President Obama, in his speech to the United Nations last week, spoke of a “lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions.” But is that true? Are the members of ISIL really perverting Islam, or are they simply interpreting the religion differently than more moderate Muslims.
“I understand the impulse people of faith have to excise extremists in their communities. They’re not really Christians or Jews or Muslims. Many extremists appear to violate the fundamental values that many hold dear,” he says.
“The problem is that there is no single authority who decides who is a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, what is the proper behavior. It’s up to the individual. Whoever says he or she is a Muslim, he is. ISIL — with their sexual slavery, beheadings, killing of women and children, killing other Muslims — some might say is a violation of the Qu’ran. But because they choose to define themselves as Muslims, it has to be taken seriously.”
“. . . The power of scripture can mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s up to the interpreter.”
An open letter to the “fighters and followers” of the Islamic State from more than 120 Muslim scholars denounced them as un-Islamic. The writers used Qur’anic citations against torture, against attributing “evil acts to God,” and against declaring people non-Muslims “until he (or she) openly declares disbelief.”
Aslan says he is “not in the business of saying who is [Muslim]. They would not call me Muslim. I don’t pray five times a day. But we have to deal with the fact that they are part of our community. They use things to justify their beliefs [that are] the same things we use to define our religion.”
“A Christian blowing up an abortion clinic can find justification in the Bible” says Aslan. “Those blowing up a mosque can find justification. Jews killing Palestinians can find justification. The power of scripture can mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s up to the interpreter.”
The Muslim president of the United Voices for America, Ahmed Bedier, disagrees. “Please stop calling them the ‘Islamic State,’ because they are not a state and they are not a religion,” he told Religion News Service.
Likewise, as did George W. Bush before him, President Obama claims that “Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice.”
President Obama stresses that “no God condones this terror. No grievance justifies this action.”
But Aslan says that “scripture is just words on a page. It requires someone to interpret it. It has more to do with the views and prejudices within a person than within anything in the text.”
He offers specific problems of interpretation: “It says in the Qu’ran that if you kill a single individual, it’s as if you have killed all of humanity. It also says to slay the idolater wherever you may find him. The Torah says do unto others, but it also instructs Jews to slaughter every man, woman, and child in the holy land who doesn’t follow the God of Israel. The same Jesus who says turn the other cheek also says he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.”
Again, President Obama stresses that “no God condones this terror. No grievance justifies this action.”
But Aslan says it depends on how the individual understands God. “If you are a violent misogynist pig, you will find plenty in your scripture to justify violence. If, on the other hand, you are a peaceful, pluralistic democrat, you will find plenty of material in exactly the same scripture to justify your viewpoint.
“The power of scripture is that it is infinitely malleable.” Indeed, the reason some religious writings stand the test of time is that they are so highly interpretable. “The reason we read something someone wrote 5,000 years ago is not because it is true, but because it still matters, and it still matters because it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. The history of religion is littered with dead scriptures, and they are dead because they weren’t malleable, they couldn’t evolve through the centuries, couldn’t be shaped in such a way as to address the ever-changing needs of human society.”
“I truly believe that the only antidote to religious violence is religious peace. The only antidote to religious intolerance is religious tolerance.”
As for the members of ISIS, Aslan says, “They are Puritans. This is a puritanical movement. They see themselves as purifying their religion, returning to a pure and unadulterated and totally imaginary past. They . . . see themselves in a Protestant way — individuals who have seized for themselves the power to interpret their faith.”
In his United Nations speech, Obama appealed to young Muslims to oppose radical Islam and to people from all faiths to interpret their religions in a moderate and peaceful way.
“It’s already being done,” says Aslan. “It’s important to understand that Jews are standing up to ethno-nationalism which has gripped so many citizens of Israel. Christians are pushing back against American fundamentalists in relationship to issues of the poor, immigration, equality of same sex couples. Muslims are pushing back on the use of Islam as a tool of terror.”
“What is needed,” adds Aslan, “is a robust counter interpretation. I truly believe that the only antidote to religious violence is religious peace. The only antidote to religious intolerance is religious tolerance.”
Image courtesy of Dying Regime.