Reflecting on Islamic Radicalism, Islamic Terrorism, Islamo-fascism, whatever you call it…
Since the violent deaths of over fifty innocents in Orlando, Florida on Sunday, 12 June, I have watched a national political and policy debate over just what to call “this thing” that happened. How we classify the violent act has become a hot potato. Politicians and policy pundits have been arguing over the origins of the motivation … is it Islamic Radicalism, Islamic Terrorism, Islamo-fascism…?
Outside of the political realm, academics in the field of Islamic Studies have been debating the etymology of these terms for over thirty years too. Those of us involved in modern Islamic Studies have also come up with a wide variety of terms. The reason that “this thing” defies an easy definition is precisely because it is complicated. And no simple definition will provide an answer to cure it.
What I have found troubling over the last week is the characterization of “this thing” as the result of a religious text. This is precisely what Glenn Beck argues in his latest work, It Is About Islam (2015). Mr Beck argues that he is simply reading the Qur’an for himself (in English translation, of course), and comparing that with what the Islamic Radicalists, Islamic Terrorists, Islamo-fascists say and do. His conclusion is that the root cause is pretty straight forward: they do what their text tells them to do. If Mr. Beck and others are right, this leaves us with clear policy decisions to make regarding Muslims.
But there are two problems with his conclusions.
First, 1.8 billion Muslims around the world have a wide variety of ways in which they read and interpret the Qur’an. The Islamic Radicalists, Islamic Terrorists, Islamo-fascists often use the interpretive theory of naskh (abrogation) to argue that the passages in the Qur’an that describe positive relations with non-Muslims have been abrogated, or superseded, by later passages of the Qur’an that call for radical subjugation of others. This is why you often hear about the “Sword Verses” from Sura 9 (al-Tawbah) that commands them to “slay the infidels…” According to their abrogation theory the “Sword verses” are some of the later verses of the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad and thus the more authoritative.
However, not all Muslims agree on this view of naskh, or on the specific order of revealed verses. Many Muslims actually see such verses in much the same way that some Jews and Christians might read the story of David and Goliath and the war against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 17. In my experience, most believers view this story as a historically conditioned event from which modern believers might draw some principled ethical or spiritual lessons that have nothing to do with warfare. Many Muslims look to the asbab al-nuzul (the gates of descent) or historical events in which the revelation of the Qur’an came as a way to help understand God’s will for today. And, just like Jews and Christians, there are a wide variety of ways in which believers interpret the same text. Just as Christians interpret the Bible very differently in regards to, say… issues of sexuality, Muslims have a wide variety of hermeneutical expressions. So, the Qur’an is not simply the source of the issue.
The second problem with the characterization that Islamic Radicalism, Islamic Terrorism, Islamo-fascism simply originates from the text of the Qur’an is simply that there are a wide variety of elements that drive people to violence. The fact that there are some Muslims who see the Qur’an (and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as supporting their violent actions is something that Mr. Beck and others are right about. However, there are a variety of other reasons that drive religious people to violence; or rather, there are a variety of reasons that drive people to violence, including religion.
One of the things I have experienced as a pastor is that the specific beliefs of individuals rise from their human experience – their joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Religion and faith is that which is hoped for in the midst of an uncertain life. Re-ligio is that which re-connects us with what gives us meaning. For most people, religious faith rises out of questions related to family issues, moral dilemmas, ethical quandaries, economic uncertainty or prosperity, a sociological morass, mental or physical illness, or environmental crises. You name it… The Bible informs and provides direction for those beliefs.
As a victim of Islamic Radicalism, Islamic Terrorism, Islamo-fascism violence, I know full well the reality of its danger. And yet, I do not know, nor will I ever know, the real reasons that prompted someone to drive a car bomb into a hotel. What I do know is that the event that changed my life was the result of larger geo-political issues, not just several verses from the Qur’an.
Sane people who act violently in the name of religion do so not just because they read a text and then realize that they are supposed to kill someone, rather such interpretations are fostered by a whole host of sociological, economic, nationalistic, and even mental health reasons and causes. Religion often provides sanction for what they are feeling or desire. Quite often these violent reactions are protest movements to the way they feel their lives are currently stuck. Back in the 70s and 80s we called them Marxists. In the 30s and 40s we called them Fascists. In the 10s and 20s we called them Nationalists. The violence certainly was real and dangerous, but the origins were multivalent.
There certainly is an “ideological” factor to Islamic Radicalism, Islamic Terrorism, Islamo-fascism that derives from religious texts, but it is not the only cause. Usama bin Laden, Sayid Qutb, and even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not just open the Qur’an and say, “Oh now I get it…” Their responses grew out of a variety of economic, historical and sociological contexts.
So, what is an American Christian to do in the midst of these questions? Nothing more than Jesus would have us do – reach out beyond our normal social and religious boundaries to engage with people. Muslim communities in North America are in a state of shock. Most Muslims I know cannot understand how their “compassionate and merciful God” can be the inspiration for such actions, nor how their particular pious acts of prayer, fasting, and charity can be seen as dangerous.
The best thing that American Christians can do is to “bridge” the communal fear and create relationships between communities. This will create a safer, more prosperous America than any military solution or hotly debated government policy. Mosques and congregations that are involved in intercommunal relationships are not the kinds of places that fearful individuals or who those are bent on violence will find refuge. For “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:8).
This is just the view of one Bible-believing Christian.