10 February 2015

Islam and Terrorism: Is There a Fundamental Connection?

The Black Standard flag of the Islamic
State:  The top is the first half
of the Shahada - the Muslim creed -
"There is no God but Allah ." The circle
is the seal of Muhammad - "Muhammad
messenger of Allah" - the second half
of the Shahada.  This flag is a simple
testimony to the religious motivation
of the Islamic State.
Most likely before September 11, 2001 most people in your church didn't know much about the religion of Islam.  Most didn't have a reason to care.  Most didn't know any Muslims and probably still don't.  Certainly, nobody knew the difference between a Shia and Sunni, or the meaning of Sharia Law.  But now every American has heard of Islam, terrorism, and jihad.  Much has changed in the last 13 plus years with our country's own responses to 9/11, the so-called Arab Spring, and the current crisis in Syria and northern Iraq with the Islamic State.  My kids are growing up in the era of the American war on terror.  It has defined their childhood like the Cold War with the former Soviet Union helped define mine.

As a pastor, what do I say to my flock about Islam?  How do I help them sift through the network and cable news, possible distortions, propaganda, misconceptions, and diversity of thought to give them a fair understanding of the relationship of this religion and terrorism?  I think that first you need to know my presuppositions and qualifications.  First, I'm a Christian, not a Muslim.  Obviously, that creates a natural bias in me concerning how I view Islam as a belief system.  Second, I am a historian and student of world religions, and as such, possess greater knowledge of Islam than the average non-Muslim.  Also, as a historian, I have been conditioned to strive for as much objectivity as I can muster.  I'll do my best here. 

My goal here is to get at this question: Does an ideological connection with the terrorism we are witnessing and the religion of Islam itself exist?  In other words, are these terrorists just evil, kooky extremists who happen to be Muslims, or is there within the historical and theological DNA of Islam ideas that validate such behavior, making Islam the essential fuel of their behavior?  I hope anyone can appreciate the question.  I think at least the question is relevant and fair considering what we see happening in our world today.

Islam's beginning

Muhammad was born in 570 in Arabia.  Little is know of his early life.  As his story goes, beginning around 610, he was given the first of a series of visions that ultimately resulted in the written revelation of the Quran (also spelled Koran).  His religious reform and views were at first not accepted in Mecca.  His main message was that people should forsake their idolatry and worship and submit to the one true God under his authority since he was God's prophet (the word Muslim means "submitted one").  In 622 he and some of his followers fled north to Medina because of strong opposition in Mecca.  This is the date that actually begins the Islamic calendar.  However, in Medina he gathered a much stronger following, raised an army and marched back to Mecca in 630 where he established Islamic rule by force.  Islam was born through an aggressive militant spirit and activity.

After his death in 632 the followers of Muhammad set out on an aggressive and rapid expansion into the surrounding areas first led by Abu Bakr.  He and following leaders (caliphs) began to aggressively expand Islamic rule through jihad ("to fight, strive").  They did this based upon Muhammad's example and the teachings of the Quran.  In roughly 80 years Muslim armies had established control in territories east into India, north into Syria and west to Spain.  In 718 Muslim advance was stopped at Constantinople and in 732 in France by King Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.

For over 300 years the region was dominated by Muslim clans and dynasties.  Then in the 11th century the Seljuk Turks arrived, which escalated the tensions between Muslims, Jews and Christians.  Previously, Jews and Christians in Muslim controlled territories were tolerated.  They were second class citizens, but they were allowed to live with many restrictions according to Islamic law.  However, the Turks were particularly brutal.  When they arrived they initiated a persecution of Christians that eventually evoked a response from Christians in the West (Rome).  Beginning in 1095 for roughly 200 years the hostility between Muslims and Christians gave us what we call the Crusades.

As you can imagine, it would seem that the motivations for the Crusades were mixed.  For Christians it began as a defensive war.  As the warfare progressed, like in any warfare, it degenerated into acts of horrible cruelty perpetrated by both sides.  This warfare lasted 200 years!  But can one really call the warfare conducted by westerners during the Crusades Christian?  I'll come back to that question. 

An important question to ask is this: Why did Islam begin as a movement through military conquest?  To answer this question, you have to go to the Quran.  The Quran is the Islamic holy book of final revelation that was supposedly given to Muhammad.  Just as the principles and precepts of New Testament inform Christians for proper belief and behavior, the Quran is the revered playbook for Muslims.  This is what early Muslim conquerors were using and this is what modern Muslim terrorists use today.  Are Islamic terrorists today distorting and exploiting the Quran, or are they following instructions that are laid down in it?       

Jihad in the Quran

The Quran is considered the direct words of Allah himself.  It is divided into 114 Surahs(chapters) and roughly the size of the New Testament.  It gives lots of instruction and guidance on all kinds of topics - too much to mention here.  However, considering our question in view (the relationship of Islam to modern terrorism), I want to pull out portions that clearly validate the use of violence for the advance of Islam.  These are not taken out of context.  They are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.  If you suspect that I might be distorting the content, you can check out a copy of the Quran at any public library and read it for yourself.  However, you must understand that orthodox Muslims believe that Quran is only the authoritative Quran in Arabic. Once you translate it to another language it is an interpretation of the Quran and not the Quran itself.  English translations of the Quran vary considerably, reflecting various agendas.

The English translation I am using here is the 1955 translation by Arthur Arberry.  His translation was the first by a bona fide scholar of Arabic and Islam.  It is considered the best translation among academics.  It is considered to be an honest and good translation without an agenda or prejudice.  I've also attempted to give more context to the jihad statements (in italics) than you might normally get.

From Surah 4

"They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper except those that betake themselves to a people who are joined with you by a compact, or come to you with breasts constricted from fighting with you or fighting their people. Had God willed, He would have given them authority over you, and then certainly they would have fought you. If they withdraw from you, and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God assigns not any way to you against them."

From Surah 8

"Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; God knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of God shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged. And if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it; and put thy trust in God; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing."

"O Prophet, God suffices thee, and the believers who follow thee.  O Prophet, urge on the believers to fight. If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred; if there be a hundred of you, they will overcome a thousand unbelievers, for they are a people who understand not.  Now God has lightened it for you, knowing that there is weakness in you. If there be a hundred of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred; if there be of you a thousand, they will overcome two thousand by the leave of God; God is with the patient.  It is not for any Prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land. You desire the chance goods of the present world, and God desires the world to come; and God is All-mighty, All-wise."
 
From Surah 9

"An acquittal, from God and His Messenger, unto the idolaters with whom you made covenant: 'Journey freely in the land for four months; and know that you cannot frustrate the will of God, and that God degrades the unbelievers.'  A proclamation, from God and His Messenger, unto mankind on the day of the Greater Pilgrimage: 'God is quit, and His Messenger, of the idolaters. So if you repent, that will be better for you; but if you turn your backs; know that you cannot frustrate the will of God.  And give thou good tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement; excepting those of the idolaters with whom you made covenant, then they failed you naught neither lent support to any man against you. With them fulfil your covenant till their term; surely God loves the god fearing.  Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. And if any of the idolaters seeks of thee protection, grant him protection till he hears the words of God; then do thou convey him to his place of security --that, because they are a people who do not know."

From Surah 47

"When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads. So it shall be; and if God had willed, He would have avenged Himself upon them; but that He may try some of you by means of others.  And those who are slain in the way of God, He will not send their works astray.  He will guide them, and dispose their minds aright, and He will admit them to Paradise, that He has made known to them.  O believers, if you help God, He will help you, and confirm your feet.  But as for the unbelievers, ill chance shall befall them! He will send their works astray."

There are other such examples in the Quran, but allow these to suffice.  In the Quran, if taken naturally, waging war and committing violence to advance the faith is not just permitted, but encouraged.  However, it should be noted that establishing peace with those who want peace is also instructed.  The difficulty comes in determining when to do what.  The overall pattern in the Quran seems to be to strive (jihad) even by violent force to establish submission to Allah and his word, the Quran.  Then, once that submission has been secured establish peace with idolaters (which includes Christians since thy worship Jesus).  Of course, peace merely meant toleration for non-Muslims (i.e. not killing or physically persecuting them), and certainly not affording them equal status or rights.

I submit that a great difficulty for modern Islam is the Quran itself.  Those who wish to portray Islam as a religion of peace have a real problem with some of the actual instructions found in the Quran.  Those who consider themselves faithful followers of Muhammad find ample validation for acts of terror and violence against Allah's enemies.  Certainly, the circumstances that lead a Muslim to commit acts of terror or support terrorist organizations are multifaceted.  However, the truth remains that the Quran validates their behavior.  Additionally, it would seem impossible to dismiss the actions of Muhammad himself as the model.

 What about war in the Old Testament?

It is a fair argument to bring up the fact that one can easily find the command to wage war in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.  The term holy war no where appears in the Old Testament; however, in essence we clearly observe it.  Israel is commanded to conquer the land of Canaan.  For example, when the Israelites conquered Jericho we are told in Joshua 6:21,"And they utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword."  And throughout the Old Testament you can find God's commands to wage war and take land that He had deeded to Israel.  What do we make of this in relationship to the Christian faith?

Orthodox Christians have always maintained the belief that the Hebrew canon of scripture that we call the Old Testament to be God's Word along with the New Testament.  However, there is a key difference between the Christian Old Testament and Islam's Quran.  Christians view the exploits recorded in the Old Testament as descriptive of the history of God's chosen people, Israel.  It describes what happened then, but does not prescribe that for today.  Christians believe (to differing degrees) in the progressive nature of revelation from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  God began his salvation history with Abraham and the nation of Israel and completed it in the Incarnation of the Son God, Jesus.  The New Testament records the ministry and saving work of Jesus and how the promises made in the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus is the focus of the Christian religion.  And Jesus' teachings and example are completely contrary to the example and teachings of Muhammad.  In other words, whatever God did through Israel then is history and no Christian believes that we are instructed through it to conquer in like fashion.  The Quran is thoroughly prescriptive in the way it is written and perpetually used. 

President Obama's speech at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast

I had actually began writing this post before the president's remarks at last week's National Prayer Breakfast.  However, the facts that his words drew immediate widespread criticism, that the content dovetailed right into what I wanted to talk about, and the fact that he is our president made me want to include and reflect a bit on his thoughts. 

In the heart of his speech he addressed violence and religion and called us all to humility.  Below is a the portion of the speech that has drawn such attention.  I've put into italics the parts that I think are most interesting and telling of our president's take on Islam and terrorism.

"Now, over the last few months, we've seen a number of challenges -- certainly over the last six years. But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we've seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.
 
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. We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done. We see faith driving us to do right.

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. We see ISIL, 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.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest 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. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today's world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn't care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we're confused and don't always know what we're doing and we're staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom -- freedom of religion -- the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

There's wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility. They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both.

But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment. And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another's religion, we're equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults -- (applause) -- and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks. Just because you have the right to say something doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't question those who would insult others in the name of free speech. Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.

So humility I think is needed. And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments. Between church and between state. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world -- far more religious than most Western developed countries. And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state. Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion -- so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it's real. You know he's not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to. It's from the heart.

That's not the case in theocracies that restrict people's choice of faith. It's not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself. So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States."

First, he is right that the separation of church and state is crucial in the whole discussion about violence and terrorism connected to religion in general.  I agree that it was both ideologically right and pragmatic at the founding of the United States to once again separate religion from the power of government. Kudos on that Mr. President!

Second, in an attempt for some reason to deflect criticism of the current terror activity of the Islamic State and other groups, he felt it necessary to remind us of the Crusades that occurred 1,000 years ago.  As I have noted and said I would come back to, the Crusades started out as a defensive war by "Christians."  The real problem with the president's remarks here is that it doesn't have the proper qualification.  The kind of social dynamic that involved Christianity in the Crusades was a corrupted Christianity because of the fusion of state and church, which he rightly recognizes is a bad idea.  In this case Christianity was truly hijacked from the time of Constantine in the early 4th century and throughout the Middle Ages.  Not until the late 18th century did Christianity start getting untangled from the state in western culture.  As long as Christianity was wed to the state bad stuff did happen "in the name of Christ" (e.g. the Inquisition).  I would argue that in those acts there was nothing truly Christian - it was a perversion.  Likewise, I would suggest that anyone who supported slavery in American history or Jim Crow laws with the Bible, perverted the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They personally accommodated their prejudices and racism to the scripture, rather than letting the content of scripture transform their inherited prejudice.  They succumbed to a cultural Christianity rather than living by a truly biblical Christianity.     

Third, he clearly contradicts himself when he speaks about religious truth.  He essentially says that no exclusive religious truth exists.  We only possess our own "notions of truth."  He encourages us to adopt a hermeneutic of doubt, which goes way beyond humility.  But then after saying that we can't be too sure about our brand of truth, he says we should "be true to Him, His word, and His commandments."  How does that work?  It just doesn't make sense to say that everybody's truths are not truths or there is no truth - basically the same thing - then turn around and say that we should be true to His Word [Bible or Quran?] and His commandments.  Which commandments from which religion?  It's clever political rhetoric but logically nonsensical.

Fourth, the president passionately stated, "no God condones terror."  Of course, implicit to that statement is the fact that humans have various ideas of God and look to various sources of religious authority.  In this statement I assume he meant that none of the religions of the world have a view of God that would condone violence as a means to a greater end.  That's a nice thought, but it just doesn't line up with the facts.  I realize that because of the influences on his life, he is sympathetic to Muslims.  Furthermore, I'm sure that the Muslims he calls friend neither commit or support acts of terror nor are part of the Islamic State.  However, as we see in history and from the Quran itself, the Islamic vision of God (Allah) does allow for violent aggression on its neighbor.  The Islamic ideal is a complete wedding of state and Islamic law.  This is not true for Christianity.

Conclusion

So, to answer the question: Is there a fundamental connection between Islam and the current terrorism we see today?  The short answer is yes.  In both it's origination with Muhammed and in the sacred writing he provided, the use of violence against those deemed enemies of Allah is validated.  Obviously, most Muslims do not participate in this behavior, so it is easy to assume that the jihadist has, in the president's words, "betrayed Islam."  However, to assume that is to ignore the obvious - the history of Muhammad and the contents of the Quran.  Those leading the Islamic State certainly see themselves as faithful Muslims carrying out ideals of their faith determined to establish an Islamic state.  We just find it hard to believe that a religion would produce this kind of behavior.   

As a Christian I have a pretty politically incorrect view of Islam.  I believe it to be a false religion started by a false prophet. This is what I believe.  However, more objectively I would hope that anyone, regardless if he or she shares my faith, can see the fruit of the prophet Muhammad, both from his example and by what he has taught others.  Even Bill Maher can see the difference!  If you compare the teachings of the New Testament to those within the Quran, the contrast will be evident. 

So, what should Christians do with this knowledge?  Certainly, it would be antithetical to our faith to hate Muslims and treat them badly.  However, we should be honest and not obscure the fact that Islam is a religion birthed through violent aggression.  It would be helpful if our leaders could understand that the idea that all religions are equal is not a tenable position simply because they hold competing claims to truth. It's neither logical nor wise.  One might argue that they differ in formal doctrine about God but all share a common ethic and morality.  However, anyone who really examines the evidence closely and compares should be able to see that this is simply not true.   

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