Demonizing Muslims: A Christian Tradition Since…

Demonizing Muslims: A Christian Tradition Since… August 12, 2009

Thomas Kidd, a former protege of George Marsden at Notre Dame, recently published a sobering piece on American Christian attitudes toward Islam and how they reflect the tradition of Christian demonization of the Muslim other.  At the Evangelical Portal at Patheos we feature a precis of the argument that is well worth the read.

Kidd’s point is well taken that American Christians have a view of Islam as an intrinsically violent religion; he offers less substantiation that Christians view Islam as “demonic,” except in the sense that some Christians have viewed other faiths as inventions of the devil that are intended to lead good people astray.

As a historian, Kidd offers no moral judgment on the common American-Christian belief that Islam is violent.  Yet what if it really were the case that there is something intrinsically violent about Islam?  Is that something we would be able to discuss aloud?  Or is such a discussion so perilous that it ought not to be permitted in the first place?

That is, what if there were not merely violent strands of thought, or elements within the tradition that could be used to condone violence, but if there were something fundamentally violent about the essence of the religious tradition itself?  Yes, of course, one would have to define what one means by ‘violent,’ ‘fundamentally’ and ‘essence,’ and these are all matters of considerable complexity.  But it is theoretically possible, right, that a faith could be essentially violent?  And wouldn’t this be a question to be resolved by and large empirically, by examining the core tenets and practices of that faith–not to be resolved a priori by ruling the question morally or politically out of bounds?  Then the question becomes whether what is violent within the religious tradition is being left behind (as has happened, at least mostly, in the movement of Christianity out of it medieval into its modern forms) or whether it is being brought into the contemporary world.

I am not saying that Islam is essentially violent.  I have known far too many Muslims of sterling character to believe anything so simple.  My point is rather that we need an honest examination of Islam and how its traditions have been appropriated today–not dialogues that are dominated either by those who cherry-pick evidence out of the Qu’ran to prove their point that Islam is all about slaughter and rapine, or by those who will obscure those parts of the tradition that can lead and have led to violence.  The “Dark Ages” were not as dark as they are often made out to be, but the Enlightenment, for all its faults, did serve to expurgate (and put in motion forces that would eventually expurgate) much within the Christian tradition that was rooted in ignorance, violence and hatred.  Any religion that emerged from early stages in the development of human societies is bound to have such elements.  The question is what happens to them.

As it happens, CNN has a piece on Muslim women, especially teenaged girls, who choose to wear the hijab or veil.  As one woman explains, the “purpose behind wearing the hijab” was “so that a man should know [a woman] for her mind, not her body.”  This is a distinctly modern and feminist spin, but it is not really true–or, at least, it is far from the whole truth.  The hijab also has much to do with the sense of women as property that is exchanged in marital contracts.  Again, my point is not to denigrate Islam, but to insist that the conversation about Islam, its place in the world today, and its future as a modern faith, should be carried forth on the basis of an empirical and not ideological view of what Islam teaches.  Yet it seems as though the only views of Islam available these days are (for or against) highly ideological ones.

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