Why is ISNA Involved in Advocating for Gun Control?

Why is ISNA Involved in Advocating for Gun Control? February 13, 2013

By Davi Barker

At a Capitol Hill press conference at the end of January, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) joined more than 45 faith leaders from various religious groups in petitioning legislators to pass a statutory solution for gun violence, including a ban on “assault” weapons. The move was organized by “Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence” and motivated by the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

This troubles me for a number of reasons. Firstly, gun control is unquestionably outside ISNA’s purview. ISNA is an umbrella organization representing more than 300 affiliates. Their website describes their vision as “To be an exemplary and unifying Islamic organization in North America that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large.” Despite this, they have taken a decidedly partisan stance on a notoriously controversial issue. Hardly unifying. They describe their mission as ” … an association of Muslim organizations and individuals that provides a common platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities, developing educational, social and outreach programs and fostering good relations with other religious communities, and civic and service organizations.”

Despite this, they have decided to participate in a public statement which has no basis the religion of Islam, and fundamentally misconstrues many of the affiliates they represent.

It seems to be that ISNA is overstepping it’s bounds by commenting on political issues that have nothing to do with demystifying Islam. Expressing grief and prayers for the victims and families of Sandy Hook is necessary and proper, but advocating law is not. They only explanations I can imagine are that the leadership within ISNA is so partisan that they can’t see how divisive a move like this is. Or, they are really are just trying to join bandwagons and grab headlines? Either is bad news for health of the organization.

Second, “assault” is a verb, not an adjective. The definition of “assault weapon” is notoriously difficult to pin down. Indeed, any weapon, even fists, can be used to assault someone. The confusion occurs when the people advocating gun control don’t actually know very much about guns, specifically the difference between fully-automatic and semi-automatic fire. An assault rifle is a fully-automatic military rifle. Once you pull the trigger it will fire continuously until you release it, or it runs out of rounds. This is not what gun control advocates are talking about. None of these rampage shooters have used military assault rifles. Fully-automatic firearms are already heavily restricted. They’re talking about semi-automatic rifles, meaning they do not fire additional rounds until the trigger is released and pulled again. Many firearms, including common hunting rifles and pistols are semi-automatic.

When gun control advocates talk about “assault weapons” they’re talking about rifles with exactly the same technical specifications as common hunting rifles, but with certain purely cosmetic features similar to military weapons. They’re essentially talking about banning military looking pistol grips and shoulder stocks. In other words, they fire the same bullets, at the same rate, at the same distance as common hunting rifles. They just look scary. The term is a media invention that’s been passed into law without clear definition. So, when ISNA uses the term, they’re essentially admitting to gun enthusiasts that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

If ISNA wants to comment on the issue let them bring their evidence from Islam. Let them show us an example of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) banning swords with vaguely military looking hilts or forbidding archers from carrying more than 10 arrows in their quiver. Otherwise, this is just a bogus genuflection toward the State.

Finally this troubles me because I happen to be on the opposite side of this issue on religious grounds. I am not  a gun enthusiast, but I recognize the sanctity of self defense. You find nothing even closely resembling gun control in the Sunnah of Muhammad (saw) and his companions. In fact, what you find is that every able bodied male was armed and trained to defend himself and his community. You even find women defending themselves on the battlefield. You find companions of the Prophet praying in the mosque with their sword or their bow strapped to their back.

The purpose of bearing arms, whether from an Islamic perspective, or from a Constitutional basis, is not to hunt. It’s for self defense — both from criminals and tyrants. Criminals and tyrants are not going to give up their rifles, semi or fully-automatic. It’s unconscionable to demand that innocent civilians defend themselves without arms. Some will argue that the destructive power of modern weapons puts them in a category the founders never imagined, and that’s probably true. But they also never imagined criminals and tyrants would possess such destructive power. What they knew was that possessing a parity of force was an important check on the growth of tyranny.

The uncomfortable reality is that governments are comprised of people — people who were teased in grade school. People who take psychiatric drugs.  People who play violent video games. Fragile, fallible people. By whatever standard one argues that a person has no right to possess a hand gun, an assault rifle, a predator drone or a nuke, one must ask why the people with badges have that right. There are no demi-gods among us. We either all possess this right, or none of us do. If people cannot be trusted with assault rifles, governments cannot be trusted with assault rifles. If the government must have assault rifles to defend against criminals and tyrants, then people must have assault rifles to defend against criminals and tyrants. To claim otherwise is to regard government as something other than an aggregate of humans, as something superior, something godlike, something to be worshiped.

So, I have a question for ISNA. Will you also advocate an “assault” weapons ban for government, or will you admit you regard the State as something superhuman?

Davi Barker writes at The Muslim Agorist and for other publications. His Patheos blog will be live by the end of February. Barker was born in California and during childhood travels, he was struck by the wonders of nature — a lightning storm over a primordial desert in Arabia, or the cherry blossom petals sprinkling down on the floating markets in Thailand. He spent his adolescence as an outsider, but recently is realizing alienation is not uniqueness, but a universal similarity that crosses all cultures and religions, caused by our separation from our true self and our separation from nature.

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