Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let's Begin a Conversation about Islam

I have been thinking about Islam lately. I’ll admit that this present interest comes from watching Body of Lies, with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. (The movie was OK, but not incredibly successful.) However, this religious question has been on my mind for much longer.

I suppose the major question I have been posing and churning goes something like: Is there an inherent connection between the violence of terrorism – and all that goes along with this – and the religion of Islam? I know that I need to read up on this. I don’t know how long the Koran is, but I feel like I should begin here. All of this is simply to say that my spouting here is really critically unexamined and un-researched. However, most of my points aren’t final points or conclusions; they’re simply common-sense observations, most of them making analogies to my own understanding of Christianity and Catholicism.

Observation #1: Perhaps there are certain hostile and violent words, commands, or themes in the Koran or other important Islamic texts. I’m not sure, but let’s accept for now that there is. Well, there are certain things in the Bible that we outright reject, at least in its literal, contemporary interpretation. For example, the Bible says to kill adulterers and homosexuals, as well as other potentially disturbing things. As a believing Catholic, I know that we need to understand the social context of these Biblical passages, as well as other important interpretative information granted me by being Catholic and understanding Catholicism. However, why wouldn’t this be the case for the Islamic texts? Why are we willing to accept that certain hostile Biblical passages aren’t inherently hostile, but aren’t able to do this for Islamic texts?

Observation #2: There are incredibly violent and disturbing things done by people living now and recently in the name of Islam. But let’s remember our Christian history, particularly the Crusades. There was a lot done that was outright horrible in the name of the Christian God. We are able to see that these actions aren’t really connected to the Christian religion. However, we are hesitant to do this for the actions of the Islamists today, perhaps because it’s more present to us. But the Crusades were present at one time. Why are we able to separate the actions of specific Christians – the Crusades, sex-scandal, etc. – from their religious beliefs, even when these beliefs informed the action (according to the misinformed Christian), but not do this for Islam?

Observation #3: To combine #1 and #2, aren’t there specific passages in the Koran that disallow the killing of innocent people? Should we see the actions of certain contemporary Islamists as in contradiction to their religion? If not, why not?

Observation #4: I’m not sure if you took a poll throughout the whole world, what percentage of Muslims would consider themselves extreme, or extreme in our sense of the word. However, I’m pretty positive that this would only apply to a very small percentage in America. Therefore, in terms of a national dialogue, why are outsiders allowed to make assumptions and conclusions based on other peoples’ religion, people who disagree with these assumptions and conclusions? To make another analogy, I vehemently hate when people make claims about Christianity or Catholicism. When people say that my religion is oppressive or sexist or irrational or other such things, I like to say or think, “No, you don’t understand the religion if you think that. In fact, who are you, a non-Christian, to make claims about my religion?” So who are we to make claims about Islam, as outsiders? Why would I trust my word, even if it were more researched, over the word of someone in my own country who actually practices the religion?

Observation #5: I think one of the problems with this whole discussion is the lack of centrality in Islam. They don’t have hierarchy and structures like Catholicism. For example, it’s pretty easy, even if the answer is nuanced and complex, to find out what the Catholic Church teaches on a specific topic. We don’t have this with Islam. However, we treat Islam as if it were centralized, as if it were one static set of doctrine and dogma. I’m not sure where I’m going with this observation, other than saying that this is an important piece of information that we need to recognize and respond to in a critical manner.

Observation #6: In all of my analogies (I think there were 3), there are differences between the Islamic and Christian examples. Every analogy limps. So I know someone can respond and say something like, “Yeah, but Christianity is different than Islam because of X; and therefore, your argument fails to make its complete point.” I’m sure this is true at times. However, are we faced with differences to the extent that we, as outsiders of a multi-faceted world religion, can properly and reasonably conclude that this religion is inherently violent, basing our ideas on the actions and words of flawed and sinful people and the potentially inaccurate interpretation of another religion’s holy book?

Observation #7: When it comes to this discussion, I think the public and political focus should be on the things that we see as incorrectly practiced by people of this religion, and not on the religion itself. For example, probably most Muslims in America disagree with the statement that Islam is inherently violent; but they would agree that whipping or killing a girl that is raped, instead of supporting her and punishing the man, is seriously disturbed. We might disagree whether Islam “gets you” to this social practice or not, but we all agree it is wrong. (Side note: I see this sort of social practice as a “holding on” to ancient social ideals more than a religious thing. For example, a raped girl in ancient Greece (and Rome, too, I think) was defiled and better off dead.) The discussion of the inherent qualities of Islam should be explored, but in a more theoretic, philosophic, and theological manner, rather than a constant conversation in current political discourse. This leads to misinformed and/or lacking discussions.

Observation #8: Of course, what I need to do now is research more. I need to read the Koran, or pieces of it; and I need to read commentary from all perspectives: biased and attempted objectivity.


  1. Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one interesting story about the Islam controversy. It comes from one who has left Islam. I suppose it would be good to hear the side of someone still in the religion. But it would help a person know the questions that should be asked.

  2. A couple thoughts strike me, and they possibly fit in as separate #'s to your list than as a response.
    1) A recent talk by Mark Steyn (a "strident conservative"), in which he remarks that non-radical Muslims share with radicals the desire for universal Islam. I'm not sure whether he's right (he was speaking about immigrant Muslims particularly); but if he is, does it matter? I believe he was speaking to the sometimes noted fact that few prominent Muslims speak out in condemnation of the radical interpretation of jihad. Christians want universal Christendom, perhaps, but also by their logic believe that Christendom is undone if it is built by the sword ("those who live by the sword...").

    2) Benedict XVI, in Light of the World, urges dialogue with those practitioners of Islam (for instance, in sub-Saharan Africa) who interpret Koran to be lived out in peaceful coexistance with non-Muslims.

    I think you raise an important question in that, while the faith without reason, the God who is pure will and thus determines morality through his will, of radical Islam is a formidable foe and one which seems to defy dialogue, these beliefs would be (and have been) as dangerous when superimposed upon the Judeo-Christian God.