Monday, February 06, 2006

The Truth About Islam

What is a religion if not the practices and beliefs of its adherents? This question -- posed by Muslim refusenik Irshad Manji in her groundbreaking and controversial book, The Trouble With Islam Today -- has both enriched and complicated my lifelong reflection on the nature of religion and faith generally and my struggle to understand Islam specifically. This struggle to unravel the mysteries of Islam, deepened by 9/11 and its aftermath, began with an intellectual fascination with comparative theology in my youth and accelerated when I was 16 due to my friendship with and small crush on a Muslim girl named Miriam.

My interaction with Muslims -- incorporating many friendships and a brief romantic dalliance (not with Miriam) -- have been overwhelmingly positive. Representing a variety of countries and many different interpretations of Islam, the Muslims who have enriched my life have left me with a deep and abiding respect for their faith. So, naturally, this question of Irshad's has caused me much consternation. How could I reconcile the just and peaceful Islam I'd come to respect with the actions of extremists and terrorists? Through study and reflection, I believe I may have found a way.

In my studies of theology, history, and current events, I've come face to face with adherents of one of the world's major religions, people who have committed numerous and egregious atrocities. In the long history of this faith, its adherents have murdered millions of innocent people for the "crime" of refusing to convert and used torture, persecution, and state-approved brutality as a means of forcing conversion This faith's adherents have also persecuted and massacred ethnic and religious minorities. They have criminalized and executed people deemed sinners or heretics, at times making it illegal to practice any other religion or to interpret religious texts in contradiction to official orthodoxy. They have influenced the laws of various nations to such an extent that women were refused the status of separate legal entities and were instead defined as the property of men; married women could legally be raped and brutalized by the men who "owned" them, their husbands. Women who failed in some way to live up to strict prescriptions for attire and behavior were painted as whores and often brutalized. Women were also denied the rights to receive custody of their children in a divorce, own property, hold jobs, and receive an education. Finally, this faith's adherents have carried out hundreds of acts of terrorism in America and elsewhere by blowing up, burning down, or opening fire in public places, including but not limited to houses of worship.

If a religion is nothing more than the practices of its adherents, do we not condemn a religion such as this? No, we don't and we shouldn't. Why not? Because the religion I've described is Christianity and anyone raised in Western society knows that it has been so much more than this. We in the West, even those of us who practice other religions, can honestly acknowledge that the atrocities I've listed are just one side of a vast spectrum.

Christianity has also been a source of tremendous charity and progress. Its adherents have fought for social justice, fed the poor, clothed the naked, and healed the sick. They have struggled for peace and justice. They have been, in so many cases, simply good, honest people. Generally, they're neither "good" nor "evil," just people.

Most westerners take for granted that Christianity is not an unchanging monolith or static dichotomy but a diverse and dynamic faith. It grows or shrinks, flows or stagnates, bends or breaks according to cultural environments, historical circumstances, changing interpretations, sectional debates, political expediencies, external and internal "threats," group psychology, and the influence of singularly enlightened or brutal leaders. So intricately interconected with the real world inhabited by its followers, Christianity is rarely just itself. It is, in this way, very much like all religions and, in fact, like all systems of belief.

So is Islam. Since 9/11, we've been seeking a simple definition for Islam and a simple explanation for how it could permit the murder of thousands of innocents. Our questioning has intensified in light of the insurgency in Iraq, Hamas' electoral victory in Palestine, the rioting in response to the now infamous Muhammad cartoons, and renewed threats from Osama bin Laden. The only simple answer seems to be, "It's complicated." Islam is dynamic and diverse, influenced by the people and events of the Muslim world and its interactions with the rest of us. In its practical applications in the daily lives of more than a billion adherents, it is rarely just Islam.

In the end, I've decided that the only way to reconcile the Islam practiced by the just and the just human with that practiced by the merciless is to understand that they're just points on an ever-shifting spectrum, one end of which has become a pox on humanity. I've also realized that since religion responds to circumstance, we have a choice in whether we create situations that allow extremism to thrive or situations that deny it power and influence. So far, we haven't been doing a very good job at the latter in either the Muslim world or the West.


Blogger Drew said...

As the resident free-market crank, I have to add that religions, or any social institution for that matter, are at their worst when they are intertwined with the State. Interestingly enough, given the history of the late nineteench and twentieth centuries, the State is at its worst when it attempts to completely subsume religion and place itself in the position of God.

10:21 AM  

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