|Mohammed's interpretation of Islam.|
For years, terrible and violent crimes have been committed in the name of Islam. Does that mean Islam is inherently a religion of terrible violence?
That depends on how many years, and what you mean by "Islam."
The scholar Daniel Pipes has long argued that it is a mistake to attribute the evils committed by Muslim supremacists and jihadist killers to Islam itself, or to the text of the Koran and the hadith, the religion’s sacred scriptures. Like every great faith, Islam is what its adherents make of it. Today, many of those adherents are influenced by Islamism, the militant totalitarian version of Islam that emerged in the 20th century. The Islamist ascendancy is reflected in the savageries of Al Qaeda, the brutal misogyny of the Taliban, the apocalyptic hostility of the regime in Iran.
There are several deep confusions here.
First, what is a "Muslim supremacist?" Someone who thinks Islam should be supreme, one presumes. But that obviously included Mohammed.
Second, who is a "jihadist killer?" Again, Mohammed started numerous wars, enslaved numerous neighbors, assassinated his critics (including a mother holding her baby in bed), and was guilty of torture and mass murder.
So how can one speak of such activities "emerging in the 20th Century," when in fact they emerged almost as soon as Mohammed started preaching?
As I said, one needs to pay attention to the number of years that attend the problem Jacoby writes about.
Third, Jacoby is confused between two positions: (a) "Every great faith is what its adherents make it," and (b) the Koran and hadith are innocent of what Muslims "have made" of their religion. But if religions are all purely a matter of developed tradition, why do scriptures matter at all? So why bother to say they are innocent?
The deeper problem here is Jacoby is being overly dogmatic about how to define religions. He wants us to define religions according to their developed traditions, and just ignore other definitions. That's a typically liberal way of defining religions. But a typically conservative approach (similar to debate over the Constitution) is to define religions according to their sacred scriptures. A third is to define religions by the person, character, teachings and example of their founders, in this case Mohammed.
These other definitions are obviously much more important to most Muslims than the "living tradition" version Jacoby wants us to emphasize. He makes it sound as if all religions were entirely malleable, as if scriptures made no difference at all. Of course traditions do evolve: Buddhists who ought to believe in compassion conduct inquisitions, and communists who ought to conduct violent revolution turn into Lei Feng, the gentle Chinese soldier-hero of Cultural Revolution legend. Both phenomena are going on at the same time, as Forrest Gump put it.
If we define Islam by its founder or by the Koran, then two things follow: (a) Islam will be different from religions defined by different founders or scriptures, and (b) there will be limits to how malleable to faith will prove. And I think modern history demonstrates both of these facts - as indeed, did Medieval history, already.
But just as the nightmare of the Third Reich was far from the totality of German culture and character, so Islam’s 1,400-year history is not encapsulated by the violent ugliness of the present moment.
Why is Jacoby comparing a culture to a religion? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to compare religions to one another -- Islam to Nazism, or if that is too harsh, German culture to Arab culture? Nazism at its core is bad, I think most of us agree. What, then, is to stop Islam, at least in theory, from having some similar, if lesser, defect at its core? To assert that Islam (defined by Mohammed or by the Koran) is flawed in some serious way, would not at all be like blanketly dismissing Arab or German cultures. Because there are core beliefs, and how faith expresses itself is not all just a random walk of social evolution.
Were Jacoby to compare like to like, though, he might realize that it is not racism or bigotry to evaluate belief systems according to what they teach or the fruit they yield, and that religions can at their cores be better or worse -- fearful thoughts, apparently.
In other eras, Muslim society was known for its learning, tolerance, and moderation. “If things can get worse, they can also get better,” Pipes writes in the current issue of Commentary. As recently as 1969, when he began his career in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Islamist extremism was all but unknown in world affairs. “If Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.”
But those eras of tolerance were relative, as Bernard Lewis, Bat Ye'or, and others have shown. They were also periods after Islam had expanded, which tends to make a culture more confident, an expansion that came at the violent expense over several centuries of all Islam's neighbors.
In fact, Islamic extremism was quite common well before 1969, whether or not Jeff Jacoby was paying attention to it. After all, Jews had been almost all driven out of Muslim countries twenty years before that. And almost 200 years before that, Muslim pirates explained to John Adams (I believe it was) that of course they pillaged and killed infidels, that was part of their religion. Which indeed it had been, for much longer still, going back to the sacred example of the prophet.
But let's let Jacoby develop his argument at more length now, before poking any more pins in it:
Since 9/11, Pipes has summarized his approach to the threat from Islamist terror and oppression with the maxim “Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.” Not everyone accepts such a distinction. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been widely held out as a model of moderate political Islam, has insisted that “Islam is Islam, and that’s it.”
Many non-Muslims disagree with Pipes, too. The prominent Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who says the Koran should be banned in Holland, maintains that Islam and Islamism are “exactly the same” and that moderate Islam is “totally nonexistent.” Islam is not a religion like Christianity or Judaism, Wilders told me in a 2009 interview. “It’s an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society.”
It’s what Muslims make it.
To those who hold Wilders’s essentialist view, Islam’s teachings are immutable; the values promoted by the Koran and other Islamic scriptures are today what they have always been and always will be. By this argument, the backwardness, repression, and violent incitement against non-Muslims that hold sway in much of the contemporary Muslim world don’t reflect a particularly harsh and unenlightened interpretation of Islam — they are Islam.
Not true, asserts Pipes. “Only . . . by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation” — on topics ranging from jihad to the role of women to slavery — “can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time.”
Jacoby's criticism here seems directly, if not against a straw man, against a very simplistic opposing position. Of course no text is "understood identically" by any two people at any one time, still less over 1300 years.
Surely we should seek a balance between supposing the Koran determines what all Muslims will think and feel and do as if they were programmed robots, and supposing that the Koran and hadith have nothing at all to do with the nastiness of modern (and earlier) Islam, and Muslims just willy-nilly make it up as they go along, no doubt after carefully reading the Boston Globe and New York Times editorials.
Bernard Lewis states unequivocally that while there were reform movements in Islam, none of them ever challenged the inferior status of women and slaves and non-Muslims.
Take the Koran’s famous injunction (2:256) that “there be no compulsion in religion.” Is that a call for universal religious tolerance? Does it apply only to the various denominations within Islam? Was it limited only to non-Muslims in seventh-century Arabia? Is it to be understood as purely symbolic? Does it protect only non-Muslims who agree to live under Muslim rule? Was it overridden by a subsequent Koranic verse?
Of course, Mohammed was anticipating the present Dalai Lama and his pluralist western friends! It would be grossly unfair to read this comment in light of how Mohammed actually treated unbelievers!
As Pipes and other scholars have shown, the correct elucidation of that phrase is: All of the above. There is no monolithic reading of that seemingly straightforward passage. Muslim authorities have variously given it completely incompatible interpretations.
Like all religions, Islam changes. And like all scripture, the meaning of the Koran’s text depends on its expounders. The words may be enduring, but the lessons drawn from them need not be. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament also contain passages whose normative meanings changed as the faiths based on them evolved. Do Jesus’ words in Matthew — “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” — mean that Christianity is not a religion of peace? The answer to that question is not the same today as it would have been during the Crusades or Europe’s wars of religion.
Jacoby is playing a popular but ignoble game, here. Jesus himself referred to it in terms of beams and splinters. One can also talk about trees and forests.
There are almost 400 references to "love" in the New Testament. There are 14 references to hate, only one of which can be twisted and misinterpreted (by someone like Hector Avalos) to mean we should really hate anyone. Mohammed killed, tortured, enslaved, raped, and started wars. Jesus healed, fed the hungry, and forgave his enemies from the cross.
Of course that one isolated saying, taken out of context and misunderstood, does not mean Christianity is an inherently warlike religion. I won't say it is a "religion of peace," so simply, either: there is a time for war, and a time for peace. But only a fool (of which, true, Christian history has furnished many, some of them rather famous) could miss where the emphasis lies in the New Testament.
It is only fanatics who believe that they alone are in possession of the only correct answer to every important question, and that their beliefs must be enforced through power and persecution. The credo of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until a coup last week was Egypt’s ruling party, declares emphatically that “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way.” That authoritarian, supremacist line — the Islamists’ line — is only one understanding of Islam, and as millions of Egyptian citizens have made clear in recent days, it is by no means a universal one.
Of course no thoughtful person claims one interpretation of Islam has been "universal." Reasonable people know that religious creeds are only one of many influences on the human soul. Reasonable people also know that they are deeply important influences.
As for what the coup in Egypt establishes, or will bring next, shouldn't we pass on making prophecies about Egypt, for a while?
Radical Islam — not Islam itself — is the menace that must be defeated. In that struggle we have no more invaluable allies than moderate Muslims. Pretending they don’t exist helps no one but the Islamists.
Who's pretending they don't exist? I just don't see Mohammed as one of them. And I do see that as a serious problem.