Another day, another terrorist attack. And the hills of social media are alive with the sounds of often well meaning people telling us how this has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace, or that the perpetrators are not real Muslims because Islam forbids killing.
Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and most want the same things that we all do: to live in peace and lead good lives. Most are likewise shocked and disgusted when somebody goes on a murdering rampage shouting “this is for Allah”. But to pretend that what keeps happening on our streets and public places with a sickening regularity has nothing to do with Islam is a pious denial of reality, on par with arguing that the Crusades, witch-hunts and persecution of heretics had nothing to do with Christianity.
Of course it does. It has a lot to do with a certain interpretation of Islam (as it had to do with a certain interpretation of Christianity), which sometimes in history has been the dominant interpretation, sometimes not, but never an insignificant one. You might not like that interpretation, you might think it’s incorrect, you might oppose it – you might think it’s not the “real Islam” (or the “real Christianity”) – but it does not mean it’s not there and doesn’t attract a significant numbers of adherents around the world.
The Koran is a big book. It contains peaceful and tolerant messages, but it also contains violent and intolerant ones. For every verse you quote about the prohibition on killing innocent people or there being no compulsion in Islam, I can quote you one about killing the infidels. Koranic experts date some parts of the scripture from the time that Mohammed was on a war path against his enemies, others when he was trying to coexist with non-believers. The debate has raged over the past 1400 years which parts come first, which are more important, whether one has been superseded by the other, or should be interpreted in light of the historical context and not as an immutable word of God as applicable in the 7th century Arabia as it is in the 21st century Manchester. The debate has not been resolved, but there is enough material in the Koran for both the mystically minded Sufis and the Islamist jihadis to justify their own paths to God.
The Bible is no different, except several times longer than the Koran, which means there is even more material for people to draw on for their own interpretations of what it means to be a Christian – there is the vengeful Yahweh who orders his people to commit genocide and there is the meek Jesus with his Sermon on the Mount and death on the cross. Christians have been debating the meaning of their sacred text even longer than Islamic scholars theirs.
Enough to say that over its 2000 years, Christianity has produced both St Francis of Assisi and Torquemada, the Sisters of Charity and the Crusaders, flagellants and Borgia Popes. All have found their justification in the Bible, as well as the justification against their opponents, rivals and enemies. Another well-meaning soul has written on Twitter today that if you don’t have problems distinguishing the KKK from Christianity, you shouldn’t have a problem distinguishing terrorism from Islam. Well, yes, except that when the KKK was formed, half of the United States – Christians all – firmly subscribed to the belief that slavery was an institution sanctioned by the Bible and as such a part of God’s immutable plan for this world. Today no one holds that view – and that’s precisely the point.
Much ink and blood has been spilled in history over the correct interpretation of God’s Word. We’ve had religious wars, schisms, persecutions; we’ve had socio-religious movements like the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; we’ve had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, secularism. By and large, Christians today, certainly those in the developed world, have a very different worldview to what their brothers and sisters have had in the year 500, 1500, or for that matter 1950. In my humble view, the changes have been overall for the better. I appreciate faith and spirituality as much as the next person (or perhaps, considering how secular the West now is, more) but I wouldn’t want to live in the Middle Ages.
It is often said that what the global Islam needs is its own Reformation. This is incorrect. Islam has had its reformation, and it has been the Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis and other “fundamentalist” who wanted to strip away Islam’s worldly patina and return the religion to its “unpolluted” Koranic basics. What Islam needs is its own Enlightenment to dampen misdirected religious fervour and privatise the religion. This will be more difficult to achieve than in Christianity, since Islam comes as a complete package, which does not recognise the separation of the mosque and the state. But it will nevertheless have to happen, and happen soon, otherwise we will have the “pray for…” hashtags for decades to come – or worse, because at some point the majority will have enough of candle-lit vigils. In the meantime, to pretend that Al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups have nothing to do with Islam might make you feel better about your own tolerance and open-mindedness, but it is actually counter-productive, as it marginalises and shuts down the necessary debate within Islam itself, between those who see the violent jihad as a virtual sixth pillar of their religion, and those who want it to go the way of the Crusades – out of the headlines and into history books.