Of Gods and Monsters

First of all, Gods and Monsters is the name of an excellent movie I saw years ago that has nothing to do with this post. Credit where credit is due.

Cover of book, "Battle for God," by Karen Armstrong

Cover of book, “Battle for God,” by Karen Armstrong

What I really want to talk about right now is Islamist terrorism and also a book by Karen Armstrong. Yesterday one of my Facebook friends–and of course I cannot remember who, nor can I re-find the post–posted a short article, heavily illustrated by appealing cartoons, about the difference between Muslims, Islamists, and Islamist terrorists. The three groups were illustrated by a trio of figures:

  • A woman wearing a hijab, saying “no thanks, I don’t eat pork.”
  • A man wearing a turban and white robes, saying “Eating pork is a sin! You should never eat pork!”
  • A man wearing a turban and black robes and waving a machine gun, saying “I am a raving lunatron!” Or words to that effect (remember, I’m describing this from memory).

According to the author, a Muslim lives according to his or her faith, an Islamist wants everyone else to have the same faith, and an Islamist terrorist uses violence to try to force everyone to have the same faith.

The author went on to assert that although not all Muslims are Islamists (let alone terrorists), there are aspects of that religion that are inherently violent. The point of the article was that we (including those of us who are Muslims) need to stop conflating Islamaphobia with honest and thoughtful criticism of the religion.

On the one hand, I applaud this author’s effort to foster discussion. But on the other hand, he or she missed some important points. And so, I’m using this space today to join the discussion the author (whose name I do not know) has begun.

My issue with the article described above boils down to three points. Here they are, in no particular order:

Proselytism is not a character flaw

The author of the article defines an Islamist as someone who believes that everyone should be Muslim, as illustrated by the turbaned figure declaring that eating pork is a sin. An Islamist terrorist is one willing to take up arms to make the point. A good Muslim, apparently, is willing to live and let live.

This construction depends on the erroneous (but oddly common) assumption that religious matters are, by definition, arbitrary. Mainstream secular America regards the choice to eat pork as arbitrary. Jews, Muslims, and vegetarians are free to abstain, but we are not free to suggest others adopt our ways (I say “we” because, under most circumstances, I am an ethical vegan).

Choose an issue that doesn’t seem arbitrary—say, cannibalism—and the tune changes dramatically. Objecting to cannibalism isn’t seen as closed-minded or rude. Calling in armed gunmen (cops, in this case) to stop the slaughter of babies for food is not seen as terrorism.

The important thing to remember is that, to a religious person, religion includes deeply moral questions. An observant Muslim might explain that she avoids eating pork because she loves and obeys God—but she also avoids eating babies because she loves and obeys God.

The problem with Islamist terrorists is not that they take up arms against sin but that they are so very wrong about what sin is.

Islam is not strictly personal

Although Christianity has a long and ugly tradition of state-sponsored religious coercion, it is, at its heart, a fundamentally unworldly religion. The Kingdom of God is within. Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s. When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. There is support here for the idea that religion should be a personal, private matter.

But according to Karen Armstrong (who is not herself Muslim, by the way), Islam was never supposed to be a personal matter between self and God. From the beginning, Islam was a model for how to run a community, which is why it includes rules for things like how and when to go to war, what to eat and when, and how to treat non-Muslims. While there are certainly individual Muslims who do treat religion as personal, in a Muslim context “how should our country run” is a fundamentally religious question.

Ignoring differences between Christianity and Islam in order to define only the religiously private as real Muslims is at best twisted. I don’t even know if “Islamist” is a Muslim concept. It might be a word invested by the US intelligence community in order to talk about a certain violent ideology.

Religions are more than their literature

The Koran says a lot of things, just as the Gospels say a lot of things and the Torah says a lot of things. Actual Muslims, Christians, and Jews make choices, both individually and as communities, about which of those things they will take seriously—and this is true even of religious groups that claim to follow their sacred texts wholly and literally. Everybody makes choices about what their religion means and these choices shift over time as culture evolves.

For example, the Jewish texts include stories in which God explicitly orders the Chosen People to commit genocide, including the killing of children and the systematic rape of adolescent girls. That doesn’t mean that modern Jews condone such things!

All human cultural groups are like this. If there are passages of the Koran that seem to encourage terrorism, there are also passages that discourage it, and different communities and individuals choose which passages to pay attention to based on their histories, circumstances, and free will.

Muslims don’t disproportionately turn up terrorists

Ok, I don’t actually know this. It’s not like I’ve done a statistical analysis. But history has certainly seen a lot of violent, despicable people who weren’t Muslims. Here in America, we’ve developed a nasty habit of calling any violent Muslim a terrorist, while non-Muslims who do exactly the same thing are called revolutionaries, criminals, or simply mentally ill, depending on circumstance.

So, no, Islam shouldn’t be above criticism, but the premise that Islam is somehow to blame for more than its fair share of violence is questionable at best.

Which brings us back to Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a religious historian. Her book, The Battle for God, is about religious fundamentalism in general, which she defines as a phenomenon common to many religions and a response to specific historic and economic conditions. Not that all fundamentalists are violent, but they do have certain things in common. And while religiously based terrorism is neither good nor helpful, it doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not a uniquely Muslim pathology, nor is it the product of pointlessly evil people who hate freedom.

Since this is a problem we need our elected leaders to cope with somehow, hadn’t we better learn how to think about its causes in ways that make sense?

Read the Book!


About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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