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Islamist terror and Islamic culture

Some say there's no connection

January 2015

Are Islamic states whose national religion preaches intolerance of alternative religious interpretations blameless when their citizens join cults that extend intolerance to fanatical levels? Would not religious extremism be reduced by Muslim nations embracing a modern toleration of religious pluralism, as Christianity has?
We often hear it claimed, as a defence of Islam, that "Islamist" terrorism has no connection with Islam, which teaches peace, not violence. And we often see western political leaders politely nodding that yes, it's important to distinguish "Islamism," which is bad, from Islam, which is good. But it's hard to ignore the fact that the "Islamist" terrorists have all sprouted from the soil of Islam; all come from Muslim cultures or Muslim communities. Their religious beliefs have been formed in Islamic schools and mosques, and they claim Islam and the commandments of the Quran as the inspiration and justification for their outrages. So are they wrong, the terrorists, when they say they're defending Islam? Don't they know what religion they're fighting for? Certainly, their view of Islam is different from that of their more conventional fellow Muslims, but that they are grounded in Islam, and that they represent a particularly vicious branch of Islam, cannot be doubted. No matter how often we hear or say it, denial that Islamists are a part of Islam – and are a serious problem in Islam – can't be taken seriously.

Rather than an anomalous phenomenon, is not Islamist terrorism and its philosophy a direct outgrowth of the religious environment in contemporary Muslim states? There are few Muslim countries where intolerance toward other faiths – particularly other sects of Islam – is not encouraged by both the religious establishment and the state. We see intolerance and even hatred toward those who hold different beliefs systematically taught in the schools, nourished in the mosques, and practiced in the culture. It is not surprising that cultures that preach and practice intolerance as official policy breed a violent religious intolerance in some members. What has been disappointing, if not so surprising, has been that these nations have failed to acknowledge Islamist terror as an outgrowth of their own cultures and religion, and have largely failed to take any measures either to discourage recruitment to violent sects or to move their cultures toward a modern religious tolerance.

Can we reasonably expect rapid liberalizing changes in Muslim cultures, to remove the breeding ground for Islamist terrorists? Probably not, though we can hope for a quicker development of religious accommodation than that which Christianity experienced in its history. Christian Europe went through a centuries-long, bloody period of sectarian violence, especially beginning with the Reformation period in the 16th century. Fortunately, the west may at last have absorbed the idea that everyone has a right to his own faith.

Developing religious tolerance is part of the maturing process of a religion. It takes time to accept the modern notion that a "belief" is just that: it's a belief, not a demonstrable truth. To believe something is not the same as to know it. What I believe to be true may indeed be true, but it may also not be true, and that holds true (I believe) for every religious belief. It's neither easy nor pleasant to give up the comfortable idea that what one believes must be the one holy truth, and that others are deluded, but it's necessary in order to welcome those of other faiths within one's culture, and to wish them peace and joy in their beliefs. And that is the true measure of tolerance.

I wish I could give a prescription for the religious liberalization and liberation of Islam. Of course I can't. It used to be a tolerant religion, at least toward non-Muslim faiths, though it seems to always have had difficulties accepting alternative interpretations of Islam. Though I'm not Christian myself, I would point to the relationships of Christian denominations as an example for Muslims to emulate: Where I live, in an ordinary small American city, there are houses of worship of every conceivable religion. There are temples, synagogues, mosques, and a dazzling variety of Christian churches. There are churches for Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and for Protestants of every stripe: Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Unitarians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, not to mention Mormons and churches catering to specific national or ethnic groupings. On my street my neighbors belong to many of these communities of belief. In some cases I know the religion of my neighbors, in other cases I don't. Does this matter? Not at all. We're friendly neighbors who discuss the weather, politics, and weeds in the lawn. I don't care about their faith, and they don't care about mine. Equally, the houses of worship are friendly neighbors with one another, often sponsoring musical events that attract people of all faiths.

Why does this solution of tolerance and good neighborly relations among faiths and among their adherents seem so unlikely in some Islamic societies? The answer, it seems to me, is that the religious power structure of Islam has come to dominate the civic polity and civil life in the cultures where it is a majority religion. It has made Islam into the monolithic public culture which brooks no alternatives. Where politics and lawmaking should be an inclusive and open public search for solutions to social needs, where education should be an unfettered quest for knowledge, where written and spoken expression should reflect the free flow of ideas and the arts demonstrate freedom of emotional expression, the priestly power structure has arrogated to itself the power to determine all aspects of social life, and through fear and dogmatic censorship has darkened and stunted social and human development, to the great detriment of these captive cultures.

To expand on the example of the history of Christianity: during many hundreds of years the Church of Rome ruled Europe in a reign of terror. Emperors fell on their knees before the Pope, who – they believed – could send them to Hell by excommunicating them from the Church. This fear was enforced on the people of every state, where the priests assumed power of life and death over every citizen; a few words counter to the Church's teachings could get you executed by the priests under their own law. But when Martin Luther proclaimed in 1517 what many already suspected – that the priests and the Pope did not have the power they claimed – the Pope discovered he only had power over those who continued to believe in him, who were fewer and fewer. Today religious institutions have become largely irrelevant in European politics. The freedoms and progress that have characterized the west came after the unquestioned authority of the priests was overturned in favor of free enquiry and expression. This same path – without the religious wars that marred the Christian transformation, and without the wait of centuries – is available to Muslim cultures today. The civil leadership in these cultures can clarify and restrict clerical authority and embrace diversity; it is the path to tolerance, peace, and progress.

May Islam learn from the historical mistakes of Christianity that accommodation to, and appreciation of, the beliefs of others must come eventually; much horror can be avoided by achieving it sooner rather than later. May leaders of Muslim nations be motivated to develop a new tradition of understanding for those who find different ways to worship the deity, be they Sunni, Shia, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or whatever their choice or tradition. Teaching children love instead of hate should go far toward easing such religious terror as is currently infesting much of the world.

© 2015 H. Paul Lillebo

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