Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

Islamic mosqueIt is commonly asserted these days that Islam is a religion of peace. Standing in the smoldering remains that had been the Twin Towers, George W. Bush talked about evil men hijacking a great religion. Our current president doggedly refuses to allow the terroristic acts committed in recent days to be described as “Islamic.” We must speak instead generically against terrorism or violence in all its forms.

On one level this is perfectly understandable for a politician. Politicians are called to speak in a political context, and a president represents all the people of the United States (in theory), and this would include as many as seven million American Muslims. It is also a reality that we live in a pluralistic culture and that we aren’t ever allowed to say anything “intolerant” (Intolerance is our culture’s only recognized sin!). We can’t, says our president, talk about Islamic terrorism because that could send the wrong message – that we somehow believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or that Islam is somehow inherently a religion of violence.

I can understand all of this, but it all stinks. And it is also wrong-headed on a great many levels. The reality is that western civilization is being confronted by many different terroristic threats on many different fronts, at home and abroad, which share one common element: Islam. Whether it is Al Shabaab in Somalia/Kenya, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or old-fashioned Al Qaeda in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan (not to mention the likes of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and state sponsors like Iran), we are confronted by terror that has one common feature – it is Islamic. Domestically, well beyond 9-11, we have the Boston Marathon bombing and the “workplace violence” of the Fort Hood attacks (to name just a few – more could be named, and, I fear, will yet be named). What do these have in common? Terror, yes, but also adherence to Islam.

While it is certainly indisputably true that most Muslims in the world are not terrorists, it is equally indisputably true that the vast majority of terrorists are Muslim. What do we make of this? Is it as incidental to their terrorism as our president would imply? No more important than the fact that they are mostly male, or young? Or is there something about Islam itself that gives rise to this kind of violence? Anyone taking a halfway serious look at the question can easily answer the question.

The truth is that violence is not something incidental to Islam; it is at the core of the Muslim identity – the teachings of the Koran (or Quran, if you prefer) and the person of the “prophet” Muhammad (or whatever spelling of his name you prefer). I know that many people reading this will be up in arms at my arrogant presumption at this point. Who am I to speak to what Muslims believe? I’m not a Muslim. No. That’s true. But I can read – history, theology, the news. And I’ve read the Koran. I know what it says.

The Koran isn’t a long document. It is roughly the length of the New Testament. Nor is it a particularly difficult document to read. Its message is not a complex one. Its central message is that all people everywhere must submit to Allah and his prophet Muhammad. If they do so peacefully, great. They are then free to pay some extra taxes and live as second class citizens. If they don’t…well, then things get violent. Take this verse: So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, smite the necks; then, when you have overcome them, make (them) prisoners, and afterwards (set them free) as a favour or for ransom till the war lay down its burdens. 47:4. The message here is a straightforward one, as any sword-wielding ISIS jihadi would agree. Submit, convert, or we’ll remove your head (and kill your family, rape your daughter, etc.). We can say a lot of things about this verse, but one thing we can’t say is that it reflects well upon Islam as a religion of peace.

Now some will here object that I’m yanking a verse out of its context. I am. That’s true. The problem with proof-texting, though, is that you can remove a verse from its context and make it say something inconsistent with that context. This I did not do. The Koran as a whole is a book with a particularly violent overtone, championing violence against unbelievers, and suggesting peace only in contexts devoid of opposition (which means contexts in which no one challenges the truth of Islam – a hijab for every woman! Ignorance and oppression for all schoolgirls! A scimitar in the hand of every young man! Glorious paradise!). Don’t believe me? Go read it.

Not only does the Koran teach this, but Muhammad lived it. Over the next 100 years he and his successors cut a bloody path of destruction across the entire Middle East, North Africa (all the way into Spain), and over Asia Minor into Europe (turned back in what is today France at the Battle of Tours in 732). Violence is not some sort of modern aberration, a twisting of the central message of Islam. It is the central message of Islam. Those many hundreds of millions of non-violent Muslims are frankly pretty nominal Muslims (thanks be to God!). The worst thing for the world would be for these folks to take their religion more seriously.

In stark contrast to Islam, Christianity is a religion of peace. At the core of our faith is not Muhammad and a sword, but Christ and a cross. He didn’t come to kill, but to die. He didn’t say, “Avenge!” but “Forgive.” He didn’t say “Go and Kill!” but (as Bonhoeffer famously paraphrases him) “Come and die.” He is the Prince of Peace; the Fruit of the Spirit is peace; the Utopia he promises is the place where “Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Is 9:5). The central ethic of the Christian faith isn’t hatred and destruction of our enemy, but love for our enemy: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44). There is a religion of peace. It isn’t Islam.