Violence and Islam
6 December 2002
The Washington Post
Is Islam an inherently violent religion? A debate on this subject has received much attention in the United States. The question is absurd. It is like asking whether Christianity is a religion of peace. Well, there is Francis of Assisi. And there is the Thirty Years' War. Which do you choose?
Religions are interpreted by the people of their time and thus change over time. Scripture can be invoked to support almost any position. Islam has its periods of violence and its periods of tolerance. The Ottomans gave refuge to the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492. Today the Arab world is the purveyor of the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda since Nazi Germany. (Egyptian state television is currently showing a 41-part television series based on the notorious czarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.")
Which stands for the real Islam? The question is not just unanswerable, it is irrelevant. The real issue is not the essence of an abstraction -- who can say what is the real Christianity or the real Judaism? -- but the actions of actual Muslims in the world today. And there is no denying the fact, stated most boldly by Samuel Huntington, author of "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," that "Islam has bloody borders."
From Nigeria to Sudan to Pakistan to Indonesia to the Philippines, some of the worst, most hate-driven violence in the world today is perpetrated by Muslims and in the name of Islam.
Take the most recent example, the Miss World riots in northern Nigeria. Muslim mobs respond to an offensive newspaper article by burning down the newspaper's offices, massacring innocent Christians and issuing a fatwa on the article's author.
In Sudan, the Arab government in Khartoum has for decades been conducting a genocidal campaign against the Christian and animist blacks in the south -- a campaign that includes mass starvation, the bombing of hospitals and slavery.
In Pakistan, Muslim extremists have attacked Christian churches, killing every parishioner they could. Just last month in Lebanon, an evangelical Christian nurse, who had devoted her life to caring for the sick, was shot three times through the head, presumably for "proselytizing."
The Bali disco bombers have confessed to a series of previous church bombings. In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf specialize in kidnappings and beheadings of hostages in their terrorist campaign against the predominantly Catholic central government.
On the northern tier of the Muslim world, even more blood flows -- in Pakistani-Kashmiri terrorism against Hindu India, Chechen terrorism in Russian-Orthodox Moscow and Palestinian terrorism against the Jews. (The Albanian Muslim campaign against Orthodox Macedonia is now on hold.) And then of course there was Sept. 11, 2001 -- Islamic terrorism reaching far beyond its borders to strike at the heart of the satanic "Crusaders."
This says nothing about inherent violence; most Muslims are obviously peaceful people living within the rules of civilized behavior. But the actual violence, bloodletting against nearly every non-Muslim civilization from Hindu to African animist, demands attention.
Underlying most of the individual grievances is a sense that Islam has lost its rightful place of dominance, the place it enjoyed half a millennium ago. Al Qaeda deputy Ayman Zawahiri's allusions to the loss of Andalusia (medieval Spain) reinforce Osama bin Laden's promise of revenge and redemption.
This feeling of a civilization in decline -- and the adoption of terror and intimidation as the road to restoration -- is echoed in a recent United Nations report that spoke frankly of the abject Arab failure to modernize. It is one thing for the Arabs to have fallen behind the West. But to fall behind South Korea -- also colonized, once poor and lacking any of the Muslim world's fantastic oil wealth -- is sheer humiliation.
Abdurrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia and leader of perhaps the largest Muslim society in the world, traces Islamic radicalism not just to a failure of self-respect and self-identity -- deep feelings of inadequacy and loss -- but also to an enormous failure of moderate Muslim leadership. The murderers speak in the name of Islam, and the peaceful majority cannot find the courage to challenge them.
"The Islamic world today is being held prisoner," writes Salman Rushdie, "not by Western but by Islamic captors, who are fighting to keep closed a world that a badly outnumbered few are trying to open." And "the majority remains silent."
Until they speak, the borders of Islam will remain bloody.