“If anyone denies a verse of the Koran,” says a verse of the Koran, “it is permissible to behead him.” Not exactly promising for interfaith understanding, is it?
I came across that in a book by a Jesuit priest published in 1963, long before today’s tensions between Islam and the West. When I cited it to a liberal friend, he commented that it may be due to Islam’s early struggle for survival against heavy odds, not applicable to Islam today.
Well, that may explain the origins of such verses, and for most Muslims they may be mere vestiges, as the fiercer passages of the Old Testament are for most Jews today. But whatever gave rise to them in the first place, they were written into the sacred text and there they still stand.
And more than a thousand years later many believers still take them very literally. It’s no use explaining to such folk that the Prophet may have written them when in a foul mood. Whatever he wrote is, according to Islam, eternally true. If it seems savage to unbelievers, well, the will of Allah is inscrutable. Sentimental (Western) public opinion and human reason mean nothing. The believer regards them with utter contempt.
Some people still take the Old Testament’s more problematic words literally too, though, oddly enough, they are more apt to be Protestant Zionists than Jews. Holy books are always subject to explosive interpretations, never more so than now. The Middle East has many states, but few of them seem to be blue states.
Even to call Islam a “religion” may be misleading, because the modern West separates the sacred and the secular so completely that hardly anything remains sacred. Religion has become a mere compartment of human existence, excluded from public life. Islam recognizes no such separation. Everything belongs to Allah, and woe to the unbeliever.
This is a formula for mutual incomprehension and endless conflict. Western policymakers and diplomats have traditionally left religion to theologians, so recent developments have caught them flat-footed.
You can’t reduce something as huge as Islam to a few handy quotations, but we had better recognize that its view of the world has little in common with, say, Anglicanism. To take only one symptom, we seldom hear of Anglican suicide bombers. If such creatures exist at all, they aren’t normative for their coreligionists, and they find little encouragement in even the most incendiary parts of the Book of Common Prayer.
The West’s response to militant Islam tends to be alarm and horror. It hardly has categories to describe it, so it falls back on such inadequate terms as terrorism and Islamofascism, which make about as much sense as Islamovegetarianism. In fact, such words don’t get you very far at all. Fascism was a brief and superficial thing compared with the vast and ancient thing that is Islam; it flared out after a few violent years, in a way Islam is most unlikely to do.
How, then, to deal with the faith of a billion people, which we have only recently paid any attention to? More cautiously, obviously, than our rulers have done so far, barging into the Middle East with plans of conquest, alias “democracy” (complete with equal rights for women!). We offer to supplant their old traditions with our latest fads, and then we are disappointed when they resist.
Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush scoffed at nation-building, in the wise realization that a nation isn’t something you “build.” The Communists used to speak of “building a new society,” but they succeeded only in destroying most of the old one. How did Bush manage to forget what he once knew?
I have no idea, but forget it he did, and his “global democratic revolution” is (or was; he has muted this theme lately) a close equivalent of the Communist project that survives, after a fashion, only in Cuba. If you would see his monument, go to Baghdad and look around you. The Iraq war has made the Vietnam war look like a smooth operation.
Bush and his team have failed to distinguish between the superficial evil of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which was easily toppled, and the abiding reality of an Islamic society, which doesn’t welcome reform by unbelievers. By now they must be learning the difference.