There seems to be a debate going on within American liberalism as to whether it makes more sense to defend Islam against its detractors, or criticize it in light of all the terrible things perpetrated in its name. (I say “liberalism” only, because I think the answer within American conservatism was decided long ago.) So I thought I’d just share some personal thoughts on this.
(Before I go further, let me just acknowledge that others have made the points below better than I can. In particular, Fareed Zakaria has been extremely valuable in bringing some sanity to this discussion. Read his recent Washington Post op-ed here.)
I’m not naive enough to ignore the intolerance and aggression so often linked to Islam. Intolerant, aggressive Islam, I’d argue, is what exposes other Iranian Baha’is — those who actually live in the land of their ancestors — to routine public shaming in state-run newspapers and children’s classrooms; to the denial of pensions and the right to earn a college degree; to arbitrary imprisonment; to the coordinated destruction of holy sites; and on and on. Intolerant, aggressive Islam nearly killed my sister in 2001, along with thousands of others like her who narrowly avoided death, not to mention the thousands who were not so lucky. In other words, I get it.
But I am also not naive enough to blindly point to Islam itself as some uniquely treacherous force in the world, as seems to be in vogue now. I’m no expert on Islam, but I was fortunate enough to learn the basics as a Baha’i kid in Sunday school, and I actually took the time to learn a bit more when I was in college. Islam’s detractors are keen to pluck uncomfortable, seemingly barbaric passages from the Quran as evidence that it is inherently vile and unworthy of the privileges and respect afforded to other faiths. Yet somehow, some basic facts about the faith never seem to get mentioned. Just to mention a handful off the top of my head:
– That, according to Islamic belief, the angel who appeared to the Prophet Muhammad was the same one who appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her she was carrying the Messiah.
– That Muhammad married his employer, a woman fifteen years his senior, whom he loved and adored until the day she died.
– That the Quran repeatedly commands special honor for followers of other monotheistic faiths, whom it calls “People of the Book”.
– That Islam teaches its believers to treat all fellow Muslims as equals, regardless of race, and that one of the most common names given to Muslim boys is “Bilal”, after the African slave who became one of Muhammad’s most trusted companions and most prominent early believers.
These are some things I thought of in about 5 minutes. The list could go on for pages, given more time and a person more knowledgeable than I doing the writing. In any case, I am still waiting for the day I turn on the TV and hear one of these facts mentioned.
In particular, Islam’s critics love to fulminate on the concept of “jihad”, a responsibility of all Muslims, using it as grounds for arguments that the faith is inherently violent. It is of course true that Muhammad’s army waged war, both defensively and offensively, under the banner of Islam. But if we are going to castigate Islam on this basis, we need to use the same standard for other religions. In the Torah, God commands Moses essentially to wipe out a whole tribe of people, the Amelekites. And the Baghavad Gita, the most holy book of Hinduism (not exactly most people’s idea of a violent religion), is one long conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna, in which the former implores the latter to perform his duty and wage war against his own relatives.
Of course, modern day Jews don’t believe in God-sanctioned genocide (nor do they see death by stoning as a fitting punishment for adultery, even though that’s what Jewish law prescribes). Similarly, lovers of the Gita understand that story as a spiritually rich parallel, not an injunction to mass violence.
Sensible Muslim people, of course, think similarly. They know that “jihad” means holy war in a certain context, but that it also means a righteous struggle — one that can be applied to everything from social injustice to addiction — and they are sensible enough to know that Islam’s era of the sword ended centuries ago. These are religious people who pray and fast and believe, and yet have no illusions about the fact that they are living in the 21st century.
Some argue that there are not enough of these people in the Muslim world, and that intolerant attitudes and world views are more prominent among followers of Islam than among those of other faiths. I’d respond by asking: Since we know that the concept of holy war and other antiquated religious ideas are not unique to Islam, what else might explain this phenomenon? Could it be differences in education perhaps? In the strength of civil society? In structures of politics and government? In the eagerness of some men, posing as religious authorities, to stoke the flames of anger in service to their own selfish appetites? If you are hell bent on labeling Islam as evil, fine. Just make sure to ask these questions first.
Recently I stumbled upon this passage by the Baha’i Universal House of Justice, written nearly 30 years ago and yet astoundingly applicable to the debate on Islam raging today:
The resurgence of fanatical religious fervor occurring in many lands cannot be regarded as more than a dying convulsion. The very nature of the violent and disruptive phenomena associated with it testifies to the spiritual bankruptcy it represents. Indeed, one of the strangest and saddest features of the current outbreak of religious fanaticism is the extent to which, in each case, it is undermining not only the spiritual values which are conducive to the unity of mankind but also those unique moral victories won by the particular religion it purports to serve.
Fanaticism, intolerance, and prejudice must be eradicated in every corner, whether in the form of nationalism, religious fanaticism, racism, or whatever. Pointing the finger at Islam in particular has become an impulsive, intellectually lazy exercise, one that indulges our sense of anger and outrage, but ultimately distracts us from much more serious and pressing discussions about what ails us as a human race.