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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
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 email@example.com
This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 3/6/2002. © Copyright
2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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