Two Islams Are Better Than One

The Paris attacks reignited the debate over the relationship between Islam and violence. On the one hand, the Obama administration stresses that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that "the biggest error we could make would be to blame Muslims for crimes... that their faith utterly rejects" and thus "fuel the very fires that we want to put out." Kerry is echoing statements by President Obama (and Bush before him) that Islam is a religion of peace. And former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar opined that such terrorists are "thugs disguising themselves as Muslims" who "act against the very religion they claim to believe in."

On the other hand, conservative commentators blast the White House for trying to disassociate Islam from terrorism. The National Review's Rich Lowry accused the White House of promoting "a haze of euphemism and cowardice" for avoiding terms like radical Islam. Even Tom Friedman chimed in to support Lowry's point in an editorial entitled "Say It Like It Is." And other governments have been less political in their own public statements, with British PM David Cameron, for example, speaking of the "very serious Islamist extremist terrorist threat."

This is a false debate. Islam, like Christianity or Judaism, is neither a violent nor a peaceful religion, but contains texts that legitimate both! Muslims seeking to justify violence will cite the Quran's exhortation to "Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them," (9:5) and the Hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that "I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah" (Muslim 1.9.30). Yet those rejecting violence will point to the lines "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and "And do not take any human being's life -- that God willed to be sacred -- other than in [the pursuit of] justice" (17:33). Some lines preach tolerance, such as "If God had pleased He surely could have made you one people (professing one faith)," (5:48) and "O you unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship who I worship... to you your way and to me mine," (109:1-6). When Muhammad exclaims, "Oh Lord, these are certainly a people who do not believe," Allah responds to him, "Turn away from them and say: 'Peace'" (43:88-89). Yet others are clearly intolerant: "Say unto those who disbelieve: Ye shall be overcome and gathered unto Hell, an evil resting-place." (3:12) and "O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends" (5:51) come to mind. This ambiguity is captured in the word "jihad," a term which literally means "struggle," but is interpreted by some as holy war, and others as a spiritual struggle towards self-improvement.

Other religious texts are just as open to interpretation. In the New Testament, Jesus calls on his followers to "turn the other cheek," (Matthew 5:38-39) yet returns as a wrathful conqueror to "strike down the nations" with a "sharp sword" (Revelation 19:15). In the Old Testament, God's people are ordered not to "let anything that breathes remain alive" in the towns of their enemies, but rather to "annihilate them" (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), while taking vengeance "an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:24). Yet Jews may also invoke pacifistic passages, such as that under God's law "they shall beat their swords into plowshares [...] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war" (Isaiah 2:4; c.f. Micah 4:3).

In short, we best recognize that Islam, like other major religions, lends itself both to support violence and to curb it. Unless we recognize the difference, we either err in losing the support of moderate Muslims by labeling all Islam as fodder for terrorists, or -- we overlook the ill effects of violent Islam by pretending that it is all a religion of peace.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, The New Normal, was released in November by Transaction Publishers. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Send an email to to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.