Richard Warren FieldRichard Warren Field - Writer/Musician

Demonizing Islam is Both Wrong and Foolish

Posted on May 30, 2006
Updated on January 28, 2009

Published in August 2009 in Opposing Viewpoints: Islam

Copyright © 2006 by Richard Warren Field

Almost immediately after Nine-Eleven, President Bush clearly and adamantly stated that the United States would not be fighting a war against Islam. We were to fight individuals and groups who perpetrate terrorism and have misappropriated Islam. That was one of the wisest policies of his leadership. I have heard political commentators and religious leaders, some of whom I agree with on many other issues, make vehement arguments that Islam itself, as a religious faith, is the problem. They say Islam is not a religion of peace, but incites the violence and intolerance we see in our enemies in the war on terror. If Islam itself really is the enemy, then are we fighting a billion people? This would put us at war for the foreseeable future, a depressing prospect. But fortunately, Islam itself isn’t the problem. So demonizing Islam is both foolish and counter-productive.

People who want to demonize Islam per se as our enemy refer to two main sources for their arguments—quotations from Islamic scriptures, and the lack of a serious protest by moderate Muslims against the hijacking of their religion by radical reactionary Muslims.

On the scripture issue, I am simply not qualified to make expert comments on the scriptures of Islam. My own background is Christian, and I wouldn’t even pretend to be an expert in Christian scripture. I do know that religious scriptures can be misquoted, quoted out of context, mistranslated and misinterpreted. There are virulent anti-Jewish scriptures in the Christian New Testament. But at the time these scriptures were written, the religious group that would become the Christian establishment generations later was involved in fierce clashes with established Jewish sects. These passages in Christian scriptures were written as counter-attacks against that repression. Christianity was not the dominant religion at the time of these scriptures. It was a religion threatened with extinction. Sadly, Christian anti-Semitism sprang from a literal interpretation of these scriptures, taken out of their historical context, and that anti-Semitism was a shameful element of the Christian past. But no reasonable person would label current Christianity, which almost universally rejects anti-Semitism, as a violent and bigoted religion based on those scriptures.

Jewish scriptures also describe violent actions against the enemies of the Jewish people. These scriptures were also created at a time when the Jewish people were struggling for survival against powerful and ruthless neighbors. Some anti-Israel rhetoric has attempted to use quotes from Jewish scriptures to prove Judaism is a violent religion, and therefore that Israel is a violent nation. But the idea that Judaism today is an inherently violent religion is not well-documented or widely accepted.

Islam faced its own enemies during Mohammed’s lifetime. Mohammed addressed the proper conduct of battles with those enemies, and mandated the merciful treatment of captured prisoners, and the prohibition against causing harm to innocent non-combatants. (This aspect of Islam has been completely disregarded by the Muslim terrorists today. Or, they have found a way to rationalize their behavior by labeling all non-Muslims as legitimate combatants?) Just the fact that Mohammed addressed these issues might imply that Islam is an inherently violent religion. But we must understand that Mohammed and his followers faced destruction by enemy military forces while Mohammed was alive. Mohammed made the choice to defend himself and his followers. The military activities undertaken were defensive.

Those arguing that Christianity is a more peaceful religion will point out that if Jesus had faced similar challenges, he might have counseled his followers to turn the other cheek. Jesus offered his followers a spiritual answer for his times. His community was almost completely disempowered. Those who chose to fight the Roman authorities met horrendous fates. So Jesus offered them a spiritual approach that would allow them to lead meaningful lives in the midst of a hopeless earthly situation. (Jesus was also capable of some violence when faced with injustices directed against his followers—his encounter with the money-changers in the Jerusalem temple during the week before his death verifies this point.) In Mohammed’s time, he and his followers were not so disempowered. They had the ability to resist their persecutors. If Mohammed’s followers had turned the other cheek, they would probably have been slaughtered. So Mohammed set rules for fighting for an earthly existence, with compassion and justice.

In addressing the issue of Islam itself as a cause of the current hostilities with Muslim terrorists, it is more important to examine how Muslims practice their religion in the present day, than it is to try to assess the religion based on excerpts from scriptures prone to distortion when removed from their historical and rhetorical context. There is no doubt that the terrorist version of Islam does inspire hostilities. But what about the moderate Muslims? If their religion has truly been hijacked, then why haven’t we heard from them? Why aren’t they expressing their outrage and fighting for the soul of their religion? There is an obvious answer. They are afraid of the terrorists! The moderate Muslims are generally not violent people. They have every reason to fear that if they label the Muslim terrorist fanatics as operating outside the true tenets of Islam, then they will become the targets of terrorist wrath. In fact, they would be more of a threat to the terrorists, because their opposition would threaten the very legitimacy of the terrorists’ existence.

Or, moderate Muslims may still be assessing where they belong in this struggle. In his book
No God But God, Reza Aslan asserts that Islam is involved in nothing less than a civil war. Moderates are fighting with extremists for the soul of the religion. If this is true, then when Christians, or other westerners, demonize Islam, and not the misappropriation of it, they back those moderates into a corner, compelling them to make a choice between fanatics in their own religion and those who condemn their religion itself as the enemy. We are helping the extremist Muslims by pushing the moderates into their camp if we attack a religion with over a billion followers on the planet.

We should not demonize Islam, but reach out to the moderate Muslims. We need to let them know we understand and respect the contributions of Islam to our civilization. From the 700s to the 1200s, Muslim scholars preserved western knowledge while Europe was enveloped in the “Dark Ages.” Large numbers of manuscripts of the pre-Christian Greek civilization were translated into Arabic. The knowledge was then improved upon in various disciplines, including astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. The advanced civilization during that period was the Muslim civilization, stretching from Central Asia to Spain. Non-Muslim scholars also participated in this Muslim golden age, treated with the most religious tolerance offered by any state in existence at that time.

Islam then underwent an assault from two directions. The Crusades, from the west, placed stresses on a politically fragmenting Muslim world. The Mongols from the east then threatened the very existence of Islam, destroying much of the Muslim Central Asian civilization. Mongols moved toward the heartland of Islam, destroying Baghdad, the grand city of Islam’s golden age. Islam has never completely recovered from the Mongol conquests. Merv was the most populated city in the world during the middle of the 12th Century, its prosperity driven by a thriving trade over the Silk Route. The city was larger than Constantinople, larger than Baghdad, and much larger than Paris or London. The Mongols obliterated the city. Remnants of the city survive today, as curiosities for archaeologists. The Mongols significantly depopulated Central Asia, destroying entire cities in the process. Baghdad was subjected to a wholesale slaughter of anyone not considered useful to the Mongols. They reduced the city from a spiritual capital of Islam to a provincial town. The city struggled for centuries to regain some of the glories of the its golden age. Western Europe, spared from the Mongol cataclysm, emerged from the wreckage to make use of the preserved Greek knowledge, and other Muslim innovations in medicine (including hospitals) and mathematics (including Arabic numbers, though they may have originated in India). Islam was the religion of progress before the Mongol cataclysm. Let’s acknowledge our debt to Islam, and invite Muslims to join in the continuing progress of humanity.

We also hear the argument “if you want to see what true Islam is, just look at the situation in Saudi Arabia.” This simply isn’t true. Yes, Saudi Arabia currently rules over the area of Islam’s most sacred shrines. But their sect of Islam should not be considered as some sort of Muslim orthodoxy. As Reza Aslan also points out in his book
No God But God, it is through an accident of history that the obscure Wahhabi sect, originally conceived by Abd al-Wahhab during the Eighteenth Century, came to prominence. Wahabi Islam began as a reactionary approach to Islam. It might well be compared to the Puritanism of England in the 1600s. Wahabi Islam might have faded off onto the margins of the religion if it hadn’t been embraced by a tribal leader, Muhammad ibn Saud, whose descendants ended up possessing one of the largest oil reserves on the planet. We need to understand that the Islam of Saudi Arabia is not the Islam practiced by all one billion plus Muslims. When we condemn the abuses and injustices of Wahabi Islam, the same sort of Islam that gave rise to the Taliban, we need to make sure it is clear we understand this form of Islam is not followed by all Muslims.

It is a sad fact that all the major religions seem to lapse into factions at some point. Great spiritual leaders come along with insights that inspire humanity. But after those spiritual visionaries pass on, their legacies are entrusted to mere ordinary people, who end up distorting and even losing the vision. Jesus would certainly have wept at the atrocities committed in his name. Mohammed would most certainly be disgusted with the terrorists invoking his name as they send men, women and sometimes even children out to destroy innocent people with suicidal bomb attacks. It is important for non-Muslims to reach out to the less radical Muslims with understanding, and ask them to stand with us against the radical Muslims who will go so far to restore some idealized vision of past Islamic glory that they would destroy the present. Our President’s initial statements about Islam were correct. We must constantly reassure our moderate Muslim friends, and those Muslims still torn between radical and moderate Islam, that we are at war with all terrorists, not all Muslims.


Richard Warren Field is the author of the award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith. For more information, go to RichardWarrenField.com.


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