Friday, April 20, 2012

Discrimination, distrust and xenophobia: Part 5

(This is the fifth and last article in a multi-part series. If you haven't already read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, I recommend that you do so before continuing here.)

In this article, I'd like to address the plethora of books, articles, Web sites and other media that attack Islam as a religion;  attack its 'scriptures', the Koran;  and accuse it of directing its followers to enslave, torture and kill any and all who do not accept and/or follow its teachings.  The problem is, where does one start?  There's so much material involved that it'll be impossible to address it all in the space of a single blog article.

Let's begin by examining a faith with which many of my readers are likely to be at least passingly familiar;  namely, Christianity.  Many (wrongly) assume that the popular catch-phrase of 'accepting Christ as their personal Lord and Savior' is all there is to it - after that, you're 'home free'.  Not so fast!  Christianity requires a wide-ranging and permanent conversion of one's attitudes, actions and lifestyle.  Furthermore, if you want to understand the faith in any depth, be prepared for a great deal of hard work.  You'll have to read its sources of revelation (the Bible for sure, plus - if you want to be thorough - the sources of tradition and binding authority recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, whose members together comprise almost 70% of all Christians).  You'll need to learn how Christianity was established and grew;  how its doctrines were formalized;  how conflicts within it led to changes, splits, new denominations, etc.;  how its missionary activity took it around the world;  how it helped shape and form kings and nations, and how the latter shaped and formed it in their turn;  etc.  You can't just read the Bible, then claim to understand Christianity as a whole - after all, the Bible is not the root, but the fruit of the Church, because the Church defined what went into the Bible!  That's why most mainstream denominations require their ministers to study for five to seven years before ordaining them.  There's a lot to learn!

Precisely the same may be said about Islam.  Reading a book about it, or perusing a few articles on a Web site, will not, repeat, not give you an adequate understanding of it.  You'll have to read and study for several weeks to gain even a basic balanced knowledge of the field.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is either uninformed or lying.  (As a starting point, if anyone claiming to be an 'expert' about Islam isn't fluent in both written and spoken Arabic, he can't possibly have the expertise he claims!)  I studied Islam for three years at both undergraduate and post-graduate level;  and while I regard myself as well-informed about it, I freely admit I'm far from being any sort of expert.

Furthermore, it's almost impossible to truly understand any faith unless you associate with those who believe and practice it.  It has social and cultural as well as theological and doctrinal aspects.  I had contact with a number of Muslims in South Africa for several years;

  • Associates in my work with the victims of violence during South Africa's long period of civil unrest from 1976-1994;
  • Mujahedin volunteers returning from Afghanistan;
  • Iranian-sponsored activists who founded Qibla and later PAGAD (the latter in particular becoming a criminal and terrorist organization in its own right), who tried to force me to direct aid to locals through their channels so that they could take credit for it (they didn't succeed);
  • Imams and lay Muslims in various walks of life.

I also served as a prison chaplain in the USA, which brought me into contact with several hundred Muslims of various denominations and sects.  These experiences do not make me an expert, but I've been able to see Islam in practice.  That's helped me to understand it as an institution.  Without such contact, I submit that a purely academic knowledge of Islam will be lacking depth and substance.

Much of the information in circulation about Islam is at best questionable, at worst entirely false.  Consider the following:

  1. Many of the so-called 'authorities' who write about Islam, or who are cited by others in defense of their views, appear to be 'climbing on the bandwagon' of uninformed Western fears about Islam following terrorist acts by fundamentalist Muslims.  As an example, take one Walid Shoebat, referenced by a commentator in Part 4 of this series.  There are many questions concerning his authenticity;  yet he continues to make a very good living by bolstering people's fears about Islam and spreading 'information' that has been called into question by those who are genuinely knowledgeable in the field.  He is not the only self-proclaimed 'authority' under scrutiny.
  2. Other so-called 'authorities' emit a barrage of alleged 'facts', citing ayah (verse) after ayah from the Koran as if they were a shotgun spewing forth pellets.  However, such 'authorities' hardly ever place the verses in the context of whether the sura (chapter of the Koran) from which they're drawn is Meccan or Medinan in origin; how it is understood and explained in the hadith and sunnah;  how different denominations within Islam interpret it (for example, Shi'ite Muslims generally don't follow the six major collections of hadith used by Sunni Muslims); how it has been applied in terms of fiqh and the different Madh'habi; how its interpretation and application has changed down the centuries (if at all); etc.  These factors can drastically affect how a particular ayah is interpreted and applied today.  Indeed, it's not unusual to find some Muslim denominations, sects or madh'habi placing great emphasis on certain aspects of the faith that are downplayed by others.  This remains the source of considerable friction within Islam, particularly when conflicting fatwas are issued by different religious authorities. Furthermore, critics frequently fail to distinguish between matters that are binding on all Muslims as matters of faith, and those that are culturally specific.  (For example, notwithstanding fatwas issued by a few individual Islamic teachers and allegations by numerous critics of Islam that female circumcision is a Muslim religious requirement, it is not commanded by the Koran or the madh'habi, even though it is, regrettably, a cultural norm - not a religious one - in certain - not all - Islamic societies.)
  3. Many self-proclaimed 'authorities' about Islam will have little or no idea what I was talking about in the second point above, because they are ignorant of the specialist terms I used.  (I've met several who've exhibited that problem.)  Their discussions of Islam are all too often incestuous:  they merely regurgitate what others like them are saying, sometimes copying-and-pasting text from each other's articles and Web sites without even bothering to edit it (or credit the original author).  They frequently cite each other as 'authorities' and trustworthy sources, when in fact they're neither.  Furthermore, many of them have ulterior motives.  They may be peddling an Islamist or Islamofascist perspective, or trying to promote the conversion of the Islamic world to Christianity, or following some other agenda (including, perhaps, making as much money as possible from the overly credulous - see point 1 above).  Many of them appear to be willing to use, or misuse, or make up out of whole cloth, anything that will help them achieve their goals.

I'd like to suggest a very important principle, one that applies to every aspect of life, not just religion:

If you want to learn something about anything, consider the scholarly and other credentials of your sources, and their motivation and agenda(s), and confirm their trustworthiness before relying on them.

If you apply that principle to the subject under discussion, you'll be protected against most of the codswallop floating around out there claiming to be 'authoritative' information about Islam.

It will be impossible for me to provide a 'potted summary' of the Islamic faith here.  Let me point you to a couple of articles and sources on the subject that are reasonably trustworthy.

Do please consult the many articles on Islam provided by Wikipedia and Patheos, check them against each other to ensure accuracy, and follow the links they suggest for further reading.  The subject of Islam is far too large (and much too complex) for any one article to do it justice.  Also, please use their articles and links to fact-check the often hysterical, rabid, poorly-referenced polemics against Islam that you'll find on many Web sites.  I won't bother to name examples here, or provide links to them - they don't deserve the exposure - but if you find a source that denies or contradicts information provided by both of those I've suggested, you may be fairly sure that the former is, at best, being 'economical with the truth'.

With that background firmly in mind, let's cut to the chase.  It's quite true that there are suras in the Koran that suggest, support or even mandate:

Upon hearing such admissions, some will immediately jump up and down, and scream that those beliefs disqualify Islam from consideration as a 'civilized religion', or make it a deadly threat to other faiths and cultures, and so on.  Er . . . not so fast, guys.  For a start, let's acknowledge that Christianity, too, claims to be the only true faith, and as such superior to all other religions.  Objectively, if it's wrong for Islam to make such a claim, then it's equally wrong for Christianity to do so (although adherents of both faiths may argue otherwise from their subjective perspectives).  Furthermore, in the past Christianity has claimed and/or enforced in practice the same prerogatives asserted by Islam.  Examples include (but are not limited to):

  • The Crusades, where Christianity was imposed by violence on the land and people of Palestine (and also parts of Europe such as Sicily and Spain), and many Muslims and Jews were either killed or forcibly converted to Christianity;
  • Internecine conflict, where Christians and (allegedly) Christian nations fought, tortured, murdered and executed one another because of differences over the faith;
  • The punishment (sometimes including torture and/or execution) of those identified as heretics and/or apostates, as exemplified by the Catholic Inquisition or the English Reformation.

However, Christian nations went through the Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, and the 16th-century Reformation, both of which produced major changes in the understanding of faith in practice, and promoted countervailing philosophies, ideologies, policies and legislation.  As a result, religious faith's control over political and social life became diminished, and is still diminishing to such an extent that some call our era a 'post-Christian society'.  The Islamic world has never undergone such episodes, and there is still (at least in theory) no separation between religion and state in a Muslim country.  Just as the Pope once claimed temporal as well as spiritual authority over kings and princes, so Islamic religious leaders today claim similar authority over their worldly rulers.  Many (including myself) believe that the Islamic world is only now entering upon its Renaissance, where secular education and other influences are spreading through a society previously dominated by religion.  (Whether or not it will also experience something like the Reformation is, at present, impossible to predict.)  Just as Europe took several centuries to process and implement the changes produced by the Renaissance, so the Islamic world will also require time to do so.  When it has done so, we may see such sweeping assertions of religious authority modified or scaled back, just as Christianity did after the Renaissance.  Let's hope so, anyway.

The existence of such texts in the Koran does not mean that most Muslims are going to use violence against us to force our conversion.  The simple fact of daily coexistence with Muslims in many Western nations proves this conclusively.  In your home town or city, when was the last time a Muslim stopped you in the street, demanded to know your faith, and threatened you with violence unless you recited the shahada at once?  I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of my readers will answer, "Never".  That says it all, right there.  The fact that it may be a religious requirement codified in the Koran does not imply that it's something that is automatically going to be forced upon you.

For those living in Islamic or predominantly Muslim states, the reality is somewhat different, of course.  There have been (and continue to be) cases of abduction and forced conversion (usually related to marriage);  there have been cases of religious intolerance and discrimination towards adherents of other faiths;  there have been cases where Muslims who converted to other faiths have been sentenced to death or murdered as apostates.  Such actions are abhorrent to those of us in Western countries;  but that's because we are accustomed to living in a society where freedom of religion is taken for granted, and religion and state are separated, and human rights are respected (at least in theory).  Most Islamic nations do not embody those values.  Islam is a totally different culture to our own.  That doesn't excuse such actions, of course - they remain abhorrent and unacceptable to anyone with what you or I would call a 'civilized' perspective - but those living in such nations simply don't see the situation as we see it.  We may not like that, but it is what it is.  I don't condone or seek to excuse their actions, you understand:  I merely point out that they regard themselves as justified in behaving that way.  Unless and until their society, culture and world view is modified, there's no prospect of that changing.

Finally, remember that in both Christianity and Islam, the application of religious teaching in daily life is not necessarily what is mandated in revelation or theologically derived from that revelation.  Faith in action, just as with many other aspects of human existence, isn't always a matter of 'black and white' - there are all too often 'shades of gray' in its implementation.  Let me give you a couple of practical examples.

I don't have space or time to provide more examples.  You'll have to look them up for yourself.  Suffice it to say that the old proverb, 'circumstances alter cases', relates as much to the application of religious doctrine to everyday life as it does to law and custom.

I guess I can't say much more about Islam here.  The subject is too vast for a short series of blog articles.  However, I hope I've been able to illustrate that the relationship between Islam and the Western world is much more complex and complicated than many would have you believe, and that emotional, 'knee-jerk' condemnations of Islam as 'the religion of terror' or the like are, at best, misguided.  I hope you've been given sufficient factual, verifiable information to pursue your own investigation of this tangled topic, and find more answers for yourself.

Tragically, in many ways Islam has been made into a 'bogeyman' to scare Western audiences.  I suspect some politicians and Christian leaders actually like having it around as a convenient target for fear-mongering and disinformation.  While the people concentrate on the so-called 'threat' from Islam, they can be more easily distracted from living in accordance with their own religious faith or other standard(s) of everyday morality;  they can be more easily manipulated by strident calls to take certain action(s), or give up certain freedoms or liberties, in order to 'counteract' the alleged 'threat' from Islam;  and they probably won't take much notice of (let alone fix) the very real problems present in their own society, because they'll be too busy pointing fingers at the problems in and of Muslim countries.  I submit that the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5 apply very firmly to Christians in this situation.

"Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

For my readers of faith:  may all of us who believe in God, no matter what our religion or denomination, behave towards each other with the same mercy and compassion we hope to receive from Him when we are judged.


EDITED TO ADD:  Following some of the comments to this and earlier articles in this series, I'd like to encourage you to read an article in the Telegraph:  Are we wrong about Pakistan?   It won't change the perspective of someone who's already made up his or her mind, but I hope it'll give others food for thought, and illustrate that even an Islamic nation that's at the heart of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism has many 'shades of gray' in its makeup.  For another perspective, see Ale under the veil:  The only brewery in Pakistan.


Peter B said...

While you may consider female circumcision to be extra-Islamic, many Muslim legal authorities beg to differ with you. Certainly those of the Shafi'i school, predominant in Egypt; here is the relevant section of Reliance of the Traveller, which is considered to be authoritative by the jurists at Al Azhar:

e4.3 Circumcision is obligatory (Sheikh 'Umar Barakat's commentary: for both men and women. For men it consists of removing the prepuce from the penis, and for women, removing the prepuce (Ar. Bazr) of the clitoris (n: not the clitoris itself, as some mistakenly assert). (Sheikh 'Abd al-Wakil Durubi's comment: Hanbalis hold that circumcision of women is not obligatory but sunna, while Hanafis consider it a mere courtesy to the husband.)"

Even this, however is a text prettified for Western consumption. The note does not reflect the meaning of the Arabic actually specifies the entire clitoris, not its foreskin.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Peter for an interesting and well thought out series. I enjoy your blog very much. I do not always agree with you but in many instances I do and your blog can always be counted on as a source for interesting reading.

The last section of this series does a good job of summarizing and I agree with much of it. Islam can not be understood and its complexities comprehended in a short amount of time or be attained by the reading of a book. It has to be encountered socially and much study must be undertaken to really understand it. Westerner's know little if anything about it and therefore "know the tree by it's fruit." I don't understand the scientific explanation for why a certain type of seed germinates and becomes an apple tree and produces apples. It really doesn't matter to me how this occurs. What matters to me is I like apples and if a tree produces good apples I like that tree. By the same token I don't understand the scientific explanation for why cancer cells grow. My only inclination to find out would be to determine what I can do to eliminate cancer and reduce my risk of getting it because I don't like cancer or things that cause it. Now not all apple trees grow good apples. We judge trees individually and I think that this is the point you are trying to make in this article. A muslim shouldn't be judged simply because he is muslim. Look at their fruit. I doubt many if anyone would disagree with this from a societal viewpoint and that point is well taken.

We westerners see the fruit of Islam as a whole in soundbites which show beheadings, homicide bomber attacks etc and we don't like that fruit. Furthermore, we don't ever hear any of the so called "moderate muslims" come out and publicly denounce these actions. On the contrary we see video of muslim students in the cafeterias of our college campuses cheering as the Twin Towers collapse. What opinion of Islam is the average American or Westerner supposed to develop under those circumstances? I agree that everyone has to be taken as an individual and that no one should be targeted or discriminated against because of the heritage of their muslim faith. This I will grant you and would even be willing to defend. However, I have seen the fruit of Islam and it in my mind goes into the same category as cancer. Just observing the countries where it is the religion of the land is enough. When you observe the quality of life, the lack of freedom, the severity and cruelty with which it treats it's own people I know I don't want any of that fruit and I don't want that fruit even remotely influencing the culture I live in. As far as the muslim man in the workplace or the store is concerned I will treat him based upon the way he treats me and conducts himself as an individual. That is the best I can do and all that anyone should expect.

Peter said...

@Peter B: That's an Egyptian cultural norm, which has been adopted by local Islamic authorities, but is not part of Islamic revelation as such. The local fatwas issued by Egyptian religious authorities are not binding on Islam as a whole, or on all Muslims. I spoke about this earlier in this article, as you'll recall.

I fully agree that female circumcision is a barbaric custom stemming from an overly patriarchal and paternalistic society, and should be stamped out as soon as possible.

@Anonymous at 2.08 pm: You're absolutely right that some 'fruit' demonstrated by Muslims is indeed rotten to the core, and fit only to be rejected. You and I are on the same page there. My problem is with those who condemn all Muslims, or the whole of the Islamic world, because of the actions of such misled, misguided and flat-out thuggish individuals. As I've said earlier in this series, that sort of judgment is like condemning the whole of Christianity because of the beliefs and actions of the Westboro Baptist Church.

It sounds to me like both of you have done your best to maintain a balanced perspective. That's the best anyone can do. I hope I've succeeded in doing the same, and not going overboard on the other side of the equation by being too tolerant! We all have to work towards balance, and maintain it. God grant we succeed in doing so.

Peter B said...

The Westboro Baptist Church is the lunatic fringe. The Shafi'i madhab, one of the four major schools of Muslim jurisprudence, is followed, according to Wikipedia, "by approximately 35% of Muslims worldwide in Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Indian subcontinent."
Al Azhar is one of the oldest and most prestigious madrassas in the world. To dismiss its rulings as "local fatwas" is ludicrous.

I will put it bluntly: Normative Islam is not a religion in the sense that Christianity is in the USA. Perhaps the closest analogy would be the Mormon Church in pre-statehood Utah and even that isn't accurate. Individual Muslims can certainly be good neighbors and good citizens.

You may say "render unto Caesar" but Islam rejects the Church/State separation. Its official, canonical dream for the world is one in which Islam's religious leader is Caesar and Sharia is international, national, and local law.

Sharia as taught by the legal authorities over almost all of the world's Muslims is not compatible with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equal rights for women or democracy.

Peter, you seem to be looking for a moderate Islam; it does not exist on a scale large enough to matter geopolitically. (Moderate Muslims, yes, and that always matters.) We can hope that Islam may moderate; though the process for Christianity was long and bloody indeed. For now, I will close with the words of Turkey's "moderate" leader:

Speaking at Kanal D TV’s Arena program, PM Erdogan commented on the term “moderate Islam”, often used in the West to describe AKP and said, ‘These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”

Peter said...

@Peter B: The source you referenced in your first comment cited hadiths rather than the Koran as authority to permit female circumcision. That in itself demonstrated that local teaching relates to custom rather than the commands given by 'divine revelation' contained in the Koran, which does not mention the subject. Furthermore, Al Azhar is not a binding religious authority over most of Islam, not even in some of the regions you mentioned, such as Southeast Asia. That's demonstrated by the absence of female circumcision in many of those regions.

Also, there is no 'normative Islam', just as there is no 'normative Christianity' - there are denominations, sects and other divisions that may agree on certain common teachings, but may also differ widely on their interpretation and application. I've tried to demonstrate this fact throughout this series.

With the greatest of respect, it seems to me that you're looking for 'black-and-white' certainty when in fact this does not exist. I fully agree that certain Muslim sects and/or teachings are potentially very dangerous to Westerners, whether Christian or not; but I can't point to an individual Muslim and say for sure whether or not he or she holds such views or will act on them. I don't think one can do the same about individual Christians, either. I can't in good conscience issue a blanket condemnation of an entire religion on the basis of such uncertainty.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I can't force or persuade you to act against your own conscience - only appeal to you to inform that conscience as best you can, then make up your own mind.

tweell said...

Yep, it's complicated. Still, I can read and compare the words of Jesus with Mohammed, and although there are many similarities, Mohammed comes away as being a lot greedier and nastier. Many evils have been done in the name of Christianity and against the teachings of Christ, those same evils done in the name of Islam are not against the teachings of Mohammed and often parallel his actions.

I know Muslims who are good people, folks I would trust with my money and my daughters. One of them stated to me that Radical Islamic terrorists didn't speak for him any more than the Westboro Baptists spoke for me. I suggested proof - I would publicly denounce the Westboro Baptists and any other such group he wanted by name as a Catholic and a Christian, he would publicly denounce the Moslem terrorists as a follower of Islam.

He couldn't do it. That says it all, right there.

Mikael said...

I try not to be too biased one way or another, I'm of the opinion that religion is bad in general, and dogma is bad in particular(even secular dogmas).

It inhibits questioning, critical thinking, exploration of new ideas, and fosters blind belief and ignorance.

That's not to say every religious person is lacking these things(I'm sure Peter isn't), but it's despite their religion if they're not. There's even religious elite scientists, though they're a small minority(7%).

Religion is a tyranny of the mind, an enemy of reason.

Imagine how much more advanced our technology would be, and how much less war there would be, if there was no religion in the world.

I don't even consider them to have value to our morality. Morality has evolved during human history, the greatest positive changes often resisted by religious institutions.

Even a cursory read of the bible, tanakh or koran reveals the deity to be a fickle, malicious being unworthy of worship, whom a large majority of the people living in the world is morally superior to.

Mikael said...

PS: That probably came out more caustic than I meant it to be, but there you have it. I also did not mention other religious texts as I have not read anything in them, so I cannot really comment on the morality of the dieties in hinduism, shinto, etc.

Peter B said...

source you referenced in your first comment cited hadiths rather than the Koran

I'm sorry but that's a fantasy that does not comport with what Islam is on its own terms. You can't have Islam without Hadith any more than you can have the Catholic Church without the Magisterium, or Judaism without the Talmud.
Unless there is a revolution in Islam and the gates of ijtihad are reopened, Islam IS Koran, hadith, and the Sira, the canonical biographies of the Perfect Man, and the accumulated precedent in the legal records.

Peter said...

@Peter B: With respect (and I really mean that), you're wrong. If the hadith and sunnah were binding on all Muslims, the Madh'habi (which recognize no less than eight Islamic schools of thought, according to the Amman Message) and the madrassas they control would all agree on their essential elements. Clearly, they do not, or else something like female circumcision would not be a custom confined to certain areas and cultures, but would have spread throughout the Islamic world. It's precisely because the Madh'habi do not necessarily agree on interpretation of the hadith and the sunnah that they vary from each other in their fatwahs and other rulings concerning cultural matters.

I'm not going to continue this debate, because you've clearly made up your mind, and you have the right to do so. I'll hope that others will read what I've written, follow the links I've provided, and be able to assess the facts for themselves.

Peter B said...

OK, I'll grant you that there are Kurani Muslims who reject the Hadith. They're not exactly mainstream, though, and not very numerous or high profile. And yes Shia and Sunni have different hadiths. However, both Shia and Sunni regard Hadith and Sira as indispensable in interpreting the Koran and reaching legal opinions.

Muslims, especially in regions such as Indonesia which had long periods with limited contact with Muslim heartlands, are not strict in practice. Such Muslims have a very difficult time arguing against Wahhabi missionaries and the thinking available today on the Internet. The forces which V.S. Naipaul described in Among the Believers haven't weakened.
Also, you are studiously ignoring my statements about equal rights etc. under Sharia.
As you say, your readers will draw their own conclusions.

Anonymous said...

As always an interesting post. Picking out one section, the section I know something about, I tend to think that people vastly underestimate the historical impact of the European Religious wars, which really start to flare up as early as the 1400's and don't die down until nearly 1700, in shaping Western civilization.

They are in a very real sense an outgrowth of the developing concepts of state nationalism, centralized government and the attempts of both local secular leaders and the papacy to apply centralized power. As the struggle for statehood (that is a bureaucratic, centralized government with regularized taxation, trade, parliaments, etc) begins to crystalize into actual states, the religious issue gains in ferocity, especially in regards to persecution of heresy and fundamentalism.

It is no accident that the Reformation, the Inquisition, things such as Witch Hunts appear in the late (very late) 1400's. This is the same time period that most secular rulers and the Church are finally creating states based on 'rule of the law' as opposed to personal loyalty.

But the catch is that the law, for other complicated reasons, in the Western world is not seen, even in the medieval world, as emanating from the Bible or the Church. Law is sui generis and equal to Roman Law, at least in the British Isles, Scandinavia, and about half of the Holy Roman Empire (Germany/Eastern Europe). The question of whether Law trumps the Church simmers from 800 to is answered over the next 300 years with a level of ferocity that equals the worst of the current wars.

tweell said...

And as a counterpoint to the Telegraph article: