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The Difficult Question of Islam in the West

Islamic extremists, Muslim terrorists, Islamofascists or whatever: most times they are mentioned their religion comes into it somehow. It is, I hope, the intent of people who make such references to do so descriptively and not with the intent to indict an entire religion. Of course, there will be some with the opposite intent, probably from ignorance, possibly from bigotry.

Whatever the case, Muslim people living in western countries are taking offense. The issues aren’t simple and clear-cut, however. Muslims in the west and in the more moderate Islamic countries complain that the terrorists don’t represent them and that they are distorting the true meaning of Islam. This might be true, and some academic and religious scholars might know exactly what the differences are. The rest of us, however, do not. Sadly, what most non-Muslim Americans know about Islam can be summarized by the famous line from the film Lawrence of Arabia, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long they will remain a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

The problem is this: anyone can go in a bookstore, buy a copy of the Koran and read in it the most awful stuff about how Islam is the only true religion, that certain other religions should be tolerated if they pay a special tax to Islam, and how others should be wiped out. One can also find many other commands that can only be termed intolerant, at best, or perhaps barbaric. “The [Koran] has more to say on the position of women than on any other social question. The guiding note is sounded in the words ‘Women are your tillage,’ and the word used for marriage is that used for the sexual act. … a man is allowed four wives at a time and an unlimited number of concubines. … The husband may divorce his wife at any time … A woman cannot sue for divorce on any grounds, and her husband may beat her.”1

Sura 4:31 Men have authority over women because God has made one the superior to the other and because they spend their wealth [to maintain them]. So good women are obedient, guarding the unseen [parts] because God has guarded [them]. As for those from whom you fear disobedience admonish [them] and banish them to beds apart and beat them2
Sura 3:79 He who chooses a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the next world he will be one of the lost.3
Sura 24:2 The adulterer and the adulteress, scourge ye each one of them (with) a hundred stripes. And let not pity for the twain withhold you from obedience to Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a party of believers witness their punishment.4
Sura 24:31 And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour5
Sura 2:19 And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.6
Sura 5:38 As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise.7
Sura 9:29 Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.8

(Does some of this sound a little like the Old Testament? It should because, in significant part, Islam is based on Judaism and Christianity. However, we don’t hear a lot about honor killings,  people being stoned to death or having their bodies mutilated under religious law in Christian and Jewish areas of the world.) The people being called Muslim extremists read the same Koran as other Muslims and rely upon it to justify their awful acts. So, what is the real Islam?

After spending some time studying the history of Islam, one finds a faith significantly preoccupied with the events of 1400 years ago. While some countries, like Turkey and Egypt, and to some extent Pakistan and others, have tried to modernize some of the worst of the archaic teachings, such as the totally subservient status of women; most of the rest have not. We find that many Muslim countries are not all that different from their tribal, barbaric state at the time of Mohammed.

Over the centuries, Islam has had a surprising tolerance for the various “schools” of the religion, compared to Christianity. The Sunni and Shia branches, as well as a host others, have gotten along over the years with a modicum of respect and tolerance for each other and, especially, the recognition that they are all basically Muslim.

For the last 260 years, though, there has been a new player on the field. The Wahhabi sect, founded in Saudi Arabia, has been striving to turn the Muslim world back to its fundamental roots. This branch of Islam has reinterpreted the faith in the most strident and restrictive terms, and carried out those beliefs in the most violent manner. Even the formerly-tolerated other schools of Islam are not safe, and there was much slaughter during the early conquest years of Wahhabism a couple of centuries ago. To these fundamentalists, some other branches of Islam, as well as the “peoples of the Book” (Christianity and Judaism) are defined by the Wahhabis as polytheists and are to be wiped out!9

The Wahhabis are the most fundamentalist and extreme and, still centered in Saudi Arabia, are a minority in the world. Although they are trying to convert other Muslims with some obvious success, they do not by any stretch of the imagination represent the views of the large majority of Muslims living in the west. (One assumes that the Muslims who came here did so because something about the western countries attracted them, and that they are not mere carpetbaggers.) However, terrorists keep cropping up in the Muslim communities of western countries, and this leads to doubt.

Here is the problem: how do non-Muslims distinguish the Muslim good guys from the bad guys, since they both believe in the teachings of the Koran? I have been wrestling with this question, trying to find a solution that does not rely on putting the onus on people to prove their innocence. The answer, it seems to me, is to simply say that the non-Muslim world needs clarity. Non-Muslims need to know specifically which parts of the Koran do Muslims believe in as a part of their day-to-day religion and which other parts are in the book solely as relics of the past and are not taught.

There have been terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam, and other plots intercepted before they could come to fruition. We have not seen Muslims in Western countries denouncing the perpetrators in large demonstrations, nor have we seen banners hanging from mosques in our communities saying that the terrorists are not true Muslims and explaining why. Such things should not be required, either, since they fall into the area of forcing people to prove their innocence. But something is needed, some clarification so that every non-Muslim can see the differences between the extremists and other Muslims.

The urgency isn’t so that non-Muslims can assign guilt. Rather, a violent act on the scale of the attack on the twin towers (or larger) could occur at any time. What will the public reaction be? We can recall when, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans on the west coast of the U.S., citizens or not, were rounded up and interned in concentration camps. It was a terrible injustice! It was based on an irrational fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, something similar could happen again. This is why there is an urgency for non-Muslims to have the clarity to understand who the innocents are and why this is the case, and be able to tell them from the villains.

August 13, 2007


1 Alfred Guillaume. Islam, Penguin Books, 1983, p. 71
2 ibid, p. 72
3 ibid, p. 73
4 Skeptics Annotated Koran
5 Skeptics Annotated Koran
6 Skeptics Annotated Koran
7 Skeptics Annotated Koran
8 Skeptics Annotated Koran. “Those who have been given the Scripture” i.e., Christians and Jews (the “peoples of the Book” or “peoples of the Scripture”). The tribute is called the Dhimmi.
9 For much more on Wahabism, see Gold, Dore, Hatred’s Kingdom, Regnery Publishing, 2003.

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