Separating Violent and Peaceful Islam
by David P. Goldman
December 11, 2015
A diabolical logic prompted Donald Trump to propose a travel ban on Muslims: if the US government can’t distinguish between peaceful and violent Muslims, then shut the door to all of them. Trump’s instinct for political-as-reality-television buoyed his standing in Republican polls, as Americans put terrorism at the top of their concerns. According to Rasmussen, US voters support Trump’s idea by a 46-40% margin. Among Republicans, the margin is 66%-24%.
Americans by and large aren’t bigots, but the outbreak of Instant Jihad Syndrome last week convinced them that something was broken, and that the whole mechanism of Muslim immigration should be mothballed until the problem was fixed. They know perfectly well that some Muslims want to live in peace with non-Muslims and other Muslims want to burn down the world, but they don’t know how to tell the difference. As information about the couple’s longstanding terror connections trickles into the press, the public doesn’t trust its guardians to tell the difference, either. That was the lesson they learned from the jihadi Bonnie and Clyde of San Bernardino.
Trump chose his words carefully: “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.” That is mischievous. The Obama administration like the Bush administration before it embraced Muslim organizations that play coy with the line between peaceful advancement of Muslim interests and terrorism. At the center of these organizations is the Muslim Brotherhood, as I reported earlier this week. Trump knows perfectly well what the Obama administration is doing, and says in effect: “If our elected leaders can’t distinguish between peaceful and violent Muslims, let’s keep all of them out.”
I never thought the day would come when I would admonish Americans to show understanding and forbearance towards Islam. In fact, Islam is neither a religion of violence nor a religion of peace: it is an ambiguous set of doctrines from which Muslims may choose peace or violence as they will. To penalize all Muslims for the actions of those Muslims who choose violence is as morally misguided as it is strategically stupid: It repudiates those Muslims who explicitly embrace a peaceful interpretation, for example the president of the largest Arab country, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Western countries in their own self-defense need to draw a bright line between peaceful and violent Islam.
It isn’t hard to separate the sheep from the jihadist goats, because open war is underway between the two interpretations of Islam. The trouble is that the United States has been on the wrong side of the war: the whole US foreign policy establishment, Obama liberals and Bush neo-conservatives, believed that democracy in the Middle East would arise from political Islam and replace the old Arab dictatorships. US intelligence failed because it was fitted with political filters.
Westerners seeking to make sense of Islam should consult a short book by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit of Arab origin who advised Pope Benedict XVI. 111 Questions on Islam (Ignatius Press, 2008) explains that both the violent and peaceful interpretations of Islam are legitimate within Islam’s own terms, and that the peculiar character of Islamic tradition makes it impossible to exclude either on purely theological grounds. Like many Arab Christians, Fr. Samir is hostile to Israel, and I abhor his view of Middle East politics. As an scholar of Islam, though, he has an important insight. He explains:
Many Westerners fear Islam as a “religion of violence”. Muslims often call simultaneously for tolerance and understanding as well as for violence and aggression. In fact, both options are present in the Qur’an and the sunna. These are two legitimate manners—two distinct ways to interpret, to understand, and to live Islam. It is up to the individual Muslim to decide what he wants Islam to be. . . . (p 18)
. . . If the Qur’an was indeed “sent down” by Allah, there is no possibility of a critical or historical interpretation, not even for those aspects that are evidently related to the customs of a particular historical period and culture. In the history of Islam, at a certain point, it was decided that it was no longer possible to interpret the text. Hence, today, even the mere attempt to understand its meaning and what message it aims to communicate in a certain context is regarded as a desire to challenge it. . . . (p. 42)
. . . In modern times as well, many efforts have been made in this direction but almost always in vain. The weight of the tradition and, above all, the fear of questioning the acquired security of the text have created a taboo: the Qur’an cannot be interpreted, nor can it be critically rethought. . . . (p. 43)
. . . I speak about the violence expressed in the Qur’an and practiced in Muhammad’s life in order to address the idea, widespread in the West, that the violence we see today is a deformation of Islam. We must honestly admit that there are two readings of the Qur’an and the sunna (Islamic traditions connected to Muhammad): one that opts for the verses that encourage tolerance toward other believers, and one that prefers the verses that encourage conflict. Both readings are legitimate. . . . (p. 65)
. . . Consequently, in the Qur’an there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not—and probably will never—happen. . . . (p. 71)
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