Can Islam catch up?
It's a question I often hear from tolerant but anxious Christians. Their anxiety is entirely understandable. Islam's extremist offshoots give rise to the most frequent, merciless and vile acts of terrorism in our times.
Hard on the heels of a botched attempt to bomb Times Square comes a sophisticated effort to bring down jumbo jets with cartridge bombs. There seems little reason to doubt that this is the handiwork of al Qaeda.
In the face of such threats, Christians (and Jews, Hindus and others) will ask again, "Can Islam catch up with the moral progress we've made?" The question betrays a misunderstanding of how religions work and people behave.
If by moral progress, we mean treating all people with basic respect and creating more equitable social structures, Christianity has undeniably made moral progress. For example, it no longer burns "witches" or endorses slavery.
On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian West has bombed the bejesus out of Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention Lebanon and the Palestinian territories), killing far more civilians than have died at the hands of Islamic terrorists operating in the West. (Additionally, let us note, more Americans have been killed in these futile wars than died at the hands of Islamic terrorists.) While the war in Iraq is finally winding down (for us, at least), we continue to drop more than 100 tons of bombs per month on Afghanistan.
Did the Bible make us do it? Clearly not. We certainly heard plenty of biblical rhetoric in the campaign for war, but the reasons were much closer to hand than anything in ancient scriptures: the 9/11 attacks, the eagerness of the pro-Israel lobby to see Iraq defanged, the personal animus of George W. Bush toward a dictator who had launched an assassination plot against his father and, not least, the big opportunities for war-profiteering spotted by Halliburton, the Veritas Capital, Blackwater and other buttresses of the clan Bush.
So, why should we suppose that the Islamist terrorists' motives for bombings are any holier than our own? We shouldn't. To think that the Quran causes terrorism is not only to misjudge the scripture but to miss the chance for peace.
Let me say it plainly: To accept that the terrorist masterminds who are warring against the West in the name of Allah are waging a holy war is to give them far too much credit. They have more in common with Lenin and Stalin than with Mohammed. I don't mean that Osama bin Laden is a communist, but rather that he and his ilk are exploiting the Quran in the ruthless pursuit of power, much the way Lenin and Stalin exploited the writings of Marx and Engels to become absolute and absolutely vicious dictators.
Just as thousands of dupes at all levels of society -- even in the British aristocracy -- were lulled into doing the Soviets' dirty work by the promise of a workers' paradise, so today thousands of Muslims are recruited into the horrific game of terrorism by a promise of another paradise, one derived from a mishmash of Quranic verses and contemporary propaganda.
This is, frankly, terrifying. But it is an epic error to blame the source material rather than its exploiters. People have always used scriptures to suit their purposes, whether peaceful or belligerent. Don't take my word for it. Instead, read Robert Wright's landmark book, The Evolution of God.
Wright takes great and truly scholarly pains to illuminate the relationship of theology, morality, politics and technology. What he shows -- quite convincingly -- is that theology does not determine attitudes and behavior, but rather the reverse. At any given time, people in power interpret theology to meet their needs in relation to "facts on the ground."
When the ancient Israelite leaders see an opportunity for conquest, Wright points out, Yaweh is all for it:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations -- the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you -- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. (Deuteronomy 7)
On the other hand, when the Persians have freed the Jews from exile in Babylon and set them back in their lands alongside other members of the Persian empire, Yaweh becomes a "live and let live" sort of god.
It is much the same with the Quran, Wright convincingly argues. When Mohammed is leading his followers in a life-or-death struggle against polytheistic enemies, the corresponding passages of the Koran are bloodthirsty. When the prophet is trying to make alliance with Christians and Jews, the passages are at their most tolerant.
But even at their oft-quoted "kill the infidels" worst, Wright points out, the Quranic injunctions to war do not amount to wholesale commands for contemporary Muslims to commit slaughter, anymore than contemporary Jews are compelled to seek out and destroy Jebusites.
These were specific orders for a specific war against specific polytheists, he says. The proof is in the surrounding passages, which instruct Muslims not to harm those polytheists with whom Mohammed has already made treaties, and in the explicit passages about the salvation of Christians and Jews.
The basic point is that Islam is no more inherently belligerent than any other religion. Sadly, no major religion has managed to remain pacificist, and no nation has gone to war without committing atrocities.
But merely to acknowledge that scriptures don't cause wars is not enough. We have to actively counter the exploitation of scriptures to inspire terror, atrocity and war. Invoking God in your cause is an especially effective way to make others do terrible deeds. Passion is powerful. Words work.
How can Christians of good will do that? Put aside your generalized fears of Islam. Muslims of good will live and work among us and lead lives very much like yours. They play sports, serve in the armed forces, do volunteer work, have family celebrations and so forth. I know. I've lived in the Muslim world, and today I employ Muslims and consider some my friends.They're people, like any other.
So, reject Islamophobia in favor of terror-o-phobia. The enemy is not a certain religion but barbaric practices done in its name. I cannot do better in urging this than to quote President George W. Bush, who for all his tragic mistakes, was absolutely right about one thing: "The face of terror is not the true face of Islam."
If you fail to heed those words, the terrorists win. I don't mean that Osama bin Laden becomes dictator, but rather that a billion and a half Muslims and 2 billion Christians become enemies here and around the world. That would truly be apocalypse now.