Sunday, April 1, 2012

Does Islam Condone Unjustified Violence?

Over drinks a few weeks back, I had a great debate with a friend over the reasons why the West has such a big problem with the Islamic world. He maintained that our problems are all due to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Western militaries being on Muslim lands committing injustices. While I whole heartedly agree that the Israelis have committed human rights violations in their treatment of the Palestinians, and that the U.S. military's blunders in the Middle East, (usually backed by the needs of U.S multinational corporations in their insatiable thirst for profit), have no doubt contributed to the hatred by some in the Islamic world toward the West. But what I do not agree on, is this notion that these are the sole reasons why we have terrible relations with so many in the Islamic world.

Rather, I argue that the primary reason the West has this "beef" with radicalized Islam, is due to our mutually incompatible cultures. Traditional Islam is so radically different in terms of values when compared to the moral progression and modernity of the West. It is, I argue, the forces of cultural modernity more than anything else, that are at the root of many of our problems with Islam. Even if the Israeli/Palestinian conflict did not exist, and even if the U.S. was not on any "Muslim lands", we would still have conflict, because our cultures are so different.

My friend steadfastly argued that it is all politics at the root of our problems and that religion is not at all a part of it, or at the very least it plays a minor role. He argued that he just cannot imagine, someone killing in the name of their religion. I tried to point out to him, with little success, that people throughout history, have killed in the name of their religion, and that killing in the name of religion is historically something quite common. But he could not believe that when a Muslim blows himself up, that it could be in the name of religion, but is always motivated by personal or political conflict.

I offered several examples that show Muslims can be more than willing to kill in the name of their religion. First, Muslims kill each other all the time. Sunnis and Shites have been killing each other off and on for 1,400 years. These killings have nothing to do with Israel or Westerners being on Muslim soil. Second, Muslims have been on the offensive conquering lands in the name of spreading Islam. They took the whole of the Iberian peninsula beginning in the year 711, and the Ottomans marched their way up to siege upon the city Vienna in Central Europe in 1529 and in 1683 (the latter of which was retaliated on September the 11th). This wasn't over Israel or Westerners on Muslim land, indeed this was before the Western imperial powers had colonized the Middle East and North Africa. But my friend argued that the Muslims were motivated by power, not by religion. Well it is certainly true that empires have economic aspirations for expanding and conquering. The funny thing is, Islam even has a chapter detailing the spoils of war in the Qur'an (Sura Al-Anfal) for those victorious Muslims who fight for its cause. Since Muslims put so much emphasis on the Hereafter, Earthly rewards will always pale in comparison to those awarded by god. And no action is deemed more respectable in honor than dying in the name of Islam. For it is this sacrifice, that the pious Muslim can expect his 72 virgins. Since dying in the name of Islam is its highest honor, we can infer that Muslim sieges onto what was previously non Muslim lands, were very likely motivated primarily by a spread of the faith. But I am not denying that there could have been other reasons too.

I went on arguing further that the recent Danish controversy over the cartoon depictions of Islam's prophet Mohammad, incited riots all over the Islamic world and in Europe resulting in over 100 reported deaths, and setting fire to Danish embassies in several countries. This was a perfect example of how our mutually incompatible cultures will inevitably result in conflict. In the West, we hold freedom of speech dear to our hearts. Under Islam, there is no real freedom of speech. (Muslims in Europe tend to point out the fact that holocaust denial is a crime in many countries, and rightfully so. I believe both should be fair game for public criticism). I didn't know at the time of our debate, but Denmark has been very generous to the Palestinian liberation cause, and is not a major player in occupying Muslim lands. So it cannot have been over Israel, or the war in Iraq that caused this. What caused this is a result of a fanatical religion on the people who believe it. He countered that this was an isolated incident. But it is pretty obvious that the same thing happened when Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, when the U.S. and U.K. were arming and defending Muslims against Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

I argue that this violence from radical Islam is due to scriptures in the Qur'an justifying violence against non-believers. This was at the root of our debate. He argued that Islam is essentially a religion of peace that has been perverted by radicals and misused to justify violence. I mentioned by disdain for the typical liberal attitudes sympathetic to Islam, even for those generally against religion. But at the heart of our debate is the question over Islam and its doctrines: Does Islam justify violence towards non-believers.

I read to him my pamphlet The Infidel's Guide to the Islam where I quoted the verses I cite that justify violence. He said that they are all taken out of context, and meant to be grounds for retaliation against enemies in times of war when Muslims are persecuted. He then quoted me a verse from the Qur'an about how Muslims should treat non-believers. Surah 109:6 says "To you be your way, and to me mine." In other words, for those non-believers who will not be converted, after being shown the "truth" about Islam, you can do your thing, and I can do mine. Have I been grossly mistaken on the nature of Islam? Is it really a religion of peace after all? He claims that my quotes from the Qur'an were taken out of context. Well let's look at what I quoted. Surah 9:29 "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day." Now Surah 9 in the Qur'an is a particularly violent one. It is suppose to be one of the last of the Surahs revealed by Mohammad. It centers around the Muslim's treatment of pagans who apparently did not meet their obligations with the Muslims and so the Muslims give them 4 months to repent and essentially convert to Islam. At the end of the 4 month grace period, war seems inevitable and so this Surah deals largely with the rules of engagement towards pagans in such contexts. Now we know the Muslims were persecuted in Mecca early on and fled to Medina where they sought and found refuge. To say that I am taking Qur'anic verses out of context, would be to say that the verses in Surah 9, are only suppose to be in self defense against those who are not willing to repent. Muslims were on the offensive in military conquests in the years immediately following Mohammad's death and using Qur'anic verses to justify their actions, though many where converted peacefully.

So in Surah 9, the pagans who have not aided others against the Muslims, and who have an alliance with the Muslims, they are expected to be dealt justly by Muslims if they repent. But after the 4 month grace period, if they do not repent, then Muslims are ordered to "fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers, and pay Zakah [charity], then open the way for them." So there is grace given to those pagans who repent and convert, and death given to those who don't. What is important here is to establish whether or not this verse is for Muslims on the offense or defense. It is one thing to kill in defense, but another to kill in offense. According to, this "verse of the sword" as it is known, is suppose to take place after a peace treaty with the Quraysh tribe in Mecca was violated when one of their allied tribes attacked one of the allied tribes of the Muslims, and that this verse if suppose to be relevant only to that place and time. This is what we are told by many Muslims scholars who try to paint Islam in a peaceful light. There are simply just too many verses in the Qur'an the justify the killing on disbelievers to say that it is all within the context of self defense. There is also the belief that the latter Surahs, abrogate, or rescind the previous verses that they contradict.

It seems to be that one can take from the Qur'an what they want out of it. If you want to justify violence, you will find it, if you seek peace, you will find it. I say that it is verses like these in the Qur'an, justifying the killing of, and subjugation of non-believers, along with the 7th century era morality that is simply not compatible with modernity, that is the main reason why we in the West have, and will continue to have in the future, quite a big problem with Islam.

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