Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Religious Extremism and Misunderstanding Faith

Considering how effortlessly religious dogma has become intertwined with political ideology, how can we overcome the clash-of-monotheisms mentality that has so deeply entrenched itself in the modern world? Clearly, education and tolerance are essential. ― Reza Aslan
As the son of a Lutheran minister and the father of two Jewish daughters, I have been intimately connected to religion and faith for most of my life. I have attended many worship services in churches and synagogues and have attempted to educate myself on the diverse religions and tapestry of faith that make the world a uniquely interesting place. I am sensitive to misunderstandings and assumptions made by people of one faith about people of another. Ignorance abounds on all sides. But never is this truer than when discussing Islam and terrorism.

A casual follower of the news could be forgiven for believing that Islam is synonymous with violence, or that all Muslims are extremists who advocate terror and violent jihad. The videotaped beheadings of American journalists and reports of the slaughter of innocents in villages and towns overrun by ISIS forces in recent months were horrifying and shocking. Emotional responses and outbursts are entirely understandable. Indeed, these acts of terror had the intended effect of provoking an American military response and drawing us back into a civil war we hoped was behind us.

ISIS is just another link in a long list of Arab and Muslim terrorist groups. From the “Islamic State” to al-Qaeda and Boka Haram, thousands of self-proclaimed Muslims boast of carrying out God’s will as defined by their extremist interpretations of the Quran. Some of the most oppressive societies on Earth are in Muslim-majority countries. Saudi Arabia, certain provinces in Pakistan, and the Taliban regions of Afghanistan are among the worst oppressors of women and violators of international human rights. And while all major religions have fundamentalist, rigid, and oppressive elements, it does seem that Islam must contend with religious extremism to a far greater degree.

And yet, I am deeply troubled by the manner in which Islam is so often painted with an unfairly broad brush, as if all of the world’s Muslims share the hateful ideology and deranged notions of jihad espoused by the radicals of ISIS. To brand all of Islam with the ideology of the extremists is not only wrong, it is counterproductive, disdainful of religion in general and Islam in particular, and does nothing to promote peaceful dialogue and understanding.

While much anti-Islamic sentiment stems from the right, none other than liberal comedian Bill Maher has contributed to the recent voices of religious bigotry. Last month, Maher criticized President Obama for contending in a speech before the United Nations that Muslims who adopt the ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS are “betraying” true Islam, “not defending it.” Obama suggested that “Islam teaches peace” and embraces “a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder.” He called on Muslims worldwide to “offer an alternative vision” to the propaganda that coerces some “to travel abroad to fight their wars” and pledged that the United States would “increase efforts to lift up those who counter extremist ideology, and seek to resolve sectarian conflict.”

Maher insists that Obama is wrong, and that it is time to call Islam what it is: a religion of hate and violence. Of course, Maher is a zealous anti-religionist, an equal opportunity critic of all religion, Christianity and Judaism included. So, it has been amusing to see some on the right embrace Maher’s statements concerning Islam, while ignoring his overly-broad generalizations of Christians as essentially anti-science morons who believe in fairy tales. Maher’s view of religion is black-and-white; he leaves no room for a nuanced understanding of faith and ignores the many expressions of Christianity that fully embrace science and evolution. He seems not to understand or care about the more sophisticated scholarship historically associated with Catholic and mainline Protestant theology.

His view of Islam is no better. Maher grossly oversimplifies complex events in which religion is but one element, and often a sideshow at that. So intent is he to blame religion that he fails even to properly acknowledge that the forces of extremism are most prevalent in regions of extreme poverty, where violence and oppression have simmered for centuries and where violent upheavals are motivated as much by politics, geography, and economics as by religion. His blanket condemnation of Islam, without distinguishing the peaceful voices of moderation from the radical voices of extremism, is pointless. It obscures an important and necessary dialogue about the role of religion in society, the problem with religious fundamentalism, and the need to better reconcile the modern world with scriptural passages that are so often misinterpreted and misapplied, or viewed literally, without historical context, and without attempting to reconcile conflicting passages.

While extremist ideology is and has been a particularly acute problem within certain Islamic communities, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not extremists. The religion of Islam embraces more than 1.5 billion people around the world – people from every race and nationality (Americans included). Large Muslim populations exist not only in several Middle Eastern countries, but also in such diverse nations as India, Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Kosovo, Albania, and other parts of Asia, and north and central Africa. In the United States, two members of the House of Representatives – Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andres Carson of Indiana – are Muslim. And while the United States has yet to elect a female President, there have been seven female heads of state of Muslim-majority countries.

As author and religion scholar Reza Aslan has noted, many “critics of religion tend to exhibit an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations. They scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry . . . to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.” The Quran, the Torah, and the Bible each require a large degree of interpretation to make sense of their many conflicting passages, and to render them meaningful in modern times. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the same God that commands Jews to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) also orders them to kill the Amalekites: “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3). In the New Testament, while Jesus told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), he also told them that he had “not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), and that “he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). And the same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity" (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).

How we reconcile conflicting passages and religious doctrine with the modern world says far more about us than our religion. American slaveholders frequently justified slavery by citing certain passages in the Bible, while  Christian abolitionists presented alternative scriptural passages to passionately condemn slavery. Many passages in the Bible were used for centuries to justify a patriarchal understanding of the relationship between husbands and wives, and men and women. But an alternative vision of feminist inspired theology in the 20th century has led many Christian and Jewish denominations to present a more egalitarian face to religious institutions. The same sorts of conflicts contained in verses within the Quran are being debated today in certain Muslim circles as part of an ongoing Islamic reformation.

In Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, it is necessary to distinguish how the faithful behave from how the faith teaches them to behave. If you are inclined towards violence and misogyny, you will find scriptural passages to validate your beliefs in both the Quran and the Bible. If you are a peaceful, non-violent person who believes in equality and has compassion for your fellow human beings, you also will find plenty of supporting verses. While one can find passages in the Quran that, interpreted literally, prescribe violence in defense of the faith, there are also numerous passages which ordain justice, mercy, charity, and tolerance.

To simplistically generalize about people of faith and conclude that the worst and most extreme elements of a particular religion represent the entire religion, is the very definition of bigotry and prejudice. Christians in particular should be careful not to paint Islam with such a broad brush. To say that the violent acts of Islamic extremists is the true face of Islam is no different than pointing to the actions of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian extremist group in northern Uganda accused of widespread murder, abduction, mutilation, and child sex slavery, as the true face of Christianity. Or claiming that centuries of Jewish persecution by Christians in Europe, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, accurately reflects true Christianity. Or that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who hold signs at funerals that say things like “God Hates Fags” is somehow an accurate reflection of Christianity.

Fundamentalism is, and always has been, opposed to compassion, understanding, and pluralism. It is true of Christian fundamentalism and Jewish fundamentalism. In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, it is manifested in its oppressive treatment of women and the use of violence to achieve religious and political goals. While fundamentalism must be opposed everywhere, it should not be confused with the fundamental tenets of the religion. Just as there are liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist versions of Christianity, there are “enlightened” and fundamentalist, moderate and reactionary versions of Islam.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a complex religion with a wide variety of interpretations. I believe it imperative that we attempt to better understand the diverse factions of Islam so that we may better engage with the moderate and peaceful voices of the faith, and offer our support in its ongoing struggle with fundamentalism and extremism. There is no shortage of Islamic statements condemning terrorism, and a recently published letter from 120 leading Muslim scholars to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, states unequivocally that ISIS’s use of Islamic scripture is illegitimate and perverse.  As suggested by Reza Aslan, “What is most desperately needed is not so much a better appreciation of our neighbor’s religion as a broader, more complete understanding of religion itself.”


  1. Interpretation appears to always be the root of confusion when it comes to the topic of religious beliefs. To make a generalized statement condemning an entire religion & it's followers due to the actions of an extremist group within a religion is outright slander; unjustified rhetoric. Seems to me there is good and bad people amongst all people and whatever their belief system is it is. The good will surface as well as the bad inevitably. Often times I have come to find people hiding behind religion and using it as a disguise almost as though they are on a stage and pretending to be someone they are not. Used to create an illusion of covering up one's true self, true identity. Almost as though they have multiple selves; always pretending to be someone they are not, to have a cause, to have a way to cover-up their true self. Exposing our true selves 24/7 seems to much to bear to so many. How oppressing to think a person is not comfortable to be in their own skin. How strange to think a person has so little sense of self that they must drown themselves in religion I often think to myself many radically religious, fanatical people are lost, unbalanced souls. Am not saying all, am saying some. It provides a way to avoid true socialization skills. To get so lost in scripture, in prayer - some seem to avoid real life experiences. To" use " religion for this purpose seems to short change a human being. Moderation, balance that to me is a healthy measure of dosage to anything I delve into. Yes, Passion in causes, yes in work, yes in people, yes in hobbies~ some passions must be contained and evened out to make for a healthy mind, body and human spirit. For without that balance we are not full; we are either over dosing , under dosing & or simply lost. To not be able to step out of our true self and accept that another person has a different belief system different than our own well that is a very narrow minded un-- evolved individual. Unfortunately we live in a world where this thought process is indoctrinated since birth with some of our population. It takes a healthy mind, education & living life to absorb this fundamental principle~

  2. To condemn an entire religion due to the acts of a few that is also a narrow minded individual. Interpretation; all the various digestion of scripture will forever cause discourse resulting in war when it comes to RELIGION. All in the name of what?

  3. Mark,

    A few questions…

    Why is terrorism predominantly an Islamic issue? Why, if Islam is just another religion, do we not see equal numbers of terrorists populating the other religions?

    Who, of any prominence, has claimed that “all Muslims are extremists who advocate terror and violent jihad”?

    What are some specific examples of “extremist interpretations of the Quran”?

    Are the Muslim countries that are “some of the most oppressive societies on Earth” collectively misinterpreting Islam? On a related note, are all the leaders of Islamic countries that have tried to destroy Israel misinterpreting Islam?

    Why is “religious extremism” over represented in Islam?

    What are some of the many examples of Islam being painted with an unfairly broad brush? Who, exactly, is doing the painting? And who is branding all Islam as extremists?

    What did Bill Maher say that was inaccurate or bigoted? In what specific way does Maher “oversimplify complex events”? In what way have conservatives ignored Maher’s unfair criticisms of other religions?

    Every corner of the world knows poverty and most areas of the world that experience extreme poverty are those that lack democracy, freedom and capitalism. Why is Islamic extremism the result and not the cause of poverty?

    Are you aware of the “proper” way to read the Quran? The way in which conflicting passages, are, indeed, reconciled? Are you aware of Muhammad’s Mecca and Medina periods and how these figure into the “doctrine of abrogation” that states that the earlier peaceful versus are voided if contradicted by later violent passages? Would you consider those Islamic scholars who advance this commonly accepted practice of understanding the Quran to be misinterpreting Islam? Or are the proponents of “immutability” misinterpreting Islam? Was Islamic scholar Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti misinterpreting Islam when he claimed that verse 9:5 (When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful.) “does not leave any room in the mind to conjecture about what is called defensive war. This verse asserts that holy war, which is demanded in Islamic law, is not a defensive war because it could legitimately be an offensive war. That is the apex and most honorable of all holy wars. Its goal is the exaltation of the word of God, the construction of Islamic society, and the establishment of God's kingdom on earth regardless of the means. It is legal to carry on an offensive holy war”?

    Do you consider support of Sharia Law to be an extremist position? Is the belief that death is an appropriate penalty for leaving Islam a misinterpretation of Islam? If hundreds of millions of Muslims, possibly well over half, believe so, are they misinterpreting their own religion?

    Are you aware that the Old Testament, the Torah, is historical in nature, in that it recorded what happened and that it does not command Jews to kill in present day?

    Are you aware that Jesus’s instruction that his disciples arm themselves was defensive in nature, in that He knew they would be persecuted? Are you aware that His disciples never cut off anyone’s head, not even one?

    Is it revealing that in trying to rationalize today’s Islamic terrorism one must go back to the past of Christianity and Judaism or point to a handful of current wing-nuts?

    What scriptural passages, exactly, would a follower in Christ find to justify violence?

    What is the “non-literal” way to interpret verse 9:5 above?

    Who, exactly, is generalizing about Muslims and claiming that the “worst and most extreme elements of a particular religion represent the entire religion”? Who, exactly, is claiming that the “Islamic extremists (are) the true face of Islam”?

  4. Is there anyone outside of Uganda that even whispers that the Lord’s Resistance Army is the true face of Christianity? And is it therefore fair to compare a non-existent LRA fan base (and the equally non-existent Westboro fan club) with the millions upon millions of Muslims who support Islamic extremists?

    What evidence would you present that fundamentalist Christians and Jews are not compassionate? And by “Jewish fundamentalism” you are referring to what group? Why must Christian fundamentalists be opposed? Are those graduates of Liberty College a threat to you and yours? Why must you oppose them? Is this language an example of religious bigotry?

    If Islam is a “complex religion with a wide variety of interpretations,” why are the extremists automatically wrong in their interpretation? Could they be right? Are their actions not in perfect harmony with their prophet? Are they not emulating the “perfect man” perfectly?

    Does, in fact, the published letter from 120 leading Muslim scholars state “unequivocally” that “ISIS’s use of Islamic scripture is illegitimate and perverse”? And why are these scholars described as “leading”? Are there no equally learned scholars who believe the opposite? Would it not be appropriate, when quoting these scholars, to note their connection to CAIR and CAIR’s connection to Hamas and CAIR’s claim to fame as an “unindicted co-conspirator” with convicted terrorists? Should you have also noted, as Robert Spencer did in his September 29th article for PJ Media*, all of the scholars who are linked to terrorists, such as Hamas activist Mustafa Abu Sway and unindicted co-conspirator Dr. Jamal Badawi, to name just two? Should you have also noted, as Spencer has, that the scholars have actually endorsed “jihad, the Sharia, and the concept of the caliphate”?

    Did you read the open letter? Did it give you a headache too? Did you notice, for example, that only “qualified” scholars can “interpret” the Quran? Did you notice that the scholars validate the doctrine of abrogation noted above? Did you notice, also, that they quote Islamic scholar Al-Suyuti (Abu al-Fadl ‘Abd al-Rahman Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti) and his “Al- Itqan fi Ulum Al-Qur’an”? Are you aware that Al-Suyuti declared, according to David Bukay and the Middle East Forum, that “everything in the Qur'an about forgiveness and peace is abrogated by verse 9:5, which orders Muslims to fight the unbelievers and to establish God's kingdom on earth”?*

    Were you struck, as was I, after reading the open letter, that apparently the Islamic religion is so dang complicated that of the 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet only a handful are educated enough to properly understand it? And should any religion of peace be so difficult to understand?

    Were you also perplexed, as was I, that what would be good advice regarding the Bible or Torah: “Open the Qur’an and read the verses on jihad and everything will become clear ... forget everyone and read the Qur’an and you will know what jihad is,” is not applicable to the Quran and that “Whoever speaks about the Qur’an without knowledge should await his seat in the Fire”? And what is the non-violent way of interpreting that threat?

    Were you struck by the contradiction of support for the doctrine of abrogation and the guidance that when there is disagreement that the “the more merciful, i.e. the best, opinion should be chosen”?

    Did you find other contradictions in the letter disconcerting? Can you explain, for example, this:

    (The Prophet further said: ‘I have been ordered to fight people until they say: “There is no god but God”, so whoever says: “There is no god but God” is safe in himself and his wealth except as permitted by law, and his reckoning is with God.’ This is the goal of jihad once war has been waged on Muslims.”)

  5. Could a Muslim who is not an expert in the Quran, Islamic legal theory, Sharia law, Arabic grammar, language, syntax and parsing, morphology, rhetoric, poetry, etymology, linguistics, the Hadith, “Islamic sciences,” textual abrogation, fundamentals of jurisprudence, and legal intuition, make the mistake of assuming that atheists, by their very thoughts, have waged war against Islam?

    What are your thoughts on the 120 leading Muslim scholars’ blunt defense of barbaric Islamic punishments: “Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qur’an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law”? Why do you suppose they didn’t mention what those punishments are (amputation for theft, stoning death for adultery to name two)? What explains the very same penalty for adultery in ancient Jewish law going unenforced today? Are Jews less devout than Muslims? Did it occur to you, as it did to me, that any religion that still practices such cruelty might have an inherent problem with violence? Or that the faithful of any religion who would stone a women to death or cut off a man’s hand might have good reason to take other violent passages in their holy book literally?

    Did you find it odd that the scholars would defend the mutilation of thieves and a paragraph later chastise the Islamic State for the same thing? Or that they would defend a painful and slow death by stoning in one paragraph and in the next condemn the Islamic State for torture? Anything schizophrenic about that?

    And what are we to make of this statement: “If you claim that the Prophet killed some captives in some battles, then the answer is that he only ordered that two captives be killed at the Battle of Badr…”? Are the scholars unaware of the Battle of the Trench, in which the Prophet ordered the beheading of up to 900 captive men and the enslavement of women and children? Or that the Prophet took one of the captive women as his own slave?

    You may be the wrong person to ask, but are you bothered by phrases such as “all scholars are in agreement,” “where all Muslims are in consensus,” “with a universal consensus,” “hence, there is no such thing,” and “it is forbidden”?

    Is denying the obvious element of violence inherit in Islam the best way to “understand the diverse factions of Islam” and will this blindness hinder our engagement “with the moderate and peaceful voices of the faith”? Is not honesty necessary if Islam has any hope of becoming as peaceful as every other world religion? And should this honesty include characterizing accurately the words and thoughts of those you disagree with? And finally, in what practical way will non-Muslims achieving a “more complete understanding of religion itself” lessen the violence in the Islamic religion?

    Rich R.

  6. Rich,

    Since I am not going to answer 77 questions, I will answer one (actually three). You ask, “What are some of the many examples of Islam being painted with an unfairly broad brush? Who, exactly, is doing the painting? And who is branding all Islam as extremists?”

    Here are but three examples I found in a matter of seconds. I have read and listened to countless others over the past several years, which you can accept to believe or not. My guess is, given the stuff you read, you see examples all the time, whether or not you recognize them.

    After 9/11, Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Rev. Billy Graham) said Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion." Five years later, he told ABC News this was still his view. And in a CNN interview last year, Graham again called Islam a "very violent religion." Notice that he does not attempt to distinguish between Islamic terrorists and Muslims like the Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, or between Muslims who subscribe to Saudi-style Wahhabism and the 260 million Indonesian Muslims who have nothing in common with them. In 1984, when Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam referred to Judaism as a “dirty religion” (in discussing Israel, he said “there can be no peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your dirty religion”) he was rightly condemned as an anti-Semite. Why the double standard?

    Bill Maher, of course, has said, among many other things, “Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing.” “The Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS.” And when asked by Anderson Cooper why he is so critical of Muslims, he answered, “Because they’re violent. Because they threaten us. And they are threatening. They bring that desert stuff to our world …We don’t threaten each other, we sue each other. That’s the sign of civilized people. And they don’t...” No qualification, no nuance, no intelligent distinctions between radical extremists and the forces of peaceful Islam.

    Anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said that "we are at war with Islam," we have to "crush [it] in all forms," and "there is no moderate Islam." She has insisted that 9/11 was "the core of Islam," and that "Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam" approved of the 9/11 attacks. Broad enough for you?

    As I have tried to point out, apparently to deaf ears, the Muslim world is too vast and diverse to fit into Graham’s, Maher's, Hirsi Ali’s, or your narrow perception of it. With 1.5 to 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, whatever the number of terrorists does not justify an indictment against an entire faith. It is perfectly OK to indict the violent jihadists, as I do (and did quite clearly in my essay), and it is accurate to question why today Islam tends to have a far larger problem with extremism – again, as I do (and did). But it is not OK to lump an entire faith into its worst and most extreme example.

    Muslims make up large populations in countries and cultures as diverse as Eastern Europe, the horn of Africa, Lebanon, and Indonesia. Some of these societies are more advanced than others; but in all of them are Muslims who are fighting for women's rights and against extremism and violence. They deserve our support, not our inability to distinguish black from white. It is simply unfair to group them together under an ugly stereotype that's defined by the Muslim world’s worst elements.