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.”