Weeks ago I sat at a dining room table having a conversation with an American couple that I consider good friends and mentors. The conversation was initially purely political, but one cannot discuss America-related politics for too long without discussing America’s foreign policy, and one cannot discuss America’s foreign policy for too long without discussing religion. Living in a post-911 world, the question of Islam will always hang over the discussion of America’s relation to the world around it today. And this conversation evidently wasn’t an exception.
“I think part of the problem is-“ one of them began “–in all our expertise we couldn’t ever understand the mind of a Muslim.”
I paused. I had some sense of the direction he was heading with that statement, but I didn’t want to leave room for assumption, and so I asked him to elaborate.
“Well, we can’t ignore the common thread running through those countries we’re talking about,” he said, building off our conversation on the instability of countries in the Middle East, hardly ever left better by Western military intervention. “Islam is dominant is those countries, and we know Islam to be prone to violence.”
The statement, although hardly unusual, was nevertheless striking. It does seems like every other day there is some report of another terrorist attack by some Anti-Western Arab somewhere in the world, and wherever in the world that may be, there seems to be, at first glance, a common thread running through these attacks: Islam. Islam, then, must be the root of this problem, or at least that is the perception of millions and millions of people today. This is a perception that is continues to define Islam in the 21st Century more and more.
When one speaks of Islam, it often incurs images of teenage boys with pounds of C4 strapped to their chests, Arab militants holding AK47s hoisted in the direction Western soldiers, and of course, an airplane flying through a skyscraper that defined a skyline, turning it into rubble and ash in what seems like slow motion but lasts seconds. That is the Islam we know today.
Is this perception warranted? It seems like every time one opens the newspaper or turns on a major news network one hears of some Islamic faction that has killed a certain number of people with some sort of crude bomb, or a little less often something even more devastating. Is Islam prone to violence? Does Islam push its adherents to acts of atrocity? Are the millions of people opposed to Islam as a result of its violent inclination rightful in their perception of it?
It would be incongruous to believe that the Muslims who are committing atrocities are any more pious than the Muslims who aren’t. They pray the same number of times a day, go to the mosque with the same regularity and read the Quran just as often as each other. If Islam truly was the “common thread” through terrorist attacks then the Muslim you might walk past in the store would want to kill you just as much as the Muslims who do want to kill you so much they are willing to kill themselves in the process. It cannot be religion alone. These terrorists are driven more so by politics than they are religion. There is not a single recorded instance of terrorism the motivation of which has been purely religious, with no political inclination. The motivation is almost always political, and religion is made the fuel, not because of the religion itself dictates these measures in principle, but because there cannot be any stronger fuel than religion. But even if it is politics rather than religion that is the basis of terrorism, why is it that Islam seems more inclined to corruption than other religions?
The answer is it isn’t. The FBI database records that in the time after 9/11, of the thousands of terrorist attacks that have occurred on American soil, only 33 were Islamic in nature (even counting instances very loosely related to true Islamic terrorism, as it includes attacks generally by anyone from Palestine, Lebanon, Indonesia or any other Arab country, and anything related to other loosely related groups such as the Black American Moslems). There were more Jewish terrorist attacks than there were Muslim, and twice as many people killed in school shootings.
Islam has over one and a half billion followers today; Christianity being the only religion with more adherents in the world. Those participating in these terrorist acts being reported in the media constitute to much less than one percent of the Islamic population. This in itself shows some discrepancy in the belief that Islam is intrinsically violent, one that anyone who advocates that Islam sanctions terror has to reconcile. If Islam is violent in its core, then why do a miniscule minority contribute to the number of terrorist acts seen today? Why aren’t the other 99% strapping on suicide vests and killing along with them hundreds and thousands of people?
But even if the majority of adherents of the religion aren’t violent, does that really prove that the religion itself doesn’t approve of violence? The Prophet Muhammad’s own life must be taken into consideration in the discussion of the seemingly evident Muslim inclination to violence. His hands were far from bloodless. From the time of Allah’s first revelation to him to the day of his death, Muhammad carried out 78 bloody campaigns against non-believers, or “infidels” in the name of God. One can hardly be surprised at the actions of Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab when the actions of Muhammad himself are taken into consideration. Can a religion, whose founder was responsible for the killings of thousands himself, ever make the case for being anything but violent?
At first glance, that seems like damning evidence. Islam seems to sanction violence. That, however, is if and only if one neglects to compare it to other major religions. The heroes of the central scriptures of Christian and Jewish belief were just as ruthless as Muhammad, if not worse. If we are to take the life of Muhammad as an indication of inclination towards violence, then we must measure all religion by the same stick. Moses, for example, the most exalted of the prophets in both Judaism and Christianity, was a brutal military leader. Leading his people out of captivity in Egypt, they travelled through the desert until they reached the Promised Land, where they were commanded by God himself to carry out an unprovoked attack on the people previously there so that they may occupy their land in place. They were further commanded not to even spare women and children, and not to leave any survivors (Deut. 2). Even as violent as Islam perceived to be, it does not condone such an act. In Surah 4:90, unprovoked violence is condemned. “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them.”
This, of course, is just one example. If we are willing to accept Islam as a violent religion, objectivity would demand we accept Christianity and Judaism along with it, and almost all other structured religions. How can one speak of “Jihad” or Muhammad’s raids scathingly and ignore the Spanish inquisition, the Crusades, Moses’ extermination of the Seven Nations and so on? Any religion can be politicized, and all structured religions have been politicized at one point in history or other, of course, to varying extents. Everything from Christianity to Buddhism has been politicized, and thereafter militarized, and from that point terrorism is born. No religion is exception to this, so why should Islam be isolated and singled out? If we want to combat terrorism, we have to begin by identifying the source to prevent it before it begins. If we blame individual religions, then we will hardly scathe the problem, if not aggravate it.
The Middle East is highly politically unstable for many historical, ethnic and economic reasons, and when looking in the wrong direction, it seems like Islam, not any of these other factors, is the “common thread” through these troubled regions. A post 9/11 world holds Islam guilty for the political climate of these areas, and although Islam isn’t faultless, it is not responsible for politically charged individuals who use religion as a tool to pursue their own whims. There are innumerable scriptures in the Quran that command high esteem of peace and justice, and for any individual to choose to define the religion of 1.6 billion by the actions of a decimal of them in the name of their religion in opposition to those values is unjust and inequitable. Islam isn’t guilty, at least any more than any religion is, so the noose over its head should either be taken away or placed over every other religion alongside it.
– Guest Columnist Luca Amayo