Which Picture is Accurate: Violence in the Name of God or “A Path to Doing God’s Will?”

October 9, 2010

“Today it may be Al-Qa’ida, but tomorrow it will be some other group of another region, of another religion or of no religion, that will undertake terrorist acts in support of their political cause. So long as the peoples of a few highly industrialized nations continue to control and utilize for their own benefit an outrageously disproportionate share of the world’s resources, the world will not be safe from terrorism.” *

Fr. Thomas Michael’s statement is a persistent yet hard truth. As one who studies Islam and Christianity in ethics and theology, and with hope of increasing interfaith work between these two communities, as well as peace keeping in general, I’m saddened that terrorism is the issue most people want to latch onto and discuss; yet I’m also realistic, and I know that this is an inescapable issue and one that cannot be avoided. It’s disheartening though. I think of the beauty of the Qur’an, the depth of spirituality present in the way most Muslims worship and pray, the rich history and innovations in Muslim history, and the socially-minded efforts Islam can inspire for justice, and all of that is overlooked as Islam is condensed down for most Americans to be a religion that has halted progress and inspired terrorism. That’s a claim I do not support, but I do concede that it’s naïve to claim that Islam and terrorism should never be mentioned in the same sentence. Terrorist acts by radical Islamists** do indeed occur. The fact that they do, sadly, is why we in the west have bothered to learn about Islam at all in recent years.

Fr. Michael recounts a prayer meeting in Turkey and contrasts that image with terrorism. Michael is invited to lecture at a theological conference in Turkey in celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. He is applauded and warmly welcomed for his speech which looked at Muhammad from a Christian perspective; at the celebration he observed the 20 and 30 year-old Muslims on break from class and work, a mixture of doctors, students, lawyers, cab drivers, etc; acoustic guitars were strummed, poems composed and read, prayers said; then the crowd dispersed back to work and study—they had spent time talking about how to implement their faith in a way that makes the world around them a better place. Fr. Michael asks the reader, “who is more representative of the world today, these young people in Istanbul for whom Islam is fundamentally  a religious faith, a path to approach God in worship  and a project  for doing God’s  will in daily life, or those who want to kill and destroy in the name of God?” ***

The problem is that this picture of the faith is not what we see on the news. Nor does mainstream news tell us of those on pilgrimage to Mecca from all over the world who travel humbly in sister- and brotherhood. Nor does the news report the statements and work of people like Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim professor from Oxford who has worked for and written powerfully advocating for a progressive yet coherent and uncompromised modern application of Muslim faith and practice coherent with democracy that maintains the full essence of the religion yet fits it into its time-place context in a way good for both the believer and the believer’s neighbor, even if that neighbor be a Christian or an atheist. The news doesn’t report on food banks in Detroit organized and ran by Muslims who give to the needy regardless of their faith. The news doesn’t report on the thousands of Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan who hold any number of jobs, contribute to society, and use their prayers and call-to-worships as a way to inspire them to be and do more and better in all that they do (and similar communities in NYC, LA, and practically every other medium to large city throughout the US).

But there are so many horror stories; there are the sermons that are vehement against Jews and Christians preached by particular imams throughout the world. There are the governments who oppress women, gays, and Christians throughout Africa and the Middle East who declare themselves “Islamic.”

Edward Said, activist and journalist, never forgot his Palestinian roots even though he lived in the west. His work on Orientalism did its best to smash the biases and misperceptions of such concepts as “east vs west,” us vs them, occidental vs orientals. Said recognized the lingering affect that western imperialism and colonialism had on most of the world; the idea that the west has got it “right” is welded into our psyches and any attempt to implement western style life throughout the rest of the world that fails is deemed a tragedy. We must realize that there are other ways that are “right,” even if they aren’t our own; we must also recognize the political and economic problems that drive most of the tragedies throughout the world, even when those tragedies are given the false stamp of religion. Most of us in the US or UK would not want to live under “sharia” law but most of us are unaware of the vastly different ways of understanding, formulating, and implementing that law is understood by the many different Muslim schools of thought. The violence in Sudan, Iran, Lebanon, etc. is often viewed through a religious lens and I do not doubt that some terrorists see themselves as true to their faith; I also do not doubt that others will continue on their false path even when they are bluntly proved to be in violation of their faith, and there are numerous anecdotes proving that. Illiteracy and hunger keep the populations at the whim of madmen dictators; false interpretations of religious texts and complete undermining of the proper essence of a religious tradition and its history by those dictators perpetuates it. Thus we have an “Islamic government” in Sudan contributing to a horrific genocidal war, often played off as “Muslim versus Christian” without noting the violence that was there before that became the reason, the violence born out of British occupation. Further south in Africa, Joseph Kony built his children’s army to attempt to establish a Christian theocracy in Uganda, raping and murdering his path across the continent—he claimed this movement was founded on the Ten Commandments, and even the most religiously illiterate person on the planet can see the hypocrisy in that. Christians murdered Muslims in the thousands in Bosnia; Jews and Muslims murder each other daily in the Palestine-Israel region. All of these give religious reasons, yet all of these actions are wrong and in contradiction with those religions.

Yet I have hope that things can change; Christianity itself is only a few hundred years past the wave of violence done in the Crusades, the violence before that which pitted Christian against Christian in the streets fighting over the nature of the Trinity and the formulation of Creeds, etc. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and, yes, secularization played a part in that. Arguably many aspects of those same forces ushered the west into a “post-Christian” era, but the forms of Christianity which left the West and are now vibrant, powerful, and peaceful throughout Africa, Korea, China, and Latin America are going strong. Cultural Revolution can lead to less fundamentalism and religious violence; the struggle then becomes one of figuring out what faith means in a new era, but good things can come from that as well. I have hope in projects like that of “Wahat al-Salam,” and its work to do peace studies in Jerusalem with students of all Abrahamic faiths. I have hope in projects like “A Common Word,” which is laying ground rules for inter-faith work in the West between Muslims and Christians. I have a lot of hope in possibilities, but I hope more can join the work to make these things reality. Tolerance and peace does not come without effort—perhaps the easiest daily step we can make is attempting to understand the truth of the other rather than believing only the lies about them.

* Fr. Thomas F. Michael, S.J. “A Christian View of Islam,” Irfan A. Omar, ed. 152.

**Though often used interchangeably, “Islamist” more often refers to the political faction of Islam which seeks to establish Islamic states whereas “Muslim” is the term for a believer in Islam.

*** Ibid, 151.

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