I could use this Forum essay to directly answer the question of whether Islam is a religion of violence, but I want to do something different. I want to answer the question by putting you, the reader, into my shoes as I hear it asked of me. That way, I hope you’ll be better able to appreciate how difficult the question really is — and how important it is to get the answer right.
I’ve just finished a talk on Islam to a church group. I’ve talked enthusiastically about the usual things — the life of the prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book), the Five Pillars of Islam (the key practices of Islam — fasting, alms-giving, daily prayer, pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life, and public witness to the oneness of God and to the prophethood of Muhammad). Then I take a deep breath and say, “Any questions?”
What I really mean is, “OK, let’s get this over with. Let’s hear The Question.”
And here it comes: “Well, what you say sounds well and good. But isn’t Islam a religion of violence?” Sometimes The Question is phrased: “But what about the terrorists?”
A silence follows. The tension is palpable. The Question has evoked a deep-seated fear. The room where we sit feels suddenly surrounded by a vast, hostile, inhuman force.
I do not myself share this fear — that is, I do not feel it any longer. But I try very hard to remember that I once did feel it. Back in the fall of 1992, when I approached the Islamic Center in Rochester for the first time to take an Arabic-language class, the fear was so strong that I almost turned around and drove home. And that was years ago, long before people’s fear of Islam reached the level of panic it has reached today.
I try hard to keep this memory alive so that I don’t lose contact with my audience’s reality. Because if I’m not able to see Islam through the eyes of those who still fear it, I won’t be able to see ways of helping them overcome that fear.
The silence continues. People look at me, their expressions taut, yet expectant, even hopeful. I see that most would dearly love to escape the fear that haunts them. What should I tell them?
It’s not that I’m unable to answer The Question at all. Take away the fear — turn the session into a calm seminar — and answers come readily enough. About the terrorists, for instance. It is clear to anyone who knows the principle sources of Islamic teaching — the Qur’an, the Hadith (stories about Muhammad’s life as well as reports of his conversation) and the Sunna (the customs established by Muhammad and his closest followers) — that Islam in no way permits terrorism. Even those verses of the Qur’an that speak about jihad (which really means “striving for what is good”) are explicit in prohibiting harm to innocents during armed conflict. And as for Islam being a “religion of violence” — well, it’s easy to show on the basis of those same sources that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has at its heart two basic teachings: love of God and care for God’s creation — for the earth itself and for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The cause of violence and terrorism has to be found in political and economic injustice. Any religion — Christianity included — can be used to justify violent behavior by those who believe they have no other way to redress wrongs done against them. Conversely, religion can be used to justify violence to suppress such retaliation. By so behaving, violent antagonists mirror each other, and God’s law of love is utterly forgotten by both.
As I said, these are the answers I could readily give in a setting of peaceful discussion. But the faces turned to me aren’t at peace. Mere answers of an intellectual sort won’t help in this situation at all.
Much of the audience’s fear would disappear, I realize, if the people in my audience had the fortune, as I have had, to get to know real Muslims. They would understand without having to be told that Islam is not a bogeyman, nor a scary disease, nor a kind of hurricane rising up in the darkened eastern sky. They would see it is a beautiful, satisfying way of life for a group of wonderful human beings just like themselves.
But the people looking at me don’t have those human contacts. No wonder they are terrified.
Suddenly, my mind flashes to the scene at the end of the Gospel of John where the risen Christ comes into the upper room where the disciples have barricaded themselves. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, twice.
I see then that the real problem is that The Question isn’t about Islam or Muslims. It’s about fear itself. It’s about how fear has turned many U.S. citizens into so many disciples huddled together in a self-made prison. “Fear has no eyes and no ears,” someone once said. That describes our position as we sit in the darkness waiting for goodness know what. A bomb blast? Armageddon? But doesn’t such an attitude make a mockery of 1 John 4:18: “Perfect love casts out all fear”?
Finally, I know how to answer The Question. Not directly, not yet. First, people have to talk. They have to feel free to express their deepest thoughts. Only in that way can the fear that blinds and deafens them be brought out in the open.
And so I say: “Before I answer that, I’d just like to know if anyone else feels the same way.” Hands go up, the conversation begins.
Deacon George Dardess ministers at Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish.