After another act of terrorism against the west committed by Islamic terrorists, many liberal Muslims and non-Muslims have said that those perpetrators claiming to act in the name of Islam are in no way Muslims themselves. It seems that as soon as one of these acts of terrorism takes place, in this case against a satirical French magazine, large numbers of people come out of the woodwork citing all sorts of clerical and Koranic authority saying that these people cannot in fact be true followers of the faith.
This, it seems, is something comforting for us in the west who still see the religion of Islam as something mysterious and obfuscated. Both sets of Muslims, those who are liberal and to a certain extent westernised make the same claim as the extremists; that those professing to be of the same faith do not understand it and have acted not according to the core texts and principles and are ‘un-Islamic’. As we have seen recently in the Middle East, the newly emerged Islamic State is forever lopping the heads off other Muslims because they fail to accept their version of the faith, referring to them as heretics and infidels, while we see on the other side the liberal Muslims in Europe and elsewhere condemning these people for not acting in true accordance with their teaching. Which one is correct?
Why is it we take on face value the claim that the more violent form of this ideology is necessarily the one which is incorrect? It seems that both sides cite verses from the Koran and the Hadith in defence of their actions and ideas as well as the means with which to condemn the other side. Do we accept the premise of the less violent Muslims because we have examined their religion and find that they clearly have the better of the argument, or is it because theirs is the idea we find to be more acceptable within our culture? It seems that neither has the better of the argument in deciding who is truly Islamic.
An example of this would be the thoughtful and incredibly well researched work on the Koran by Ibn Warraq (unable to use his real name for reasons you can guess) on the elasticity of the Koran and the ease with which one can be a suicide bomber or an ordinary member of free society. The clearest cut of these examples which he cites is the abrogation within the Koran, where one verse can be later corrected by a subsequent revelation to the Prophet Mohammed. Now this becomes a problem in reading the Koran since, as some may not know, unlike the bible it is not compiled in chronological order, rather the longer chapters placed at the beginning in the traditional Koran. A disturbing abrogation in light of recent events is the earlier (chronologically) part of the Koran where tolerance is preached is then updated in sura 9.5, ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.’ This verse is estimated by Warraq to have corrected no less than 124 previous injunctions to tolerance and patience. If there was then a disagreement on which verse corrected which, we could find ourselves in a spot of bother it seems.
To make it clear, this is not a charge against Islam; it is rather a charge against religious ideas in general and the place we allow them to occupy within our society. For example, in Christianity, we have both the gentle and ecumenical face of the Anglican Church accepting of all on one side and the hard-line, often Baptist Christians in the United States who shoot abortion doctors and preach constantly about hellfire and brimstone. Which one of these groups are the true Christians?
The simple answer to this question is neither and both simultaneously, and the same is true of Islam and the other religions. It seems that we will have to come to terms with the fact that no Muslim or Christian or Jew or Hindu can objectively take away someone else’s right to be included within their faith. The constant attempts by members of Islam to nominally excommunicate others have no effect other than to cut themselves out of dialogue with these more extreme versions of the faith and add one more name to the list of those who the violent extremists don’t like.
The problem, it seems, is the elasticity of the holy books themselves, the internal contradictions and accretions that makes them able to be used by both the gentle and the deranged to further their ideas. It seems to be taboo now to blame religions for the effects which their adherents have in the lives and cultures of others, but this seems to be dodging the problem in the hope of a quiet life. This it seems is insulting to intelligent people and to the memory of those killed to continue a culture of hand waving and ecumenism that skirts the issue and says, ‘Isn’t it all lovely we all live in peace and harmony together with our different old story books?’ There comes a point when we have to finally recognise that we don’t live in this kind of mutually informed utopia where everyone is educated and understanding of everyone else’s ideas or indeed cares about them.
Our discourse needs to reflect what is happening in reality and not what would like reality to be. Let us now have a grown up conversation, and not be immediately be accused of being racist or in some other way socially deficient if you want to have an honest conversation about Islam or any other idea for that matter. Religion will have to adapt to the fact that it makes extraordinary claims that some people believe to be so ridiculous you could even draw a cartoon about them, which they have every right to. Until we can have a reasonable discussion about the matter at hand and not pander to the religious, the prospect of having a truly multicultural society is impossible and these current fears of backlash will become more pressing as mistrust. Suspicion will continue to deepen to an irreparable degree because we continually shift the dialogue away from this necessarily uncomfortable conversation.