that Islam would sanction a suicide bomber. In fact, Suicide is forbidden in Islam. It was not Allah , it was not Muhammad – it was Ayatollah Khomeini who said, “The purest joy in Islam is to kill or be killed for Allah.” Nowhere in the Qur’an is there any justification for suicide or indiscriminate slaughter.
Here is my favorite quote from the Qur’an, from Chapter 5: “If God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community. But He willed it otherwise in order to test you by what he has vouchsafed to [each different tradition]. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works!”
Lastly, here is an example of a Qur’anic verse that has often been used to justify violence and war, that extremists have used to brainwash their young followers, and fear-mongers have used to support their stereotypes. “Unto all hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight hath he distinguished above those who sit at home.”
But consider: You can “strive and fight” within your own self, against your own negativity, your own moral weakness, your own cynicism and fear. You can “strive and fight” against emotional chaos, apathy, complacency and ignorance. I doubt many people of faith – any faith – would be shocked to hear that God has a special regard for those who “strive and fight” in this way.
Why is this interpretation relevant? On the ride home from their final battle, Muhammad said to his Companions, “We have returned from the Lesser Holy War to the Greater Holy War.” When one of them asked him, “What is the Greater Holy War?” he replied, “The war within the soul.” That is the actual meaning of the word jihad.
I hope this helps people see that Islam is not a religion of violence, any more than Judaism or Christianity are, and that the sacred scriptures of Islam, like any other holy book, must be taken in historical context, the words must be read within their own grammatical and linguistic context, and the stories need to be pondered, contemplated and interpreted for their inner spiritual meaning.
Unfortunately, that cannot be the end of this discussion of Islam. We cannot take this information in and ignore contemporary reality. We cannot disregard the constant threat of terror that we are living with.
But the religion of Islam, per se, is not the cause of war or terror. It is never religion itself that causes such misery. It is people who manipulate religion. The religion of Islam is not threatening anyone’s way of life. But the politicization of Islam clearly is. And it is threatening Muslims as much as or more than anyone else.
Historically, extremist groups have always been marginalized and rejected by mainstream Islam as heretical aberrations. But now a major change has occurred. The magnificent Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages has crumbled, and traditional institutions that once sustained and promulgated Islamic theology – and marginalized extremism – have been taken over by state institutions.
A thousand years ago, at the height of Islamic power, the tradition called Ijtihad – the spirit of discussion, debate and dissent – flourished, and was presided over by a class of religious scholars, independent of the political system, called jurists. From the 8th to the 12th century, some 135 schools of Islamic interpretation existed, as well as 70 great libraries. Divergent opinions and schools of thought were not only tolerated, they were celebrated. There was discrimination, and it was hardly an interfaith utopia, but historical evidence indicates that Jews living under Islam experienced much less persecution than the Jews living in European Christendom. Science and art thrived, and Islamic civilization laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.
But in the centuries since, following the Crusades and the later invasions by Genghis Khan and his successors, as well as the inevitable internal political disputes and intrigues as opponents battle each other for power in a vast empire, the world has seen the demise of this high civilization, the stifling of Ijtihad, the closing of schools, the repression of critical independent thought, as the duty of the jurists has been co-opted by nationalistic politicians – technocrats serving as self-appointed arbiters of faith – who limit debate and interpretation, rather than expanding it, all to prop up their cultural and political goals and maintain the status quo. Now Muslims in these countries are silenced by relentless propaganda warning them that unity and strength demand conformity, debate only causes division, and division is synonymous with criminal heresy.
Many people in this situation have been beaten into emotional submission, which is what the powers-that-be want. No doubt, many others continue to have questions and divergent opinions, but dare not speak out for fear of the response.
Fanatic groups, like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban (originally supported by the West as allies in our battle with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but now turned virulently anti-American after witnessing so much carnage), are still intellectually and sociologically marginalized in Islam. But their highly visible acts of violence command the public stage.
Nonetheless, I believe these fanatics will not achieve their ambition to remake the religious landscape of the Islamic world in their narrow image. There are too many rival traditions. The desire for freedom is too strong. And as Walter Russell Mead notes, against the drive for a more closed and narrow view of Islam, “the Internet is making the great works of Islamic scholarship available to tens of millions of Muslims, including women, who can and will be free to draw their own conclusions about what their faith means and how it should be lived. Theological diversity within Islam seems bound to increase.”
In the meantime, it is important to understand that the supremacist thinking of Muslim extremists is grounded in culture, politics and nationalism – not religion. A culture of misguided ‘Honor’ has eroded the religion of Islam. ‘Honor” is an Arab cultural tradition that stresses the family or tribe over the individual. This custom is not Islamic – and for that matter, 80% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabic! – but many Muslims, like many Americans, confuse politics with religion.
Under the Arab code of honor, Muslims are taught to abdicate their individuality and accept their fate as property of their family or tribe. It is this cultural tradition that silences reasoning and dissent, and at its worst leads to tragedy when a family feels “shame” and imagines they are compelled to murder their own children. Honor killings, genital mutilation, forced marriages of children, imprisoning innocent women because they’ve been attacked by rapists, and other disgraceful atrocities, have been defended for far too long in the Arab world under the guise of ‘tradition’ despite what the Qur’an teaches, and they have been overlooked for far too long in the Western world under the guise of ‘respecting other cultures’.
To be fair, however: In recent times a number of current and former members of the U.S. military have told a district court that they were raped, assaulted or harassed during their service; that reports of sexual abuse of American servicewomen are routinely ignored; and that victims are retaliated against. The Defense Department recently estimated that 19,000 assaults occurred within the military in 2010, with 85 percent going unreported. Women who did report them have been demoted, jailed, told they are lying, told they are crazy, and discharged from service with loss of benefits. Violent sexist behavior, followed disgracefully by either denial, or by blaming and punishing the victim, is by no means the exclusive province of Arab societies.
Meanwhile, in Palestine, Hamas relentlessly preaches to their subjects that the Middle East crisis is solely the fault of diabolical and subhuman Jews who must therefore be annihilated. The total annihilation of Israel and its people is their all-consuming goal. They reject any offers of peace because peace is not what they want. And land is not what they want. Previous offers of “land for peace”, previous offers of cease-fires, have brought no respite from attacks. Terrorist regimes see peace overtures as weakness, and they prey on weakness.
But peace is what mothers and fathers and families want, it is what good decent people – whether Muslim, Christian or Jew – who simply wish to live their lives and raise their children, want. I suspect the only way it will finally be achieved – and it will finally be achieved – is when people rise up and rid themselves of rulers and fanatics who cavalierly sacrifice them on an altar of their political egos and hatred, who proudly admit they would rather see their own people suffer for a hundred years, than live in peace and prosperity with Israelis. From 2004 to 2008, 85% of al-Qaeda’s victims were Muslims! It doesn’t take the US or Israel to carry out barbarity against innocent Muslim families.
The vast majority of Muslim people want peace, but in many ways, as history has taught us too many times, this is unfortunately irrelevant – just as it became irrelevant that most Germans were not Nazis, or that most Russians were not Stalinists. The terrorists have to be stopped. We are all being threatened, including most Muslims!
Which is not to say that Israel is innocent. Such people are still few and far between, but there are extremists in Israel who openly talk about expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Israeli Arabs. There have been examples of viciousness and lawlessness in attacks on innocent Muslims. Peaceful non-political Palestinians are still not able to control their money and resources, or to move about freely. Although Hamas is clearly responsible for endlessly provoking Israel (with little or no concern for the safety and well-being of their own people) by launching thousands upon thousands of rockets against Israeli cities through the years, a case can certainly be made that Israel, with its far stronger military, has oftentimes responded in a disproportionate way – and that even with the efforts they make to protect civilian life, far too many men, women and children have been wounded or killed, thus punishing innocent Palestinians and driving their loved ones toward the extremist camp.
It is now critical and only just that Israel listen far more compassionately to the viewpoint of Palestinians – after all, how would any of us respond if we were suddenly told by a group of outsiders that our homes were no longer ours, that the land where our families had lived for generations and where we had raised our children, was about to be taken away; that the state where we live was henceforward the new sovereign homeland of the Native American peoples, in recompense for all the terror and slaughter of the past, just as the Nazis had terrorized and slaughtered European Jews? Might this not cause years and years of anger, hatred, and violence? The two sides have to keep negotiating, they have to keep trying. And in so doing, they will get some cease-fires, they will make a bit of progress.
But the real path to peace is not through Israeli (or American) negotiations with these regimes, it is not through offering them land or money. The path to peace is through an unequivocal rejection of terror – by all decent people, who choose love over hate, and life over death.
And I am hopeful, because sooner or later wisdom and decency always win out. There is much that has to be done to bring about peace, but arguably the most important is that each one of us becomes a living example of peace, justice, and love.
This is always an option:
We are all familiar with the stories of ‘righteous gentiles’, the many noble and courageous Christians who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives, helping to save European Jews from the Holocaust. But here is a story you might not know: During the Nazi occupation, entire Muslim villages in the small country of Albania sheltered Jews. During the previous years, as German Jews scrambled to get visas to escape the coming nightmare, country after country turned them away. Even the United States had a “quota” for Jews, and turned away thousands. But the Albanian Embassy granted visas without question.
There was no concept of “stranger” in Albanian culture. For the Muslims of Albania, a “Foreigner” was a “Guest”, and they were treated with the same hospitality as the three angels who visited Abraham.
I will conclude this chapter on tolerance with a story about the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. One day, on a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky, Merton found himself surrounded by Jews and Christians, blacks and whites, men and women. He suddenly experienced what he called a “radical sensation of inclusion.” He later said about this moment:
It was like I was waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a ‘special’ world – the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The sense of liberation from this illusion of difference was such a relief, that I laughed out loud.
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race.