Americans are finally waking up to the fact that Islam is a worldwide phenomenon, and not just “over there,” although we seem to believe we are the first to have discovered this and are going at it like Marco Polo. American media commentary about Islam would make you think that you were listening to the first broadcast from the moon. “What’s it like?” America asks. “We will tell you,” says the news.
For my part, I’ve read the Koran twice cover to cover, which is far less than many Muslims, and far more than most Christians.
The million dollar question today is whether or not Islam is inherently violent. “Is it?” you are asking. “I will tell you,” says I.
There are two popular lines. One is the ranting and insistent “Yes!” which has on its side a vast array of very obvious evidence, namely, that some of the most terrorist-producing countries are Muslim. Muslim countries are not good to women. Honor killings are still practiced in some Muslim countries. The people who point this out usually do so without much nuance.
The second popular voice is a more calm but less sensible, “No.” It’s the claim that Muslims are just people like everyone else who have a peaceful religion like Christianity or Buddhism. They’re misrepresented by extremists the way sophomoric cynics try to group all Christians with Westboro Baptist Church. This view is based on hope.
The Koran came to be when Muhammed entrenched the ethical code of the 7th century Arabian desert in an eternal religious being whom he claimed was speaking to him. Thus Muslim ethics will always be tied to the nature of daily life in that cultural context. In that context, if a tribe attacked your tribe, and you did not retaliate, you signaled weakness. Thus the rival tribe would feel empowered to attack again, to take your women as property, to drive your people away. “An eye for an eye” is the teaching of the Koran. Forgiveness is encouraged only insofar as it causes a person to reform. But territorial defense is essential.
Is that violent? Sort of. It’s also sort of basic, common-sense justice that you would expect of a culture that isn’t governed by a bureaucratic legal system. It’s not the same as the Christian ethic of turning the other cheek and repaying evil with good. It’s not the same as Christianity, and the two are not just different paths to the same God. But it also isn’t crazy.
The problem is that masses of Muslims throughout the world are told that the West has already taken eyes and teeth from them in wars of incursion. The sexual morality we dispense through our movies and our scandalous celebrities is fairly convincing proof that we’re not reforming. So in a cross-section of the Muslim world, there is a wholesale belief that the West has attacked. If they don’t respond in kind in some way, it will signify weakness and allow for further offense. That’s just the way of the desert. So rather than demonizing Islam, take its ethic for what it is: pre-Enlightenment myopia. Combine that with abject poverty and you have something that is potentially volatile. However, it isn’t of necessity violent.