Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Victory for Moderate Islam?

I don't often comment on Islam for a variety of reasons. I don't have much to say about the (chronologically) third great Monotheistic religion, and much of what I could say would only inflame either Muslims who don't need someone from outside their religion to criticize it, or conservative Christians or Jews who find my criticisms far too charitable. But, when I read this article in the Christian Science Monitor I felt I had to say something.

There are many aspects of Islam that have always appealed to me: the radical monotheism, which at its best uses the unity of God to attempt to unify humanity; the blending of the secular and sacred in daily life; the public and highly ritualized prayers; the fact that one prays with one's whole body, and not just one's mouth; Sufi mystical poetry; the emphasis on submission to God; the majesty of the hajj, the pilgrimage that so powerfully speaks to human unity before God that it forever changed the life of Malcolm X.

But for all of the good that I see in Islam, all in that great religion which appeals to me (and the previous paragraph is but a hastily prepared list which barely touches the surface), like all reasonable people I am deeply troubled by the propensity towards violence that I see in Islam.

Islam, to be sure, does not own a monopoly on religious violence. The Tanakh, called by many Christians the "Old Testament," is littered with divinely ordained violence. For instance, while the book of Numbers intimidates many causal readers of the Bible with long sections devoted to census taking and law making, it also contains horrific stories of religious/political warfare. In Numbers 31, for instance, God ordains the Israelites to take vengeance against the Midianites, which they faithfully do killing all of the men and taking the women and children hostage. However, Moses, who here acts as the mouthpiece of God, rebukes his own army for being too lenient, commanding them in what is for me the most troubling passage in the Bible:

Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man. (Numbers 31: 17-18, JPS)

Likewise Christian history is filled with violence done in the name of a righteous God. While Islam was still a relatively peaceful and tolerant religion the Roman Catholic Church propagated a series of Crusades against it, an event which still scars the collective memories of Muslims. After the Muslim Seljuk Turks captured much of the Near East in the 11th Century, including parts of the Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II, in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, called for what has since been named the First Crusade; a holy war against Muslims who had been accused of defiling sacred Christian sites.

The Crusades eventually spanned such a broad expanse of time, killing such a vast and senseless number of people, that it is easy to become emotionally numb studying is from a broad view. Stories from individual battles and sieges in individual Crusades, however, tell a much more compelling human story which truly depicts how violence done in the name of the Prince of Peace (to use a Jewish image appropriated by Christians for Jesus) defiles the history of Christianity. Donald Spoto's magnificent biography of Francis of Assisi (my bedtime reading last week, as you can see here) contains some powerful images from battles that Francis witnessed as he was preaching peace during the Fifth Crusade. Summing up the carnage, Spoto writes:

The Fifth Crusade continued on its disastrous course. After another siege, Damietta was taken on November 5 [1219 - CB] by the Crusaders, who found houses and streets filled with corpses half devoured by ravenous dogs while weeping children clung to their dead and dying parents, begging for food. Of the 80,000 people in the city at the beginning of the siege, only 3,000 survived, and of these only 100 were not ill with fatal diseases.

When a religion believes that it alone represents God, and that all who oppose it oppose God, and especially when a religion believes that it has been ordained by God to wipe out all of God's enemies; that religion has reached such a height of moral arrogance that it can justify dishonoring all of its principles in its quest to rid the world forever of the identified enemies of God. While I do not believe that such morally arrogant violence is essential to monotheism, I must admit that each monotheistic religion has tended from time to time toward such righteous violence. Islam is no exception to this.

What troubles me about Islam, however, is that, as a Jewish religious studies professor of mine once lamented, it seems like no moderate Muslims are willing to call Islam's violent extremists to task for their maniacal methods. Reading the above-linked article simultaneously gave me some faith in the collective moral conscience of moderate Muslims (after all, a cleric helped lead authorities to 17 suspected terrorists) and a great deal of fear for those moderate Muslims who are willing to stand up to the violence being done in their name (after all, while the cleric is being hailed by the secular world as a hero, he is seen by many Muslims as a traitor).

Will the real Islam please stand up?

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