Other Religions


Islam: A Religion of Peace?

by Fr. Ignatius


September 11th has been indelibly marked in the memory of contemporary North Americans as a new Day of Infamy. Ironically while the attack was the work of a “fundamentalist” Muslim group, both the American government and media have been at pains to emphasize Islam as “a religion of peace” and any civil or military response to the attack as a war on “terrorism.” There is legitimacy in not wanting to blame an entire religion for the negative actions of a few adherents. Obviously untold millions of Muslims are peaceable people. But one may wonder if Islam per se has historically shown itself conducive to peaceful relations with other peoples and religions?

The early history of Christianity was one of growth, in spite of persecution, by peaceful evangelization. Official state support of Christianity, beginning in the 4th century, complicated the picture. War and violence, however, were associated with Islam from its very inception. Muslim hagiography of Muhammad proudly attributes to him the organizing of at least sixty-five successful military campaigns to spread the new religion; claiming “the Prophet” himself led anywhere from 15 to 27 of them. He received one fifth of all booty taken in raids and battles (Sura 8:41) --- including his share of the captured women and children, whom he could sell as slaves (Sirat Rasulallah, pg. 466) or keep as concubines (Sura 33:50; Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, pg. 151). Muhammad’s behaviour is considered impeccable by pious Muslims; to be admired and emulated.

Modern Muslim apologists try to claim Muhammad only waged wars of self-defense. Yet Syed Kamran Mirza (“An Exegesis on ‘Jihad in Islam’”) puts the number of battles organized by Muhammad at 78 and says “only one (Battle of Ditch) was defensive war, and the rest were simply offensive wars.” So much so that within ten years Muhammad was able to bring half of the Arabian peninsula under subjection. Military historian John Keegan observes in his History of Warfare: “Muhammad, unlike Christ, was a man of violence, he bore arms, was wounded in battle and preached holy war, Jihad, against those who defied the will of God as revealed to him.”

Both the Quran (Sura 4:74-76; 9:5-6,73,81; 47:4) and the Hadith, or Sunna (a collection of early Muslim traditions including supposed words and deeds of Muhammad; see Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol.2, no.68; vol.4, no.386), speak of the importance of waging war against the “unbeliever.” The milder passages of the Quran (Sura 2:62,256; 29:46) quoted to the contrary by Muslim apologists were traditionally interpreted as abrogated by the chronologically later, harsher passages. Such apologists also emphasize that jihad means “to strive,” and claim it mainly denotes an inner moral or spiritual struggle. But after examining the historical use of the word, Mirza begs to differ: “For 1400 years, Muslims always understood the meaning of Jihad as Islamic Holy War...against non-Muslims.”

The Quran promises severe punishment upon those Muslims who shirk battle against infidels (Sura 8:15; 9:39) while promising reward for those who die in one (Sura 4:74). The plundering and killing of recalcitrant infidels was considered a righteous path for the believer (Sura 8:12,67; 48:20; Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol.4, no.161). Enslaving captives and raping the women was sanctioned by divine decree (Sura 4:24; 23:5; Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol.4, no.176; Sahih Muslim, vol.2, no.3371). A typical invitation by Muslim conquerors to the dhimmis, or “people of the book” (Christians and Jews), was “Embrace Islam, or pay the poll tax (ziziya), or die” (see Sura 9:29). For the pagan (i.e. animists, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) the poll tax was less an option.

Critics may counter, what of the Old Testament passages that seem to divinely sanction killing and abusing unbelievers (e.g. Nm 31:15-18; Dt 7:2; Jos 6:20-21)? Are these not comparable to the passages cited from the Quran? No, neither in their interpretation or subsequent use by the Catholic Church or other ancient churches. This is because the Church understands the Old Testament in the context of God’s complete revelation given in Jesus Christ, who taught love of enemy. While there is a unity to both testaments there is also a progressive unfolding of God’s revelation. The Old Testament is therefore interpreted in light of the New Testament. Also, the Church recognizes that while God is the primary author of scripture, He nonetheless used human authors to convey His message. These human authors wrote from within their own particular historical context and culturally conditioned ways of expressing themselves. The Catholic Church sees Her necessary mandate as drawing out and clarifying the divine truths found within their human expression (see 2 Pt 3:15-16; Jn 16:13). It was the Catholic Church that first established the limited conditions under which war might be justly waged (basically one of self-defense) in order to prevent unnecessary fighting, excessive carnage and harm to the innocent.

The Muslim understanding of revelation and inspiration in the Quran is radically different. For Muslims the Quran has no human author. Allah is its sole author, with Muhammad being merely his passive mouthpiece (Sura 18:1; 39:1-2). This logically leads Muslims to claim the Arabic of the Quran is of unsurpassable beauty and perfection (because it is Allah speaking Arabic; see Sura 43:3-4). They generally admit not even a grammatical error in it. As Ibn Warraq states (Why I Am Not a Muslim), “The Koran remains for all Muslims, not just ‘fundamentalists,’ the uncreated word of God himself.” This stymies interpreting harsh passages as limited human expressions of deeper spiritual truths. Yet there has been a tradition of emphasizing a more mystical interpretation of jihad (e.g. Sufism).

In the early years of spreading the new religion Muslim armies experienced remarkable military success. They interpreted this as a divine affirmation of the truth of their beliefs and reward for adherence. Within a century Muhammad’s death his caliph successors had conquered all of Christian North Africa, Persia and much of the Byzantine Middle East. Against Muslim apologists who claim Islam only permits war in defense of the faith it must be noted that none of these lands had Muslim populations before their conquest and no justifiable provocation can be given for invading such distant places. As in all empire building, opportunity and success became their own stimuli. Added to this was the religious imperative. Islamic thought divides the world into two spheres: The abode of Islamic sovereignty (Dar al-Islam) and areas not yet under Islamic sovereignty, the abode of war (Dar al-Harb).

Christian Europe would be harassed or under threat of conquest by various Islamic forces for a thousand years. The early campaign into Western Europe through Iberia would only be halted at Tours, France. The Moors would rule Portugal and Spain for 6 and 8 centuries respectively. Twice Islamic armies would lay siege to Vienna. They occupied Belgrade and Budapest for hundreds of years. Their calvary raided Bavaria. From a base on the French Riviera they raided Switzerland. The Barbary Coast pirates raided England, Denmark, Ireland and Iceland. Muslim forces occupied Sicily for 300 years and advanced up the Italian peninsula to sack Rome in 846. In Eastern Europe the capital of what remained of the millennia-old Byzantine Empire would finally fall to a Muslim army in 1453. The Ottoman Turks would be the last Islamic force to attempt a conquest of Western Europe in 1683. Thereafter the advancement of Western military technology made such an endeavor impossible.

The much vilified Crusades can be seen as a belated military response by Western Christendom (initially at the behest of the pope, responding to pleas from the Byzantine emperor) to over three centuries of Muslim aggression against Christian territory, the systemic mistreatment of the indigenous Christian population, and the harassment of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Muslim propagandists and anti-Christian/anti-Western intellectuals have since caricaturized the Crusades as an act of barbaric Christian (or Western) aggression motivated by greed and intolerance against a peaceful Muslim state.

While we are constantly reminded of the Crusader sacking of Jerusalem (which Christians have long lamented) Islamic propagandists fail to mention similar or greater Muslim atrocities. Little is said of the 1453 sacking of Constantinople (c. 4000 killed, 50,000 enslaved) or sacking of Otranto, Italy (1480), which left half the population dead and the rest enslaved. Then there were the slaughters of Christians and pagans by Timur Lang (or Tamerlane, 1336-1405) at Sivas (4,000), Tus (10,000), Saray (100,000), Bagdad (90,000), Isfahan (70,000), etc. As Vinod Kumar comments: “Timur Lang's killing of 100,000 Hindu prisoners in one day is unparalleled in history” (“Islam and prisoners of war,” Kashmir Herald, Nov. 2002). One of the greatest modern tragedies has been the fate of the Armenian Christians. The Ottoman Turks massacred about 250,000 between 1894-96, 30,000 at Adana in 1909, and finally liquidated most of its remaining Armenian citizens (about 1.5 million) in 1915. Have you ever heard Muslim religious leaders or apologists even admit let alone lament these and other atrocities?

Today, the once confident and dynamic Islamic civilization has been in a subordinate position to the West. It has largely been so for a couple centuries. This has been traumatic to Muslim pride. The strains of this prolonged failure have been enormous. Muslim countries and populations have become breeding grounds for reactionary Islamist (i.e. “fundamentalist”) ideology and terrorism. In many Muslim dominated countries Islamism has resulted in repressive theocratic regimes or policies (e.g. Iran, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Nigeria, and Pakistan). Muslim countries have become --- outside of communist regimes --- the greatest persecutors of other religions. This has led to a drastic decline in what remains of the ancient Christian populations of the Middle East and North Africa.

In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to possess a Bible, wear a visible cross, or gather for any non-Muslim religious service. Numerous expatriate workers have been imprisoned, whipped, and expelled for such sedition. In Egypt Coptic Christians represent between 6-14% of the population yet hold only 5 out of 440 seats in the assembly (all appointed by the president). Christians have difficulty obtaining work, are harassed by Islamic militants, and have such restrictive conditions imposed on building or repairing their churches that some have been wanting since the 1970s. In predominantly Muslim Northern Nigeria Christians are at times terrorized and killed while the government turns a blind eye. Several states in the north have illegally adopted the Sharia (Islamic law). In Kano state the government has stated that half of all churches must be closed because of Muslim complaints about "too many churches." In Pakistan’s courts of law a Christian man's testimony is worth half of a Muslim man's and a Christian woman's testimony is worth only a quarter. As a result, many Christian women are raped and not able to obtain convictions against the perpetrators. Quite often, the victim is charged with having illicit sexual intercourse. Indonesia’s invasion of the Catholic enclave of East Timor in 1975 resulted in what Noam Chomsky called the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust, with the death of about a third of the entire populace. Indonesia’s Chinese minority (predominantly Buddhist or Christian) has also suffered numerous attacks and massacres. While such violence was originally more politically and ethnically motivated, Islamic militants have increasingly been willing participants and advocates of it. In the Sudan an Islamist government sought to impose the Sharia on its largely animist and Christian population in the south. This provoked a revolt that in two decades has cost the south nearly 2 million dead (one fifth of the population), four million displaced, and innumerable women and children raped and enslaved. The civilian death toll surpasses any war since World War II.

A 2003 survey by Open Doors International of 50 countries that persecute Christians lists amongst its top ten offenders six countries with Islamic majorities (along with three communist countries and Buddhist Bhutan). Of the entire fifty surveyed 33 had Muslim majorities, two were Muslim controlled, and at least three others had persecution in Muslim dominated areas. In 2000 Freedom House issued a report on religious liberty around the world. Of the 75 countries surveyed (representing 90% of the world population) not one Muslim country was classified as religiously “free.” On a scale of 1 to 7 (one being freest) all scored between 4 and 7.

Even in countries where Muslims are a minority violent conflict can arise as militant Islamic groups seek independence or supremacy (e.g. India [Kashmir], Russia [Chechnya], Myanmar and Philippines). As the Virginia based National Defense Council Foundation noted in its 2001 World Conflict List, “there are a lot of disgruntled Muslim groups in the world, frequently using Islam as an excuse for violence.” Harvard historian Samuel Huntington puts it more provocatively: Islam has "bloody borders." Muslims are involved in a disproportionate percentage of violent conflicts between religious and ethnic groups.

Contrary to the popular academic myth of Islam’s historical tolerance, the mistreatment and persecution of nonbelievers is not a recent phenomenon. As Bat Ye’or (The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam) and Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Muslim) have shown discriminatory taxes, legal inequality, humiliation, forced conversions, enslavement, and periodic massacres were part of the lot of unbelievers in Muslim lands throughout its history, even during its so-called Golden Age. In fairness it must be admitted that Jews in Christian Europe often faired little better. Forced conversions and massacres by Christians, however, were condemned by the Catholic hierarchy and there was no systematic enslavement.

Terrorism has become the new warfare against the infidel for militant Islam. Since 1979 Islamists have killed nearly 4,000 Americans. No other enemy has remotely the same record. Eleven of the 29 groups deemed by the US Department of State to be "foreign terrorist organizations" are Islamist. Likewise, 14 of 21 groups outlawed by the British Home Office for links to terrorist activity abroad are Islamist. Western governments are aware that funding for these terrorist groups comes not just from inside Muslim countries (notably America’s “ally” Saudi Arabia) but also from inside the West’s own Muslim communities.

What has been the response of Western governments to these realities? Daniel Pipes, of the Middle East Forum, gives the surprising answer: Officials go to great lengths to pronounce Islam a religion completely unblemished by the violence of some practitioners, a religion compatible with American and Western ideals, a religion others must learn to appreciate. (Catholics can only dream of their faith receiving such glowing public endorsement.) In effect Western officials have become sympathetic interpreters of what is and is not true Islam!

Pipes sees this policy as pragmatically designed “to curry favor with a basically hostile population” through appeals to more moderate elements. A similar policy was tried by Napoleon in Egypt in 1798, by British officials in India, by Germans toward their Ottoman allies in World War I, by Mussolini toward his Libyan subjects in 1937. In all cases it largely failed for, as Pipes remarks, “It is nearly inconceivable that moderate Muslims will have any influence over their more radical coreligionists.” In fact the net result of such an apologetic policy may be to make secular officials “an adjunct of the country's Islamic organizations….[to turn] the U.S. government into a discreet missionary for the faith.” (Middle East Quarterly, Jan. 2002).

Serge Trifkovic goes further in his evaluation of why the ruling elite in Western secular society (the media, government, and academia) is so sympathetic to Islam. It is because they are unsympathetic to their own Western and Christian heritage. Islam being non-Christian and non-European makes them think it a natural ally. Further, “having no faith themselves (except the baby boomers' belief in their own uniqueness), they do not take Islam's faith seriously. Smugly observing the demise of Christian belief and culture on both sides of the Atlantic, they trust the combined efforts of television, the Big Mac, and the public education system to make little Muhammad and Azra into carbon copies of Johnny and Chelsea.” (“Multiculturalism and Islam: Liberal Fiction and Historical Truth,” Chronicles, Feb. 1999).

What of the obvious violence exhibited by some Muslim groups? The Western elites perceive that the majority of Muslims do not want what the violent minority wants. And, as stated, they believe that the peaceful integration of Muslim immigrants with the general population in the West will eventually alleviate the problem. What one needs to do, therefore, is divest oneself of “Christian prejudice” toward Islam. But the truth is Christian prejudice is already a distant memory to most secularized Westerners. Meanwhile, Islam has repeatedly shown itself prone to conflict when in contact with other religions or cultures. Moreover, it is invariably the minority who take religion seriously. And history repeatedly demonstrates that a serious minority can effect radical transformation of a society.

In a Wall Street Journal article (Oct. 10, 2003) Jonathan Last noted that for all the attention America’s “war on terrorism” was getting, it was not the subject of a single U.S. feature film already produced or in the works. When asked why, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America replied that such a picture would probably have to portray Muslims as the terrorists and this would cause “a backlash from the decent, hard-working, law-abiding Muslim community in this country." (Have you ever heard such a concern expressed about the negative representation of Christians in movies?) The last big-budget movie to deal with terrorism was The Sum of All Fears, based on a Tom Clancy novel. In the novel the terrorists were Arab. But pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations caused the identity of the movie's terrorists to be changed ---to neo-Nazis. Last observed that “if anything, the PC pressure has been upped since the war on terror began.” Ironically, Daniel Piper has identified the Council on American-Islamic Relations as a militant Islamist organization.

Demographically the West has contracepted itself into an unprecedented decline. It is especially acute in Europe. Yet the Muslim world continues to grow. Immigrants are now desperately needed to counter the effect of our aging indigenous population. Many of these immigrants are Muslims. This reality gave the first imam to deliver a Muslim prayer before the U.S. House of Representatives (in 1991) the confidence in 1997 to predict that Muslims will eventually elect the president. He hopes they would then replace the constitutional government with an Islamic caliphate.

In conclusion, while one may concur with statements that the majority of Muslims are peaceful (as most people ordinarily tend to be), one may contest whether their religion promotes peace with non-Muslims. As Trifkovic observes, the "problem [for the West] is not prejudice about Islam, but folly in the face of its violence and cruelty" (The Sword of the Prophet). In promoting the perception of Islam as a peaceful force in the world Western secular governments, universities and the media may only be fooling themselves.

Fr. Ignatius
The Catholic Legate
October 27, 2003