Islam: Beauty or Beast?

In my research for my stories about gay teens, I see rant after rant by people who are obviously stark-raving terrified of homosexuality. And when I look up from the question of sex, I see a very similar fear concerning religion and, most specifically, fear by Christians in the U.S. of Islam. Fear can often be mitigated through education. I've seen it reduce homophobia in many cases. However, in my own efforts to educate myself about Islam, I'm not learning much that would mitigate fear. (Please note: I am talking about the religion of Islam and its scripture, not about Muslims. The scripture itself is immutable, but its interpretation by individual Muslims can vary a great deal.)

Rana Elmir*, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan, is an American Muslim tired of being expected to apologize for the actions of Islamic terrorists. In her words, “…terrorism is not mine. I will not claim it, not even through an apology.”

Upon reading her recent Washington Post article, my mind went in several directions at once. To try and clear the muddle, I created a couple of mental experiments.

  1. If I were a devout Christian, and some wacko, self-proclaimed Christians did something horrid like picket the funerals of gay people who had died, would I feel obliged to apologize to the LGBT community or anyone else on behalf of Christianity? My answer: No; people like the Westboro Baptist Church do not, in my opinion, represent anything the least bit Christian; they are an offshoot, off-their-heads splinter group.
  2. If I had an extended family of, say, 200 people, and three or four of them committed crimes similar to those of the so-called Islamic State, would I feel obliged to apologize on behalf of my family? My answer: Not unless there was something like a family creed that supported those actions.

So, do my exercises help me agree—or not—with Elmir’s position? In the first example, my empathy with her is clear. She considers the so-called Islamic State to be as far from true Islam as I believe the WBC to be from true Christianity. But the second example does not give me the same clarity.

Given my Western background and early years in the Episcopal church, my understanding of Islam is only as deep as a relatively superficial examination can be. I think I know more about the religion and its history than most of my acquaintances, but that’s not saying a whole heck of a lot. And I’m frequently confronted with new and important aspects that I hadn’t been aware of. For example, although the scripture is not written in chronological order according to the life of the Prophet Mohammad, the verses that appear in surahs with higher numbers in the scripture are said to supersede those with lower numbers, which appear earlier in the Qur'an. And as the Prophet moved from Mecca to Medina, the need for fighting to protect himself and his followers grew; so the violence of their lives grew, and the wording—and the intent—of the revelations followed suit. The intensifying of the concept of “us against them” drove this change.

What does this mean for today’s Muslims? Elmir makes the case that the vast majority of people killed by the so-called Islamic State have been Muslims, not Christians or followers of other (or of no) religions. While she is correct, I think it’s necessary to add “so far.” It’s “so far” because we know that what all Islamists (that is, extremists) want is an end state in which the caliphate is global and sharia law applies everywhere to everyone. We know that the terrorists are unafraid of dying and killing to achieve this end state. And we know that these extremists point to their scripture to justify this goal.

photo credit: <a href="">Taj Gatehouse Geometry</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

So what is the non-Muslim world to make of a religion whose scripture appears to support both peaceful Mulsims like Elmir and fanatics like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Do we compare this dichotomy to the fact that a great number of self-proclaimed Christians advocate gun ownership so they can kill the “bad men with guns?”

I don’t think the comparison holds. The Christian Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, was a pacifist in almost every example we have of his behavior, and he was famous for telling his follows to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. Qur’anic scripture instructs followers to kill enemies and to punish—violently and horribly—anyone who disobeys sharia law. If the supposed “Christians” who advocate shoot-em-up-bang-bang activity were to follow their own scripture, they would be turning their guns/swords into plowshares. If a Muslim picks up a gun, he or she can point to any number of verses in the later surahs of the Qur’an that not only justify that action, but that actually require it.

It is not for me to say whether Islam is an inherently violent religion, or whether it’s a religion of love and peace. But I think it is the job of people like Elmir who understand Islam and the Qur’an far better than I do to explain to the non-Muslim world how this dichotomy can be possible and—even more importantly—how it can be believed.

Some Muslims are trying very hard to help. Irshad Manji (a peaceful Muslim) founded the organization Moral Courage to help people speak up, in spite of their fears, when they know something is wrong. Looking through the organization's site, however, has not helped me understand the dichotomy of peace vs. violence in Islam. There was one beautiful effort recently, though. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Muslim Mona Haydar and her husband Sebastian Robins set themselves up on a sidewalk in front of a public library. They offered free coffee and doughnuts to passersby who responded to their two large signs: "Ask a Muslim" and "Talk to a Muslim." The response was wildly positive, and the couple are considering repeating the experiment.

So while I understand why Elmir doesn’t want to apologize for the behavior of people she considers to be outside of her religion, I do think she and others like Haydar should do what they can to help non-Muslims understand the contradiction. Only then will we have any hope of quelling the rampant fearmongering of politicians and supposed religious leaders who would paint all Muslims with the same brush.

My challenge to Rana Elmir and other peaceful Muslims: No apology needed. But help us to understand.

*Rana Elmir is the deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan and lectures on issues related to Islamophobia, free speech, and the intersection of race, faith, and gender.