Last week I wrote about the most persecuted religion in the world -- Christianity. So dire is the persecution of Christians, Christianity is in danger of disappearing from its homeland. Christianity is most in peril, I noted, in Muslim-majority countries where either by official policy or official laxity, Christians are discriminated against, persecuted, tortured, threatened and even killed (Christians are not alone in this; atheists, Jews, Baha'is, and Muslims judged heretical are likewise persecuted.) Since this impending threat to Christianity has been largely ignored in the West I called upon the Western media to report on these atrocities and so prod Western governments to act in support of the universal human right to the free expression of religious belief. Finally, I said it was not my place to speak for Muslims but that Muslim leaders needed to make a compelling case that Islam is not inherently intolerant.
Noting the behaviors of some Muslims in Muslim-majority countries might leave the impression that most Muslims and most Muslim leaders endorse intolerance and persecution. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Most Muslims in most countries oppose violence in the name of Islam. For example, according to a 2009 Pew survey, in Pakistan, for example, 87 percent of Muslims hold that suicide bombing can never be justified (up from 35 percent in just 2004); 74 percent of Turkish Muslims and 78 percent of American Muslims concurred, and we have reason to believe that number to be higher today. Only 1 percent of American Muslims think suicide bombings are often justified, and only 7 percent think they are sometimes justified. I suspect, if suicide bombings were not so closely associated with Islam in most people's minds, a similar number of non-Muslim Americans would think they were sometimes justified.
Five Muslim leaders, in my recently published Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict (Yale University Press), argue that Islam, properly understood, is a religion of peace. I described one of these authors as a "moderate Muslim," and he objected to this description because of its redundancy -- he said that Islam is, by definition, moderate, peaceful, just, and tolerant. Let me introduce you to two of the authors and their understanding of Islam.
Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi is the president of WORDE, an organization that informs public policy about the difference between mainstream Islam and radical ideologies, and implements programs around the world that develop resilience to religious extremism. She has interviewed hundreds of Muslims around the world to understand what theologically motivates people towards the extreme, as well as to understand the economic, social, and financial incentives used to recruit followers. She writes:
"Modern-day Muslim scholars often repeat the catch-phrase, 'Islam tolerates other religions,' however I believe this is an inadequate representation of the faith. 'Tolerate,' as defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is to 'endure, put up with, to bear.' According to this definition, tolerance allows one to develop only superficial or shallow relationships devoid of compassion, empathy, and mutual understanding. In Islam it is not sufficient to simply tolerate others. Rather, Islam encourages Muslims to listen to and observe others so that we may truly understand them and accept them as part of God's creation. Acceptance -- more so than tolerance -- breathes life into social structures; potentially shifting them from a stance of conflict to one of mutual respect.
The injunction for acceptance was established when God said in the Holy Qur'an: 'O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you.' This verse is generally the strongest affirmation of Islam's belief in the unity of mankind and the equality of each soul, applying to both men and women, as well as to every race, tribe, and ethnicity. It emphasizes that the true measure of value is not a person's wealth or status, but rather his or her moral character or 'righteousness.'"
Abdolkarim Soroush is an Iranian philosopher, devout Muslim, and one of the leading intellectual forces behind the Islamic republic's pro-democracy movement. A Muslim activist during the 1979 revolution, Soroush has since braved death threats to argue for Islamic pluralism and challenge the notion that religion should not be open to different interpretations. Soroush writes:
"In the Quran Ch. 60, verses 8-9, we read:
'Allah does not forbid you in regard to those who did not make war against you on account of religion and did not expel you from your homes that you may deal with them with kindness and justice. Indeed Allah loves the just. Allah forbids you only in regard to those who made wars against you on account of religion and expelled you from your homes and supported others in your expulsion, that you may make friends with them."'
This categorical and lucid statement concerns relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. These verses were revealed to Mohammad during the second phase of his mission, when he was living in Medina as the powerful head of the first 'Islamic state' ever. How, then, should the now dominant Muslims treat their non-Muslim neighbor? The verses commend without reservation the showing of kindness and justice towards non-Muslims neighbors. These verses are significant because the kindness towards neighbors they enjoin is not an arbitrary and unexpected recommendation on the part of Allah but is rather a reasoned conclusion stemming from a principle of justice. This is precisely what makes it universal and categorical.
The number of Muslims hoping for peace and justice vastly outweighs the very small minority of extremists that have come to define Muslim as "Muslim terrorist." We can seek for justice for Christians in Muslim-majority countries knowing that the majority of Muslims are on our side.
Finally, one might reasonably ask about the causes of the animus Muslims feel towards the U.S. and then we might reasonably seek to alleviate those concerns. These are hard questions to ask especially when patriotism has come to be understood as unquestioned allegiance to America and its causes (unlike America's first patriots who were harsh critics of their government). Self-criticism is never easy and national self-criticism can be hazardous.
Let me hazard a guess, pun intended and awaiting flak, about two of those causes.
First and foremost could be the U.S.'s unflagging support of Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians. Only the U.S., Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, Palau, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and the Marshall Islands voted against Palestinian statehood (I didn't even know Palau, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands were countries). Let us note the irony: Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are denied human rights in some of the same ways that Christians in Muslim-majority countries are.
The second cause might be the U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. Maybe that's not quite the best way to put it. Consider the more than 130,000 (counted very conservatively) to 1,000,000 mostly civilian deaths over the past 20 or so years caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The dead are mostly Muslims, and the invasions were, President Bush claimed, endorsed by God. As General Tommy Franks proudly proclaimed, "We don't do body counts," but we should if we hope to understand the tragedy of the Iraqi invasion and Muslim anger at American imperialism.
We can attract more Muslims to the side of justice, peace, and liberty when our majority Christian nation genuinely seeks a world with liberty and justice for all.