Islam – Religious Friend or Foe?

Barack ObamaPresident Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week seems to have generated a great deal of controversy in certain religious circles.

In his address, President Obama unequivocally condemned the actions of militant terrorist groups like ISIS who, he said, abuse the Islamic faith in justifying their agenda. At the same time he warned against the mistaken tendency of treating Islam as a uniquely violent religion.

Religious violence and campaigns of religious violence, he pointed out, take place all around the world and have done so for many centuries. No religion is exempt from this tendency and no religion is exempt from its own waves of religious violence and extremism. It is a problem, he said, that humanity has been grappling with throughout human history.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.

ISIS-IraqWe see ISIL [ISIS], a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism – terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

Christians too need to recognize that they are not immune from this path of religious violence and extremism. They have their own past (and present) to contend with. It is all too easy to think of one’s self as morally superior to others and of one’s religion as superior to all others as well. What is needed, Obama said, is a degree of religious humility, acknowledging that we are in no position to throw stones, since none of us is without sin.

[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

Unfortunately, these examples of atrocities committed by Christians in the name of religion are not limited to events of nine or even six centuries ago. As Obama noted in his speech,

In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Christian Terrorists Too?

lynchingIn a very poignant essay written the day after ISIS executed the Jordanian pilot by dousing him with gasoline and burning him alive in a cage, Bill Moyers drew a connection between ISIS’ “fiery cage” and the KKK’s “lynching tree.” Both were used to broadcast horrifying displays of religious violence and to terrorize the general public. Nor were these horrendous actions limited to a few isolated cases. As Moyers notes,

Between 1882 and 1968 — 1968! — there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US.

Such religious atrocities in Christian lands are not a thing of the past. They continue on today. As Jack Jenkins reported in ThinkProgress,

Lords-Resistance-Armyin central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army (which, similar to ISIS, seeks to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments) forcibly recruits child soldiers, terrorizes local villages, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people in Uganda and the displacement of 1.7 million in the greater region, according to the United Nations.

Individuals also carry out acts of terrorism in the name of religion.

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-professed Christian, launched a horrific assault in Oslo, Norway to defend “Christian Europe,” using an arsenal of weapons to kill 77 people — most of whom were teenagers.

Jenkins also recounts how last year, motivated by the writings of a Christian white supremacist organization,

suspected Christian terrorist Larry McQuilliams mounted a full-scale attack on Austin, Texas, firing off more than 100 shots in the city before embarking on a botched attempt to burn down the Mexican Consulate.

But should we really be calling these individuals “Christians”? Should we call the Lord’s Resistance Army a Christian militia and the KKK a Christian organization? Doesn’t that strike most Christians as offensive? And here we get to the real nub of the issue.

President Obama has been criticized for refusing to use the words “Islamic terrorists” in referring to ISIS and other groups. This and a host of related terms like “Muslim extremists,” “radical Islam,” and “Muslim militants” are all problematic for one specific reason – these terms infer that these people actually represent the religion of Islam and, in carrying out their acts, are operating as Muslims.

Such a statement by any head of government would be seen as highly defamatory and offensive within the Muslim world. It is no wonder that Obama is careful to avoid such language.

ISIS fightersPresident Obama has been consistently clear on this point. Last September, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 he stated in an address to the nation that ISIL, or ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, “is not Islamic.” Nor is it even a state. Instead,

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

As Aaron Blake noted at that time in the Washington Post,

Throughout his presidency, President Obama has emphasized one point while talking about Islamist extremists: They are not practicing Islam, he has said, they are perverting it.

Muslims for Peace

Millions of Muslims around the world take the same position. They have strongly denounced the actions of ISIS as unIslamic. As Jenkins points out in another article,

the false presupposition … — that most Muslims either remain silent in the face of religious extremism or, worse, condone it — is one that shows up time and time again in conservative circles, but ignores the important efforts of millions of peaceful Muslims.

Islam is peaceHe notes that many individual Muslims and Muslim organizations have

repeatedly and passionately condemned acts of violence perpetrated by people who claim to be followers of Islam.

And he asks us to reflect on the fact that since the year 2000 no less than five Muslims have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their religiously motivated commitments to peacemaking.

Mind you, there are plenty of Christians around (some with large attentive audiences) who continue to claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of violence. For example, Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) has called Islam “a religion of war.” And Brian Fischer, until recently the spokesperson for the American Family Association, has written that, “Islam is an evil and wicked religion.”

quranstandSuch people can point to isolated verses from the Qur’an taken out of context such as, “Strike terror into God’s enemies, and your enemies” (Qur 8.60), and “… slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” (Qur. 9.5)

bible_open_newBut they ignore the passages in Jewish and Christian scripture that show God commanding genocide (Deut. 20:16-18), approving military annihilation (Josh. 10:40), supporting honor killings (Lev. 21-9), condoning slavery (too many passages to number), and commending the slaughter of children (Ps. 137:9).

In fact, as Philip Jenkins wrote some time ago in his excellent article entitled “Dark Passages,”

The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.

Most Christians would immediately say, hold on a minute. These biblical passages condoning such barbaric acts describe a far different time and culture. No Christian would treat them as being normative in today’s world. Christianity is about something completely different. It preaches a message of love, compassion, and acceptance of other people. These, not war and violence, are its core values.


Most Muslims would respond the very same way. Islam, they would say, is fundamentally a religion of peace, not violence (Islam and salaam come from the same root). Islam preaches a message of compassion and tolerance. It proclaims that all people are equal in God’s sight. These are its core values.

Christians can overcome their mistaken notions about Islam by better getting to know their Muslim co-workers and neighbours. They are people like you and I. They are concerned just like the rest of us about making ends meet, achieving security, finding personal fulfillment, and providing for their children’s wellbeing. We are not that different from one another.

We both seek to live moral lives and to walk rightly before our God. We both seek fairness and just treatment. We both know the importance of caring for our neighbours. These are the things that our religions teach us are truly important. This is what binds us together.

Photo credits: Evan Vucci/AP; Library of Congress; James Akena/Reuters; Thomas van Houtryve/AP

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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