Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is Islam Intrinsically Violent?

"Is Islam a violent religion?" we in the post-christian west are asking. "Is Christianity?" our Muslim neighbors counter. These questions are not easy.

Pope Benedict XVI stirred it up this time. On one hand, the extremists burning him in effigy, or even (in one case) murdering a nun, sure seem intent on leaving us in the west thinking of Islam as a habitation for fundamentalist loonies. But on the other hand, the many Muslims expressing their objections peacefully yet forcefully deserve our closest attention. Was the pope wrong to quote the ancient Christian spokesperson saying of Islam that it was a religion of the sword? And on a deeper level, was the ancient source quoted correct or incorrect to make such an assertion?

CAIR (the Council for American Islamic Relations, a premiere Islamic civil rights organization based in my hometown Chicago) posted this comment on their website:
The proper response to the Pope's inaccurate and divisive remarks is for Muslims and Catholics worldwide to increase dialogue and outreach efforts aimed at building better relations between Christianity and Islam. This unfortunate episode also offers an opportunity for Christians to learn more about Islam, the Prophet Mohammad and the Islamic concept of jihad.

Jihad is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense . . . (having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression. "Jihad" should not be translated as "holy war."
And as an apparent cautionary note to the extremist elements, CAIR noted:
Muslims are also asked to maintain good relations with people of other faiths, and to engage in constructive dialogue.
Now if CAIR is right, I'm both relieved and impressed. But is CAIR's definition of either Islam or jihad theologically and/or historically accurate?

As a Christian, I start such questions by looking closer to home, that is, to my own faith's theology and history. I believe I can safely say that biblically there is no justification for spreading Christianity via violence. Christianity's founder, after all, preached non-violence as a norm and spoke of conversion as something deeply personal and interior. In fact, not to be heretical or anything (who, me?), I see certain parallels to the idea of jihad and the idea of sanctification. Where jihad in Islam is a war on evil within oneself, sanctification is also an interior war. In Ephesians 6:11-17, Paul writes:
11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.
15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Now, imagine dropping verses 11 and 12 and again reading this. So construed, the above could be misinterpreted by Christian fanatics as a mandate for making war on non-believers. I don't know how they would do it, but I trust they could.

And at some point historically, they apparently did.

The Crusades are the most appalling example of such acts of terror, Christians (if such a name can be used for such people) killing both Muslims and Jews by the hundreds if not thousands. At that moment in history, it did not appear that this violently expansionist version of Christian faith was either an aberration or a version of faith practiced by only a small segment of the Church. It was something being done and advocated by the very power centers of Christian faith!

So, my fellow Christians, I suggest we very carefully remove the log from our own eyes before hunting the dust moat in our Muslim neighbor's eye.

But what does the Qu'uran say about jihad? I am trusting the Muslim sources from whom I gathered these English translations, as I of course am not an expert on Arabic. If they are wrong, I apologize to Muslim readers and Christian readers, and will correct them as soon as I'm appraised of the error(s):

Permission (to fight) is given to those who are being attacked, because they have been wronged. And surely God measures out help for them. - Surah al-Hajj verse 39

And what is with you that you do not fight in the path of God and (in the path) of the oppressed of men and women and children, those who say "Our Sustainer, take us out from this city, its people are wrongdoers, and decree for us a protector, and decree for us a helper". - Surah an-Nisa verse 75

God does not forbid that you do good and make justice for those who do not fight you in the religion or drive you out from your homes. Indeed, God loves those who do justice. God only forbids your friendship with those who fight you in the religion and drive you out from your homes and back those who drive you out. And who befriends them, such are wrongdoers. - Surah al-Mumtahana verses 8-9

(Above citations from http://www.muhajabah.com/quran-jihad.htm).

In short, self-defense from attackers is permitted in Islam, but assaulting others because of their faith (or lack of it) is prohibited. Islam historically has been fairly tolerant of Christians and Jews in its cultural strongholds. That said, there may be some ambiguity about just what "self-defense" means. As one Islamic writer asserts:
[W]hen we say that the basis of jihad is defense, we do not mean defense in the limited sense of having to defend oneself when one is attacked with the sword, gun or artillery shell. No, we mean that if one's being, one's material or spiritual values are aggressed or in fact, if something that mankind values and respects and which is necessary for mankind's prosperity and happiness, is aggressed, then we are to defend it.

(See: http://www.al-islam.org/short/jihad/4.htm)
I don't know what the writer meant specifically, and am not accusing him of suggesting that terrorism against the United States is legitimate, or suicide bombers are legitimate, or any such thing. What I do hear him saying, or implying, sounds a lot like what many Christian spokespersons are saying (Chuck Colson comes to mind) about the so-called "culture wars."

Today we are faced with a very painful reality. Islamic fundamentalism has taken on characteristics which are highly violent, oppressive, and abusive to human beings not in agreement with its version of faith. Again, I would remind us Christians of our own sad heritage regarding the Crusades (not to mention the Inquisition) and suggest that instead of labeling Islam itself a violent faith (remember "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?) label the violent fundamentalists what they are -- heretics against their own faith, violators of Islamic tenets, and abusers of their own holy writings. That's fair, true, and objectively accurate.

A final note: Back to the Pope's comments, which in part were read out of context in my opinion. I think he has run into the same issue dogging many Christian efforts at apologetics these days. It is a real problem to attempt bridge-building and dialogue while also attempting evangelism. As a Christian with evangelical instincts myself, I don't pretend to know how to answer this set of problems. But I do know that the Pope does seem to be trying, even if he stuck his foot in it initially. I also think many Islamic folk are trying to sort this out from their end, which on some levels is less problematic than it is for us (they believe Christians and Jews, as "people of the book," are if sincere also numbered among the righteous).

How do we as Christians view Muslims? Are they doomed to hell because they do not hold the faith of the man currently declaring war on much of the Middle East? Sigh... see, I told you these questions aren't easy.

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