Fwd: Questions about Islam and violence

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Wed Mar 06 2002 - 22:07:57 GMT

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    Questions about Islam and violence

    By Scot Lehigh, 3/6/2002

    AS LITTLE USE as I have for Pat Robertson, I think critics have been too
    quick to dismiss, categorically and censoriously, concerns about Islam
    and violence. The issue bears closer examination than just the polite
    assertion that Islam is peaceful or the diplomatic assuagement that the
    United States has no quarrel with the faith.

    As practiced by millions of Muslims, Islam may well be as pacific as any
    other religion. And yet, maintaining the same about all iterations of
    Islam stumbles over a set of inconvenient facts: The radical mullahs
    exhorting their followers to jihad. The spiritual leaders issuing violent
    fatwas. The organized terrorists united and motivated by Islamic
    identity. The suicide bombers certain their acts of murderous martyrdom
    are a ticket to sensual delights in the afterlife. The state-sanctioned
    religious schools indoctrinating Muslim youth in baleful beliefs. And the
    appalling punishments dictated by criminal codes based on Islamic law.

    Surveying all that, it's hard not to conclude that while other religions
    still occasionally lend themselves to bloodshed, Islam seems particularly
    prone to violent interpretations.

    More systematic evidence also points to militant proclivities. In ''The
    Clash of Civilizations,'' Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington
    writes: ''Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have
    problems living peaceably with their neighbors.'' The author cites
    research showing that Muslims were involved in 26 of 50 ethnopolitical
    conflicts in 1993-94, that two-thirds of the intercivilizational
    conflicts in 1993 included Muslims as one party, and that Muslim states
    resorted to violence in 53.5 percent of the 142 crises in which they were
    involved between 1928 and 1979.

    Why? Among Huntington's possible answers: Born in the conquests of
    Muhammad, Islam has few prohibitions on violence; as an absolutist faith
    that mingles religion and politics, Islam is less amenable to the easier
    co-existence of other creeds; without a nation recognized as the
    religion's leader, the faith lacks a behavior-setting role model; and
    Islam's youth boom, combined with economically stagnant societies, has
    left a legacy of alienation that aids and abets fundamentalism.

    Perhaps equally salient is Islam's world view. As Bernard Lewis, the
    former Princeton professor and eminent scholar of Islam, notes in ''The
    Multiple Identities of the Middle East,'' Islam divides the world into
    the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of War (Dar al-harb).
    Lewis writes: ''The outside world, which has not yet been subjugated, is
    called the ''House of War,'' and strictly speaking a perpetual state of
    jihad, or holy war, is imposed by the law.''

    Well, perhaps, come the objections, but many modern Muslims don't take
    such a strict view. Besides, in the history and theology of other
    religions, one can find similar adjurations to violence.

    True enough. Certainly the history of Christianity runs red with blood;
    that, philosopher Bertrand Russell reminded us in his book of the same
    name, was one of the reasons ''Why I Am Not a Christian.'' But
    Christianity has mostly evolved beyond that point; not only are church
    and state divided, but modern Christians take their faith a la carte,
    treating it more as spiritual metaphor than literal truth.

    Where Martin Luther could once believe he battled regularly with the
    devil, flinging feces to fend him off, and where Lady Jane Grey could go
    to her execution so certain that she would ascend immediately to heaven
    that one of her last concerns was that the ax would leave her hair in
    disarray for her arrival, few of us any longer harbor such a literal
    interpretation of our theologies. And those who do must operate in a
    culture that roundly rejects and regularly censors fundamentalism that
    promotes violence.

    That understanding of religion as a different, and relative, realm - as
    comfort and hope, but not justification for absolutism - marks the
    crucial paradigmatic shift that renders a faith's potentially troublesome
    doctrines innocuous. Yet in large swaths of the Islamic world, it's the
    literal word that remains ascendant. That's why helping to nudge Islamic
    societies along that curve that leads from a fundamental to a more
    relative understanding of religion should be a particular concern for
    people of all faiths.

    Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com

    This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 3/6/2002. Copyright
    2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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