I found myself in the middle of a heated argument the other night with a very well educated person who was espousing swift, brutal and total military action against the Muslim world. What started the debate was his remark that the Crusaders had the right idea and it was a shame that they did not finish the job. Although this man claims to be an atheist, he believes that Christians have always held the moral high ground and if it had not been for the admittedly brutal martial actions of medieval Christendom there would be no Church today.
Of course my response was that the Crusades had clearly demonstrated that the authentic Church had gone underground, that what passed for Christianity in those times was an obscene aberration, an abomination. Generally, the past actions of the so-called Christian Church are no more laudable, in fact they may be more heinous, than anything that can be attributed to the Muslim extremists of today. And just as one should not condemn the Gospel for those who desecrate it in the name of God, we should be very careful when we hold the essence of Islam responsible for the murders and tyrannies committed by fundamentalist elements on their fringe.
Many say, though, that the violence and oppression that we witness today in parts of the Muslim world represents the true nature of Islam, that the Quran expressly directs the true believer to initiate violent Jihad against the infidels of this world. This view is based primarily on a common Christian practice that results in many confused religious minds – proof texting. Just as a reading of Genesis, Exodus or Deuteronomy outside the light of the remainder of scripture can result in rationalizations for slavery, pogroms and genocide, this same practice will often paint a picture of the Quran as a world conquering instruction manual.
Actions speak louder than words and throughout most of history institutionalized Islam has a much better track record than institutionalized Christianity. During the Dark Ages, Early Islam was the fount of philosophy, art, poetry, science and medicine as well as charity and religious tolerance. In Moorish Spain Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. It was the Christian conquerors who set about violently removing both Jew and Muslim from the peninsula. Around this same time Islam conquered what we now know as Turkey and to this day Istanbul is still the seat of the Eastern Church. When conquering the Indian sub-continent both Hindu and Buddhist were allowed to freely practice their religions. This should not be surprising because it is prescribed in the Quran as well as other Islamic teachings; “Whoever hurts a Non-Muslim citizen of a Muslim state hurts me, and he who hurts me annoys God.” (Bukhâri) Unfortunately what little we know of the Quran is relayed to us in the sound bites of those with political agendas to meet.
An oft repeated complaint against the Muslims of this country is their apparent lack of voice in condemning the violent actions of their brethren. This accusation does not take into account the long lasting divisions that have existed throughout Islam as a whole; not all Muslims feel allegiance to those reactionary fundamentalists who are behind most of the violence. Those Muslims now living in our neighborhoods are usually there because they sought escape from religious extremists. Even so, doesn’t this criticism cut both ways? Where was the voice of Christianity during the Holocaust? Where was the American Church in the condemnation of the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Purportedly “Christian” nations deliberately and intentionally ordered the horrendous deaths of non-combatants with liquid fire and burning radiation. We were at war, some say, and regrettable decisions must often be made. Perhaps, but this is Christian hypocrisy nevertheless.
Within Christianity we have groups of people who will not equivocate when it comes to refusing to take up the sword; the Quaker, Amish, Mennonite and Bruderhof easily come to mind. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (some dispute their “Christianity”) were some of the first to be sent to the Nazi camps because of their outspoken pacifism. On the other hand, the majority of professing Christians will tolerate or even espouse violence, especially when it poses a threat to our own security. At times we will commit our lives, resources and energies in coming to the aid of oppressed people (Tojo, Hitler, Hussein and the Taliban all desperately needed to go) but mostly we ignore the plight of millions of others. We can only do so much, so when we do finally act it is only prudent that the actions coincide with our national interests.
But how does this permit us the moral high ground? Well, for one thing, we don’t hijack airplanes and fly them into crowded skyscrapers. Some might even suggest (mistakenly) that we don’t kill people that we are not officially at war with. And we certainly would not condone indiscriminate violence from our own people. But of course, neither do the vast majority of Muslims.
In World War II, during the Allied invasion of North Africa, the Allied and Axis powers played a bloody game of cat and mouse, overrunning desert territory one day, being expelled the next by superior forces. Many Muslim towns and cities endured an ever changing procession of conquerors; British, French, Italian, German, American. At no time were these people ever considered other than pawns in the greater scheme of the western powers. Their homes, mosques, hospitals, schools and farms were obliterated. Their wells were poisoned and their religious shrines turned to rubble. Many children not killed were left maimed and orphaned.
These people had the misfortune of their ancestors making their homes in lands that were to be later colonized by Europeans. European armies then laid waste to the region as they fought battles begun across the Mediterranean, battles that were of little concern to the Muslim. One of the many devastated Muslim towns, offering little more than strategic interest to both Allied and Axis alike, was Medina, the second holiest Islamic city, after Mecca. How would the perspective of a Muslim survivor of that period be any different than that of someone who survived 9/11? How can their objections have less value than ours?
Are we intellectually, culturally and morally superior to these people? Because we have knowledge of the ‘truth’ as we find it in our religious and cultural traditions does this automatically place all other people in the unfortunate position of being ‘losers’? It is interesting to me that many Christians reach back to those parts of the Bible that they would (incorrectly) take to condone war and violence, yet those same Christians accuse the Koran of being a violent book. Mohammed believed that Jesus was not given enough time on this earth to present a systematic process for following his path to God. Islam believes that God gave the Koran to the people to provide just such a framework. I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in the Gospels, and exclusive pursuit of either of the other two ways (though not without value) can often lead to distortion, misunderstanding, fundamentalism, legalism, judgmentalism and finally hatred.
As stated on Crescentlife.com, a Muslim webpage: “Terrorists who persecute innocent people because of their faith are not welcome – their use of Islam as a scapegoat, does not make Islam what they portray it to be. “ If we can agree with the spirit of that premise, and also see there can be a fine line separating terrorism and military action, then it may prove interesting when we apply this same standard to Christians.