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Islam, Religious Extremism and Religious Relativism

At a recent Democratic Party presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said that America is not at war with Islam. She even refused to use the term “radical Islam.” Referring to comments that George W. Bush made after 9/11, she asserted that

we are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.

Facing a Nameless “Religious Extremism”?

Stop Extremism?It seems like it’s the order of the day to say that “we’re not at war with Islam”—no matter how many people die in ever more frequent Islamic terror attacks. You don’t even have to be a Democratic politician to be an apologist for Islam. Even Catholic priests do it. For example, Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., Chief Executive Officer of Canada’s Catholic Salt + Light Television network and frequent national newspaper columnist, recently wrote for America Magazine that the Muslim call to prayer ‘Allahu akbar’ was “never meant to be a call to kill, destroy, mame [sic] and cause untold havoc and terror..”

One would hope so. Fr. Rosica goes on to contrast “two types” of Islam:

There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the Kings of Morocco and Jordan, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which we must not identify with Islam as a whole; this would be a grave injustice. ISIS is not Islam. ISIS and any form of terrorism in the name of God is an aberration of religion.

So, to associate terrorism with “Islam as a whole” would be a “grave injustice,” according to Fr. Rosica. He then adds that we must distinguish between “true religion and the twisted religion used to justify hatred and violence”:

True religion leads people to healing and peace and desires to make the world a better place. True religion respects the sacredness and dignity of the human person. True religion invites people to respond to crises with mercy, charity and hospitality.

Fair enough—with this, one can only agree. But then Fr. Rosica slips into a strange (but unfortunately common) moral equivalency, jumbling together all “extremists” from all three monotheistic religions, as if the three were equally dangerous:

What we are witnessing today are extremists who try to monopolize the religious leadership, whether it is Christians, Jews or Muslims. To kill in the name of religion is not only an offence to God, but it is also a defeat for humanity. […] The three communities of Abrahamic faith—Muslims, Christians and Jews—are witnessing among some adherents the exploitation and manipulation of religion, fostering fanaticism with crude idols shaped by what is evil in ourselves.

From Religious Extremism to Religious Relativism

According to Fr. Rosica, then, there are extremists in all three monotheistic religions who “foster fanaticism” in more or less similar ways. He is not alone in holding these views. Recently, a Facebook friend called Michel posted:

A lot of people talk about Islam being a violent religion, and that it's the “only” violent religion (or the only one that condones violence). Not true. But let me preface by saying that I agree many parts in the Qu'ran call to violence. […] As for “being the only violent religion,” I respectfully disagree. The Bible is filled with calls to violence […]

Michel then goes on to make a very interesting observation that is worth quoting in full:

The only difference between radical Muslims and, say, radical Christians is the interpretation of their scriptures. Religion is but a tool used to achieve one's own goals. What I mean is, who you are at your core determines how you are attracted to religion, why you are, and how you choose to use it. A good person is a good person, as much as a bad one is a bad one. Religion doesn't change that. Either one will be attracted to their religious books, regardless of their religion, and will use them to justify their actions.

They will cherrypick those passages and teachings that are in alignment with their core values. An angry person will easily highlight what they believe justifies their hatred. A loving, charitable person will focus on others for the same reason. Religion gives them purpose. It's not about following some moral code. It's about following something that is in alignment with their own internal morality.

Michel’s comments are striking. It seems that he subscribes to an extreme form of religious relativism. He views religion as an entirely subjective experience, completely detached from any kind of objective reality. If this is the case, then what the sacred texts of Muslims and Christians actually say doesn’t really matter. What matters is how radical Muslims and “radical Christians“ interpret their Scriptures. Michel states his position very clearly: “Religion is but a tool used to achieve one's own goals.” And so the true nature of a religion is not found in the objective tenets that it teaches; it is, rather, determined by the person’s subjective whims, desires, and values. Every person, therefore, can “cherry pick” at will whatever passages and teachings of Scripture happen to fit with his/her “core values.” Michel even goes as far as saying that religion “doesn’t change” people, but merely “gives them purpose.” Since religions are not even about “following some moral code,” but only help to affirm one’s own “internal morality,” it follows that they are utterly powerless to effect a real transformation of the human person.

In other words, religion is not about conforming the subjective person to an objective, higher reality. It’s about picking and choosing arbitrary beliefs to fit one’s own (equally arbitrary) behavior and actions.

While this is an excellent and accurate description of how secularists typically view religion, any person of faith can immediately see that it is wrong on almost all accounts. Believing Christians and Muslims would probably agree here that the reality is almost the exact opposite of what Michel describes. Both would say that religion is absolutely not about cherry picking “passages and teachings that are in alignment with their core values.” On the contrary, it’s about conforming one’s mind, beliefs and actions to what we believe to be objectively true and good, namely, the will of God—even if this is very difficult and not at all in tune with our “own internal morality.”

So Christians and Muslims would agree thus far: religion is primarily about conforming oneself to objective truth, not about picking and choosing the teachings we like according to our subjective preferences. Beyond this basic agreement, however, Islam and Christianity part ways as soon as we begin to examine more closely what each religion teaches.

Religious relativists like to repeat the mantra that, since there are good and bad people in each religion (and since the subjective interpretation of each religion is more important than its actual objective teachings), most major religions are more or less equivalent—“alternative lifestyles,” if you will. This claim, however, is unsustainable for at least two reasons. It is false, first and foremost, because the teachings of the various religions and their founders are vastly different. As soon as one scratches below the surface, one quickly discovers that beyond superficial similarities lie profound and substantial differences between them (see for example this side-by-side comparison: Christianity and Islam: Doctrine and Beliefs). Second, the assertion that all religions are essentially the same is false, not only because the teachings of their religious founders are very different, but also because committed believers tend to take these teachings very seriously: Since they believe that God sent people like Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad to teach us something about eternal, divine truths, believers are not free to "pick and choose" but must earnestly strive to live in accordance with these teachings.

Violence in Christianity and Islam: The Facts

Let’s return to the topic of violence and terrorism. Do Christianity and Islam have the same potential for violence, as Fr. Rosica and Michel suggest? Are both religions equally vulnerable to be hijacked by extremists and fanatics? Many liberals seem to think so, and so they prefer to talk about generic, amorphous “religious extremism” rather than “radical Islam.” But does this square with the facts?

Let’s look at the numbers of religiously motivated terrorist attacks in the world. As of today (November 18, 2015), Wikipedia lists some 370 Islamic terror attacks worldwide since the 1980s (with the cautionary note that the list “might be incomplete”). The website TheReligionofPeace.com lists and documents no less than 27,290 (updated: now 27,336) attacks since 9/11 until today!

ExtremistsMemeAnd yet despite these astounding numbers, combined with almost daily reports of new Islamic terror attacks, some Muslims and liberals insist—against all common sense—that the assertion that “all terrorists are Muslims” is “not even close” to being true. The website loonwatch.com even sarcastically writes: “All terrorists are Muslims… except the 94% that aren’t.” Some refer to an FBI list of terror attacks in the US to try to discredit the claim that “all terrorists are Muslims.” A cursory look at that list, however, quickly reveals that our liberal friends are comparing apples with oranges. The list includes all kinds of paramilitary and revolutionary groups that have little or nothing to do with religion. (Michel falls into the same trap, mentioning Timothy McVeigh as an example of a non-Muslim terrorist. This is correct, but McVeigh is in fact a non-religious terrorist: He considered himself to be agnostic, and it is clear that his motivations for the Oklahoma bombing had nothing to do with religion).

Yes, lawless criminals of all ideologies and colors commit acts of violence all the time. But let’s compare apples with apples and stick to religiously motivated terrorism. Is it fair to equate “Jewish terrorism” and “Christian terrorism” with Islamic terrorism?

Religious Violence and Terrorism

First, we must define our terms. Religious terrorism, properly speaking, must be “carried out based on motivations and goals that have a predominantly religious character or influence.” It must be motivated by religious rather than ethnic or nationalistic beliefs. In addition, for a terrorist act to qualify as “religious terrorism”:

  • The perpetrators must use religious scriptures to justify or explain their violent acts.
  • Clerical figures must be involved in leadership roles.
  • Perpetrators use apocalyptic images of destruction to justify the acts.

It is true that some acts of terrorism have been perpetrated by Jews and Christians. But how many Jews and Christians engage in the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians (a) based on the example of their religious founder or in obedience to commands given in the Bible; (b) with the backing of their clergy and/or their wider religious communities; (c) relying on apocalyptic images and divine promises of eternal rewards for their acts of violence?

My guess is that very few, if any, acts of violence committed by Jews and Christians qualify to fall in that category. How many Jews indiscriminately massacre civilians while shouting “Baruch HaShem!” in imitation of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, with the approval of their rabbis? How many frustrated Christians are sent by their priest or pastor to blow themselves up in the midst of crowds while yelling out “Jesus is Lord!” or “Christ is King!” in the hope of gaining eternal paradise?

Islam: Religion of Peace or Violence?

Let’s go back to the claims of Fr. Rosica and Michel. Fr. Rosica claims that it would be a “grave injustice” to confuse “extremist, terrorist Islam” with “Islam as a whole.” For Fr. Rosica, authentic Islam is a “noble Islam” that has nothing to do with terrorist groups like ISIS. But does this assertion reflect reality or wishful thinking?

On this point Michel seems to be one step ahead of Fr. Rosica: To his credit, Michel acknowledges that many parts in the Qur’an call to violence. This puts him ahead of the pack of many liberals, who absolve Islam of violence despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Indeed, here, Michel is right: The Qur’an contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to wage war against nonbelievers for the sake of advancing global Islamic rule, some of which command to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. Moreover, the life of Muhammad as portrayed in the authoritative Islamic sources (Hadith and Surah) is disturbing, to say the least: the prophet of Islam attacked and plundered caravansterrorized his enemies, engaged in aggressive warfare against them, and ordered the torture and assassination of his rivals (also here), including the beheading of 800-900 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza Tribe in 627 A.D.

These indisputable facts about the life of Muhammad, as recorded in official Islamic sources, raise some serious doubts on Fr. Rosica’s assertion that “extremist, terrorist Islam” should not be associated with Islam as a whole. Do the life of Muhammad and the teachings of the Qur’an really reflect, to use Fr. Rosica's words, a “noble Islam” that “leads people to healing and peace,” “desires to make the world a better place, and “respects the sacredness and dignity of the human person” in light of the above evidence?

Is the Bible Any Better?

Michel raises another valid question, closely related to Fr. Rosica’s assertion that there are extremists in all religions: Granted that the Qur’an does provide a justification for Islamic violence, is the Bible any better? Michel doesn’t think so. He “respectfully disagrees” that Islam is the only violent religion, because the Bible is allegedly “filled with calls to violence.” This assertion is commonly made by liberals. But is it valid?

Islam expert Raymond Ibrahim has written an able refutation of this dubious claim that would equate violence in the Qur'an with violence in the Bible (See Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?). We may summarize his argument as follows:

  • There are indeed instances of divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament, chiefly the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites in the book of Joshua. This violence, however, is historically localized at a very specific time and place (the land of Canaan, ca. 1400 B.C.), against a specific people (the Canaanites). It was never intended to be standardized as an open-ended universal code of behavior for all ages. In other words, Biblical accounts of violence are descriptive, not prescriptive. The Old Testament never commands the Israelites to conquer the world by the sword for the sake of propagating the Jewish religion.
  • Christians read the Old Testament in light of the New, which is completely devoid of violence. Jesus did not perpetrate any act of violence, and he explicitly forbade it to his followers; on the contrary, he commanded them to “turn the other cheek” if someone strikes them. Jesus commanded his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations" and to teach them his commandments, but this clearly excludes all compulsion and violence.
  • By contrast, there is plenty of violence in the life of Muhammad, in the Qur’an and the Hadith. This violence is not limited to specific circumstances, as in the Old Testament. Aspects of Islamic violence and intolerance have become standardized in Islamic law and apply to all times. Thus, while the violence found in the Qur'an has a historical context, its ultimate significance is theological: According to the Qur’an and Islamic oral traditions, Islam is to be at perpetual war with the non-Muslim world until the former subsumes the latter. No concept of the sort exists in either Judaism or Christianity.

In addition, any consideration of violence in the three monotheistic religions must be seen through the lens of their historical and social context. The Old Testament was born in the tribal and violent Ancient Near East.  It reveals a particular code of law, the Torah, given to one people, Israel (not to the whole world), and it describes the historical successes and (mostly) failures of Israel in living up to this law. While still reflecting the ancient, violent tribal mentality and customs, the Torah places limits on human violence and calls Israel to live according to a higher moral standard than the surrounding pagan nations. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is not a blank check for revenge, but on the contrary, a limitation imposed upon retribution (i.e. if someone breaks your tooth, don’t murder his whole family in return; keep your retaliation proportional to the offense). Even the commandment “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” originates in the Torah (Lev 19:18), although “neighbor” at this point is understood to include only fellow Israelites.

Moving to the New Testament, the Gospel takes the essential, universal elements of the Torah and extends them to all humanity.  There is a substantial moral development in the Gospel's emphasis on universal, unconditional love as taught and lived out by Jesus: “an eye for an eye” gives way to “turn the other cheek,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is extended to include the universal human family, even to the point of loving one's enemies. The use of violence—especially to advance religious goals—is unequivocally condemned.

In the Qur’an, however—which claims to supersede both the Old and New Testaments and is allegedly God's final revelation to all mankind— “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” disappears altogether. It is replaced by the commands not to take friends among unbelievers (4:89), to wage perpetual war against them (2:191-193, 244; 9:5, 14, 29), to slay and be slain (9:111), etc…

Evolution of Religion?

There is thus a wide chasm between Christianity and Islam in their attitude towards violence. While Christianity definitively moves away from the limited violence that is still permitted in the Old Testament, the Qur’an resolutely goes in the opposite direction in its endorsement of universal warfare against unbelievers. We may summarize the differences as follows:

 

Judaism

Christianity

Islam

Founder:

Moses

Jesus

Muhammad

Date:

15th–13th century B.C.

1st century A.D.

7th century A.D.

Violent Founder?

 

Some limited instances

No

Yes, many instances

Sacred Texts:

Torah, Hebrew Scriptures

(13th–4th centuries B.C.)

Gospels, New Testament

(1st century A.D.)

Qur’an, Hadith

(7th–9th centuries A.D.)

Violence in Sacred Texts?

Yes, limited & localized

No, violence explicitly forbidden

Yes, jihad against infidels perpetually commanded

Violence committed by initial followers?

Some, limited & localized

No, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus & the NT

Yes, in accordance with teachings of the Qur’an

Violence committed by later followers?

Some, limited & localized

Yes, in violation of the teachings of Jesus & the NT

Yes, in accordance with teachings of the Qur’an

Violence sanctioned by the religion?

No

No

Yes

In light of the above observations, one can only wonder about Fr. Rosica’s closing statement at the end of his article:

By walking together on the path of reconciliation and renouncing in humble submission to the divine will any form of violence as a means of resolving differences, these two great world religions [Christianity and Islam] will be able to offer a sign of hope, radiating in the world the wisdom and mercy of that one God who created and governs the human family.

While this might be a noble wish, is it realistic or even possible? Can Muslims really remain faithful to the example of Muhammed and the teachings of the Qur’an, and at the same time “offer a sign of hope,” radiating “wisdom and mercy” in the world? One wonders how an informed Christian—let alone a Catholic priest—can make such statement.

Michel wrote that religion “doesn’t change” people. In that, he is certainly wrong: Religion very much changes people. If your religious role model is someone who waged wars of conquest and assassinated his rivals, and if your sacred book calls for holy war against unbelievers for the sake of gaining world domination, there is a high probability that this will influence who you are and how you behave. If, on the other hand, your role model is an example of humility who came not to be served but to serve, not to take life but to freely offer it in sacrifice for the sake of others, this also will influence the type of person you will become.

Rather than espousing an absurd religious relativism driven by political correctness that only obfuscates one of the greatest threats of our day, it seems imperative that we begin to call a spade a spade. It is not a nameless and faceless “religious extremism” that has been killing people in New York, Madrid, London, Bali, Paris, Beirut and everywhere else. It is Islam. Certainly, there are many good Muslims. But are they good because of Islam, or in spite of it? Rather than speaking of a mythical “noble Islam” that is far remote from the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an, wouldn’t it be more loving and honest for Christians to invite Muslims to come to know and embrace the one who is the “Prince of Peace,” who called us to love God and neighbor, and even our enemies?

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