A conservative columnist calls on the US to wipe ISIS out and then nuke Mecca to prove that “our God” is powerful and vengeful than their “puny diety.” Hmmm, sounds like the author is compensating for something puny.
Across the country people fall for a caricature of Islam, not understanding it or its teachings, instead claiming the Koran is a “terrorist manual” and that Islam is un-American.
Ignorance on steroids! As an educator, that is depressing. When 9-11 occurred I knew I had to educate myself thoroughly on Islam. What does the Koran teach? What is the history of the Muslim world? Can the rise of extremist groups be explained.
What I learned was comforting. The Koran is clear – you cannot force another person to convert, jihad is only to defend the ummah (the community of believers) and innocents who do not want to fight should not be harmed — in fact, they should be protected. Christians and Jews are to be treated with respect as the worship the same God, even if they are (in the Muslim view) wrong in their theology. They can live in a Muslim community if they pay an extra tax – and for much of history they could live very well! That tolerance was extended to Buddhists and Zoroastrians as well (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians have special representation in the Iranian parliament).
Muhammad’s biggest break from traditional Arab culture was his efforts to promote better treatment of women and the poor. The Koran forbade treating women as property (as had been the practice in the Arab world), and nowhere are women told to be covered. Veiling was not something women did in Muhammad’s life time. In fact, his wife Kadija was a successful business woman, 15 years older than he was.
She married him when she was 40. It was easy to see why she had been unmarried. She was attractive and wealthy, but once married her husband could claim all her property as his, and then say “I divorce you” and leave her with nothing. She realized Muhammad was a man of principle she could trust. Muhammad was faithful to her until her death, then married only for political purposes after that.
To be sure, the Koran contains battle instructions to protect the Ummah from the Quarysh, the Meccan tribe dedicated to wiping out a man whose movement was dangerous to their established wealth and power. It contains verses before battle saying that they should “kill the polytheists” and lie if captured. These are clearly battle instructions and not general moral principles, but Islamophobes and extremists grab on to those and try to turn Islam into something that contradicts the core teachings of the Koran and Muhammad.
Some point out, correctly, that political leaders in the Arab world used Islam to justify conquest and expansion. Sure – just as Christians justified the crusades, the inquisition, and conquest and colonization of most of the planet. Religions almost always get abused by political leaders who want to claim God is on their side.
So why are these threats emerging from the Muslim, and especially the Arab Muslim world?
Before the Ottomans, Islamic rationalism was a dominant philosophy/theology, one reason Europe was so backwards and barbaric when compared to the Islamic lands of northern Africa and Spain. Rationalism stressed the need to interpret the Koran with the times, using human reason (as well as Aristotelian logic) and rejecting a claim that the Koran was “part of God.” This is a progressive, tolerant theology, far beyond what Christian Europe embraced.
Between 1200 and 1600 the roles reversed. The Ottomans embraced the most conservative form of Islam — one that wanted society to remain as it was during Muhammad’s time, rejecting rationalism — in exchange for support from the conservative clerics. The rationalists were executed. Yet Islamic rationalist philosophy infiltrated Europe, along with their science and knowledge. Thanks in part to that Muslim influence, the Christian world embraced reason alongside faith, and the path towards modernism began. Without Islam the West might never have gone through the enlightenment.
Alas, while the West was modernizing slowly, the Arab world was stuck. We went through radical change gradually. When the US formed we had slaves and women couldn’t vote. Indeed, the fight to end slavery, give rights to women, give workers the right to vote, and protect liberty was a long hard struggle against elements wanting to defend the old order. The West also engaged in tremendous violence – Nazism, communism, the Holocaust, colonialism, wiping out of native tribes in the Americas, etc.
ISIS emerges out of a fear that the old conservative Arab set of traditions and customs is challenged by this secular, “Godless,” materialist West. It is a reaction to the last 500 years of western progress being forced upon them within a generation.
Yet while that can explain why some Arabs might fear and oppose the West, most nonetheless correctly see violence and terror as un-Islamic and wrong. A cult like ISIS preys precisely on young people who aren’t religiously motivated, but lack meaning in their life. Petty criminals, drifters, or even wealthy youth who feel alienated and look for something exciting. In that the appeal is like that of fighting the Communists in Afghanistan, which seduced and radicalized Osama Bin Laden.
To defeat a cult like ISIS the short term goal must be to destroy their “state” – they need to be defeated on the ground in the Mideast. This must be Muslim led, but the US, NATO, Russia and other state can contribute. ISIS is weaker than many realize; a concerted effort will wipe them out. At the same time we must avoid the knee jerk fear temptation to demonize or mistreat Muslims. Not only would that be morally wrong, but it also helps ISIS create conditions of alienation. They want us to hate Muslims, that makes their job easier.
The long term goals has to be to spread democracy and markets to the Mideast. In that the Bush Administration had the right idea, but they thought they could use war to force the change. That didn’t work. The Arab spring started a necessary transition away from authoritarianism in favor of markets and democracy. We can’t force change but we can support the people working for human rights and freedom. We can avoid violence and warfare which emboldens evil.
Helping the Mideast modernize is a more difficult project but until real change comes terrorists and cultists will be able to find raw material for their vile deeds. It’s in our interest to stop that. And if this is truly a multinational effort of support rather than colonization or force, it can succeed.