08/22/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2014

On Islam, Violence, and the Execution of James Foley

The last few decades have been tough for the public image of Islam. The 1980s and 1990s gave us suicide bombers in Lebanon and Palestine. The new century started off with 9/11. The invasion of Iraq introduced the public to intra-Islamic sectarian warfare and also created the power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS, or 'the Islamic State,' as it now styles itself. Militant fringe groups have grown in African nations (for example, Boko Haram, the group that kidnapped and enslaved 276 Nigerian girls in April, claiming that girls shouldn't be educated), and in Asia. And now, 'the Islamic State' appears to have executed American journalist James Foley, adding one more name to the list of people beheaded on film by people claiming allegiance to Islam.

These kinds of events hand evidence to anyone who wants to depict Islam -- the whole religion of Islam and all its adherents -- as bloodthirsty, violent, and essentially hostile to humane civilization. These events also bring out legions of apologists, who argue that perpetrators of these acts violate essential precepts of Islamic law. Apologists point to verses of the Qur'an that prohibit the killing of women, children, non-combatants, and other Muslims; verses that name Christians, Jews, and other monotheists as part of a single community of faith with Muslims; centuries in which Christians and Jews lived productively within polyglot Islamic empires while Christians were gleefully murdering infidels and heretics on their own territories.

Mainstream Sunni leaders, such as the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University in Egypt, have denounced ISIS as "extremist and bloody group" that "poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption." In fact, many moderate Muslim scholars and leaders from all over the world have spoken out and written against violence carried out in the name of Islam.

So -- which side is right? Is Islam essentially violent and intolerant or essentially peaceful and pluralistic? Do the guys with the bloody machetes represent Islam, or are they an aberration?

I think that anyone who tries to answer this question simply is doing so deliberately in order to score political points. "Islam" is not "essentially" either of those extremes. It is what its believers make of it, and what believers make of it will differ in different times and different places and different political contexts. The same is true of all religions, and of non-religious ideologies as well (like communism).

So, do the machete guys represent Islam? They do, but only in the way that the Crusaders represented Christianity in 1099, when Biblical verses were held up as justification for slaughter of thousands of Jewish and Muslim civilians (Old Testament verses such as "Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed" -- Jeremiah 48:10--as well as New Testament imagery of Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple with a whip of cords -- John 2:15).

Most Christians today would say that the Crusaders ignored the spirit of New Testament pacifism and interpreted these verses within a political context that encouraged violence (with the encouragement of popes and other Church leaders). That is, the Crusaders were deviants from the Christian pacifist message that we, in our totally different political context, now recognize as valid.

So I ask: if we are willing to recognize the Crusaders as products of a particular political situation that led them to use their religion in ways that we now condemn, why are we not willing to see Islamic militants in the same way? Christianity encompasses a spectrum of politicized interpretations; so does Islam. Gandhi was Hindu. So was his assassin.

The point I'm trying to make is that the problem is not with "Islam." The problem is with humans. The problem is that we are all too eager to use violence to fulfill our desires for power, territory, sex, wealth, security, and that religion provides both a convenient justification and a public relations tool. I'm not interested in commenters (and there will be some) who say 'But Islam provides MORE justifications for violence than Christianity does.' I've read studies that compare the number of verses promoting violence in the Qur'an with the number in the Bible, and I am not impressed: the number of verses is irrelevant. If there is one element of scripture or exegesis or law that can be made to legitimize violence, a human will use it to legitimize violence.

So please, let's stop blaming THEM. This is not a problem of THEM. It's a problem of US. If we understand the violence that ended James Foley's life as a problem shared by the human community, maybe we can start uncovering the real causes of that problem, and start developing some real solutions.