Well, I’ve been bombarded this week with email about the danger of Islam and Islamism. The recent Atlantic Monthly article that asserts unequivocally that ISIS is “Islamic, very Islamic” has stirred up the Islamophobes and given justification to their fears.
Let’s start with some facts. Yes, both the Qur’an and traditions of the prophet valorize violence in some circumstances, notably in wars against perceived enemies of Islam and Muslims. And yes, Islam has inspired an imperialism whose intention was clearly to conquer the world for God’s final revelation, destroy polytheism and marginalize the religions based on earlier revelations. How that was to be accomplished was mostly a matter of pragmatism, with war one legitimate means. Of course there were rules of war in Islam, boundaries for even violent behavior. But let’s not imagine they couldn’t be bent or reinterpreted, then as they are now. Unfortunately Islam and Muslims were not alone.
What I’ve said above is equally true of Christianity. Christian scriptures give permission for all sorts of God-inspired violence and misogyny, not least by ending in a cosmic war that destroys most of humanity (the good and the bad) with a viciousness ISIS can only dream of. It wasn’t they who invented the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And Christianity inspired a world-conquering imperialism that was virtually in love with war and violence, and continued right up into the last century. Some would say the present century. Oh yes, there were rules of war, but they did tend to get bent for both pragmatic reasons and in the heat of battle. Firebombing Dresden? Hiroshima? Nagasaki?
So why is someone like Danial Pipes (http://www.danielpipes.org/15618/islam-violence) so worried about Islam and yet rests so easily with Christianity?
Arguably because Christianity has lately changed. Christian pacifism, still a minority movement, has arisen in the last couple of hundred years. More importantly Christianity has been steadily stripped of its political influence in the West, so that now when Europeans and Americans go to war they don’t bother to hide naked ambition and fear with religious motives. But note, these Christian nations do still go to war. And they do still commit horrible atrocities in war – like napalming vast swaths of Southeast Asia so that innocent people burned to death with their cattle and children and fields. Very Biblical that. Or wrecking entire nations like Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands, for no reason other than a desire to engage in a little regime change. That would be the war that brought us ISIS and their horrors.
But still – we Christians believe that we’ve turned a corner on our imperialism and our violence in the name of Christ. Our crusading days are over, or at least we believe they are. BUT we don’t believe that Islam and Muslims can turn that corner. We believe that only we are capable of changing, of learning the folly of religious war. We believe that ours is the only religion of war that can re-imagine itself as a religion of peace.
Why would we believe that? Why do we believe that we are capable of something that the rest of the world can’t possibly do? I am not sure. One can find hourly examples of Muslims who have decisively turned the corner from violence and want only peace. There is now a rich Islamic intellectual effort dedicated to rethinking Islam in terms of democracy, peace, and genuine human rights. And of course there are the hundreds of millions of Muslims who have not and never want to go to war with their neighbors, who live quiet decent lives, and who believe that this is the Islamic way. So why can’t we grant Islam and Muslims the privilege of change that we grant ourselves?
Perhaps because in the end it would remove our deep American Christian sense of moral superiority. In the end it would reveal that we are exactly what our scriptures teach us we are: unredeemed sinners. Not better, but no worse, than any other sinners in the world. In the end to admit that Muslims and Islam can be “converted” would be to admit that we’re not really that special, that we are not in fact God’s chosen people, because God has chosen all people.
And we really can’t bear that. The last email I received from a critic of my recent public statements called for making Islam illegal in the US in order to protect “our nation, our way of life, and our American exceptionalism.” And that is really at the root of our bigotry with regard to Muslims. We have staked our identity, our meaning in life, our national reason to be, on being exceptional. And in doing so we’ve made a bad bet. Because in God’s eyes we are not. We are beloved, and no doubt have gifts and fruits of unique value. But we are not exceptional. Because God makes no exceptions. Neither in redemption nor in judgment.