“From the time of John until now the kingdom of God has been under siege by violent men, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11.12).
There are Muslims who believe that Allah looked on approvingly in 2001–or however he counts time–when a few of his worshipers steered planes carrying businessmen and teachers, grandmothers and babies, into two high towers in New York City, killing another 2000 workers, secretaries, guards, cleaners, and sandwich vendors.
There are Muslims who believe that Allah condoned, if he did not order, the murder of 136 Muslim infants and a score of others in a primary school in Peshawar in December 2014.
There are Muslims who believe that the kidnapping, rape and forced marriages and conversions of 400 school girls in Nigeria is supported by scripture and reflects the will of God.
On December 30, to mark the new year, militants in Kurram Agency, Pakistan, incinerated two girls’ schools, bringing the total for such attacks to just over 1200 since 2010.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that Malaysian flight 370 and AirAsia 8501 (like the almost forgotten case of Egypt Air 990 in 1999) were downed by devout Muslim pilots who had become infected with a radical Muslim ideology and used their positions to kill foreigners.
The facts are the facts, and this barely skims the surface of the facts: the number of Muslims killed outside the Muslim world by non-Muslims is almost negligible. The number of Westerners killed by Muslims is growing, but still opportunistic and relatively small. The number of Muslims killing other Muslims is staggering: Eight times more Muslims are killed by co-religionists than non Muslims– with “Sunni”-based extremism counting for a little over 70% of the murders.
I am not concerned in this essay to lament the ignorance of people who believe that God created a six- day work week or made man from mud in order to be seduced into misconduct by a talking serpent. I don’t deny that it may be a short path between taking such stories literally and believing that you hear voices in the clouds or in the cave. Those beliefs may or may not have didactic value.
But Islam’s holy book the Qur’an is primarily didactic, different from the other books chiefly in the sheer number of exhortations—a long sermon divided into parts–rather than a string of stories, poems, prophecies and letters. Much of what is believed about God in the Bible comes through stories about people who believed in God, and not (may I add) with utter consistency or fidelity. Most of what the Qur’an has to say about God is simple exhortation, supported by stories, or allusions to stories, taken from prior tradition, but essentially contrived to distinguish between believers and non-believers.
I am pretty certain that beliefs that are interpreted as commands, or calls to action, do real damage: they affect lives, marriages, sexual freedom and corrupt and trivialize moral responsibility. They infect politics and hamper education. Given the extent to which religion (can) poison everything, to nick a phrase from the greatly missed Christopher Hitchens, it is no wonder that atheists believe that they have the moral high ground when it comes to knowing how to behave. I don’t grant this presumption, by the way. But given the choice between the number of innocent people killed by unbelievers in the last twenty years and the number killed through religious violence, give me the atheist track record any day.
But that is not the point of this essay. This essay is directed to religious murderers, arsonists, rapists and supporters of their violence. I have to mention (not because of some equal time requirement) that there are Jews who believe that somewhere in the remote past, according to a book they created for themselves, and fictions they now employ to establish their hegemony over a swath of Mediterranean coastal desert, they can bomb the ancestral inhabitants of the land into submission, build housing estates where they want, and raid houses and destroy property willy-nilly. And I have also to mention that there are Christians who believe that a woman who is raped and becomes pregnant should be required to deliver a baby; that abortion is murder because God said so, in one of his commandments (unattested) and that contraception interferes with God’s plan for creation. These ideas cannot be condemned as unbiblical because they are simply non-biblical: they are merely absurd. They are the toxic residue of a dogmatic past.
I do consider such beliefs to be dangerous. But the number of people holding them outside the most arid religious backwaters—Israel and Bible Belt, USA—is diminishing. To be accurate, there are many more Jews in the diaspora who do not agree with what Likud and Kadima Jews in Israel are doing. And there are many more Christians globally who are liberal about contraception, abortion and a range of other social and sexual matters than there are Christians who (largely in America) can’t get out from under the dogma pile. Within Israel, Jews do not slaughter other Jews, attack synagogues or schools, and there are few modern examples of Christians attacking and killing each other in the name of Christian orthodoxy. Catholics and Protestants have long since put their swords away. In Northern Ireland—the most recent example of infra-faith hostility–few people see the root causes of the “troubles” as primarily religious. It is political hostility left over from the colonial settlement and anti-Catholic policies of the British government in the seventeenth century. It is simply irrelevant to a discussion of religious violence in Islam.
Direct violence in religion, violence of the most egregious and murderous kind, is almost entirely confined to the Islamic world and is growing rather than contracting every month. As of the moment I am writing this article, the following events are taking place or have taken place within the last fortnight:
014.12.30 (Tobruk, Libya) – Eleven are wounded when a suicide bomber detonates his device outside parliament.
2014.12.29 (Taji, Iraq) – A Shahid suicide bomber decimates seventeen Shiite mourners at a funeral tent.
2014.12.28 (Aleppo, Syria) – Two children are among six victims of am IS caliphate car bomb.
2014.12.27 (Wardak, Afghanistan) – Fundamentalists send a rocket into a volleyball match, killing three participants.
2014.12.27 (Mozogo, Cameroon) – Boko Haram burn down a village and slaughter at least thirty residents.
2014.12.27 (Bhiri Sha Rehman, Pakistan) – An Ahmadi is shot in the head shortly after a TV preacher rails against the religious minority
2015.1.03 At least 11 people were killed and six others were injured in Cameroon when Boko Haram militants opened fire on a bus.
As an important article by Ben Doherty in the Guardian recently explained, Muslim extremism mainly kills poor Muslims, not rich westerners. And as an equally significant summary of the now almost 25,000 terrorist attacks since 9/11, the early taxonomy of extremism as coming mainly from poor, dead-end, uneducated youth is part of a general mythology of the movement: While regional violence –e.g., Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al-Shabaab in Somalia– and indigenous tribal groups like the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan do tend to be populated by badly educated men from the poorer echelons of their societies, those who target the “far enemy” in the United States or parts of Europe, are in many respects the best and brightest in their country: “Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing –the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in [America], some believe they’re just plain evil… . Taking these perceived root causes in turn, three quarters of [those cases examined] came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the developing world.”
Putting these incommensurables together, we can say that Islamic violence comes from both rich and poor quadrants of the Islamic world, from educated and uneducated sectors, and from mainly young, radicalized men who operate under the auspices of older sponsors and strategists. Attempts to find a “global” social explanation for this violence have proved fruitless.
The phenomenon is specifically rooted in a particular ideology based on an interpretation of a cherry-picked compact of verses gleaned from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Indeed, subscribers to this ideology would say that the word “interpretation” is inappropriate–that their program is actually mandated explicitly in scripture. We can point for example to these as indicative of a long litany of ayah (verses) that command the killing of unbelievers:
Qur’an (5:33) – “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement”
Qur’an (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”
Qur’an (8:67) – “It is not for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he has made a great slaughter in the land….”
Violence in Islam is a religious position, not a condition forced on perpetrators by social exigency. Islam is unexcelled in the world as a sponsor of violence: Virtually no secular or competing religious power since 1945– with the partial exception of Stalinism, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the Azuka massacre of the Tutsi in Rwanda– has done more to implement violence as an instrument of social change.
The primary victims of this program, which now include a vast spawn of copycats and informal alliances, are Muslims, with the Shia minority (thanks to imbecilic United States foreign adventurism in Iraq) forming a growing victim class. There is no effective legal or religious control mechanism available in Islam to cope with the spread of murder, rape, kidnapping and assault as religious acts. Sporadic denunciations of individual cases as “Unislamic” are not only ineffective but semantically inept; it is a ludicrous term which has no useful application outside the lexicon of beliefs and practices which are clearly forbidden by religious law and custom. To call the wanton murder of co-religionists “Unislamic” is as insipid as calling the Holocaust an aberration of true Nazism or the Inquisition a misinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Worse, it is uniquely vulnerable to the claim that the majority of Muslims, soft in their ways, westernized or secularized beyond redemption, are themselves Unislamic. Isn’t that the whole point?
A social phenomenon is defined by its most explicit external characteristics, even if those characteristics are supplied by a zealous and lawless minority and not by a majority that merely observes, remains quiet, and rarely capitulates in acts of violence. The extent to which murder, as a matter of religious polity, has been quietly accepted by large numbers of Muslims, in the belief that a condemnation of the zealots is a form of capitulation to a threatening, uncomprehending, and mostly evil secular world, is one of the most tragic and predictable tropes in this saga. Everyone accepts that most Muslims are not murderers. That is hardly the point. The nagging question is why so many are, and why “good Muslims” are made to feel deficient in their faith by the zealots.
God the Problem: Who Defines Allāh?
But even if it is acknowledged that the primary victims of Islamic violence are Muslims, that the problem is not being solved by religious leaders or believers, and will not be solved by occasional denunciations which are offset by quiescent but real support for militancy and violence by a segment of the أمة–the Islamic community–we have still not come close to the core of the problem.
That core is stubbornly theological and has to be confronted. Its unexamined part is deceptively simple: it is not who defines Islam, but who defines God? And is the definition propagated by the actions of the religious infantries consonant with any worthy understanding of God?
The problem is aggravated by the fact that it is usually not Muslims who actively fight—or have to fight—“terrorists” in a systematic way. It is the armies and technology of foreigners, the traditional enemy, the Satan. In a mistaken sense of solidarity, many ordinary Muslims around the world simply regard the violence as a Western-induced problem that needs to be addressed forcibly and resolutely and are left confused about what their responsibility to the ummah actually is, since they find it impossible to cheer for the defenders of “democracy” and “freedom”—two words that numbers of people in the Islamic world look on with suspicion.
The confusion is amplified by the sermons of their intellectually malnourished and poorly read religious teachers and imams, especially in those countries where Friday sermons are not regulated by state censors. Muslims are often encouraged—or tempted—to think that a period of violence may be necessary before the reign of peace—the establishment of Islam as the universal religion—is completed. The beliefs are actually not Islamic but pasted onto belief in the ashratu’s-sa’ah (last days) from various sources including Christian eschatology. On a few occasions in Jewish and Christian history these apocalyptic ideas have dominated. They led in 70CE under the emperor Vespasian and again under Hadrian in 135 CE to the destruction of Jerusalem, a city whose messianic spasms had reached such a level that the Romans felt the only way to control the Jews was to burn their temple to the ground and erect one of their own in its place. Learning a quick lesson from what they witnessed, and whatever they might have taught originally, the nascent Christian movement quickly became a religion of peace and forgiveness, loving not just neighbors but enemies and strangers as well. Especially Romans.
However tempting the analogues, analogies are always partly true and completely false. Islam is specifically unlike Christianity and Judaism in two important respects: the core texts of the Islamic tradition have not gone through the hermeneutical processes that have affected the Old and New Testament since the sixteenth century. Beginning then, the Bible was subjected to rigorous historical, textual and archaeological assessment, the results of which are still being felt today. And secondly, calls for the restoration of Islam (as opposed to the reformation of Islam) usually are framed in romanticized and historically false ways that harken back to the bloodiest days of Islamic expansion between the seventh and ninth centuries of the common era, and just prior to a period of rapid intellectual development that came to a halt with the fall of Baghdad in 1258. While many well-educated Muslims appeal with real nostalgia to the so-called Golden Era of the Islamic renaissance, the truth is that renaissance soon gave way to regressive political forces and forms of religious puritanism that sealed Islam’s fate as a conservative, unprogressive, and largely introspective civilization.
Judaism was never an expansionist faith; its historical books show an embattled semi-theocracy fighting for its life and identity, without much success, against far stronger powers: its miracle is not “expansion” but survival. Christianity, on the other hand, while expansionist from the fifth century onward throughout Europe, succeeded by becoming an esoteric religion with a clearly defined religious hierarchy that promoted intellectualism in its higher ranks and ignorance among the laity. The belief in an all-encompassing “ummah” of believers, defined strictly by numbers and territory seized, was alien to the teaching of doctrine and the promotion of the Church and its sacraments as the exclusive way to salvation.
Islam did not go through the same phases of self-definition: Its holy book was never a serious matter for investigation. To believe in its unassailable sacred authority made one a Muslim; all other beliefs flowed from that status. Islam did not experience a Reformation, and the humanistic forces that created the Renaissance and the development of secular learning were largely foreign to its nature. In the West, learning triumphed over religion through the auspices of religious change. In Islam, resistance to change after the thirteenth century saw the deterioration of learning and the triumph of piety. For that reason, Christians and Jews in the twentieth and twenty-first century have not felt compelled to equate Judaism or “true Christianity” with the biblical world or the time of Jesus, as the reformers of the sixteenth century tried (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to do. The authority of the Bible has become negotiable occasional, and debatable. This situation contrasts sharply with the average Muslim’s belief that the Qur’an has indubitable authority, that the Prophet’s words and actions are worthy of imitation, and that there is no element of modern life that cannot be assessed and judged by reference to Islamic law or tradition.
For at least two millennia the soi disant “people of the book”—a curious Quranic construct thought (from time to time) to confer a kind of second-class family status on Christians and Jews (Q2.62; 22;17)– have strained to understand a God who is both righteous (just) and merciful. That balance has shifted between religions. In ancient Hebrew culture because of its tribal roots, the emphasis was on justice—often retributive or “pay-back” justice. But the Judaism of the time of Jesus had forsaken much of that under the strong influence of Hellenistic thought. Stoning was rare. Beheading and amputation were unheard of, and by the time of Jesus even judicial murder (e.g., crucifixion) was forbidden. Prophecy was dead, it was taught, after Malachi, but the tradition of the later prophets was that the God of judgment was a merciful and compassionate God who rewarded those who practiced humility and forgiveness.
The probable if indirect source for the Islamic profession of faith is the Hebrew Psalm 145.8 : חַנּ֣וּן וְרַח֣וּם יְהוָ֑ה אֶ֥רֶךְ אַ֝פַּ֗יִם וּגְדָל־חָֽסֶד׃ (The Lord God is merciful and compassionate; cf. بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ, the “bismalah”). There is nothing original or revolutionary in the Islamic profession of faith: Jesus’ invocation of the Shema Yisrael, already ancient (Deuteronomy 6.4-9) marks one of the few occasions where the New Testament asserts its unequivocal monotheism. “Jesus answered, “The foremost [law] is, ‘Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your entire mind, and with all your strength” (Matthew 22.36ff.).
The evolution of the idea of God as deal-maker, lawgiver and punisher to a God who operates more proportionately and lovingly towards his creation affected Judaism from the fourth century BCE until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Christianity was one effect of this evolution—by no means the only effect. There was nothing new about the teaching of Jesus except that he seemed to be closely tied to the teachings of Amos and Hosea and the idea of a God who was almost inexhaustibly patient, if still unarguably the judge of good and evil. Increasingly, however, as at the beginning of Islam, good and evil are given a social reading. Evil is in “men’s hearts.” It is what causes greed among merchants, oppression of the poor, the ostracism of the weak, the defenseless—widows, children, orphans, the ill—language which is almost lifted from one book to the other to create a tradition of fully conscientised texts completely unlike anything that had existed in religious literature before the time of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament writings.
The radical extension of this intellectual strain comes in the New Testament declaration (in the Johannine tradition) that God is love. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God.” (1 John 4.8). It has been suggested that in this one verse the vengeance of the Old Testament has been laid to rest: the grave has been dug. It is a paradigm shift from which religion would never recover, yet somewhat surprisingly it does not resurface in this radical form in Islam half a millennium later. Instead—for perfectly understandable reasons rooted in the nature of Muhammad’s time and culture –the God of vengeance and judgment reappears, along with the idea of a chosen people and the auxiliary idea of a deaf and blind people who do not do what God commands.
The message of Christianity is not totally obliterated in the Qur’an, though it is not prominent. God hates sin, but forgives it. He requires people to show mercy and generosity, but not with equanimity. The God of the Qur’an exercises restraint rather than expresses love. Like the god of Abraham, he is a god largely shaped in the desert places and not in the city—among the tribes rather than among the teachers. Although the early Muslim community was a tumultuous one, its aggressiveness has to be understood in terms of the social conditions and pressures that created it—in the same way that a newly empowered Christianity behaved badly in relation to pagans, Jews and dissenters (heretics) for the for the first thousand years of its legitimate existence. The issue here is not what violence (birth pangs, as the Bible describes such things) may have brought a religious community into existence but whether a return to that violence is ever conscionable.
The God of Then and Now
But that is history. This is now.
And my question now is, What image of God –regardless of the historical and largely man-made permutations of that image–explains killing children? Where in Qur’an or hadith do I find this?
Quote me no imams and rhyme me no rhymes or interpretations: Show me.
What concept of God entitles me to flog women on a whim, shoot schoolgirls in the head, disfigure my bride or fiancée; lop off her legs with a dull blade because she has been flirtatious? Kill my wife because she has “dishonored” me?
What God tells me to strap myself with explosives to kill infidels, blow up hotels, chop the heads off my fellow Muslims because they cannot recite Shehadah a certain way?
Tell me what God this is and I will say to you, without advanced philosophical argument:
Smash that god.
That god is an idol.
That god deserves to be torn from the altar of your vile imagination and trampled and pissed on. The god that commands these things is worse than any god worshiped by Muhammad’s pagan ancestors, more noxious that any god of any nation that threatened Abraham and his sons and descendants. The Egyptian gods were paragons of kindness by comparison. The human lives lost to the Babylonian and Hittite gods are a paltry statistic compared to the life that you sacrifice daily on the altar of this celestial jackal. The Canaanite bulls and the Dionysian man-whores were morally superior to the god you are calling the true God, the one you name Allah, but who has been entirely molded from an erotico-spiritual fantasy, a paradise of male pleasure-seekers being sexually satisfied in the gardens of the houri. There has been no god in the history of humanity whose orders are more contemptible, more undeserving of obedience, whose savants and teachers and leaders are more ignorant or more cowardly. Anyone who worships the god you worship is an enemy of truth, kindness, mercy and compassion. Anyone you kill in the name of this god dies a martyr, a saint. Anyone who agrees to your interpretation of a once noble faith contributes to its accelerating decline and spiritual death.
Side with this god and you are, to be blunt, siding with the power of evil. Become his devotee and hold up for the world to see the ugliest, time-deadened verses of a book that spoke to men of the eighth century, but not to our own. It is your choice to fashion this god out of this clay: there is better clay. There are better images.
Let the Qur’an grow out of its immaturity and become with the other sacred books a force for change in which the warrior cut-throat god of the ancient imagination becomes a god of peace, and not a remnant of a violent and bloody past. Let that god die, as Yahweh died. Let Allah, who is proclaimed to be merciful, relinquish the role you have assigned him–the role of an angry and abusive father-to become the god who loves and seeks love in return.
You—the men of violence—the beheaders, the burners, the warriors against love–are the true infidels, the real unbelievers.
For the real infidels believe–and have always believed–that the highest tribute they can pay to a being who reflects their passions and leaves them free to do harm is to call him god. The apostate is one who teaches that the god of the tribe, of unbridled revenge and hatred, is the true god. This god permits murder, stealing, rape and revenge. He hates learning, despises women and regards all those who do not share his hatreds as sinners. This is the beast the book religions before Muhammad knew as Mammon, as Asmodeus, as Belphegor— and a hundred other hideous names.
You-–the murderers, the killers of children–have stripped the true God of his names—the All-Merciful, the Pure, the Source of Peace, the Bountiful, the Shaper of Beauty. You have humiliated him in front of his own people and made him a laughing-stock to others. There is no sin greater than this and you are damned by it.
It is time for the courageous, the lovers of wisdom and justice and mercy to be honest about what has happened and what is happening: The God of the book is being stoned in the holy places while the faithful look on. And in his place, Satan sits enthroned and laughing.