Recently, elements of Al-ikhwan al-muslimun, Egypt’s “Muslim Brotherhood,” have destroyed or damaged a large number of Christian churches — most of them, for obvious reasons, Coptic, and some of them very old. It’s been a sad, depressing spectacle, and some observers have compared it — not without justice — to the Nazi Kristallnacht of 9-10 November 1938.
I’ve always been struck by Plato’s notion that a person doing wrong to another cannot, in the most fundamental sense, harm that other person but is most certainly harming himself. While I’m not sure that I buy it altogether, I definitely get the point and grasp its force.
I cannot blithely say that the murderous mob rampages of the past few weeks haven’t harmed their victims or hurt those whose shrines, churches, and monasteries they’ve destroyed, though I believe without question that the arsonists and murderers have done frightful damage to their own souls — damage for which they will be accountable in the next life if not in this one.
It’s undeniably true, however, that these particular misbehaving Muslims have done grievous harm to the image of their faith in the West and among unbelievers. More and more, Islam comes to be seen as a hateful, violent, nihilistic, freedom-hating cult of death. I regret this more than I can say. For us who’ve known many kind Muslims (in my case over decades), who’ve lived for many years in predominantly Muslim societies and visited them often, who’ve spent thousands of hours studying and teaching about the rich culture of the Islamic lands, who’ve found truth and beauty and depth and inspiration in its literature, architecture, philosophy, religious writing, and art, it’s deeply painful to hear what many Americans, for example, have come to think of Islam. And yet, in a sense, I can’t blame them. It’s almost as if certain Muslims have deliberately undertaken to destroy the reputation of the religion they profess to love, to make it a stench in the nostrils of decent men and women everywhere.
In recent days, I’ve encountered a number of people who’ve declared, quite confidently — on the basis, I’m pretty sure, of little or no actual historical knowledge — that burning and destroying churches is part and parcel of Islam, that this is just typical of what Muslims do. (It doesn’t seem to have occurred to such people that, on their understanding of Islam, it’s rather difficult to explain how the ancient monasteries and churches that have recently been destroyed had survived until this past month.) Implicitly, they contrast their hostile caricature of Islamic history with the mythically pristine history of a Christendom unmarred by the Crusades, pogroms, heresy trials, the Inquisition, forced conversions, and vicious anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust — a Christian West in which, one might incorrectly imagine, Muslims were permitted over the centuries to live in peace, build mosques, and worship freely.
Still, though, my inclination isn’t to attack the West. I’m a man of the West, and I revel in the culture out of which I emerged. The West has itself accomplished great things (Shakespeare, Wilberforce, Bach, the free market, Jefferson, Chartres, Dante, Beethoven, Milton, the United States Constitution, Chaucer, Lincoln, Goethe, Michelangelo, etc.), and, over the past two or three centuries in particular — centuries during which Islamic societies have been in a state of relative decline and stagnation, poorly ruled by corrupt, ineffective, and oppressive governments — has taken great strides in terms of liberty and limited government and human rights.
But I think the complex and variegated historical record of the Islamic world on the issue of religious tolerance needs to be better known among Westerners — and, perhaps also, among Muslims themselves. That record isn’t flawless, of course, but neither is the West’s.
Hoping to contribute at least in some small measure to that better understanding, I offer this morning’s brief Hamblin/Peterson column:
Posted from Park City, Utah