Root of the problem

Nathan Bauman at Port Coquitlam Odysseus has linked to a fascinating interview with Mosab Hassan Yousef—son of a founding member of Hamas.  Mr. Yousef has written a book about his journey from terrorist to counterterrorist, concomitant with a parallel spiritual journey from Islam to Christianity.  He also has some potent words to say about his former religion:

Do you consider your father a fanatic? “He’s not a fanatic,” says Mr. Yousef. “He’s a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war.

“The problem is not in Muslims,” he continues. “The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to.”

— Kaminski, Matthew.  “‘They Need to Be Liberated From Their God’.” Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2010.

Mr. Yousef has certainly cut to the heart of the matter.  And he is correct that governments have shied away from addressing fanatical ideology, even though it is the causal factor that breeds homegrown and international Islamism.

A couple of months ago, a young Muslim woman wrote to me in response to a previous post on Islam and women.  She argued that Christianity and Western nations also had a fairly horrible track record with regard to equality of women, and that this really only began to be addressed quite recently, in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  And she would be correct insofar as that goes; I readily conceded that point.

But the focus of that post was not that Christianity (nor any other religion) had a perfect, spotless record when it came to women’s dignity and equality—it doesn’t.  My point was that unequal and second-class treatment were built into the example of Islam’s founder, Mohammed.  I confined myself to reviewing notable misdeeds in Mohammed’s history which have no parallels in Christ; in this I hoped to foster an understanding of why other religions may self-improve and refine their doctrines dealing with women, but Islam cannot.

At its best, religion reconnects us with the Divine and broadens our perspective beyond the parochial self.  It civilises us, sanding down our rough edges; a benefit for individual believers, certainly, also one for our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues.  But all religions are also—in varying degrees—at odds with certain aspects of human nature, so individually and collectively, humans are constantly falling short of the mark.

Islam is unique, however, in some critical areas.  Instead of exhorting us toward better behaviour, it can also be used to give licence—via the example of Mohammed himself—to some of humanity’s worst impulses.

Not too many religions have founders who sought and were granted such wide latitude to commit violent acts without repentance.  Violence is an integral part of Mohammed’s example, and this is what will make radical strains of Islam so very difficult to eradicate.  This aspect of the ideology will have to be acknowledged and combated; to place it off-limits is to prematurely concede defeat.

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4 Responses
  1. Nathan B. says:

    Thanks for the link, Chris–interesting post!

    I agree with you that Islam has some serious issues with its founder, but I hope that things are not quite so far gone as to be insurmountable. Certainly, there was much in early Judaism that is somewhat analogous to the violence you have mentioned; the books of Deuteronomy, which presents Moses as commanding genocide, and Joshua and Judges being cases in point. Early Israel also had expansionist aims, although, to be fair, it was also constantly suffering from the expansions of its neighbors.

    Interestingly, some scholars see in the Book of Esther something akin to the Shia (Iranian?) concept of Taqqiya (though defensive only), in Esther’s hiding of her Jewish identity within the heart of the Persian empire.

    Also, David, while not presented as “murdering” his enemies, does seem to be the beneficiary of “God’s” will that he destroy the descendants of Saul long after he becomes king. He also benefits from the suicide of Saul and the death of Jonathan in battle; there’s a fair bit of fortuitous killing of his rivals that some believe he is not altogether separated from.

    I think what is needed in Islam is a major reinterpretation or series of reinterpretations about the meaning of Mohammed’s life and revelation; this happened in one strain of Judaism with the development of early Christianity, and in the main stream after the two major revolts against the Romans. Since then, Christians and Jewish people have been continually asking themselves what it means to be Jewish or Christian.

    In any case, I think that you have correctly highlighted areas regarding Mohammed’s example which should be of major concern to Muslims and non-Muslims alike–and which deserve and desperately need to be discussed.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      Yes, of course, there are plenty of examples of bad behaviour in the Old Testament. These are potent counterpoints, but it does get problematic as Judaism lacks a single iconic foundational figure.

      Abraham is the technical founder, but of course the vast chunk of Levitical law was not formulated until centuries later, and then the Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara) was developed after a further millennium.

      To try and suss out similar poor examples from Judaic founders, for example, I am not sure I would use Joshua, David or Esther. They were interesting and may have analogues in other faiths, but they are also largely irrelevant to the development of core philosophies of the Jewish faith. They don’t occupy a pivotal role at the very beginning, a la Mohammed in Islam. In an examination of Judaism it would be more exacting to focus on people who formulated (or at least disseminated divinely-inspired) key concepts and philosophies: Abraham, Moses and the key Talmudic authors (Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, Rav Ashi and Rav Papa). Otherwise it is easy but somewhat disingenuous to name-check everybody in the Torah who did something we would look askance at today. I think you would agree most of those examples would not be an apples-to-apples comparison to weighty foundational figures like Jesus or Mohammed.

      But as you note, in two of the Abrahamic faiths, there is a constant re-evaluation of what it means to be Christian and Jewish, and the goalposts do move occasionally as we broaden the application of a concept to areas where it was not previously applied. Islam’s itjihad process ought to have moved it in that direction too, but even that is constrained by odd limitations, such as that the interpretations of female Islamic scholars can only be followed by that woman in particular, and not by anyone else.

      Islam’s liberalising trend more or less died out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after key Islamic scholars (like Muhammad Rashid Rita) started blaming insufficient adherence to sharia as the cause of the Islamic world’s inability to keep technological and social pace with European colonial powers. This is still the dominant paradigm, and no one in Islam seems to have the guts and determination to point out that a more devout adherence to legalistic 7th century social dynamics can never logically result in great societal innovation.

      It should be painfully obvious to even the most casual examiner of Islamic civilisation that it achieved its greatest apogee over Christian civilisation when Islam was at its most liberal (and Christianity convulsed by competing dogmatic strains of Protestantism and Catholicism). Islam has since rejected liberalism and, not surprisingly, suffered a calamitous social, economic and geopolitical decline. But no Islamic scholar with significant religious clout will ever point that out.

  2. Nathan B. says:

    First, an apology; I miscommunicated a little; my example of Esther was meant to show that Taqqiya could be benign, and that it has something analogous in the Bible; this wasn’t meant to be an example of “bad behavior,” although you are correct that my other examples were.

    It’s true that David was not really a founder of Judaism, but he is still a figure of central importance in much of the Hebrew Bible. Moses, of course, is presented in Deuteronomy as authorizing genocide, and since he is a foundational figure, this is particularly problematic.

    I think we would both agree that there are problems in terms of divinely-sanctioned violence and/or violence committed by characters who claim God as their patron, in both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. As you say, though, in Mohammed there is a unique concentration of disagreeable incidents and personality characteristics. Like you, I think society needs to talk about all this, but it seems that I have more hope there is potential within mainstream Islam for a reevaluation of Mohammed’s life, message, and meaning.

    In any case, keep posting, Chris.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      David did a lot of atrocious things, but I think it’s pretty evident that a whole lot of them fell outside the realm of divine sanction. His redeeming feature is that he screws up a lot, but generally realises his error afterward and constantly seeks forgiveness.

      Moses is tougher to digest as there is an initial murder (hence fleeing Egypt), and then widespread slaughter. But in his defence, it is clearly stated in Deuteronomy that Israel is inheriting the Canaanites’ land not because of their own righteousness, but because of the evil deeds of the original inhabitants. I do not know what it sounds like in the original language, but the English translation has more than a tinge of reluctance about letting them into the joint because they manifestly don’t deserve it. There is also an instruction in Deuteronomy 20:10-15 where Israel’s army is to proffer terms of surrender to a city before attacking it, and further requirements in Leviticus where the Israel is instructed to be equitable and cordial with foreigners, because they were once exiles in Egypt.

      Indications, at least, that wholesale slaughter is an exceptional event in response to a specific condition, and otherwise beyond the bounds of acceptable human behaviour.

      Regarding a second Islamic Reformation, I suppose anything is possible, but it is… very, very unlikely.

      This article at Islam Watch does a good job of enumerating some of the reasons I am skeptical. There is a great comparison of Protestantism and Salafism—how both are similar, and how they ended up with drastically different results. I don’t necessarily agree with the remainder, where he discusses what is and is not true Islam (and in his estimation, the jihadi interpretation is the “right” one). But the initial comparison of the Protestant and Salafi reformations is right on target.