The Pope of Islam

The Boston Marathon bombing crisis seems to be over.  As best we know, the guy who masterminded the whole thing is dead, and his younger brother/accomplice is in custody.  Days to come, we’ll learn a lot more, about why this happened, motives and ideologies.

‘Not knowing’ doesn’t mean ‘not voicing opinions,’ however.  And I’ve been reading lots of chest thumping bluster on the inner-tubes about What It All Means.  And one opinion I hear regularly is that this proves– proves I tell you!– that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that Islam is fundamentally about jihad and terrorism, that the soft-headed notion that Islam is a peaceful religion is just more liberal media bias.  ‘Where are the prominent Muslim voices rejecting violence?  All we hear is terrorism, and more terrorism!  This kind of thing indicts their entire religion!’  And so on.

I get that it’s just ignorance.  I get that most Americans don’t know doodly-squat about Islam.  I’ve heard too many uninformed voices, the last few days (or rather, read too many uninformed posts), inventing silly nonsense about Islam.  One deep thinker opined that, as a religion, Islam has basically four tenets: suicide bombers, IEDs, Al Qaeda, and oppressing women.  And until authoritative Muslim voices denounce terrorist acts, in public, loudly and unmistakably, this guy says he’ll continue to think so.

The thing is, I’m hardly any expert on Islam.  I’ve read the Qur’an, but only once, in English translation.  I don’t have Arabic as a language, and I’ve hardly traveled extensively in the Islamic world–been to Israel, but that’s about it.  I’ve studied the religion a little, but not in any detail. I could get a lot of this wrong.  So bear with me, and forgive my ignorance, and if I’ve screwed up, set me straight.

But, yeah.  Islam is a peaceful religion.  The five pillars of Islam are straightforward: 1) the shahadah or creed (there’s only one God and Mohammed is his prophet), (2) daily prayers, (3) caring for the poor, (4) fasting during Ramadan, and (5) a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.  They believe in God, pray to him several times a day, care for poor people, fast, and renew themselves spiritually on a pilgrimage.  It’s awesomely simple and beautiful.

Are there passages in the Qur’an that suggest that God approves of violence?  A few, yeah, which we mostly take out of context. There are maybe ten or fifteen verses all told, most of which deal with defensive war, which the Qur’an does consider morally justifiable–fighting to protect your family and neighbors.  Are there passages in the Bible that suggest that God approves of violence? Sure, like ten times more.  We have the entire book of Joshua to explain away. Does that make either Judaism or Christianity blood-thirsty religions?  Of course not–we look at Joshua in its larger historical context. And the Crusades, and the Inquisition.  We have a history, they have a history.  Let’s call it a draw.

So, yes, we’re in a War on Terror, and terrorists nowadays are Moslems.  All of ’em, basically; terrorists.  “Uh, what?  Wait! What about me?” That’s Timothy McVeigh, feeling neglected. Joined by Basque separatists, the Shining Path guerrillas, the Red Army, the Irish Republican Army, the Weather Underground, Che, Mao, Pol Pot, Carlos the Jackal. . .  .

So isn’t terrorism mostly a function of actual (and perceived) oppression?  Isn’t it more about politics than it is about religion, or perhaps a combustible mix of religion and politics?  We don’t know anything yet about the Boston guys, but if this is about Chechnya, isn’t the big thing there independence?   When people talk about Afghanistan under the Taliban as an example of an ‘Islamic nation,’ when they suggest that the Taliban’s hostility to education and grotesque mistreatment of women are typical of what happens when you create an Islamic theocracy, I would suggest that the problem in Afghanistan isn’t Islam, it’s the fact that Afghanistan is a miserably screwed-up poor country.  Don’t compare Afghanistan (war-torn, violent, oppressive, Islamic) to, I don’t know, Denmark (peaceful, non-violent, free, Christian).  Compare Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (war-torn, violent, oppressive, Christian).  Compare one screwed-up poor country to another screwed-up poor country.  Conclusion: it sucks to live in screwed-up poor countries.  Stop the presses.

Another factor–the unrelenting destructive power of sheer boredom. The 9/11 hijackers all came from either Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Both are Muslim nations, and both are reasonably prosperous.  But those countries have other things in common–massive unemployment, and a huge income gap; incredibly rich people, and desperately poor people, and not much in-between. 25 percent unemployment in both countries, more or less.   Unemployment means you’ve got lots of educated young men with no job prospects and nothing to do all day. Bored. (Could that describe the Boston guys? Underemployed bored young guys?)  That describes bin Laden, and it also describes Zawahiri and what we know of most of Al Qaeda’s leadership, and most of their recruits.  What does Al Qaeda want?  Essentially, the re-establishment of the caliphate. It’s a political goal. And it’s one that not all Moslems share.

The Shi’a sure don’t.  Okay, so when Mohammed died, he left behind a succession crisis.  According to Sunni Moslems, Abu Bakr Siddique ran things first, then passed the caliphate on to Umar ibn-Khattab, who passed it on to . . . ah heck, you can read Wikipedia as easily as I can.  Anyway, eventually the various attempts to establish a trans-Islamic caliphate failed, and there is no caliph anymore, though it’s the dream of some Sunni (including Al Qaeda) to re-establish one.  Shi’ite Moslems, however, think Mohammed intended his cousin and son-in-law Ali to be successor, to be passed on to his immediate family.  There’s even a hadith (a ‘saying’) of Mohammed to that effect, sort of the equivalent of Jesus saying to Peter, ‘on this rock will I build my church.’ (And a quick look at Christian history shows how much mischief that one caused!) Anyway, when Ali’s grandson, Hussein, was murdered, the Shi’a rejected the Caliphate entirely.  Some Shi’a look forward to a Messianic Mahdi, who come to earth and rule and reign.

So here’s the point: Al Qaeda is working towards the time when a single pan-Islamic caliphate will be restored, when a caliph, called by God, will come and rule the entire Islamic world, unified under Sharia law.  That’s what they’re trying to achieve.  And they see the West, in unholy union with the corrupt Saudi regime, as preventing that from happening.  In other words, as I said before, it’s an essentially political ambition. It’s also crazy.  Seriously: Turkey, Indonesia, Iran and Yemen (just for grins and giggles, let’s toss Pakistan in there too) unified under a single theocratic ruler?  It’s completely insane. Whole lotta wars required to bring that one about.

And everyone knows it. It’s a fantasy, especially when you consider that the Islamic world is hardly united at all about what ‘sharia law’ means.  What percentage of the Islamic world shares those specific goals?  Hard to say, because it kind of depends on how you phrase the question.  Ask Christians how many ‘look forward to the Second Coming of Christ’ and my guess is a majority would say ‘yes.’  But if you asked it this way, ‘if the Second Coming of Jesus included a thermo-nuclear holocaust, would you look forward to that happening?’  The numbers would undoubtedly drop.  So when Moslems are asked if they support a restoration of the caliphate, yes, a majority do favor that.  But when you ask if Moslems support using terrorist means to accomplish the restoration of the caliphate?  Huge, overwhelming majorities oppose it, because nearly all Moslems consider terrorism un-Islamic. Basically, Islamic terrorists are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity–tiny groups of fanatics without popular support.

So my friend asks, why don’t we see major figures in Islam condemn terrorist acts, when they happen?  One reason is that Islam isn’t a church.  It’s a religion, but it’s not organized like a Church is, with a President and leadership councils and that kind of administrative apparatus. Islam doesn’t have a Pope.  That’s kind of what bin Laden wanted, to give Islam a Pope. But there are four main divisions within Sunni Islam and two main ones in Shi’a Islam, and they’re all sub-divided.  There are certain imams with some influence, but there’s not an organizational structure that can do things like issue press releases condemning terrorism.  If a mullah in Iran issues a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, it’s not really binding on other Moslems, unless they happen to agree with that mullah.

But if Islam isn’t a church, boy do Moslems like to organize.  So, okay, just for fun, here’s a list of a few prominent Moslem groups that have consistently and completely condemned terrorism:

The American Muslim Political Co-ordination Committee.  The Islamic Circle of North America.  The Afghan Muslim Association. American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice, American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism, the Arab-American Congress, Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Networks Group, the Islamic Society of the East Bay, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Zaytuna Institute.

The Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar University, the oldest seat of Islamic learning, Muhammed Sayyed Tantawi, has repeatedly condemned terrorism. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz and Sheik Uthaimeen, two important Saudi scholars, have come out against terrorism.  Oh, and Every Other Major Scholar of Islam, has come out against the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians and terror tactics generally. Abdul Aziz al-Ashaikh (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the Senior Ulama), says that terrorist attacks constitute the worst possible violation of Islamic law, hirabah, waging war against society.  I don’t know what the Senior Ulama means, or Mufti either, but the dude sure sounds important. And sensible, and moral, and right.

I’m no expert on Islam, not in any way, not in any sense.  But to say ‘Moslems don’t condemn terrorism’ is just foolish and ignorant and prejudiced.  I looked it up. I Googled ‘Moslems oppose terrorism.’  Found everything listed above.  Took me five minutes.

Meanwhile, two screwed-up young guys did terrible things.  One of them’s dead, the other one’s in custody, badly wounded and trying to make sense of the disastrous mess he’s made of his life.  Let’s just leave it there for now.



3 thoughts on “The Pope of Islam

  1. Juliathepoet

    Amen. Thank you for doing such a clear (and obvious) response to the “all Muslims are terrorists” silliness.

    I had surgery Wednesday. Afterward I had two Muslim nurses. One annoyed me by not listening to me very well, the other one was one of the most compassionate people, just holding my hand while I cried in pain at one point.

    I had a lot of people whose religion was not easily discern able, (althought a number wore crosses, one had a CTR ring, one had a Wicca tattoo he explained and another a tattoo he got in Bagdad during his last week of his deployment there) and there was no religious affiliation I could see that separated ahead of time who was extra helpful, or especially annoying. I couldn’t even use hair or eye color, (even in retrospect) to predetermine who would be most helpful.

    Without asking, I’m pretty sure that every single one was opposed to terrorism.

  2. Cameron Hopkin

    I’m curious as to why you use the word “Moslem” as opposed to the more common “Muslim.” Is there some difference? Just a personal preference?


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