On Thursday afternoon, November 12 two suicide bombers entered a busy open air market in the Bourj al-Barajneh district in Beirut, Lebanon and detonated their bombs, killing 43 people and injuring another 239. A third bomber was killed before detonating his bomb. On Friday, November 13 a suicide bomber detonated a bomb inside the Al-Ashara al-Mubashareen mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, killing 19 people and injuring 33 more. The mosque was being used for a funeral. Also on Friday, November 13 an unknown number of assailants carried out coordinated attacks on multiple targets in Paris, France, killing at least 132 people and injuring hundreds more. The extremist Muslim group ISIS has taken credit for, or has been credited with, all three of these attacks. In two days, these terrorists killed or injured hundreds of people in the name of their God.
Many people are pointing out that these people are well within the rights of their religion to do these things; that the words within the pages of their holy book even encourage them to kill. And they would be right. For in these pages are things like this: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on the opposite sides or they shall be imprisoned…” Quran 5:33. And this: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.” Quran 8:12. The Quran is, in fact, littered with passages like this.
Taken from the perspective of someone who knows little to nothing of Islam or the people who practice it in a non-radical fashion, it would be easy to take these verses – and others like it – and the actions of these extremists and condemn an entire religion (one that makes up nearly 23% of the world’s population (1)). It would be easy for us to say that this ideology is just no damn good, a cancer on the minds of the people and the face of the earth, and should be eradicated. And this is, in fact, a very familiar thing to those of us who live here in the United States, especially since the terrorist attacks that were carried out in New York City on September 11, 2001 by radical Islamic extremists. “Down with Islam!” is a war cry that started nearly 15 years ago and still echoes through America’s steel corridors and across her amber waves of grain to this day.
But is Islam really a religion that teaches its people to hate outsiders? To kill those of us that are labeled “infidels”? As I’ve pointed out in the above paragraph there are verses in the Quran that talk about killing outsiders and casting wrath on the unbelievers. But there are also verses like this: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace. Do not follow in the footsteps of Satan. He is an outright enemy to you.” Quran 2:208. And this one that encourages Muslims to show peace and love to Christians: “…and you will find the nearest in love to the believers (Muslims) those who say: “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.” Quran 5:28. And this one that flat-out condemns the killing of innocent people: “Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely…” Quran 5:32. So it would seem that those among the Muslim faith that commit these acts are going against what their holy book actually teaches.
But what about jihad? Isn’t that an Allah-sanctioned holy war? The word “jihad” in Arabic actually means struggling or striving, not “holy war” as we’re so often told (2). Religious jihad can mean an internal struggle, such as the struggle to be a good Muslim or an external struggle to inform people of the tenants of the faith. Military jihad is allowed but only in extreme cases is deadly force authorized. Generally legal, diplomatic and political means are used before force. In the case that there is no peaceful alternative, Islam lays out strict rules of engagement: innocents must never be harmed and any peaceful overtures (surrender) from the enemy must be accepted. According to Islamic rules, not everyone can declare a jihad. The military campaign must be approved by the proper authorities and advised by scholars, who will decide if the people and religion are actually under threat and if violence is imperative to defend them (2).
Jihad is not a violent concept as it is often portrayed by Western cultures. It is not an open license for Muslims to declare war on people of other religions. In fact, as it is written in the Quran, Christians and Jews are looked upon by Muslims as fellow “people of the book” because they also worship God (or Allah, as He’s referred to by Islam). So, again, it would seem that these extremists are going outside the tenants of their faith, as extremists are want to do.
So on the one hand we have a holy book that is telling people who follow the world’s second-largest religion to kill any who don’t believe, to murder any who are “making mischief” on Allah’s people. And we have people, like ISIS, who are following these passages. And on the other hand we have a holy book that is telling them to love and accept others and to embrace other religions. And there are Muslims who live their lives striving to do just that.
The people who believe that Islam is a religion of hate and violence would have us forget – or maybe they just don’t realize themselves – that the pages of the Bible are spattered with just as much, if not more, blood than the pages of the Quran. In the Bible you can be killed for things like working on Sundays or remarrying after a divorce. Recalcitrant children can be stoned to death for disobedience. Harvesting the edges of your fields is a sin punishable by death. But the Bible also calls for the wholesale slaughter of Pagans: “On that day of judgment,” says the LORD, “I will punish the leaders and princes of Judah and all those following pagan customs. Yes, I will punish those who participate in pagan worship ceremonies, and those who steal and kill to fill their masters’ homes with loot…Your blood will be poured out into the dust, and your bodies will lie there rotting on the ground.” Your silver and gold will be of no use to you on that day of the LORD’s anger. For the whole land will be devoured by the fire of his jealousy. He will make a terrifying end of all the people on earth.” Zephaniah 1:7-18. And in 1 Samuel 15:3, God orders King Saul to attack and annihilate the Amalakites. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass,” God says to Saul. And when Saul fails in this grisly task, Saul’s kingdom is taken from him by God.
Just as there are many violent passages in the Quran, there are an equal number in the Bible, yet we call Islam the religion of violence? Perhaps Christians haven’t done so much killing on such a wide scale in recent years as militant Islamic groups such as ISIS and that is why we Christians are so quick to look past the blood on our hands but it’s hard to see how we can move forward with all the bodies lying at our feet. From the forced conversions of Pagans in the fourth century (3), to the Inquisition in the 16th century (in which it is estimated that over 1,200 people were killed in Italy alone) (4), to the Salem witch trials in the 1600’s, our religious history is not a peaceful one (5). And it doesn’t stop there, fellow Christians. We can also lay at our feet the forced assimilation and conversion of Native Americans in the 17-1900’s, in which approximately 80-90% of the native population was wiped out in North America alone, leaving the death toll in the millions (6). And that’s not to mention the people who are killed by people claiming to be Christians every single day who are members of the LGBT community, minorities, handicapped or anything else that we believers perceive as being “wrong”.
And yet there are those of us, those among the Christian community, who choose to read passages like Mark 12:31 “Love your neighbor as yourself; there is no commandment greater than this” and Ephesians 4:2 “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” and we live our lives by those passages, not by the ones of hate and blood and terror. Just as most Muslims just want to live their lives in peace, so do we. So maybe we’re not so very far apart, our Muslim brothers and sisters and ourselves. And maybe it’s time we start trying to see past our prejudices and our preconceived notions. Maybe it’s time for us to turn off the TV and stop listening to those who would tell us that eradicating an entire group of people for the actions of a few is the only answer. And maybe we should stop being blinded by our differences and start trying to see our similarities so we can all stand up, together, as one people and raise our voices to stop this threat to our humanity. Because Islam isn’t the enemy. Extremism is.