First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Letter from an American Muslim
I recently received a letter from a Muslim friend, Rany Jazayerli, taking issue with the way I've quoted the Qur'an in these pages. John Hammer and I agreed that his voice was one that Rhino readers will want to hear, if only to remind us that there are many good Muslims who are also loyal Americans.
A more complete version of his letter and my reply will be available on my political website, The Ornery American (www.ornery.org).
Terrorism is indeed a menace to the world; the most menacing form of terrorism is being perpetrated by people who call themselves Muslims; we, as Americans, have a responsibility to ourselves and the rest of the world to eliminate terrorism and those who carry it out.
I agree that suicide bombings in Israel are evil acts, that they are not morally justifiable in any way, regardless of surrounding circumstances.
However, I would also like to point out that they are completely forbidden by Islamic law.
I am ashamed to say that far too many Muslims in the Middle East - including "scholars" who have the responsibility to know better -- do not agree with that statement.
But anyone with a firm grasp of Islamic history knows that indiscriminate killing of civilians as a method of redressing grievances (no matter how legitimate those grievances were) was treated as among the worst forms of sin by Islamic jurists.
I fear that you have been sloppy in distinguishing between terrorism (and the philosophies that spawned it) committed by Muslims, and Islam. For example, you refer to the enemies that we are fighting more and more frequently as "Islamicists." I am a devout Muslim. I believe in my faith completely. I consider the Qu'ran as the Word of God. Does this make me an Islamicist? Am I an enemy of my own country?
[OSC: For years, "Islamicist" has been the term used in the western press to refer to the particular kind of Muslim supremacist/anti-western philosophy espoused by Osama bin Laden and others. The English word was, I believe, chosen by Islamicists themselves. The danger is when westerners forget that followers of Islam are called "Muslims," while "Islamicists" are a small and fanatical subset.]
There are numerous words in our lexicon today that adequately describe the evil we are up against, without having to resort to making up a new word completely. Terrorism works fine. Fundamentalism works fine. If you want to qualify that as "Islamic terrorism" or "Islamic fundamentalists", you'll get no argument from me. But calling people who pervert their faith by the name of their religion is to make no distinction between the true faith and the perversion of it. "Islamicism" implies that Islam is inseparable from the actions and beliefs of these nutjobs, while in fact Islamic teaching is completely inconsistent with the rhetoric of Osama Bin Laden. I would be most grateful if you would make that distinction in your writings.
That's a small point. The main point I wanted to make is that, in the future, I would appreciate it if you would not take it upon yourself to interpret the Qu'ran as you see fit. In one of your early columns, published a year ago this week, you claim that the Qu'ran names Jews and Christians as satan. (Ironically, this in a column when you recount an incident of intolerance against Mormons following an organ recital.)
My eyes fairly well bulged out of my head at that point. I know that you took back this particular statement in a column six weeks later, but that's shutting the door after the horse has left the barn, trampled over women and children, and set off prairie fires in its wake.
And even after apologizing for your error in your 12/3/01 column, you then go on to state that when the Qu'ran forbids killing except in the case of murder or "mischief in the land", that "mischief" applies to Christians and Jews. You then recite Quran 2:11-12 in support of that statement.
Except that those verses are NOT referring to Christians and Jews. Here, let's back up a little, and quote from verse 8 to verse 12 (Yusuf Ali translation):
'Of the people there are some who say: 'we believe in Allah and the Last day;' But they do not (really) believe.
Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realize [it] not! In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they [incur], because they are false [to themselves].
When it is said to them: "Make not mischief on the earth," They say: "Why,
As the first verse I quoted illustrates, these verses refer to people who profess to 'believe in Allah' but really do not. These are hypocrites, a class of professed Muslims who are condemned repeatedly in the Qu'ran -- not members of other faiths.
You then compound your error by quoting Quran 5:33, wherein it describes the punishment for "mischief through the land" as "execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides." But again, this has nothing to do with people of other faiths - and, in all the centuries of Islamic ascendancy, these verses were never used to justify killing Christians, Jews, or members of any other faith.
On the contrary, in verse 2:62, God says that "Those who believe [in the Qur'an], and those who follow the Jewish [scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians -- Any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."
(Historical sidenote: the Sabians were a small monotheistic group believed to be based in what is now Iraq. Some scholars think that Zoroastrians may be an offshoot of them, although no one knows for sure.)
And finally, you end this column with a verse -- really a snippet of a verse, since those who quote it never seem to quote the whole thing -- that is frequently used as evidence that Muslims, in the end, really do want to kill all those who disagree with them.
You quote Qur'an 9:5 as "And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you.... And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out." Unfortunately, you left out verses 1 through 4, in which God references the treaties that the Muslims of that time had signed with various pagan tribes in Mecca and surrounding areas, treaties that had been violated on numerous occasions by those pagan tribes. In the first four verses, God states that treaties which have been broken by the pagans are no longer valid (although treaties with pagans who had fulfilled the terms were still binding).
So verse 5 refers to those pagans (mushrikeen) who have violated the terms of treaties they had signed with the Muslims - it does NOT give sanction to indiscriminate killing of non-Muslims. And even in the right context, Muslims are exhorted to be merciful. Here's the complete verse:
"But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every strategem [of war]; But if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful."
Is it possible that, as you say, this verse was read by those who attacked us on September 11th? I have no idea. But if it was used as justification for these attacks, all that tells us is that these terrorists were as stupid as they were evil; it doesn't tell us anything at all about the verse's real meaning.
I assume that these misinterpretations of the Qu'ran were not meant to be malicious in any way. Still, it was disappointing to see that you made them, all the more so because, as a Mormon, you have personal experience in what it's like for other people to distort your beliefs in an attempt to frame your religion in a bad light. I've known many an otherwise-rational Christian who has derided the Mormon religion as "outside the Christian faith" or even as "a cult". If anything, I have identified with Mormons over the years, in large part because I felt that both our religions have been warped and misrepresented by those who do not share our beliefs.
I have resolved not to base my opinions about a particular faith based on the interpretations of those who do not profess it. I think you would agree that the fairest picture of a religion can only be drawn by those who believe in it. I wholeheartedly agree with at least one comment you made in this column, when you say, "Let's all make a resolution to actually read the Qur'an before trying to tell people what it says."
I think I speak on behalf of all Muslims when I ask you, in the future, to please follow that advice. Moreover, if when reading the Qur'an you come across a portion of scripture that you do not understand or simply can not reconcile yourself with, I encourage you to ask someone who studies the Qu'ran for assistance. I am not a Muslim scholar by any means, but if I can be of assistance I most certainly will try, or at least refer you to those who can help.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. This is a most troubling time for all of us, and I salute you for trying to educate the public about what our nation's real priorities should be at a time when our leaders and journalists (mediots, as we call them) are mostly lacking in objectivity and common sense. I only ask you that you try to maintain your own objectivity when dealing with my Islamic faith, a faith that was hijacked on September 11th as surely as those planes were.
Your points are all well taken, and I would like permission to publish your letter on my Ornery website to make sure that those points corrected -- and lest you think that once again this is closing the door after the horses have escaped, the fact is that letters to the editor and refutations like yours are some of the best read features in newspapers (there are no stats like that on websites, so the analogy is the best we can do).
For what it's worth, however, I have distinguished very carefully between Al-Qaeda and Islam in general. Al-Qaeda I have blasted as the terrorists they are. But Islam in general has been shockingly compliant with the terrorist agenda, and for that I am critical of those nations where Muslims are in the majority. Condemnations of terrorism have been tepid and aimed at the west, while in nation after nation where the press is tightly controlled by the government, the press and media are viciously anti-semitic and quite supportive of various terrorist acts, while promulgating anti-Americanism by shovelfuls. Thus, while Islam, doctrinally, may condemn terrorism, in fact terrorism is widely supported in the Muslim world and opponents of terrorism are beleaguered and generally silent.
This is, of course, in large part because any opponents of terrorism are terrified - because terrorism works. If they speak up, they are likely to be killed. So we will not hear the widespread loathing of terrorism until it looks like the terrorists are on the ropes. That is understandable - how many anti-Nazis spoke up in Germany? But then, there were some - I look in vain for any reports of a prominent religious leader in Muslim countries speaking loudly against terrorism and anti-semitism.
Furthermore, while I may have misinterpreted the verses you mention in the Qu'ran, Osama bin Laden is finding SOMETHING to quote, isn't it? When he preaches his doctrine of murder in the name of Allah, there must be some passages which HE is twisting. Historically, Christians have done plenty of slaughtering in the name of Jesus - they found ways to support it in their scriptures - and Muslims are not superior in that respect. Islam, at its best, does not countenance wholesale slaughter of innocents, of course ... but apparently at this moment we are not seeing Islam at its best, because of the deafening silence coming from the imams in the Muslim world who should be loudly upholding this anti-terror doctrine in the face of the doctrinal distortions of the terrorists, and yet are not.
In short, if the Muslim world remains silent except for the terrorists, then it is not a mistake for outsiders - especially those who are the targets of terrorism - to come to the conclusion that the Muslim world does indeed support or at least tolerate terrorism as a means of combating the religions - and irreligions - of the West. I may be "wrong" in my interpretation of the Qu'ran, but I am not wrong that those very verses are surely used by Osama to justify his actions. And I am certainly not wrong that if the Muslim world overwhelmingly believed as you say they believe, Osama would be hard-pressed to find recruits, parents would not be "proud" of their Molech-serving children who burn themselves up in order to kill Israelis, and the controlled press in the Muslim world would not be filled with hate against America and Israel.
In the meantime, however, in Shadow Puppets I show the Muslim world that you and I would both like to see - courageous, generous, creative. My goal is not to incite war between the Muslim world and the west. My goal is to warn the West that within the Muslim world there are those whose goal is to incite such an all-out war, and we must do all that is within our power to keep them from gaining enough influence and control to bring that war about. That requires US to act with such boldness and effectiveness that those who are afraid to speak up right now will gain courage and bring to the front those peaceful doctrines that you and I both believe in.
Thank you for your reply, and for taking the time to consider my concerns. I would certainly appreciate it if you published my letter on your website, and I'd like to think that would go a long way towards correcting any misconceptions that have been created.
I'd like to say that your characterization of the Muslim world as populated by people who condone terrorism is blatantly false. Unfortunately, there's more truth to it than I care to admit. The level of ignorance and intolerance in most Muslim countries is, frankly, shameful. The reasons for this are complex, far too complex for me to fully understand, let alone explain - but what galls me the most is that these qualities of intolerance and ignorance not only are not derived from Islam, but completely antithetical to the teachings of the religion. The expression I like to use is that Islam is the world's greatest religion, but it has the world's worst followers.
A significant part of the problem is that a strictly literalist interpretation of Islam and the Qu'ran was unleashed upon Saudi Arabia by a leader named Abdul-Wahab in the early 1800s; you've probably heard of "Wahabbism", which is the fundamentalist interpretation that his followers have propagated over the past two centuries. Under normal circumstances, their extremism would have probably petered out and been confined to the dustbin of history...but it turns out these bedouins were sitting on trillions of dollars of oil, and suddenly they had control not only of the two main Muslim holy sites, but also of the biggest fortune in the Muslim world. You know the rest of the story.
The other problem, though, is the sense of fatalism and lack of responsibilities that many in the Muslim world possess. The ongoing denial that people have had over Osama Bin Laden's involvement in the affairs of 9/11 - even as Bin Laden all but gloated over his accomplishments in tapes he released to Al-Jazeera - is emblematic of this. Then there is the preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I do disagree with your position that Israel is essentially blameless in this conflict, that their responses are essentially in self-defense; there are plenty of examples of Israeli forces engaged in indiscriminate killings, torture of suspects, and other human rights abuses.
But the vitriol that is directed at Israel would be better directed at the oppressive governments that have butchered and oppressed far more Muslims than Israel ever has or likely ever will. Naturally, those same governments encourage their populace's fixation on Israel as an easy way to deflect criticism of their own regimes. We in the West hear about Jihad all the time, but what we don't hear -- and unfortunately, what most Muslims don't hear - is that the noblest form of Jihad (aside from the internal Jihad with our own desires) is the one that overthrows an unjust tyrant.
I firmly believe that if Muslims would understand their faith completely, they'd endeavor to overthrow their own governments, establish democratic states, and find a way to co-exist with Israel. Sadly, this is where we as Americans have failed; if we had worked to build democracy in the Middle East instead of propping up despots for the sake of oil and business, the process I speak of would already be underway. Instead, when the Islamic brotherhoold revolted in my native homeland of Syria in 1982, the government responded by sending tanks into Hama, killing anyone and everyone in sight, to the tune of about twenty thousand people - and here in America, this didn't even make the news.
The only solution I see is that it is up to American Muslims to re-educate the rest of the Muslim world about the true teachings of their religion. (Which is why I make it such a point to distinguish between Islam, which is the religion, and the Islamic world, which is made up of Muslims who have failed to live up to their faith.)
You are unfortunately right that many, if not most, imams and Islamic scholars in the Middle East support the Palestinians to the point where they condone suicide bombings. Fortunately, here in America we have many prominent Muslim intellectuals, from professors like Khaled Abou El Fadl to spiritual leaders like Hamza Yusuf, who have spoken out forcefully against this kind of tactic.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the future of the relationship between Islam and Christendom -- and the future of the Islamic world -- hinges on the few millions of Muslims in America, our ability to rediscover the true religion in a free intellectual and political environment, and our ability to project that truth back to the traditional centers of Muslim thought.
Which is why, now that Bin Laden has come a-calling and set the development of an American Muslim movement back a generation, I have even more hatred for the guy than most Americans do. He's attacked my home *and* my faith. There aren't enough missiles in the world for someone like that.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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