To read Part I, click here.
In his comments on the jihad being waged by the Islamic State in northern Iraq (ISIL), President Obama recycled yet again the shopworn false knowledge about Islam that continues to compromise our response to Muslim violence: “So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Over at the New York Post, a columnist rightly took the president to task by saying, “You can’t divorce the Islamic State from religion.” Unfortunately, the column is full of numerous misstatements that perpetuate the illusion that there is some peaceful, tolerant version of Islam that has been distorted and twisted by “extremists” or “fundamentalists.”
According to the writer, adherents of any faith can misread sacred texts literally in order to justify violence: “The problem isn’t just literalist interpretations of the Koran: The New Testament, the Jewish Torah and many other religious books contain explicit calls for disproportionate punishments and killing of nonbelievers.” Forget the false assumption that we are supposed to read all sacred texts allegorically rather than literally. I’d like to see the verses from the New Testament that explicitly instruct Christians to kill non-believers rather than try to convert them. On the contrary, Jesus preached, “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5.38), and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.43).
Concerning other interactions with non-believers, Jesus instructed his disciples, “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10.14). Because there are no explicit commands to kill non-believers in the New Testament, over the ages Christians who have justified violence with scripture have had to engage in tortuous interpretations and misreadings that over time have not been able to gain traction among all the faithful. That’s why despite widespread persecution across the world today, there is no major Christian terrorist movement.
Compare, in contrast, the Koran’s explicit calls to violence against non-believers, such as Koran 4.76: “Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject faith fight in the cause of evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan.” This is consistent with the famous command in 9:29: “Fight those who believe not in Allah.” If someone wants to argue that “fight” is intended metaphorically in these verses, and has been “twisted” by a “literal” reading to serve some fringe interpretation, consider 4.74: “Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fights in the cause of Allah––whether he is slain or gets victory––Soon shall we give him a reward.” Obviously in this verse and numerous others “fight” means physical battle in which people are “slain.” Contrary to Christian scripture, in traditional Islamic doctrine non-believers who are invited to convert and refuse the call are not left alone, but killed or, if they are Jews or Christians, sometimes allowed to live in humiliating submission under a treaty that Muslims can break at any time for any reason.
As for the Torah, the list of verses allegedly commanding death for non-believers that crop up on anti-Biblical and atheist websites has nothing to do with gentiles. A favorite is Deuteronomy 17, which commands death for those who, “transgressing his covenant,” have “gone and served other gods and worshipped them.” But this is clearly a reference not to gentiles, but to Hebrews who have betrayed the covenant between God and the Jewish people by violating the first Commandment. So too with numerous other verses produced to prove that the Hebrew God ordered the Hebrews to kill gentiles. On the contrary, all these verses describe capital punishment for crimes committed by Jews, such as apostasy, witchcraft, adultery, fornication, and the like. Nowhere is there a verse commanding, like Koran 9.29, wholesale warfare against all gentiles who refuse to become Jews.
As for the orders given to Hebrew kings in the Old Testament to destroy another town or tribe, these are specific to that particular time, place, and people, and reflect the brutal warfare universal at that time. They are history, not theology. We may find such draconian punishments or collective violence distasteful, but they certainly do not comprise the sort of theology of violence against all non-believers that is found throughout the Koran and Islamic doctrine.
Obama is half-right that killing innocents, more specifically women and children, is forbidden in Islam. But there are conflicting traditions of interpretation about this prohibition going back centuries. The most famous Muslim philosopher, the 12th century Ibn Rushd, known in the west as Averroës, discusses this controversy in his treatise Bidayat al-Mudjtahid. In contrast to the prohibition against killing women and children, Averroës writes, some interpreters quote Mohammed’s famous statement, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah,’” which is consistent with Koran 9.5: “Then when the sacred months have slipped away, slay the polytheists wherever you find them.” As Averroës summarizes the controversy, “the source of their controversy is to be found in their divergent views concerning the motive why the enemy may be slain. Those who think that this is because they are unbelieving do not make exception for any polytheist,” including women and children. But even those who take the contrary view that only those able to fight may be killed make an exception for women who fight or who aid the enemy in some way, such as speaking against Islam or spying on Muslim warriors.
In short, many Muslims over the centuries have disagreed with Obama’s bald assertion that “no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.” Modern jihadists like ISIL, al Qaeda, Hamas, Fatah, and the numerous other groups thus have a foundation for their actions in a long tradition of Islamic theology. They see the outsized power and influence of the West, and the people who support it economically or politically, as a mortal threat to Islam. Thus destroying them is acceptable as a defense of the faith, for they are not “innocent” of aggression against Islam.
Many other practices of the jihadists likewise have justifications found in Islamic tradition and history, even if there are disagreements among Muslims about their validity. The jihadists’ penchant for beheading has its precedent in Koran 8.12: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.” We have acted as though the filmed beheading of reporter James Foley is some unprecedented act of savagery by a Manson-like cult. But as Ian Tuttle reminds us, early in his career Mohammed beheaded the some 700 Jews of the Banu Qurayzah. In the 11th century Yusuf ibn Tashfin beheaded 24,000 Spaniards and, in a primitive version of YouTube, sent the heads to cities in North Africa and Spain. In the 19th century the Mahdist jihadists in Sudan beheaded their enemies, including the British war hero Charles “Chinese” Gordon. And Saudi Arabia today continues to publicly behead malefactors, 23 so far this August. There are few better ways to “cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve” or, as Obama said of Foley’s beheading, “shock the conscience of the entire world.”
Similarly, the indiscriminate bombing of people including women and children, whether through rockets or highjacked airliners, is argued as licit based on the fact that Mohammed used mangonels, a type of catapult, at the siege of al-Taif, even though such bombardment endangered women and children. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has written an essay justifying al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks of 9/11 based on this tradition. So too with the prohibition against suicide, used by some apologists to argue that so-called “suicide-bombers” are contrary to Islamic doctrine. But in the Koran and hadith it is clear that killing oneself as an act of martyrdom while fighting for the faith is acceptable. For example, according to one hadith, Muhammad said, “I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.” That’s why for 14 centuries jihadists have said they love death the way infidels love life.
Groups like ISIL or al Qaeda do not embrace “extreme religious views,” or “twist the overall message of religious texts,” as the New York Post has it. They act on a venerable tradition within Islam, one based on writings some Muslims have construed differently because of inconsistencies among various texts. But that doesn’t change the fact that the jihadists have within the faith long-established precedents for their actions, a tradition with millions of Muslim adherents worldwide, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar who finance the vicious terrorist group Hamas, and the Mullahcracy in Iran, the world’s foremost supporter of Islamic terrorism.
We in the West correctly find such views “extreme,” or “savage” and “barbaric,” but they are not “fringe” anomalies conjured out of textual misreadings by an extremist cult. They derive from the history and sacred texts of Islam, the clear meaning of which is illustrated on page after page of Muslim history. And they are being acted upon today across the Muslim world, as evidenced by the nearly 24,000 violent attacks perpetrated by Muslim terrorists since 9/11. Contrary to Obama, ISIL does speak for a religion. It’s called Islam.
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