Islamic Violence

ImageAmericans 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.


ImageThere’s a trend I’ve noticed, one that I’m sure psychologists have categorized and codified, but I don’t know what they call it.

When people see something horrible, or wicked, or deviant, we come up with a grouping for those responsible for said malfeasance.  We call people “crazy” in order to create a safe, fenced in group from which we have just separated ourselves.  In childhood there are “bad guys,” which is an awfully neat line for an incredibly undefined population.  More than one commentator pointed out that the American media used “insurgents” for what we called, during the American Revolution, “patriots.” Categorizing gives power to the one who makes the categories.  It gives us the power to protect ourselves.

In the wake of the terrorist act at the Boston marathon, there is now a desperate longing for explanation.  What degree of mad ideologizing could lead to such an act of hatred?  People are already eagerly anticipating a category into which that person can be put.  We will most likely brand this person with some variation on “zealous” or “disturbed.”

But what’s strange to me with this particular event is the urgency I’ve seen from a number of voices to say “Humanity isn’t like this.” There seems to be an express desire to make sure than humanism itself is defended.  Comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted a commentary on this which got widely circulated, and he uses language like “a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population” and “a tiny sliver” versus “a vast majority.” The culprit is a lack of tolerance, and the guilty party is not most of us, because humanity is not “inherently evil.”

At some point each of us will need to wake up to the fact that we can’t create enough categories of brokenness to make ourselves a safe exception.  We are in the broken category, the untrustworthy category, the hateful category, and the evil category.  Some degree of socialization and behavior modification may keep us out of the Lord of the Flies, but it’s not our inherent capacity to choose to be good.

There’s only one category that we ought to strive for, and that category is “forgiven.” It will keep us from the kind of hubris that we use to take power over others, write them off, and separate ourselves from them.  Forgiven is a fundamentally evangelical category – it always makes room for someone else.