Last February I received a e-mail from an old schoolmate who had forwarded a link to a Website that offered a video of a Marine officer who explained that Islam is a religion that encourages terrorism. This is what it says:
“Check out AFA ActionAlert – For Veteran’s Day: A vet who understands the enemy.
” . . . the Qur’an (or Koran) itself, the holy book of Islam, contains over 100 verses calling for violence against Christians and Jews. To give just one example, Sura 9:5 says, ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.’
“During a panel discussion sponsored by the Hudson Institute last January, retired Army Lt. Colonel Allen West, who did combat duty in Iraq, responded to a Marine who asked the question, how do you answer people who say that terrorists are following a ‘warped’ version of Islam?
“Col. West’s straightforward assessment: ‘This is not a perversion. They are doing exactly what this book (i.e., the Qur’an) says.
“If you’d like to see the full, unedited video of the exchange, which includes the Marine’s question . . . click here.”
Viewers are then asked to sign a letter thanking Col. West for speaking out, using these words, “We want to thank you for your honesty and directness in telling the American people about the threat that we face from the religion of Islam.” So the enemy is not merely Islamist terrorists, but Islam itself!
The AFA, or American Family Association, is apparently a right-wing Christian organization that is anti-gay, anti-Islam, anti-marriage-freedom, and anti-choice. Go to the Website and see for yourself. (For instance, last August Bryan Fischer of the AFA wrote that “Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America . . . for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”)
Why am I so disturbed by the e-mail and the message it condones? It is because it is deceitful and misleading. In light of the events still unfolding in countries in the so-called Middle East, where even now more autocratic regimes are collapsing, I feel compelled to respond to the AFA and Lt. Col. West.
Before I begin, let me first set the record straight by making it clear that I am an atheist, albeit raised as a Christian—Episcopalian to be exact. I rejected my faith—all faith—in my early twenties. Years ago, as a teacher of history I had the good fortune to teach a high-school course call the Roots of Western Civilization, beginning with the Ancient Hebrews, then the Greeks, the Romans, Early Christianity, and the Rise of Islam. In each case the students read from the primary texts: the Bible (Old Testament), Homer & Hesiod, Plato & Aristotle, Pliny & Plutarch, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and others. The object of the course was not to proselytize one religion or philosophy over another, of course, but to see how each developed over time and understand why each evolved as it did to become one of the belief systems that we know today and how they have affected Western civilization (not to mention the rest of the world).
Let’s look at some of this history.
Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula in the early 600s CE. Its founder was a merchant, Mohammed, who according to the teachings of Islam, though illiterate, was deeply committed to the worship of God and profoundly troubled by the idolatrous, immoral cults of most of the Arab tribes, especially those that dominated Mecca, site of the Kaaba and the holiest city of the Arab world. Mohammed was a mystic as well, and eventually he had visions in which the angel Gabriel told him to recite. What Mohammed recited, according to Muslim belief, was what would become the Qur’an, the final word or revelation of God to humanity. When I say the “final word” I mean that Islam teaches that God gave exactly the same teachings of morality and belief to Adam (the first Prophet), then to Abraham, then Moses, and then Jesus. In each case, the followers of these prophets distorted the original words of God, so He, in his mercifulness, offered humanity a last chance to get the message straight, and that message is the Qur’an. As it was written in Arabic—in a script invented just for the purpose of preserving God’s word—there could be no authorized version of the Qur’an other than the Arabic version. (According to tradition, therefore, all translations are suspect—as the Italians put it, “traduttore, tradittore”.)
One of the chief reasons that Mohammed, chosen as the last and greatest of God’s prophets, would so zealously spread his faith was to end the immoral and wrong-minded idolatry of the Arabs of his time, especially in Mecca. (It was to these idolators that the sura quoted by Col. West was addressed, not to Christians and Jews.) The Year One in Islam is, in the common calendar of today, 622 CE. It marks the year that Mohammed fled Mecca with his followers to Medina to avoid being slain by the idolaters. By 632 (or AH 10) Mohammed had returned to Mecca with an army, defeated his enemies, smashed all the idols that surrounded the holy Kaaba (according to Islamic belief, it was built by Adam and then restored by Abraham), and established Islam as the religion of Arabia.
Islam teaches that the Arab people were the descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham and the Egyptian Hagar. (For the story of Hagar, read Genesis 16:1-16, 21:9-17 and 25:12)
As is evident from the fact that the prophets of Allah include Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, Mohammed was very familiar with the Jewish and Christian faiths. He didn’t so much spurn them as build a new faith on their foundations, though with the culture and civilization of the Arab peoples in mind. For Mohammed, and in the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are People of the Book, for they too have learned of God from Abraham (the Scrolls of Abraham) & Moses (the Torah), and in the case of the Christians, from Jesus (the Injit or Gospels). (Indeed, Jesus and Mary are mentioned several times in the Qur’an—always with respect.)
Thus, the following suras:
• And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit. [Qur'an 29:46]
• Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve . [Qur'an 2:62]
As People of the Book, Jews and Christians were permitted to live in Muslim society, adhering to their Abrahamic faiths, as long as they paid a special tax to the Muslim authorities. Indeed, Christians and Jews sometimes rose to very high positions in the Islamic societies in which they lived.
There are Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Sahalat, or the profession of belief in one god only, by reciting the words, “[I believe] there is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.”
2. Salat, or praying five times a day, always facing Mecca; a believer should always wash before prayers.
3. Sawm, or fasting, especially during the month of Ramadan
4. Zakat, or alms-giving (usually 2.5% of one’s income or the equivalent)
5. Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca by a believer at least once in one’s lifetime.
For most Sunni Muslims, these are the only five Pillars that are admissible and to add another would be to change the faith, which is heretical, because God established Islam directly through Mohammed, the last and greatest of His Prophets. But there are some Karjite groups that have splintered from the main body of Islam and argue that there is a Sixth Pillar, Jihad. The Taliban and Al Qaeda subscribe to this belief, while the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, does not. For the Shi’ia, Jihad is one of the Ten Practices of the Religion.
Jihad, or struggle, by the way, is an obligation of all Muslims, but it can mean any of three things: “an internal struggle to maintain faith, the struggle to improve the Muslim society, or the struggle in a holy war”, according to the Wikipedia article on the word, and, “It can simply mean striving to live a moral and virtuous life, spreading and defending Islam as well as fighting injustice and oppression, among other things.” For the Shi’ia, Jihad is “the struggle to please God.”
So much for Col. West’s so-called expertise regarding Islam.
The events of the last months, which has seen the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, and strong protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the current attempt to topple Kaddafi in Libya, have been conducted largely by Muslims who seek not an Islamic government but a secular one. The Islamist movement has not played a significant role in any of these struggles against tyranny, oppression, and injustice. It can certainly be said, then, that these events are all a form of Jihad, though no one is using the term, perhaps because it usually connotes the meaning, in the Western mind, of Jihad as warfare against the West.
Indeed, just what is this Jihad waged by some Islamists against the West? Aren’t Christians and Jews people of the Book, after all? Well, for that minority of Muslims who wish to destroy America, wipe out Israel, and punish Western Europe, it all has to do with the idea of Jihad as a war against oppression and injustice by the West over the course of the last century-and-a-half. After all, who have been overthrown or protested against so far? Dictators and Kings that the West supported, going back to the time of the Cold War. Oppressive and unjust rulers all. We even overthrew Sadaam and his government, but bear in mind that we not only helped put him in power to begin with but also helped him during his unprovoked war against Iran. We were indifferent to his well-known depredations against his own people and only turned on him after he invaded Kuwait, and we claimed that we were liberating Iraqis from his oppressive rule after we’d trounced the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The vast majority of Muslims are engaged in a different kind of Jihad and are not anti-Western or anti-American per se; they just want us to stay out of their lives. It is the Muslim extremists who, like Col. West, fail to understand that the Q’uran calls for tolerance with the “People of the Book” and that the enemy who must be defeated were the idolators who controlled Mecca when Mohammed began his war against them.
Much more could be said, but I think and hope that what I’ve written represents a clarification of what Islam is and is not. It is a great monotheistic faith, like its kindred religions, Judaism & Christianity. It is not, in and of itself, a terrorist religion any more than are the other two, yet all have engaged in warfare in the name of religion. As for Christian terrorism? Well, think of the Crusades in which thousands of Muslims were murdered for their faith, for example, or the internecine warfare between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. What about the institution of slavery, which could be and was justified by references to the Bible? Is Zionism about justice for anyone who is not an Israeli Jew? Ask the Palestinians; they know.
It’s not difficult to understand why there is so much hostility towards the West. The Islamist extremists feed on this resentment and anger, but the point is that they are extremists, and represent a very small minority of the Muslim world as a whole. Clearly, Col. West’s interpretation of the Qur’an aligns very nicely with that of Al Qaeda; focus on the sutras that tell you what you want (ignoring the context for which they were written, and dismiss all the others that don’t reinforce your prejudices. Hm, aren’t there Christians who do that with the Bible? Think of John Brown, an American terrorist if ever there was one.
The world is not a simple place, and there is nothing straightforward about human institutions either, including religious ones. It shouldn’t take an atheist to know that. Let us have no more slamming of Islam.