On September 15, 2001 The Guardian published “Religion’s Misguided Missiles”,
a comment by Richard Dawkins that sought to explain the motivations behind what
had happened four days before. Dawkins’ conclusion is summed up in two memorable
sentences: “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind,
is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are
Most of the people closest to me adhere to a religion of “the Abrahamic kind”,
and I can’t say I agree with Dawkins’ claim that their lives have been “devalued”
by their faith or by their faiths’ proposition that there is life after death
– “dangerous nonsense” according to Dawkins, as evidenced in the dangerous nonsense
of September 11. Personally, I am as disposed to listen to a rabbi, imam, priest,
or poet telling me that death is not the end as I am to a scientist telling me
that it is. “All goes onward and outward,” Whitman wrote. “Nothing collapses,
and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” The notion does
not devalue my life.
Not that I blame Dawkins for keeping a wary and skeptical eye on religion.
As Mark Twain observed, man is “the only animal that has the True Religion – several
of them… the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat
if his theology isn’t straight.” Nevertheless, I think it is misguided to blame
religion so unreservedly for atrocities of the 9/11 order. Should we write off
the Christian faith because in 1864 an elder of the Methodist church in Denver
decided it was his Christian duty to exterminate Indians, and led a band that
murdered 200 people, most of them women and children? Should we write it off because
Nat Turner, a devoutly religious slave, was directed by Christ in a vision to
"slay your enemies with their own weapons,” and in 1831 led a band that hacked
57 people to death, most of them women and children? It seems ludicrous to suppose
that the atrocities of people like Chivington or Turner were inevitably and exclusively
products of their religion.
If we hesitate to blame Christianity for the Sand Creek Massacre or Nat Turner’s
Rebellion, then we might hesitate to lay the blame for the perversions of September
11 on Islam. Yet, as Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent op/ed piece in the New York
Times points out, Americans seem increasingly fond of ascribing blame to Islam
and equating it with a canon of presumed defects. Islam is ____. The culture of
bigots congregated in the lower bowel of the internet is happy to fill in the
blank. But the bigots can be found in churches and political forums and academia
as well. Kristof’s article notes that Reverend Franklin Graham has declared Islam
to be “a very evil and wicked religion,” thus redirecting the venom his father
(Reverend Billy) spat at the Jews. It seems that Islam has become Today’s Special
on the menu of intolerance and hate.
Of course, defects exist in the Islamic world, (a statement no more astounding,
upon reflection, than that houseflies exist there). There is anti-Jewish anti-Semitism,
but we would do well to consider that the widespread contempt in Islam for the
likes of Ariel Sharon may have more to do with the man’s political style than
with anti-Semitism. Otherwise, what should we call the widespread respect for
Yitzhak Rabin that existed in the Muslim world – “pro-Semitism”? We would do well
to recall that while Christian Spain was expelling its Muslims it was also expelling
its Jews, and that both groups took refuge in Islamic North Africa. The most appalling
eruptions of anti-Semitism in history have occurred in Christian Europe. Yes,
Al Qaida’s anti-Jewishness is dangerous and foul. So let’s blame the attack on
a synagogue in Tunisia on Al Qaida – not on Islam and its 1.3 billion adherents,
the vast majority of whom were as disgusted by it as anyone else.
We tend to court the notion that the Islamic world is somehow more violent
or war-like than our kinder, gentler corner of Christendom where a murder is reported
every 27 minutes and an assault every 31 seconds. Samuel Huntington’s observation
that there is a disposition toward conflict in the Islamic world is often cited.
Less often cited is his observation that the alleged disposition is attributable
to demographics, to populations containing unprecedentedly high proportions of
young, unemployed males. Islam is reflexively associated with “jihad”. We are
less quick to consider our own versions – “just war” for instance, the Christian
ideology that dextrously manages to sidestep the teachings and example of Christ.
The horrors of Jewish “holy war” are amply illustrated in the vengeance on Midian,
described in Numbers 31. The Old Testament God has more in common with Huitzilopochtli
than we care to admit. And if someone cared to calculate the gallons of blood
spilled in the name of religion, Islam would come away looking relatively clean.
Islam represses women? Certainly some men and some institutions in the Islamic
world do. I wonder if some men and some institutions elsewhere in the world could
be said to repress women. Perish the thought. It is worth noting that the founder
of Islam, Mohammed, was given his job by a wealthy, independent merchant named
Khadija, who eventually married her employee. The proposition for marriage was
made by Khadija, incidentally, not Mohammed. Veiling a woman’s face and female
circumcision are nowhere endorsed in the Koran, though they are widely thought
to be “Islamic”. They are no more Islamic than the Chinese practice of “beautifying”
women by binding their feet from infancy was Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian.
Such practices are less common and less widely endorsed in the Muslim world than
we want to believe. Before it became politically expedient for Europeans or Americans
to find the Taliban’s dress code for women abhorrent, it was already abhorrent
to most Muslims.
Islam has its bigots, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not bigots
– they are decent, respectful, tolerant people and their religion has made them
moreso, not less. It is true that one’s religion can sometimes nurture bigotry.
So can one’s culture. So can race, language, the side of the street one lives
on, and just about every aspect of human existence. Bigotry is the fruit of untended
arrogance, ignorance, hatred, and intolerance – a parasitic shoot that can graft
itself to most anything. We’d best attend to pruning our trees, not cutting them
down. Or cutting down the trees of others. More than our apologists, Islam deserves
John Liechty teaches in Muscat, Oman. E-mail: email@example.com