A recent article I read forced me into a long and thoughtful reassessment of my ideas, and experiences to date with the Islamic religion.  I thought it might be interesting to share these thoughts in the hope of furthering the discussion, and perhaps expressing a set of conclusions that will ring true for someone other than myself.  This is explicitly not intended as an incendiary message or a provocation, it's mostly what I think, rather than what I feel, and I'm more than willing to have my opinions swayed by the weight of factual and logically reasoned discussion.  

If you think I'm wrong, don't settle for the cheap shot, write it up. Let me know why and how I've strayed off the path of logic.  Explain why I'm wrong, but use facts and specific examples and above all rationality.   

Even a cursory look at Islamic fundamentalism today reveals some surprising contradictions and apparent hypocrisies that are difficult to reconcile:

  • Islam is constantly touted as the religion of peace, and yet fundamentalist Islam is responsible for much of the mayhem inflicted on the world at the moment.  Historically, Islam has been in a nearly constant state of war with; the governments attempting to rule the societies in which it exists, with its neighboring states in those cases in which it has ruled via fundamentalist theocracies, and at war with itself in the form of bloody and enduring hatreds and brutal feuds between its numerous sects.  Examples of this range from the extermination of the Jews of Khaybar in 629, called by the Quran, " a glorious victory" (48:1) to Saladin's original conquest of Jerusalem and most recently the long and brutal war between Iran and Iraq.
  • Islam is touted as inclusive and tolerant, and yet every modern expression of the violent Islamic Jihad has specifically targeted Jews, Christians, or both, as ideal targets.  Since the fall of the Sultanate in 1622, marking the end of the Ottoman empire, and the subsequent rise of Qutbist ideology in the mid 1900's, violence and hostility against modernity and western culture has been a significant theme in Islam.
  • Islam claims to venerate women, and yet in the most fundamentalist Islamic societies, women aren't even allowed a rudimentary education. The daily lives of muslim women the world over are repressed and constrained beyond what any modern western society would tolerate. This true in many dominantly Muslim countries including Saudia Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to name a few.
  • Islam has been portrayed as a religion that encourages self-inquiry and yet it is one of the few faiths in the history of humankind that is commonly interpreted as allowing, and even encouraging, a true believer to commit suicide as a religious act of faith.  There is scholarly debate about the meaning of the word jihad, but it's clear that the interpretation by fundamentalist Islamists both allows and encourages the use of homicide bombing as a religious expression.  I'm not a religious scholar, so I would only quote this comment from Richard Connerney, a professor of philosophy at Iona College:
    "Perhaps the best way to sum up the hawkish attitude of the Quran is to note that the Penguin edition of the Quran contains over 40 entries for "war," and no entries for "peace." 
  • Islam is proclaimed to be tolerant, but at least in its current evolution, it refuses to support any form of reconciliation between muslims and Israel short of the complete destruction of Israel and the Israeli people. From its inception during the unification of the tribes of Arabia into a military force strong enough to overthrow the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire and the Persians in the Levant, Islamic religion, politics and law have been unseparable.  The Muslim political state, with Muhammad at its head predates the writing of the Hadith (the life of Muhammad) and the Quran. Islamic culture rejects modernity and secular rule and is therefore eternally in conflict with it. To quote Bernard Lewis's excellent New Yorker article on the subject, "For the early Muslims, the leader of Christendom, the Christian equivalent of the Muslim caliph, was the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople.  Later, his place was taken by the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, and his in turn by the new rulers of the West.  Each of these, in his time was the principal adversary of the jihad."
  • Islam supposedly embraces a quest for knowledge, and yet the Quran is the only book offered in the Islamic madrasas schools of Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, UAE, Syria, etc.  The syllabus at these schools includes a strong focus on hatred of America and the Jews.  To quote the New York Time's Pulitizer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman, 
    "On the way to Peshawar I stopped to visit the Darul Uloom Haqqania, the biggest madrasa, or Islamic school, in Pakistan, with 2,800 live-in students, all studying the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad with the hope of becoming mullahs, or spiritual leaders.  I was allowed to sit in on a class with young boys, who sat on the floor, practicing their rote learning of the Koran from holy texts perched on wooden holders.  This was the core of their studies.  Most will never be exposed to critical thinking or modern subjects... It was disquieting because their almost entirely religious curriculum was designed by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir who died in 1707.  There was one shelf of science books in the library, largely from the 1920's."
  • Islam is treated by Muslims as a single entity demanding their loyality, and yet it has no Pope or High Church to speak authoritatively on its behalf.  Its self-proclaimed spokesmen include such demonstrably evil individuals as Osama bin Laden, and  Mullah Omar.  Saddam Hussein repeatedly invoked Allah and the teachings of Islam in support of his regime in his recent interview with Dan Rather clearly giving the impression that he had, "God on his side." Beyond these heinous individuals, we are left with the apparently disconnected opinions of a million mullahs preaching to the Arab street in behalf of Islam.  These men may not represent Islam to the majority of Muslims, but they are the only ones being heard.  

The list goes on and on.  I would hope that these statements are considered on their own merits rather than interpreted as an attack on Islam. I'd feel similarly towards any other totalitarian belief system inflicting misery and hatred on the world.  I'm not even attempting to judge Islam as a religion, only pointing out that Islam is acting like an extremely bad actor in the modern world.  I honestly believe I'd be ashamed to be a Muslim at the moment because no one among them seems to speak out against these outrages.  Moderate Muslims that do speak out against the extremities of Islamic fundamentalism have been brutally persecuted by their religious governments.

The response by fundamentalist Muslims to the issues raised above is typically a bellicose and high volume rant on the many evils of America and Americans and globalization and Israel and capitalism and most of the rest of western civilization.  None of which have anything to do with whether Islamic fundamentalism is a deeply flawed and problematic belief.  It just sounds powerfully righteous when you string it together and deflects the argument. The world has heard very little from moderate Muslims, besides a understandable plea for protection against western backlash. That plea has been heard and respected for the most part and very few instances of reprisals have occurred.

Suppose you assume for a moment that there's no America?  How many of the problems Islamic fundamentalism rails against would still remain?  I'd claim that virtually all of them would remain, because Islamic fundamentalists aren't really at war with America, or even Israel, they are at war with western civilization itself.  Is the rest of the world is prepared to stand back and watch fundamentalist Muslims massacre the Israelis, and assume complete control of Israel, then overthrow the secular governments of every other country in the Middle East, to install fundamentalist Islamic theocracies? If not, then we're all in for trouble eventually, even without America to blame it on.

On the other hand, suppose for a moment that there's no Islam? Nobody has to be killed or maimed, or even uprooted from their homes.  Assume the Islamic faith itself just disappeared and all the true believers just stopped believing.  Many of the world's most intractable problems would suddenly become manageable.  To use the example above,  the Israelis and the Palestinians would quickly cut the land-for-peace deal that they were so close to before the last "holy" jihad destroyed all hope for peace. They'd get it done and move on. The basic Israeli demand is not to live next door to a culture that is sworn to annihilate them. In a world without Islamic fundamentalism that would be possible to achieve.  Muslims and Jews were living together for centuries prior to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and they could do so again.  A similar example is the conflict between Pakistan and India over Kashmir.  The Hindus and the Muslims lived there together in peace for generations prior to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. They could do so again. 

Suppose you assume for a second that there is no God, and all religions are completely false, and this world is all we've got, and one life is all the longer we've got it for?  Absent an inherently unprovable faith in the veracity of the Quran, Islam makes no sense whatsoever. Absent that unprovable faith, Islam is just another cruel totalitarian government.

When I think of Islamic fundamentalism, I am reminded of the beauty I once perceived in the purest philosophical essence of socialism, and the lifetime of disappointment that I have experienced as I watched wave after failed wave of real world totalitarian Communist atrocities.  I think modern Islam might be a little like that, beautiful in its unsullied spirit, but nightmarish in reality.

My thanks to mr100percent for the response to this writeup. It is well researched, skillfully presented and, obviously, heartfelt.  More importantly, it expands and illuminates the discussion by presenting an alternate viewpoint.  I especially appreciate and respect his perspective as a practicing Muslim because that perspective is invaluable in helping us to really understand these issues. That said however, I believe, his arguments are compelling without being convincing. 

The crux of the response seems to revolve around the following points:

  1. Islam has been around for a long time and was, for much of its existence a model of enlightened spirituality. Islam's association with terrorism is a relatively recent development that has been driven by political forces rather than theological concerns.
  2. There are many moderate Muslims that do not approve of the actions the fundamentalists who support terrorism, the oppression of women, homicide bombings, the destruction of Israel, etc.
  3. That there is a huge discrepancy between the teachings of traditional Islam and the extreme practices that are highlighted in my write up.
  4. That Islam isn't inherently bad, it's just that, "a few bad apples" are getting all the attention and other religions such as Christianity have also been responsible for atrocities over the course of history.

 I find some merit in each of these arguments, but I think on balance that they deny the reality of what Islam has come to represent in the world today. More importantly these points highlight the very paradoxes that I've attempted to highlight. 

Islam was once a beacon of spiritual light for the entire world to admire, but that's not the case any longer. Islam has been hijacked in a sense by the radical fundamentalist element and is increasingly feared and marginalized in the western world. The Islamic television station Al Jazeera, and the Islamist newspapers such as Al-Medina or Al-Riyadh, constantly broadcast one sided propaganda designed to inflame the Islamic community against the west. The Islamic Jihad promises an endless stream of "holy martyrs," who will be rewarded in Paradise for their suicide on behalf of the intifada. These people may not speak for Islam, but, for all practical purposes, they are the only ones representing Islam who are talking.

Islam appears to be having a very difficult time making a successful transition to a modern secular world.  If Muslims want to reclaim the deep and admirable morality on which their religion is founded,  they must show some strong and effective leadership to reclaim their religion from the fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who currently represent it to the world.

Moderate Muslims may represent a majority and they may reject the extremists, and the cruel and mediaeval practices mandated in Islamic theocracies like Iran. But how would anyone know it?  Where is the outrage of these moderate Muslims?  What sign is there of their burning desire to recapture their traditional Islamic values from the fundamentalists?  What practical and efficacious steps have they taken towards that end? 

I entreat moderate Muslims like mr100percent to stand up and be counted among those who are against terrorism, in any cause, and who won't tolerate it in their mosque.  The Catholics are taking steps to clean up their problems, why shouldn't the world expect Islam to do the same?

Highlighting the deep divide between high-minded Islamic theory and the more sordid reality, consider a quote from a sermon presented by Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris on the Palestinian TV station 15 May 2005:

"The day will come when we will rule America. The day will come when we will rule Britain and the entire world - except for the Jews. The Jews will not enjoy a life of tranquillity under our rule because they are treacherous by nature, as they have been throughout history. The day will come when everything will be relieved of the Jews - even the stones and trees which were harmed by them. Listen to the Prophet Muhammad, who tells you about the evil end that awaits Jews. The stones and trees will want the Muslims to finish off every Jew."

mr100percent assures us that Islam doesn't support these atrocities (homicide bombing, repression of women, intolerance, etc.). But we see these things perpetrated with alarming regularity by Muslims, in the name of Islam.  That is the paradox.

Reference Sources

Richard D. Connerney, Islam: Religion of the Sword, Salon.com 11 October 2001

Bernard Lewis, The Revolt of Islam, New Yorker Novermber 19, 2001

Thomas Friedman, In Pakistan, It's Jihad 101, New York Times, 13 November 2001

David Brooks, Bashing Newsweek, New York Times, 19 May 2005