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True Islam has been Distorted

John Esposito

Founding director, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

“On Faith” panelist John L. Esposito is professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. He also is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. more »

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While the atrocities and acts of terrorism committed by violent extremists have connected Islam with terrorism, the Islamic tradition places limits on the use of violence and rejects terrorism, hijackings, and hostage taking. As with other faiths, mainstream and normative doctrines and laws are ignored, distorted, or hijacked and misinterpreted by a radical fringe. Islamic law, drawing on the Quran, sets out clear guidelines for the conduct of war and rejects acts of terrorism.

Islam, like all world religions, neither supports nor requires illegitimate violence. The Quran does not advocate or condone terrorism. The God of the Quran is consistently portrayed as a God of mercy and compassion as well as a just judge. 113 of 114 chapters start with a reference to God's mercy and compassion; throughout the Quran in many contexts, Muslims are reminded to be merciful and just. However, Islam does permit, indeed at times requires, Muslims to defend themselves and their families, religion, and community from aggression.

Like all scriptures, Islamic sacred texts must be read within the social and political contexts in which they were revealed. It is not surprising that the Quran, like the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament, has verses that address fighting and the conduct of war. The world in which the Islamic community emerged was a rough neighborhood. Arabia and the city of Mecca, in which Muhammad lived and received God’s revelation, were beset by tribal raids and cycles of vengeance and vendetta. The broader Near East, in which Arabia was located, was itself divided between two warring superpowers, the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and the Sasanian (Persian) empires.

However, Quranic verses also underscore that peace, not violence and warfare, is the norm. Permission to fight the enemy is balanced by a strong mandate for making peace: “If your enemy inclines toward peace, then you too should seek peace and put your trust in God” (8:61) and “Had Allah wished, He would have made them dominate you, and so if they leave you alone and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah allows you no way against them” (4:90). From the earliest times, it was forbidden in Islam to kill noncombatants as well as women and children and monks and rabbis, who were given the promise of immunity unless they took part in the fighting.

But what of those verses, sometimes referred to as the “sword verses,” that call for killing unbelievers, such as, “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush” (9:5)? This is one of a number of Quranic verses that are cited by critics to demonstrate the inherently violent nature of Islam and its scripture. These same verses have also been selectively used (or abused) by religious extremists to develop a theology of hate and intolerance and to legitimate unconditional warfare against unbelievers.

During the period of expansion and conquest, many of the ulama (religious scholars) enjoyed royal patronage and provided a rationale for caliphs to pursue their imperial dreams and extend the boundaries of their empires. They said that the “sword verses” abrogated or overrode the earlier Quranic verses that limited jihad to defensive war: In fact, however, the full intent of “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them” is missed or distorted when quoted in isolation. For it is followed and qualified by: “But if they repent and fulfill their devotional obligations and pay the zakat [the charitable tax on Muslims], then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind”(9:5). The same is true of another often quoted verse: “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor hold the religion of truth [even if they are] of the People of the Book,” which is often cited without the line that follows, “Until they pay the tax with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).

Throughout history, the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been used and abused, interpreted and misinterpreted, to justify resistance and liberation struggles, extremism and terrorism, holy and unholy wars. Terrorists like Osama bin Laden and others go beyond classical Islam’s criteria for a just jihad and recognize no limits but their own, employing any weapons or means. They reject Islamic law’s regulations regarding the goals and legitimate means for a valid jihad: that violence must be proportional, only the necessary amount of force should be used to repel the enemy; that innocent civilians should not be targeted; and that jihad must be declared by the ruler or head of state.

Today, individuals and groups, religious and lay, seize the right to declare and legitimate unholy wars of terrorism in the name of Islam.

The relationship of Islam to violence and terrorism, like the primary causes of global terrorism, is often obscured by the religious language and symbolism used by extremists. Too often, policymakers and experts opt for either political economy or for religion as an explanation for violence and terror. Both are important factors but to varying degrees in diverse political and social contexts. Contexts (political and socioeconomic) not religious texts are often the primary causes or drivers. In most cases, political and economic grievances are primary causes or catalysts and religion becomes a means to legitimate the cause and mobilize popular support. As witnessed in Palestine, post Saddam Iraq, Kashmir, or the global strategy of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the goal is often primarily nationalist, although they may have additional or related religious goals, to end the occupation of lands, force “foreign” military forces from what these movements regard as their homeland.

Religion does provide a powerful source of authority, meaning and legitimacy. Religiously motivated or legitimated violence and terror adds the dimensions of divine or absolute authority (buttressing the authority of terrorist leaders), religious symbolism, moral justification, motivation and obligation, certitude, and heavenly reward that enhance recruitment and a willingness to fight and die in a “sacred struggle.” Thus even more secular movements have appealed to and used religion.

The power of religious symbolism could be seen when Yasser Arafat, leader of a secular nationalist movement (PLO and then PNA), used the terms jihad and shahid (martyr) to describe his situation when he was under siege in Ramallah. The Palestinian militia (not just the Islamist Hamas) appropriated religious symbolism, choosing to call itself, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and drawing on the symbols of jihad and martyrdom. Moreover, while religious and non-religious organizations and movements (whether al-Qaeda or the Marxist Tamil Tigers) share a common strategy, those that are Muslim often identify their goal as Islamic, to create an Islamic government, a caliphate or simply a more Islamically-oriented state and society.

Though political and socioeconomic factors remain primary, religion does provide a powerful source of authority. Religiously motivated or legitimated violence and terror adds the dimensions of divine or absolute authority (buttressing the authority of terrorist leaders), moral justification, motivation and obligation, and heavenly reward that enhance recruitment and a willingness to fight and die in a sacred struggle. Thus, militants both use and “hijack” religion to legitimate their policies and actions.

Religious leaders and intellectuals can play an important role in the ideological war. Wahhabi Islam like the militant (as distinguished from mainstream) Christian Right of a Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell must be distinguished from violent forms of the Christian Right and of Wahhabi Islam with their theologies of hate. The former, follow exclusivist, non-pluralistic theologies vis a vis other faiths as well as alternative theological interpretations or orientations within their own faith tradition, but do not advocate violence and terror. However, their theological worldviews can be appropriated by militants to justify blowing up abortion clinics or government buildings, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, assassinating “the enemies of God,” and Muslim extremists in Israel/Palestine and Iraq.

Christians and Muslims share a common task of addressing exclusivist theologies which are anti-pluralistic and weak on tolerance for they contribute to beliefs, attitudes and values which feed religious extremism and terrorism.

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Posted by John Esposito on April 19, 2007 10:13 AM


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