Over the years we have seen an explosion of violence in the Muslim world. Some of the violence surrounds issues that are essential for a democratic and free society. For instance, we have seen embassies in Europe burned, threats in the form of fatwas (or death sentence) issued, pushing people into hiding for fear of their lives. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example – a Somali-born activist, writer, politician and author of the book Infidel, remains under police protection in the United States because of the part she played in a short film produced by Theo Van Gogh, criticizing the suppression of women in Islam. Theo Van Gogh himself was assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Moroccan Islamist, as a result. We cannot forget the novelist and essayist Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie, against whom a fatwa was issued by Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in February 1989, calling for his assassination because of his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie too remains under constant police protection.
It is the beginning of 2015, and here we go again: Islamic violence on display. Storming the Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper, are two armed Islamic terrorists, terrorized and killed 11 people, wounding 11 more. The violence these “religious sociopaths,” to use Sam Harris’ term, was warranted because Charlie Hebdo published cartoons that depicted the Islamic “prophet’ Muhammad. The world erupted in pandemonium over the terrorists’ violent acts. But there has been an intense backlash against the cartoonists for publishing the cartoons. There is even the accusation that the cartoonists were reasonable for calling upon themselves this despicable violence. The support for this argument appears to stem from a place that claims religious figures should not be made fun of because of how much they mean to the adherents of the faith. This view, of course, is worthy of consideration, and is a debate that has been taking place as we seek to protect both freedom of expression and freedom of religious. Other line of debate surrounds the issue of religion and whether it plays an informing role in violence. I believe this to be the case, and I will attempt to demonstrate that the Islamic religion is an informing factor in the violence being committed in its name.
In the book Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, author and professor of Religious Studies, Hector Avalos, sought to demonstrate how religion is indeed an influencing factor in violence, if not inherently prone to incite violence. But before one can make such connections, a definition of violence, Avalos informs us, is warranted. “Our definition,” Avalos writes, “is somatocentric insofar as it values the physical human body and regards any sort of “soul” or “spirit” as nonexistent” (Avalos, Hector; 2005: p. 19). In other words, Avalos’ definition is concerned with the human body and the pain inflected upon it. Thus, Avalos defines violence as “the act of modifying and/or inflecting pain upon the human body in order to express or impose power differentials.” This definition then means that violence can be not only inflicted by outside influences, but it can also be self-inflecting, in the case of martyrdom, for example.
Using Hector Avalos’ definition of violence as my beginning point, it is not implausible an idea to conclude that religion has and continues to be a significant force in informing a range of violence: from inflecting pain by cutting of the foreskin of infants to military conquest of nations. To be clear, religion does not inform all forms of violence. The violence I am referring to is the violence where religion is either the subject or the object of the violent act. This type of valance is simply referred to as Religious Violence. The idea of Religious Violence, however, comes not without significant push back. There are those who believe that religion has no connection whatsoever to violence. Those in this camp argue that what we are referring to as “Religious Violence,” are actors using religion to justify their violent acts, which are informed by very different motives.
Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris might be the most visible intellectual in charging religion as a major factor in informing violence. Sam Harris has been very vocal in highlighting his belief that the religion of Islam is a significant force in informing the violent acts of Islamic extremists that has been destroying the Middle East today. This religiously informed violence, he also argues, has a very chilling effect on the freedom of speech. For these sentiments he has been vilified. Some may say Sam Harris and those who share this analysis are suffering from Islamophobia. That is, Sam Harris and the people who subscribe to Harris’ type of analysis are displaying hatred towards, prejudice against or are fearful of the Islamic religion. There has been a fear of the Islam religion in the United States, for example, and this fear has been heightened especially after the September 11, 2001 terrorists attack against the United States. But is this charge of Islamophobia against Sam Harris and others fair-minded? Do they have a point in their criticism? If they don’t, does this then mean that anyone who criticizes Islam is islamophobic?
People like Karen Armstrong points to past history to demonstrate why religion wrongly got caught up in violence. She argued that since religion was being imbued with the state, violence carried out by the state ends up appearing to be religious violence. But, is this the case? There appears to be some insincerity in this assertion. According to Armstrong “Every state ideology before modern period was essentially religious.” “Trying to extract religions from political life,” she continues, “would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.”(Salon). If Karen Armstrong is correct, then I think it is self-delusion to believe that religion had no influencing fact on the state actions. It is true that politics, socioeconomic and other nonreligious factors can be and has been informing factors in most wars, including the Islamic extremists’ violence today, but the attempt to separate the state and the religion and blame nonreligious factors as the sole motivator for violence is disingenuous. If, as Karen Armstrong points out, politics and religion was so joined that it was almost impossible to separate the two, religion then was politics and politics, religion. It appears that those who are attempting to absolve religion of its ability to influence violence, through both state and individual actors, must make a difference between political religion and personal religion. As it is sometimes described, religion is simply a version of human tribalism.
The narrative concerning Islamic violence tells us that the Islamic extremists have hijacked the religion of peace. In other words, the narrative is saying that these extremists, despite claiming to be followers of Islam, are not. They are, as we discussed above, using the religion to justify their violence. Thus, we are told by media pundits, we must take back Islam. But is there any credence with such a claim? Are Islamic extremists not Muslim? We, of course, cannot get into the heads of the Jihadists. However, there seems to be two platforms upon which these claims are made. First, it is predicated upon the belief that Islam is a religion void of the ability to influence violence. In other words, the religion of Islam is a “peaceful religion.” Secondly, it is based upon a line of reasoning that seeks to make certain types of Islamic belief preferable.
Since it is true that religion does inform violence, the second point is of interest. Claiming that Islamic extremists are not Muslims is an attempt to discredit their interpretation and use of Islam. It seems weird that this line of argument is taken, since the supporters of religion always argue that there are many interpretations of religion, and in a multicultural world, all interpretations should be equally valid. Yet, we pick and choose. I agree that we should not accept Islamic extremists’ interpretations of Islam. But to say that they are not Muslim is false. They may not be the type of Muslims we want, but they are indeed Muslim. Again, by taking this view, we are not only privileging one interpretation of Islam over another. But most importantly, we are also absolving Islam from the part it plays in influencing the actions of these religious extremists.
Those who subscribe to this interpretation of the issue believe that Islam has never asked its followers to go out and commit violence against other people. Those who, on the other hand, believe that it does, we are told, have a twisted interpretation of Islam. But is this the case? Is the Qur’anic command where it asked Muslims to “kill nonbelievers,” in Surah 2: 191 – 193, a twisted claim? Is Qur’an 9:5, where it commands the believers to “kill pagans [some say infidels, others say polytheists] wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush,” a twisted claim? Qur’an 9:5 is known as “the verse of the sword,” and is the verse mostly uses to justify Islamic extremists’ violence. The issue, of course, is context. So, allowed me to present Qur’an 9:5 within Islamic context.
According to moderate Islamic scholars, Qur’an 9:5 is referring to a truce made by Muhammad with the pagans of his time. In the quote, they argue, Muhammad is giving the pagans a total of “four months,” before he made war on them if they did not stop fighting. Indeed, Qur’an 9:5 begins with the words “and when the sacred months have passed.” But this interpretation begs more questions. Did Qur’an 9:5 predate the conflict with the pagans, or was it written during the conflict itself? In other words, was the quote already in the Qur’an when Muhammad received the Qur’an, or was the quote being written as the events unfold? If one is to accept the narrative that the Qur’an was written by Allah and then handed down to Muhammad prior to the religion Islam, then one must accept that Muhammad first received the Qur’an and then went out to spread his new faith. In this context, Muhammad was acting out what Allah had told him to do. In other words, the incident was written before it actually happened. Muhammad was ensuring that it did come to pass.
The fact is simple. The Qur’an commands it adherents to “fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah Heareth and knoweth all things,” Sura 2: 244.
Here are some quotes from the Hadith, the book which gives the command of Muhammad:
Allah’s Apostle said, “The hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. “O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.” Bukhari 52: 177
“Killing unbelievers is a small matter to us.” Tabari 9:69
“Fight everyone in the way of Allah and kill those who disbelieve in Allah.” Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 992
Indeed, one may not want to accept these commands as literal, but the facts are facts. These commands are in the Qur’an and the Hadith. The problem is this, there are those who will take these commands literally and act upon them.
I agree that we should not legitimize the extremists’ version of Islam. However, as the West sought to “rescue” Islam from the extremists, the West has left the Islamic people behind. What do I mean by this? What I am talking about can be understand within the Western’s narrative of terrorism. First, however, we must ask ourselves this question: what is terrorism? Answering this question is important to the point I am making. There is no official definition of terrorism. The term is extremely pliable, and criminal groups are often labeled as such depending upon who is creating and controlling the narrative. For example, the many groups fighting in Syria are labeled as terrorists groups. Yet, the labeling of the Syrian group the United States choose to fund, trained and armed to fight against the Syrian government (whom the U.S degenerate as their enemy) change from terrorist to moderate rebels. No longer is this group a terrorist group. Despite this ambiguity surrounding the term, the West seems very sure as to who the terrorists are, and their narrative is constantly reinforced in the media on a daily bases.
The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objective.” If one takes a closer look at this definition, one can point to a number of white Americans whose’ violent actions fit within this model. Yet, whenever a white westerner acts in ways that fits this FBI definition of terrorism, he or she is defined as something else. We are told the individual is many things, but never a terrorist. He or she is a mentally deranged individual; a lone wolf; a criminal fed-up with life, etc. There was outrage in the U.S media complex when Anders Behring Breivik, a young man from Norway, who defined himself as a cultural Christian, terrorized the public, killing 60 people, and was defined as a “Christian terrorist.” If an individual who defines himself or herself as Muslim, become a “Muslim terrorist” if he or she went out and committed atrocious crimes, why is a Christian individual doing the same thing not defined as a “Christian terrorist”? The answer, I believe, is simple: the Western world has made Muslim people [dark-skinned people in general] the face of terrorism. There are Christians who targets and firebomb abortion clinics, killing doctors and injuring innocent people because of their faith. In 1988, Christians torched a Paris theater for showing the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which seeks to show the human side of Jesus, injuring thirteen people, four seriously. These people were not described as Christian terrorists. No: they were just misguided Fundamentalists believers.
Terrorism acts are not limited to just one culture and one religion. Not only do we have “Islamic terrorists,” there are the “Christian terrorists,” and the “Buddhist terrorists” too: Extremist Buddhist Monks Target Muslims and other religious minorities. In an investigation done by the FBI, 94 percent of terror attacks committed on American soil are committed by non-Muslim. It is clear from the evidence terrorism cuts across all cultures, religion, race and sex.
So, though I agree with the narrative that we must not legitimize the interpretation and use of Islam by the Islamic extremists, in doing so, however, we should not overlook the very real informing power religion has on the actions of its adherents; be it violent or otherwise. It is equally true that the Christian faith has and continues to be an informing source in the actions of many Christians who commit violence, as do Islam has on informing the actions of “Islamic terrorists” or Buddhism on the violence committed by Buddhists. Sam Harris writes that “the idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion hijacked by Islamic extremists” is a dangerous fantasy.” (Sam Haris). I agree. Ignoring to highlight Islam as an informing source in the violence committed by Islamic extremists is doing us no good. Ignoring the truth will not make things better.