Is Islam a religion of peace?

James A. Beverley

Osama bin Laden, the world's most notorious terrorist, has handed Muslims everywhere their worst public-relations nightmare: September 11 as a picture, an embodiment, of Islam. Muslims now have to define themselves in relation to the day of infamy.

Abdulaziz Sachedina, a Muslim scholar at the University of Virginia, says he does not remember ever praying so earnestly that God would spare Muslims the blame for "such madness that was unleashed upon New York and Washington . …I felt the pain and, perhaps for the first time in my entire life, I felt embarrassed at the thought that it could very well be my fellow Muslims who had committed this horrendous act of terrorism. How could these terrorists invoke God's mercifulness and compassion when they had, through their evil act, put to shame the entire history of this great religion and its culture of toleration?"

Every judgment about Islam, all reaction to Muslim doctrine, and each Muslim-Christian encounter are now cast in light of the events of that dreadful day.

Islam as a Path of Peace
There are three distinct interpretations of the events of September 11. The first view is that the terrorist acts do not represent Islam. President George W. Bush best expressed this notion when he said that "Islam is a religion of peace." One of the leading Muslims to echo this is Yusuf Islam (the former rock musician Cat Stevens, who now helps promote Muslim education in England). "Today, I am aghast at the horror of recent events and feel it a duty to speak out," he said in a London newspaper. "Not only did terrorists hijack planes and destroy life; they also hijacked the beautiful religion of Islam."

During an interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium on September 23, Imam Izak-El M. Pasha pleaded, "Do not allow the ignorance of people to have you attack your good neighbors. We are Muslims, but we are Americans. We Muslims, Americans, stand today with a heavy weight on our shoulders that those who would dare do such dastardly acts claim our faith. They are no believers in God at all."

Major Muslim organizations throughout North America, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America, and the Muslim Students Association, denounced the work of the terrorists. The powerful American Muslim Council issued a press release on September 11, saying it "strongly condemns this morning's plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and expresses deep sorrow for Americans that were injured and killed. amc sends out its condolences to all the families of the victims of this cowardly terrorist attack."

With the exception of Iraq, Muslim nations distanced themselves from the attack on America. "Iran has vehemently condemned the suicidal terrorist attacks in the United States," Iran Today reported in a front-page story on September 24, "and has expressed its deep sorrow and sympathy with the American nation." The governments of Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen expressed similar sentiments.

Leading intellectuals, who have argued that terrorist acts represent only fringe Muslims, have also promoted the view that Islam is a religion of peace. Edward Said, the controversial Columbia University professor, argued in The Nation that September 11 is an act of cultic religion. Comparing Islamists to the Branch Davidians and the Rev. Jim Jones, he said September 11 is a model of "the carefully planned and horrendous, pathologically motivated suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants . …the capture of big ideas by a tiny band of crazed fanatics for criminal purposes."

Mark Juergensmeyer, professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a specialist on religious violence, put it similarly: "Osama bin Laden is to Islam [what] Timothy McVeigh is to Christianity."

The Darker Side
After initial emphasis on Islam as a religion of peace, a second interpretation came to the fore. Editorials started to emerge that were less optimistic about Islam per se and far more alarmed about the scope and depth of militant Islam. Novelist Salman Rushdie, on whom the late Ayatollah Khomeini once issued a death order, wrote in The New York Times:

If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side? . …[Islamists have] a loathing of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness, and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over—"Westoxicated"—by the liberal Western-style way of life. 

Poverty is their great helper, and the fruit of their efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, "infidels," for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world. 

Others have been naming Islam's dark side as well, without suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists. Thomas Friedman, author of From Beirut to Jerusalem, has taunted Osama bin Laden in his New York Times columns, while also warning of the terrorist's popularity in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Muslim nations.

British journalist Julie Burchill wrote a scathing article in The Guardian against the "sustained effort on the part of the British media to present Islam—even after the Rushdie affair and now during the Taliban's reign of terror—as something essentially 'joyous' and 'vibrant,' sort of like Afro-Caribbean culture, only with fasting and fatwas."

Melanie Phillips, writing in The Times of London, raises the possibility of treason among British Muslims. "As if the progress of the Afghan war wasn't enough to worry about, a nightmare specter is emerging at home. The attitude of many British Muslims should cause the greatest possible alarm that we have a fifth column in our midst . …Thousands of alienated young Muslims, most of them born and bred here but who regard themselves as an army within, are waiting for an opportunity to help to destroy the society that sustains them. We now stare into the abyss, aghast."

In the weeks after the World Trade Center crumbled, there was no proof of an Islamic world totally united against terrorism. Rick Bragg reported in The New York Times about Muslim boys running through their school compounds in Pakistan on September 11. They were "celebrating, stabbing the fingers on one hand into the palm of the other, to simulate a plane stabbing into a building." Palestinian authorities went into overdrive to suppress images of youths celebrating the deaths in America.

Interpreting Jihad
Every discussion of Islamic militancy turns eventually to two fundamental concerns. First, how much is Islamism (that practiced by fundamentalist Muslims open to violence) rooted in the teaching and practice of the prophet Muhammad? Would he celebrate the work of Osama bin Laden? Second, are the violent jihads of our day sanctioned by the Qur'an and by the actions of early Muslim leaders?

The prophet himself engaged in many military battles and could be merciless to his enemies, even those who simply attacked him verbally. His original sympathies with Jews and Christians as "Peoples of the Book" gave way to a harsher treatment when they did not follow Islam. In one infamous episode, Muhammad cut the heads off hundreds of Jewish males of the Beni Quraiza tribe who did not side with him in battle. The prophet is quoted as saying, "The sword is the key of heaven and hell; a drop of blood shed in the cause of Allah, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven, and at the day of judgment his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim."

In reference to the Qur'an, many have drawn attention to the famous passage in Surah 2:256: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." This verse fits well with other Qur'an verses in which jihad means personal and communal spiritual struggle or striving. But the Qur'an also uses jihad to mean "holy war," and the language can be extreme. Surah 5:33 reads, "The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter."

Both the example of the prophet and some emphases in the Qur'an provided warrant for Islam's earliest leaders to spread Islam by military conquest. Bloody expansionism was also justified through original Islamic law that divided the world into two realms: Dar al-Harb (the land of war) and Dar al-Islam (land under Islamic rule). Both Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West and Jewish scholar Bat Ye'or's Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam document the reality of Muslim crusades long before the notorious Christian crusades of the Middle Ages.

Out of the vortex of these realities emerge two different perspectives among modern Muslims. Islamists consider their actions a true jihad or "holy war" against infidels and the enemies of Islam. They believe it is right to target America, "the great Satan." Osama bin Laden believes that the Qur'an supports his campaign, that the prophet would bless his cause, and that Allah is on his side. But the vast majority of Muslims believe that nothing in Muhammad's life or in the Qur'an or Islamic law justifies terrorism.

Bernard Lewis, the great historian of Islam, noted in The Wall Street Journal that throughout history, Muslims have given jihad both spiritual and military meaning. Lewis also pays particular attention to the legal traditions in Islam about what constitutes just war. After noting the many limitations placed on military jihad, he writes, "What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York. For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam."

"The Clash of Civilizations," Samuel Huntington's essay for Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), has attracted considerable attention in recent months. Writing just after the Gulf War, Huntington analyzed the competing ideologies of our time and drew particular attention to the clash between Islam and the West. His concern has obvious merit, although critics have made a crucial point that Islam is no monolith. There are clashes within Islamic civilization itself.

What may emerge as the most significant factor in the current shape of our world, then, is not the clash between Islam and the West. It is, instead, the clash between Muslims as they try to define their faith for the 21st century. Islam clearly does not speak with one voice. It shows nearly as much diversity as does Christianity (see "A Many Splintered Thing"). The debate within Islam will be protracted, regardless of how long military campaigns continue against any Islamist movement.

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