Thursday, May 5, 2011

Questions on Islam

Nearly a decade ago, public interest in Islam spiked in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It gradually subsided thereafter but still remained much higher than before. In 2011, various stories related to Islam are once again dominating the headlines:
  • Unrest and protest in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Bahrain, Libya, Iran, and Syria (and probably a few I missed).
  • Florida pastor Terry Jones announced he would burn a copy of the Qur'an, backed down in response to pleas and advice from other American religious leaders, and then went ahead with his original plan, sparking worldwide outrage among Muslims.
  • The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response.”
  • Several states are considering bills to ban Shari'ah law (and foreign law in general) from being applied in state courts.
  • This week the long manhunt for Osama bin Laden concluded with his death in a U.S. raid on his compound in Pakistan.
In this post I want to address two recurring questions about Islam:
  1. Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?
  2. Are violence and terrorism endemic to Islam?

No God but Allah

Some imagine Allah to be the proper name of the Muslim deity. But, in fact, it is the generic divine name in Arabic. Allah is a contraction of the Arabic al-'ilah, which means literally, "the deity." The definite article serves to emphasize singularity, so it is understood as "the sole deity," i.e., God. This name for God is not specific to Muslims but is used by all Arabic-speaking monotheists, including Christians. In my Antiochian Orthodox parish, when we sing the Trisagion in Arabic we address God as Qudduson ullah.

Others argue that Muslims worship "a different god" than Christians. I have found that the straightforward counter-argument that a monotheist cannot logically posit the existence of "a different god" does not phase them. When probing beneath the "different god" argument, I occasionally find a belief that Muslims are either pagans who worship a non-existent mythological deity or deluded devil worshipers (I have encountered both versions of the argument). In either case, I suppose one could argue with some logic that Muslims are worshiping a different god. But this is not what is usually meant by "a different god."

Typically those who make the "different god" argument will point out that Christians worship Jesus or the Holy Trinity and Muslims do not. But the same could be said of Jews, and most Christians would not say that Jews worship "a different god." What they really mean is that Muslims have a different conception of God than Christians do, and this is certainly true. But we do not (or at least ought not) worship our conception of God. To worship a conception produced by our minds would be every bit as idolatrous as to worship an image produced by our hands. We do not worship any conception of God, but the ineffable reality behind all conceptions.

It was the intention of Muhammad to introduce the God of the Bible to his people, the Arabs. There can be no doubt of the strong influence of Christianity on early Islam. Muhammad's wife's cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, an Ebionite Christian priest, was the first to acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet. St. John of Damascus, who had grown up in the Damascus court of the Umayyad caliphate, classified Islam as a Christian heresy. In the early 20th century, Hilaire Belloc came to the same conclusion. Without necessarily endorsing that hypothesis, I think we can safely say that Muslims worship the same God as Christians, though they might hold incorrect beliefs about him and serve him badly (as, indeed, do many Christians).

The Religion of Peace?

The word islam is the infinitive of the Arabic verb 'aslama, which means "to surrender" or "to submit." A Muslim, then, is one who surrenders to Allah. The same triliteral root, s-l-m, is shared by salaam, which means "peace." But Islam does not have a reputation as a peaceful religion, either historically or today.

In the time of Muhammad, Arabic society was filled with injustice and violence and the tribes were constantly feuding with each other. Muhammad brought all of the Arabic tribes into a confederation, which resulted in inter-tribal peace. Since the united Arabs could no longer raid one another, they redirected their raids against their non-Arabic neighbors. In her book Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong describes the resulting conquests:

[W]hen the Arabs burst out of Arabia they were not impelled by the ferocious power of "Islam." Western people often assume that Islam is a violent, militaristic faith which imposed itself on its subject peoples at sword-point. This is an inaccurate interpretation of the Muslim wars of expansion. There was nothing religious about these campaigns, and Umar did not believe that he had a divine mandate to conquer the world. The objective of Umar and his warriors was entirely pragmatic: they wanted plunder and a common activity that would preserve the unity of the ummah. . . . Later, when the Muslims had established their great empire, Islamic law would give a religious interpretation of this conquest, dividing the world into the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam), which was in perpetual conflict with the Dar al-Harb (the House of War).

It should be emphasized that being conquered by Muslims does not necessarily entail an expectation of conversion to Islam. In fact, for the first century of Islam, conversion was not an option. Islam was conceived by Muhammad and his immediate successors as a religion for Arabs only. Anyone who wanted to convert to Islam would have had to join an Arab tribe. Conquered peoples were expected to live as they did before the conquest, but to pay the jizyah, a per-capita tax on non-Muslim subjects. Later regimes permitted or even encouraged conversion to Islam, but this often caused fiscal problems, as mass conversions resulted in an equally massive decline in state revenue. Therefore some regimes actually discouraged conversion, which was seen as a form of tax evasion!

Centuries later, Islam was adopted by many of the Mongol and Turkish tribes that were raiding and conquering Asia (and trying to do the same to Eastern Europe). But these tribes were not motivated in their efforts by Islam; they had been trying to conquer the world (with some success) long before they converted to Islam. Rather, Islam was a religion of convenience that was more accommodating of their culture of raiding and conquest than the Buddhism and East Syrian Christianity previously popular among the Mongols.

Still, a religion that is attractive to violent cultures and which accommodates their violence by directing it outwards might have something to answer for. It has been noted that Islam has "bloody borders." Many of the world's recurring-conflict zones involve an Islamic presence the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, South Asia, East Africa. Islamic history and ideology can facilitate a presumption of a God-given right of Muslims to rule over non-Muslims, which inevitably leads to conflict. Today, however, this archaic ideology more often serves as a cover for nationalism or personal and factional agendas. And much of Islamic violence today is between different factions of Muslims.

Schools of Thought on Islamic Terrorism

Muslims did not invent religiously motivated terrorism. That distinction might go to the Sicarii, first-century Jewish anti-Roman fanatics. But their tactics were replicated by the Assassins, a 12th-century Persian Isma'ili Shi'ite sect known for murdering opposing leaders by stealth.

But the Sicarii and the Assassins were both well organized factions with clear political goals who targeted specific known enemies. Today's Islamic terrorism, by contrast, is a loosely organized mass movement that shares common enemies, rather than common goals. It is distinctly modern in its ideology and its methods. And it engages in mass murder rather than targeted killings.

Is mass violence inherent to Islam in the modern context? Are all Muslims potential terrorists? I define three schools of thought on these questions: the 1% school, the 10% school, and the 100% school. These percentages are different answers to the question, "What percentage of Muslims supports militant Islam?"

The 1% school encompasses most U.S. politicians of both major parties. They profess that the terrorists and their sympathizers are a small fringe of Muslims, which certainly does not include Wahhabis. This is a convenient view to espouse since it does not require a strong policy response and does not risk upsetting our supposed allies in Saudi Arabia.

According to the 10% school, the terrorists and their sympathizers are a large minority of Muslims that includes Wahhabis. This school is represented most clearly by Daniel Pipes and Stephen Schwartz. (Pipes inspired my development of this classification system when he estimated that 10-15% of Muslims worldwide support militant Islam.) This is the school that I identify with.

Finally, the 100% school says that all Muslims (or, at least, all real Muslims) sympathize with Islamic terrorism i.e., that Islam is inherently a terrorist religion. The most outspoken proponent of this school is Serge Trifkovic.

One might think the 100% school would be the most strongly opposed to militant Islam, but the 100%ers, ironically, largely agree with the militants. These nominal enemies agree that Islam is inherently committed to imposing its rule on the entire world and that self-described Muslims who disagree are either liars or apostates. They both embrace the same all-encompassing us-vs.-them worldview. They even respect each other as adversaries who are playing the same game. Trifkovic and militant Muslims have actually engaged in tactical alliances against Pipes and Schwartz, whom they despise in common.

What game is Trifkovic playing? He is a professional apologist for Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies. The subtext of everything he writes is to justify Serbian actions, including atrocities against Muslims, in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. His portrayal of Islam implicitly castigates the Western powers that intervened to save Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo and warns us that we will one day be sorry we did not let them finish the job.

Pipes and Schwartz, by contrast, by distinguishing between good Muslims and bad Muslims and naming the militants as the bad Muslims challenge the whole worldview shared by Trifkovic and the militants. While they do not downplay the challenge posed by militant Islam (which separates them from the 1% school), neither do they portray all of Islam as an enemy that must be annihilated to save the world (which separates them from the 100% school). This school of thought presents us not with Armageddon, but with a problem like the Cold War a self-declared enemy that we must take seriously and resist consistently, which we can defeat in time if we persist. If we succeed, we may be able to help save Islam rather than annihilating it.