The Islamic State’s recent beheadings of two Japanese and burning of a Jordanian Air Force pilot bring reminders from Washington that we’re engaged in a “war on terror.” Nonsense.
Terror is a strategy, sometimes a tactic. We face an aberrant ideology. It’s Islamism, which seeks to impose by force its version of Islam and legitimizes any form of violence to do so. Islamism doesn’t represent all of Islam or all Muslims. But despite President Obama’s refusal to utter its name, Islamism is a form of Islam. Yesterday the President acknowledged ISIS’ religious roots at the National Prayer Breakfast, stating that, “no god condones terror.” ISIS’ version of Allah does.
It’s all about scriptural interpretation and human agency. Take Judaism. Exodus 15:3 states that God “is a man of war.” Deuteronomy 20:13 instructs that if a town refuses to negotiate terms of peace (surrender and forced labor) “you shall put all its males to the sword.” Yet centuries after these texts were written, the Rabbis rejected such violence. Yes, losing wars and risking Roman reprisal helped create that view. Yet three-dozen times the Torah calls for the death penalty regarding Jewish matters. The Rabbis made its implementation virtually impossible.
Muslims call Islam a religion of peace. It is—for those who interpret the Quran that way. The Quran* binds Muslims with Jews and Christians. “Our God and your God is one” (29:46). It promulgates religious freedom. “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Further, “Believers, Jews, Christians and Sabeans—whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right—shall be rewarded by their Lord…” (2:62).
Yet the Quran sees Jews and Christians departed from the monotheism of Abraham. “The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn for ever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures” (98:7). How should Muslims respond? “Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends… Allah does not guide the wrongdoers” (5:51). Many more verses excoriate Jews and Christians.
Weighty questions confront Islam, although there is no single Islam as there is no single Judaism or Christianity. Can the Quran be read as metaphor? Can 1,400-year-old laws and customs be adjusted to co-exist with modern views in the 21st-century world? Is religious freedom acceptable?
Blood spilled for centuries before the West embraced the Enlightenment and religious pluralism. Yet many people cling to “one truth.” At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast—an interfaith event—retired NASCAR driver and keynote speaker Darrell Waltrip told attendees that if they’d never gotten on their knees to ask Jesus for forgiveness, “You’re going to hell.” In Cairo, the moderate Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of prestigious al-Azhar University, holder of a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, expressed revulsion at the Islamic State’s barbarism: The perpetrators, he said, should be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off” in accord with Muslim law.
In the ancient Middle East, to know someone’s name was to hold a measure of power over that person. May naming Islamism bring us a new honesty that opens hearts and minds worldwide.
*The Koran: Translated With Notes by N.J. Dawood, New York, Penguin Books, 1978.
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