The Two Faces of Islam . . . Still Smiling
Why All Muslims Benefit From Terrorism
My hungry toddler woke me up this morning. After making his breakfast, I turned on my computer and found that London had just been struck by terrorists. As I watched news clips for the next few hours, I noticed that, for many in the West, the terror attacks brought back painful memories of September 11th, 2001. For me it was a little different. My thoughts weren’t drawn to the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but to an attack on a local mosque that took place shortly thereafter.
Following the 9-11 attacks, a few enraged vandals smashed the windows of the Islamic Center near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. When the pastor of a nearby church saw the students vandalizing the mosque, he called the police. Later in the day, police and school officials held a meeting to help ease some of the tension. After the meeting, an angry attendee caused a brief panic when he claimed that Islam is a religion of violence and bloodshed, and that the terrorists were only doing what they were commanded to do in the Qur’an. Several people (including myself) argued against him, confidently assuring the man that Islam is actually a religion of peace.
My beliefs about Islam have changed since then (mostly because I’ve studied Islam). Nevertheless, I recently realized why I had been so quick to defend the Muslim religion. Over the years, I’ve known several Muslims, and they have all been kind, peaceful individuals. Indeed, despite the popular portrait of Muslims burning flags and desecrating images of George Bush, the majority of Muslims are normal, faithful, peaceful people, going about their daily lives with no intention of blowing up buildings or of burning anyone’s flag. Many in the West deny this, but they typically do so because they have never so much as talked to a Muslim.
The benevolent nature of these Muslims has a profound psychological effect on Westerners. It causes us to say, "Wait a minute. Islam can’t be bad, because Muslims are such nice people. Thus, the terrorists who blow up buildings and subways must be extremists." Once we have convinced ourselves of this, we may even find ourselves defending Islam, as I once did. We know that people are angry at terrorists, and we know that some of these angry people may want to take out their anger on Muslims. So we end up defending Islam in order to protect our Muslim friends. While protecting people is certainly a noble goal, defending Islam is an entirely different story.
If someone were to ask me, "David, do you believe that Islam is a religion of peace?" my answer would not be "Yes" or "No." Rather, my response would be, "First tell me what you mean when you say ‘Islam,’ for it is a term that is used in different ways." If by "Islam" we mean the religion that is practiced by more than a billion people around the world, I could reasonably answer with a qualified "Yes," because it is a religion of peace for many people (though not for all). But if by "Islam" we mean the religion taught by Muhammad, I would have to respond with a resounding "No."
At this point my Muslim readers will be saying to themselves, "What does this infidel mean? There is only one Islam, perfectly preserved in the Holy Qur’an from the time it was given to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel." However, much like the idea that the Qur’an has been perfectly preserved, the idea that Islam has only one face is completely false. There has always been a psychological crisis in Islam, and if I were to diagnose it as having a particular mental illness, I would probably argue that it suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. Islam has never been able to decide whether it wants to live in peace with unbelievers, or to pile their severed, unbelieving heads into a giant pyramid. I’m sure many would disagree here, but they would be disagreeing with one of the most empirically verifiable facts in the universe. Think about it. One Muslim beheads an innocent woman to protest the war in Iraq, while another Muslim curses him for slaying the innocent. One group of Muslims flies an aircraft into a building, while another group condemns the attack. One Muslim detonates a bomb on a bus filled with passengers, while another Muslim says on the evening news, "Islam is a religion of peace." Each side quotes the Qur’an to support its actions. However, it may be even more important to note that each of them is following the example set by Muhammad.
The reason that Islam suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder is that its founder also suffered from this disorder. I don’t mean this to be taken literally, of course. It is only meant to describe a peculiar phenomenon that went on in Muhammad’s head. When Muhammad first began receiving his "revelations," many of his neighbors in the city of Mecca took it upon themselves to mock and persecute him. Muhammad was a threat both to their immoral lifestyles and to their source of wealth (the pagan idols of the city brought plenty of revenue), and so he had to be stopped, or at least discredited. During this period, Muhammad was humble, devout in many ways, obedient to the message handed down to him, faithful in giving to the poor, and, in general, a fine moral example. In essence, he was like the many fine examples of dedicated Muslims we see in the world today. He preached a religion of peace, and the hadiths we have from this period reflect his peaceful temperament.
Then something happened. Muhammad fled Mecca and moved to Medina, where his political power rapidly increased. Soon he and his followers began raiding caravans to support the fledgling religion, and, while Muhammad’s enemies multiplied, so did his followers. What followed can only be described as a reign of terror for those who refused to submit to Islam. Both men and women were slaughtered for writing satirical poems against Muhammad, and those who left the Islamic faith were exterminated. One woman was murdered in the dark for writing a poem against Muhammad; after she was slain, Muhammad declared that "Two goats won’t butt their heads about her." Hundreds of Jews were beheaded (after surrendering) for standing against Muhammad, and their wives and children were sold into slavery. A blind man who was reportedly more than a hundred years old had his head split open for saying that, if he could only see, he would throw a handful of dust at Muhammad. When a man named Uqba was about to be killed by Muslims and showed concern for his family by asking, "But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?" Muhammad answered by telling the doomed man that Hell would take care of them. (For more on Muhammad’s violent acts, see "Murdered By Muhammad.")
There are, of course, far more examples of violence than the ones listed here, but these should be sufficient to provide a picture of Muhammad’s idea of how Muslims should treat those who refuse to submit to Islam. Was Islam a religion of peace for the 600-900 Jewish men and boys whose heads were piled into trenches after they had surrendered? Was Islam a religion of peace for the woman who was stabbed to death in the midst of her five children? Was it a religion of peace for anyone who dared to speak out against Muhammad? No, it wasn’t. When Muhammad finally had a band of dedicated followers who would obey his violent commands without question, Islam was not a religion of peace.
Notice that we have approached this question regarding the nature of Islam using a basic historical analysis. Discussions about Islam typically revolve around certain verses in the Qur’an, but such discussions are often fruitless. The reason for this is that the Qur’an is very inconsistent in its approach towards unbelievers, due in large part to Muhammad’s own inconsistency. In conversations about Islam, a Muslim may argue that, according to the Qur’an, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). A critic may reply with a very different passage:
Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (9:29).
To this the Muslim replies, "Yes, it says to fight those who do not believe, but it is referring to unbelievers who attack Islam." Thus, according to many Muslims, Islam fights, but only in self-defense. So who’s right? The solution to the debate can be found in a historical examination of Islam. It is true that Muslims are only permitted to attack when threatened, but history shows what the early Muslims considered a threat. Anything other than complete submission to Islam was regarded as a threat to Islam, and so anything other than complete submission was met with extreme hostility. Even poetry and song lyrics, when used against Muhammad, were enough to warrant a sentence of death.
Hence, the verses in the Qur’an that teach Muslims to live in peace should be examined within the historical context of Muhammad’s life, for it is this life that sheds light on an apparently ambiguous message. This historical context also sheds light on modern aspects of Islam, which ultimately derive from the life of its founder.
For instance, more than thirteen centuries ago, the relatively peaceful Muhammad fled Mecca because of intense persecution. As he fled the city, he left the path of peace farther and farther behind him. He eventually returned at the head of an army, and few were brave enough to oppose him. Islamic law was suddenly supreme, with a host of bloody tales to warn its enemies. A similar phenomenon occurs in the world today. When Muslims are in the minority (as they are in America) the message is always "Let us live in peace with one another, for Islam is a religion of tolerance and understanding." Then, once Islam has spread throughout the country, the message suddenly changes to "Anyone who stands against the Prophet is worthy of death!"
Oddly enough, this tactic has been remarkably successful for Islam. Despite more than a thousand years of bloodshed, many people are convinced that Muhammad was a gentle, humble man who never harmed anyone, and that Islam teaches its followers to be at peace with everyone who hasn’t declared war on them. Then, when someone like Osama bin Laden organizes a group of Muslims in an attack against thousands of innocent people, everyone says that he must be insane, and people around the world rush to defend Islam.
The result is simply amazing. Muslims commit acts of terror in Russia, Spain, America, England, Israel, and countless other countries around the world, and it actually causes certain people to support Islam even more! Think about it. A Muslim blows up a bus, but people don’t want other Muslims to be persecuted for it, so they start defending Islam. Legislators are among the most active in this regard. Laws threatening free speech about Islam are popping up everywhere (even in the United States and Great Britain), declaring that statements against Islam will not be tolerated. Indeed, Australia is on the verge of sending pastors to prison for quoting passages of the Qur’an!
Today’s terrorist attacks in London, strangely enough, will help Islam grow even stronger. There will be a brief period of outrage against Islam, but once the smoke has cleared (both literally and figuratively), the world will once again rush to defend Islam, and more bills will be passed, "protecting" Muslims from those who would speak out against Muhammad’s "religion of peace." No matter how violent Islam becomes, as long as people fail to recognize that its two faces are part of the same head (and that both faces are calmly smiling as new laws make Islam untouchable), Muhammad’s empire of faith will thrive in a world of false tolerance.
Perhaps Osama bin Laden isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks, for his plan seems to be working perfectly. His attacks are strengthening Islam’s position in the world. In a curious way, bin Laden is more dedicated to true Islam than most Muslims are. If Muhammad told Muslims to fight in the name of God and demonstrated his meaning by killing men, women, and children for even minor resistance, what should a dedicated Muslim do? Should devout Muslims live in peace with the infidels around them, or should they follow Muhammad’s example by murdering the infidels in their beds?
I’m very happy that most Muslims are willing to live in peace with their neighbors. Yet we have to be honest here. Benevolent Muslims aren’t peaceful because they are following the example set by Muhammad. They are peaceful because they’ve chosen to do what’s right, and because they are willing to live far better lives than Muhammad himself lived. In fact, many Muslims are such kind, peaceful, and gentle people that they seem to be following the example set by another great religious leader—one who died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose from the dead to prove his message. This man gave his listeners a sober warning: "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:15). And, may I add, we should also watch out for false religions, which come to us crying "Peace! Peace!" when they are built on a foundation of murder and bloodshed.
Qur’an quotations are taken from the M. H. Shakir Translation. The Bible quotation is from the New International Version.
1 According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Muhammad personally took part in 27 of these raids [Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 659]. I highly recommend Ibn Ishaq’s work for anyone who is interested in early Islam.
2 Ibid., p. 676.
3 Ibid., p. 464: “Then they surrendered, and the apostle [Muhammad] confined them in Medina . . . Then the apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still a market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches. . . . There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.”
4 Ibid., p. 372-373.
5 Ibid., p. 308.
6 Thus, if a Muslim were to kill me for writing this article, he would be in keeping with the teachings of Muhammad.
9 For one example of Muslims killing a victim in bed, see Ibn Ishaq, p. 483: “His wife came out and asked who they were and they told her that they were Arabs in search of supplies. She told them that their man was here and that they could come in. When we entered we bolted the door of the room on her and ourselves fearing lest something should come between us and him. His wife shrieked and warned him of us, so we ran at him with our swords as he was on his bed.”