The issue is an extremely complicated one, because I don't think any reasonable person can in good faith deny "the trouble with Islam today," to use the phrase of Muslim reformist/critic Irshad Manji. There is a worldwide terrorist movement that espouses Islam (misinterpreted or not) as its ideology; and even beyond that movement, much of Muslim culture today is rife with religious intolerance, misogyny, and deep mistrust of freedom. I agree with Manji that reform in Islam is necessary, and that critics should not be intimidated by charges of "racism." I also agree that "Islamism" as a totalitarian political ideology, recently denounced in this manifesto co-signed by Manji, Salman Rushdie, and ten other writers and journalists, is a real and present danger.
That said, there are several troubling tendencies in the critique of "Islamism" or "jihadism."
* A tendency to treat all Muslim societies and cultures as the same. The attempt to depict Bosnian Muslims as bearers of the "Islamist" virus is the most egregious case in point. For some facts, see the recent article "Death of a Dictator" by Bill Kristol and Stephen Schwartz in The Weekly Standard. Kristol and Schwartz write that Bosnian Islam "represents a real asset for a Europe coming to grips with the Islamic challenge":
* Along the same lines, sweeping generalizations that reduce any social or political problem anywhere a "Muslim problem" as long as there are Muslims involved. Take this description by Mark Steyn:
In the middle of the uproar and shouts--and some brutal slayings--accompanying the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, the chief Muslim cleric of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, issued a Declaration to European Muslims. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accompanying the declaration, Ceric described the text as "a personal act . . . sending a message to the Western audience that we, Bosnian Muslims, did not agree with the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, on March 11, 2004, in Madrid, on July 7, 2005, in London."
... In an introduction to the declaration, Ceric argues, "Muslims must realize that the general feeling about their faith in Europe today is unfavorable. European Muslims must take the issue of violence in the name of Islam very seriously, not because some people hate Islam and Muslims, but because the act of violence, the act of terror, the act of hatred in the name of Islam is wrong. . . .European Muslims must develop a program for anti-violence." ...
Bosnians like Ceric survived the time of Milosevic without sharing in the evil he represented. Such Bosnians can serve as intellectual and moral examples for moderate Muslims around the world.
There are many trouble spots around the world, but as a general rule, it's easy to make an educated guess at one of the participants: Muslims vs. Jews in "Palestine," Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir, Muslims vs. Christians in Africa, Muslims vs. Buddhists in Thailand, Muslims vs. Russians in the Caucasus, Muslims vs. backpacking tourists in Bali.
This account not only omits many non-Islamic trouble spots, from Korea to Colombia, but also implicitly presumes that Muslims are the guilty parties and Islam is the problem in every conflict listed. Yet the war in Chechnya, for instance, is primarily a Russian war of imperial aggression, and religion has never been a strong factor in that region (though Al Qaeda has gained a foothold there thanks to the war). And in Hindu-Muslim conflicts, Muslims have been victims as well as aggressors.
* The very error that the anti-Islamist manifesto signed by Manji, Rushdie, et al. warns against: going from critique of the religion to stigmatization of believers. See, for instance, these posts at JihadWatch.org, aserting that every self-identified Muslim, however law-abiding, integrated into mainstream society, or seemingly peaceful, is dangerous -- because he is a potential jihadist or because his children may revert to the extremist version of Islam. Anti-Muslim prejudice lapses into overt racism in Oriana Fallaci's 2002 screed, The Rage and the Pride, in which concerns with terrorism and the oppression of women morph all too easily into fear and loathing of smelly aliens who spread filth and disease. (While some of Fallaci's fans have compared her to Christopher Hitchens as a staunch opponent of "Islamofascism," Hitchens himself has slammed Fallaci's book as "a sort of primer on how not to write about Islam.")
* Arguments that Islam is so inherently intolerant, violent, oppressive, etc. that it is effectively beyond reform. A March 27 editorial in Investor's Business Daily raises this issue by asking Islamic leaders who claim that Islam is a misunderstood "religion of peace" a series of questions:
Is it true that 26 chapters of the Quran deal with jihad, a fight able-bodied believers are obligated to join (Surah 2:216), and that the text orders Muslims to "instill terror into the hearts of the unbeliever" and to "smite above their necks" (8:12)?
Is the "test" of loyalty to Allah not good acts or faith in general, but martyrdom that results from fighting unbelievers (47:4) — the only assurance of salvation in Islam (4:74; 9:111)?
Are the sins of any Muslim who becomes a martyr forgiven by the very act of being slain while slaying the unbelievers (4:96)?
Does Islam advocate expansion by force? And is the final command of jihad, as revealed to Muhammad in the Quran, to conquer the world in the name of Islam (9:29)?
Is Islam the only religion that does not teach the Golden Rule (48:29)? Does the Quran instead teach violence and hatred against non-Muslims, specifically Jews and Christians (5:50)?
Partly inspired by the IBD editorial, I decided to delve into the Koran over the weekend (the full text, in three different translations, can be found here). I'm not, I hasten to say, an expert on the Koran or Islam; but neither are those who are procliming Islam to be a "death cult." It is quite true that, partly due to the history of early Islam and the conflicts between Muhammad and his followers and neighboring tribes, the Koran contains many references to the righteousness of armed struggle -- ostensibly only to resist the oppression and persecution of Muslims, but of course "oppression" and "persecution" are fairly subjective terms. There are also some passages which can be read as saying that only full domination of Islam is acceptable. A lot depends on the translation. For instance, here is Chapter 2, verse 190, in three versions:
YUSUFALI: Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
PICKTHAL: Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.
SHAKIR: And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits.
YUSUFALI: And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.
PICKTHAL: And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers.
SHAKIR: And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors.
Here's verse 9:29, referenced by IBD:
YUSUFALI: Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
PICKTHAL: Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.
SHAKIR: Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.
(The "People of the Book" are Christians and Jews.)
This certainly can be read as a commandment to global domination (though many scholars of Islam would undoubtedly argue that it is a specific response to specific historical circumstances); but there are other passages (2:128 and 8:72, among others) which assert that those who flee or emigrate to preserve their faith, as well as those who "strive" in the cause of Allah will find favor with God. None of the verses referenced by IBD say that joining the jihad is the only way to find salvation is Islam. The text of 8:12 has God saying that he will "strike terror into the hearts of unbelievers." 47:4 says:
So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others; and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish.
Along with these violent passages, however, there are others stating that there must be no compulsion in religion (2:256) and that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims may be rewarded in the hereafter (2:262):
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the f Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.
Clearly the Koran can be (and is) interpreted and cherry-picked for conflicting and contradictory messages. Let's not forget that the Bible is full of violent passages that encourage conquest. While Christianity does not preach armed struggle, John 8:44 has Jesus telling the Jews who reject his message , "You belong to your father the devil"; and in Corinthians II, 6:14-16, St. Paul writes:
14 Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?
Christianity and Judaism have dealt with and largely transcended their legacy of intolerance. For the sake of both Muslims and the rest of the world, Islam needs to do the same; and there is no scriptural reason that it can't. (Jews, even ultra-Orthodox Jews, have no problem ignoring large portions of their scripture which mandate death as the penalty for everything from adultery to apostasy.)
As I've said, I'm no expert on Islam. But Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is; and I will take the word of Lewis, who warned about the danger of "Muslim rage" all the way back in 1990 (and is smeared as an anti-Muslim bigot by many Islamists) but who has continued to insist that Islam has many positive aspects and real potential for reform and democratization, over those of JihadWatch.org's Hugh Fitzgerald, who sees fit to deride Lewis as a "dhimmi" (a nonbeliever who accepts his second-class status under Islam).
The "trouble with Islam today" must be honestly confronted; that means examining those elements of the Koran that exhort "struggle" against nonbelievers, and sending a clear message that a pro-terrorist interpretation of these passages is unacceptable in mainstream Islam. It is quite true that "political correctness" often stands in the way of such honest examination. But so does the militant condemnation of Islam itself. Such an atittude is, ultimately, a dead end that can lead only to holy war -- and to apologias for Milosevic-style genocide.
I'm glad that you continue to grapple with this issue, since it is as difficult as it is important. My main plea at this point is that you, or anyone who wants to get a good understanding of the nature of Islam, needs to read a good biography of the founder. For instance, that line about there being no compulsion in matters of religion is from his Meccan period when, like Eminem, Mohammad was still in his peace-and-love phase.
As for the question of whether or not Muslim societies are capable of liberal reform, the jury is still out. The case of Bosnia does not strike me as determinative for the simple reason that Bosnia was a culturally mixed society in which Islam as a religion -- as opposed to an ethnicity -- appears to have been quiescent.
I would certainly love to be proved wrong when I express my doubts on this point, and I will keep an open mind; I hope you will do the same. We must not shrink from being honest in our conclusions, wherever the evidence may lead.
I have found that you generally have thoughtful things to say about many issues. This issue is no different, but I think that you make a big mistake that is common to many people who are not actively part of a fundamentalist religion.
You cannot simply go through the Koran to determine whether it is a religion of peace, or whether it can be a religion of peace. You cannot really say anything about Islam at all based on the Koran alone. The religion, as with other religions, exists in the here and now, and is built off many hundreds of years of interpretation.
The internal workings of a religion can only really be analyzed from within the framework of the religion itself. Analyzing the Koran as you do, is in my opinion meaningless.
What outsiders can do, and I think should do in the case of Islam today, is press those repressive Islamic societies to reform, not based on Islamic ideals but based on democratic and practical ideals. The Islamic societies can themselves figure out how, and by what justification, they can change.
A side point: Orthodox Jews do not ignore parts of scripture. Again, from within the orthodox framework of belief, there are certain structures to the law, certain interpretations that are correct and others that are incorrect. Those interpretations dictate, where, when, and how, the laws are to be carried out. No scriptural law is ever done away with - as understood by people within the community - even if that is what appears to the outsider.
Islam needs to do the same; and there is no scriptural reason that it can't. (Jews, even ultra-Orthodox Jews, have no problem ignoring large portions of their scripture which mandate death as the penalty for everything from adultery to apostasy.)
With all due respect, Cathy, I think you're talking about two different things. Just because people are capable of ignoring what their holy scriptures say doesn't mean "there is no scriptural reason" why the religion is inherently hostile to modern, post-enlightenment ideals. When we ask ourselves if a book is hostile to things like freedom and democracy, it isn't sufficient to say "well, it isn't, if you ignore the parts of it that are".
The Koran IS quite strongly anti-freedom. If the lesson that needs to be drawn here is "Muslims should do a better job of ignoring the Koran", let that be the lesson. It is, in my opinion, a mistake to pretend like the Koran itself isn't a problem.
As Ms. Young demonstrates, it's virtually impossible for those of us who don't know Arabic to go to the Koran and determine what it says. We cannot legitmately say that we know it is anti-freedom or pro-freedom.
If our linguistic disability didnt ensure this, we would still confront the problems of determining the meaning of the text in its historical circumstances. As readers of Paul know, this is itself a demanding task that gives rise to many controveries and few definitive conclusions.
We don't know, can't know, whether the Koran embodies a religion of freedom and peace or unfreedom and war.
We can, though, read the works of those who do know Arabic and are steeped in Islamic history, and find that some of them do conclude that Mohammed preached a gospel of peace and freedom. We may not be sure these readers have it right, but we can scarcely be sure they don't.
We know that there are liberal and moderate Muslims, who read the Koran as the basis of a religion of peace and freedom. It isn't prudent and it is presumptuous for us to declare that a person who loves peace and freedom can't be a Muslim, must be an apostate.
The issue is ultimately, as are so many, political. Whatever our reading of the texts may be, it is disputed. Some of those who dispute our reading are moderate. Let us lend them all the support we can, both against the Islamists abroad and the warmongers at home.
As Ms. Young demonstrates, it's virtually impossible for those of us who don't know Arabic to go to the Koran and determine what it says.
Does it follow that it is virtually impossible for those of us who don't know Greek or Hebrew to go to the Bible and determine what it says?
The point is not whether you can determine what is said in the Koran--even if you could, and you could be certain that you were 100% correct, it would be irrelevant. This is because religions have their own internal logic and worldview.
I understand that within the Christian tradition there is much more of an acceptance and historical tradition of people interpreting the scriptures directly, but within Islam, and certainly within Judaism this is not the case. Even if you could "prove" that indeed according to the Koran Islam is a peaceful religion it would not sway someone who is immersed in hundreds of years of religious tradition.
The whole structure of proof is different.
I understand that within the Christian tradition there is much more of an acceptance and historical tradition of people interpreting the scriptures directly, but within Islam, and certainly within Judaism this is not the case.
That is most certainly not the case. Certainly Judaism disdains direct interpretation of the source material without reference to the centuries of commentary on it, but Islam has a much stronger history of direct scriptural interpretation than Christianity does. The overwhelming majority of the world's Christians either discourage personal scriptural interpretation by non-professionals or do not view the Bible as the literal word of God; Catholics are an example of the former, while Anglicans (and many Protestant faiths) are examples of the latter.
Certainly Muslims are taught the popular interpretations, and the Hadith are also a major source of belief for the religion, but individual Muslims are most certainly encouraged to study the Koran directly themselves in a way that most of the world's Christians are not. So it most certainly does matter if the Koran itself is pro-freedom or anti-freedom.
I hear what you are saying but I still think the line of "Islamophobia" gets drawn over areas that should be considered "reasonable criticism" more often than the other way around.
This is particularly difficult for those of us who feel that all religions are extremely negative phenomena.
On the one hand we do not want to single out a specific religion because Paganism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. have some awful skeletons in their closets and many of their modern day believers pursue immoral and undemocratic goals (well, pagans would if they had the numbers).
That being said it has to be acknowledged that these days, one religion is having far more trouble with not just a few extremists but with an entire current of extreme thought running through it's society. People in none Islamic nations don't risk capital punishment for converting to Islam from another religion and sharia is far worse than anything Pat Robertson ever dreamed up. Not being honest about that out of fear of Islamophobia is counter productive.
Even if one does not speak Arabic, all you have to do is listen to how extremists use Koranic verses to justify themselves to know that it is not just translation which causes confusion.
PS I think your point about Bosnia (not all Islamic societies are the same) is a good one.
I agree with Moshe that the standard for predicting how a religion is going to influence behavior is the totality of the tradtion and not just some reading of some scripture. That explains why Judaims can be measured and comlex despite some pretty rough parts of the Torah. IIRC there is a provision in oral law that any part of the law can be set aside to save a life. That isn't some escape law; that seems to be right in line with the intent of the law anyway.
With Christianity the case is different, as revenant points out. Jesus was very specific in his denunciations of literalism, and the primary objection from within Christinaity to Fundamentalism is that it is an unchristian approach to Christianity; basically that it is heretical. A few years back the Methodist Church in the States elected a traditionalist as their leader. He was asked of he was going to insist that people accept inerrancy. He replied, no, he was a traditionalist and inerrancy was a heretical error.
Does one have to know Greek to understand the New Testament? No, but it sure helps. It’s the difference, I’m told, between viewing a scene through a dusty window and a clear one.
Does one have to know the situation of the author to interpret the New Testament? Yes. And one’s understanding of the situation will influence translation.
Take Paul, for instance.
Does, as nearly every reader has for millennia assumed, Paul address himself to the Jewish community in Palestine and the diaspora, and insist that they must be saved by renouncing the Torah in favor of accepting Jesus as the Messiah? Or does he address Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, to oppose efforts to impose Mosaic observances on Gentile converts to Christianity—to require them to Judaize?
How one understands Paul’s situation may determine how one resolves issues of translation. Does the “telos” of law referred to in Romans 10:4 mean “goal” or “cessation”? How is the “custodian” of Galatians 3:24 to be understood—as a good caretaker or as an impossibly demanding taskmaster? Do the “works of the law” to which Paul recurs refer to the situation of within Judaism or instead to the adoption of Jewish practices by Gentiles? When Paul in Romans 11:26 says “all Israel will be saved,” does he mean (what he never says) that Israel will accept Jesus as Messiah at the time of God’s Kingdom?
Ninety-five percent or more of Christians today read Paul to have launched a great assault upon the co-religionists he left behind after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus—to have denied the legitimacy of Judaism, rather than the relevance of the Torah for determining the religious status of Gentiles. But they may very well be doing what adherents to a scriptural tradition so often do, lifting passages entirely from their context, textual and historical, and applying them de novo to contemporary situations. Inevitably, reading in this manner cannot begin to inform us what the author of the text meant to say.
I believe, then, that Paul has been grossly misunderstood by most of his readers across the millennia and at the present time. I believe that Gaston and Gage and a gaggle of other scholars and a handful of liberal-Protestant preachers, have correctly apprehended what Paul really meant to say.
Now, either Gaston and Gage are dull or wacky, or their reading is worthy of consideration because it might be correct. If the latter is true, then the most basic understanding of the intellect that dominates the New Testament may have gone far awry—the understanding that dominates and defines today’s Christianity.
Christianity is HARD to get right.
So much more so Islam, if only because the Arabic of its founding text appears to be so extraordinarily elusive and the meaning of that text so profoundly contested. Maybe, as I hope, Reza Aslan’s correctly renders the doctrine of jihad’s most important innovation as lying in “its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars.” Maybe from Michael Cook and others whose Arabic is strong I can infer what the Mohammed’s message was. But if the lineaments of the foundations of my own religious tradition are so hard to construe, I really can’t be assured that my grasp of another can be very firm.
But I can be assured that someone like Aslan is at work in the Islamic community doing the work of our Lord.
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