This article, printed in the November 3, 2010 edition of the Davidsonian, was written by a Muslim student at Davidson College, Elyas Munye ’13, in response to Bobby DesPain’s article “A Man’s Trial, the World’s Verdict” printed in the Davidsonian on October 20, 2010 pg. 9.
There has been much claim that Islam is a religion spread by the sword, that Islam is a parochial religion that oppresses women, that Islam incites hatred towards non-Muslims, that Islam constrains peoples’ freedom to choose. Two weeks ago in Bobby DesPain’s article, “A Man’s Trial, the World’s Verdict,” he affirms “Islam and West…are incompatible.” My problem with his broad generalization is that he discounts the immense diversity of thoughts and practices within the Islamic world. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims on earth. Not every Muslim views the world from the same cropped frame as do the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, the al-Shabab Group in Somalia or any other fundamentalist sect (Al-Ghazali, who is perhaps one of the most respected Islamic theologian and Sufi Mystic, said that religious fanaticism is the biggest veil to the reality of truth). It is not fair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. To say that Islam and the West are incompatible is to ascribe stereotypes and misperceptions on to the hundreds of millions of Muslims and to the hundreds of millions of non Muslims who don’t share DesPain’s view.
In the Quran, all Muslims accept that God has stated, “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 Allah [God] is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (49:13). From my Islamic perspective, people are of different races, different nationalities, different socio-economic status, and different religious backgrounds and therefore people should learn to understand and appreciate the differences of one another. As Frederick Buechner stated, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”
One might still argue that Islam is a religion of intolerance and compulsion based on the despicable events of September 11, the subway bombing in London, or any other acts of violence committed by a few in the name of all Muslims. One might additionally argue, as Geert Wilders does, that the Quran is a “Fascists” book that incites violence and hatred against non Muslims as one verse commands, “Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).” (9:5). If taken literally, one can justifiably kill “pagans” or non believers. However, this verse has a historical context surrounding its application. In order to understand the meaning of such a verse, one must study its historical context (there are book and articles written on the field of Ethics of War in Islam). As a young Muslim with very little knowledge, I’ve had trouble trying to reconcile the tension between such verses that are explicitly violent with verses that command believers to “repel (the evil) with one which is better (i.e. Allah ordered the faithful believers to be patient at the time of anger, and to excuse those who treat them badly), then verily! he, between whom and you there was enmity, (will become) as though he was a close friend” (41:34). I don’t see it moral, or even plausible, that 1.5 billion people would go and slay anyone who disbeliefs in Islam.
From my understanding, Islam in the past was not just a practiced religion but it was also a political entity with the goal of establishing a moral, just society under Shari’a Law, or what Muslims believe as Divine Law. Though the Islamic Empire did expand and prosper rapidly during its heyday, the Quran does state “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). One thing that violence can never do is force beliefs into anyone’s heart. Religion is a matter of personal choice.
From my point of view, it is unislamic to force anyone to abide by any ideal that he or she doesn’t believe in. I believe that what defines us as human beings is our ability to excercise our free will that gives us freedom to choose, freedom to speak, and freedom to act. From my understanding Shari’a Law, Divine law to Muslims, serves to establish a framework that guides the choices for Muslims as the US constitution serves to establish a framework that guides the choices for Americans. Today, however, there’s no central authority that speaks for all Muslims.
As a result of this political vacuum, certain individuals or groups, such as al-Qaeda, have exploited this space to advance their agenda. (To better understand the political objectives and motivations behind al-Qaeda’s aims, one should study the role of the US in assisting the Taliban against the Soviets during the Cold War and the Gulf War in Iraq). The murder of more than 3,000 innocent lives can never be justified by Islamic Ethics. Although I’m no expert, I can certainly affirm a fundamental premise, that Islamic law sanctifies each human life: “if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (5:32). Despite this firm premise, al-Qaeda has used a book that is holy to 1.5 billion people to justify its atrocious acts. This trend of using holy text to fulfill a political agenda is not new. It has happened all throughout history. It has happened with the Bible in America. It is happening within this article—though I don’t have any political ends to meet!
I stand behind Geert Wilders and Elisabeth Sabaditschwolff in fighting for their freedom to speak. I support South Park’s freedom to put anything on the show. I support Molly Norris, the cartoonist from Seattle, to depict whatever she may please. Will anyone support me to exercise my freedom to practice my religion without being painted with the same brush as any other violent fanatic? To what extent should these freedoms be allowed, if they become the channel through which hatred is propagated? To what extent should there be censorship? I question Wilder, Sabaditschwolff, and Norris’s understanding of Islam. If the goal is to have a peaceful coexistence, respect and understanding of our great diversity is critical. Part of exercising our freedom of expression comes with the ethical responsibility to make sure that we give all a fair shake and refrain from slander. Freedom of speech needs to push the envelope, it needs to spark public debate but it should never demonize the other nor incite anger in the hearts of the public.