Is Islam inherently violent toward "infidels"?

A friend of mine recently sent me an editorial attributed to Rick Mathes, a Christian minister who works with prison populations. In the editorial, Rick reports a conversation with a Muslim cleric in which he basically causes the Muslim cleric to admit that Islam, as a religion, has an INHERENT duty to wage violent war with "infidels" who are not Muslim. As a religion teacher and Episcopal priest, my friend was wondering what my take on this was. So I wrote the following:

I do not doubt that there are some Muslim leaders in the world-- especially in lawless and economically underdeveloped nations with corrupt "governments"-- who use religious justification to stir people up and get them to commit acts of terror and violence. And such people should be stopped.

And I do not doubt that Rick Mathes has run across such people, especially since he works with prison populations who are prone to violence, lawlessness, and who usually come from situations of economic and social deprivation. I would imagine that violence and hatred in such populations is "the norm", and I thank God for folks like Rick who have the guts to do the tough work of ministry in places like that. I was a social worker for over 6 years working with teens in that population, many of whom were later incarcerated. It is heartbreaking work.

But let me suggest that Rick's experience and perception of Muslims is highly biased toward violence and hatred as a result of the "pool" he swims in every day.

We have over a dozen students at our Episcopal School who are Muslim, one of whom will be the student Battalion Commander of our JROTC Corps of Cadets next year. Let us think if Mathes' description is descriptive in any way of these students, their families, or the mosques they attend. I do not think so.

I know many more Muslims than our school family, including Muslim clerics in San Antonio and Dallas. The view ascribed to those Muslims in Mathes' article in no way can be generalized to those Muslims I have experienced either. And I can tell you from the demographic data I use on a regular basis from multiple sources in my World Religions class, Muslims as a whole do not fit that demographic, especially those who are educated and who are employed as "professionals" in countries with stable infrastructure and judicial systems (such as executives, business owners, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, etc).

Let me put forward an alternate theory that extremism usually has much more to do with economic stability and opportunity, access to education, along with functioning infrastructure and judicial systems. If someone grows up in grinding poverty under the oppression of corrupt or racist or dictatorial governments, without access to any hope or any way to provide for themselves or their families, then they are much more likely to fall prey to someone who incites them with a rhetoric of hatred toward those who are perceived as enemies.

The solution that is often touted is to "bomb them back into the stone age". But most of these Jihadis are already in the stone age. That mostly accounts for why they would be so hopeless, nihilistic, and suicidal as to think that dying with a bomb strapped to their chest is better than living with their loved ones.

Perhaps the solution is not to bomb them into the stone age, but to help provide them a way out of the stone age. Perhaps we can offer access to economic opportunity and education and clean water and healthy food in return for their creating stable, non-corrupt legal systems which allow for free markets to flourish. A person with a family to care for and a stable means of providing for them is not going to strap a bomb on their chest, and they are not going to allow their children to go listen to crackpot zealots telling them to do so. But people who lack means to care for those they love, who are rendered hopeless and helpless by oppression and corruption, they might be desperate enough to listen to such zealots.

Because the truth is that most people are driven by relational and economic concerns more than ideology, and often ideology is little more than a mask put over relational and economic distress. At the end of the day, 95% of the people want to love and to be loved, to be able to care for those they love, and to have a hope that there is a clear path to making their lives tangibly better. And it is only when these basic human desires for health, security and relationships are continually stymied that the large mass of people then resort to imbalanced and violent ideologies as a means to  rectify the injustice. Now, that small group of people leading them may be different. They may be the true zealots, ideologues, demagogues and pretended messiahs, whether their ideology is radical Islam, extremist Christianity, fascism or communism. They may be driven by a craving for power or domination or popularity. But in times of security and abundance such zealots are dismissed as crackpots. It is only during times of injustice and oppression that masses of people listen to them, because they perceive no other way out.

And like I said, this phenomenon is not only found in Islam or only religion. Any ideology-- secular or religious-- can be twisted into an excuse for hatred and violence. It just so happens that our media right now is latching onto radical Islam as the ideological threat. 40 years ago it was Communism. 60 years ago it was Nazism. 100 years ago it was anarchism. As I write this extremist forms of Hinduism are being used to persecute non-Hindus in India, and extremist forms of Buddhism (yes, that exists) are being used to persecute Rohingya in Burma.

And of course Christianity-- or more broadly Christian culture-- has been the basis for horrible violence. From aspects of the Crusades of the Middle Ages, to slavery, to lynchings of blacks by the KKK during segregation, to the system of Apartheid, to the escapades of the Westboro Baptist Church, there is ample evidence that all forms of Christianity can fall prey to extremist ideology. In fact, there are Christian leaders, even now in this Country, who are calling for people to violently wage war against infidels in the name of Christian values. The main difference is that we still have enough economic opportunity in this country that such people are looked upon as crazy and criminal. The author of the "Turner Diaries" which led to the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90's is one example. A more recent example this year is this Christian pastor named Robert Doggart who vowed to wage a holy war and massacre Muslim infidels in New York.

Don't get me wrong. There is a reason why I am a Christian priest. And I do believe that the Christian interpretation of Jesus-- his Divine Incarnation, his sacrificial death, his glorious resurrection-- is the most firm basis for living a life of hope and love. So I'm not saying Islam and Christianity are equivalent.

In fact, I would argue that some forms of religion are easier to steer toward violence than others because of the nature of their "founding fathers". It is comparably easier to steer a religion toward violence if the founder of the religion was "head of state" and thus had to use violence and political power as a head of state. For instance, both Jesus and Buddha were not "heads of state". I would argue that their teachings are much harder to steer toward violence than say, Moses or Joshua or King David (in the Hebrew Bible) or Muhammad (in the Quran) or Krishna and Arjuna (in the Bhagavad Gita). The latter group were political leaders in some form and used political and military force to keep peace and stop oppression, and these uses of force can be interpreted by extremists as justification to "wage war" against the "infidels".

Thus, it is true that there are passages in the Quran that are used by Muslim extremists to harm others. But there are also aspects of the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata that Hindu extremists use to commit violence. And while the teachings of Jesus are largely devoid of teachings that can be twisted toward violence (except cryptic passages like Luke 22:38), the Bible as a whole does have passages that can be used for justification of violence. For instance genocide is arguably in view in the book of Joshua, with Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles coming in a close second, not to mention Exodus and portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy. And even in the New Testament, many zealots in Church history have used places like Romans chapter 13 and the book of Revelation to endorse their blood-stained-dreams.

This is not to say they HAVE to be interpreted in a violent way. Most historic teachers and leaders in all these religions have usually interpreted the warfare images as symbols of spiritual conflict. They usually say that those horrific acts of violence-- if they occurred at all in actual history-- are relegated to a more barbaric and primitive time, and that God has now revealed a way that surpasses such crass physical violence (cf. 1Corinthians 13 for such a view). They will say that these narratives of violence now symbolize the "spiritual warfare" that happens in the heart and soul as we battle spiritual forces of evil and wickedness to strive toward Godlikeness (cf. Ephesians 6 for a Christian take on this).

To take us back to Islam, do you know that in Mainline Islam, there is not ONE but TWO jihads? The lesser jihad and the greater jihad. The greater jihad is NOT the political fight with "infidels". Rather, it is the internal struggle-- the "spiritual warfare"-- to become a better person, who more embodies the grace and compassion and justice of Allah. The greater jihad is the fight in the soul-- the fight we all have-- to become the best version of ourselves.

It is the lesser jihad which deals with political conflict. And the majority of Muslim teachers have interpreted this almost the same as the way Christian thinkers like Aquinas and Augustine have interpreted "just war" theory. Namely, that it is ONLY when injustice has happened and the oppressed need to be defended that it is justified for a legitimate government to take up arms to defend people. It is a minority opinion in Islam-- just as it is a minority opinion in Christianity-- that it is justified to take up arms offensively and make others convert to your religion or die. As the Quran says "Let there be no compulsion in religion" [2:256]

Thus, what I am saying is that every religion has a basis for teaching love, compassion, hope, and justice for all people. And we should encourage that interpretation of each religion which is the most compassionate, most just, most loving, most peace-making, and able to contribute to full human flourishing the most. In other words, part of my job as Christian pastor is not only to encourage Christians to be the best Christ followers they can be, but also in situations where a person is unable or unwilling to consider following Christ as a Christian, I encourage them to practice that version of their religion which is most in accordance with God's Love and grace and mercy. That is what I do here at the school I pastor.

In our country-- land of the free, home of the brave-- we will have Muslim students, bosses, co-workers, neighbors and even friends. Some may be interested in following Christ. But most-- like most of us-- will continue to walk in the faith of their family. Our job is to encourage them to interpret and practice their religion in a way that contributes to a healthy and humane society and contributes to the full flourishing of their children and ours. Our job is also to work together to create a society of justice, where everyone has access to opportunities and education and resources that make this full flourishing a real possibility. In such a society, there will be no room for violent extremists to be taken seriously, because the hope offered in that society will be far greater than the "hope" offered by hateful power-mongers.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.