[Originally published in Contending Modernities]
Philip Jenkins’ September 2011 piece, “9/11: Did the Qur’an really make them do it?,” was an eye-opener on the touchy issue of religion and violence. For me it was also a reminder of an anti-Semitic piece of propaganda I found in an Istanbul bookstore years ago. With the conspiracy-mongering title, Judaism and Freemasonry, this was a crude volume — one that, among other things, claimed to explain “Israeli terrorism” in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was full of photos showing Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinians, and presented huge captions that included verses from the Old Testament and especially the Book of Joshua. If the photograph showed Israelis breaking the bones of a Palestinian youngster — a globally notorious scene from the ‘80s — then the caption featured the biblical verse, “He shall break their bones” (Numbers 24: 8b, KJV). The book’s argument was blunt: The Israelis were torturing a nation because their God made them do it.
The more I learned about the Old Testament and the politics of the Middle East, the more I realized that what the book presented was not analysis but propaganda. It remains true that Israel’s 40-year-long occupation is a pretty brutal one, and that the Old Testament includes some belligerent passages, but the reality was far more complex. I noticed that Jewish religious sources also include many words of wisdom and compassion, and that there are many Jews who are willing to make peace with their Arab neighbors. Indeed, the militants who advocate and even practice violence in the name of Judaism are pretty marginal. Moreover, the source of their hatred is actually not the confrontational passages of the Torah, but the political and social situation that they are in. In other words, such militants turn angry and violent not because they read their religious texts. Rather, they focus on the harsher parts of those texts because they are already angry and violent for temporal — often political — reasons.
The sloganization of Scripture
I often recall my experience with that anti-Semitic book and the way it misread the Hebrew Scriptures because I see that more and more people are doing the same thing with the Qur’an. When Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda bomb innocents, or when some fringe imam in a radical mosque preaches hatred toward non-Muslims, greenhorn “Islam experts” find passages in the Qur’an that apparently justify such extremism. And, it turns out, these extremists themselves refer to similar passages in the Qur’an or other Islamic sources. The situation is very similar to the strange agreement between the anti-Semites and the Jewish extremists on the incorrect notion that Judaism justifies carnage. One common problem in all such misreading of the Scriptures amounts to the “sloganization” of certain texts. This is done by taking a part of the holy text out of its textual and historical context, and turning it into a slogan that “justifies” a mundane political agenda. For example, some Islamic revolutionaries, especially those who were inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, used to find a political message in this verse: “Those who do wrong will come to know by what a great reverse they will be overturned!” (26:227) But in fact the verse speaks about the punishment that God will hand down to unbelievers on judgment day, not about a this-worldly turn of events. The crucial mistake is to overlook Islam’s scholarly tradition called “tafseer,” which is the study of the meaning of the Qur’an. Tafseer has a basic rule: A single verse or passage can’t be understood in itself. Instead, it has to be evaluated according to the other parts of the Qur’an, the general goals and principles of the holy text, and the way it was implemented by the prophet. Yet most radicals — be they Islamist or anti-Islamist — don’t have the time or the patience to “waste” on tafseer. They prefer to copy and paste the divine words to create powerful slogans for their immediate purposes.
Muslims and non-Muslims
For an example of sloganization, consider this Qur’anic verse, which is frequently quoted by Muslims who are hostile to other followers of the Abrahamic path: “O (Muslim) believers! Don’t make friends with the Jews or Christians” (5:51). But then look at this verse, which puts the one above in context: “(Muslims!) God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just. God merely forbids you from taking as friends those who have fought you in religion and driven you from your homes and who supported your expulsion. Any who take them as friends are wrongdoers” (60:8-9). One can also add to the discussion the Qur’anic verse that declares that “all who have faith in God and the Last Day and act rightly,” including “those who are Jews, and the Christians,” will be rewarded by God in the afterlife (2:62). From this premise, it is quite possible to build a Muslim form of ecumenism, in which other monotheistic faiths are seen as sisters, not enemies. In short, if one looks at the Qur’an with a pre-existing aversion to non-Muslims, one can find verses that will justify and amplify this attitude. But if one looks with a more sober mind, one can see the contexts of those particular verses — and even find arguments for peace and tolerance.
Islam without extremes
That’s why, as I argue in my new book, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, we have to look not only at the texts of Islam, but also at the contexts of Muslims. The texts are of course not unimportant — contrary to what an absolute sociological reductionist might claim — but they are always interpreted in the light of pre-existing cultures and mindsets. That is why more rigid schools of Islam have generally emerged in more culturally isolated and parochial locales, while more flexible and liberal schools of theology have tended to arise in more cosmopolitan centers of commerce. And that is why the decline of rationality and liberty in late medieval Islam was very much linked with the decline of economic dynamism, and the dawn of a “liberal Islam” is now especially evident in more cosmopolitan Muslim societies. If one dismisses all such nuances, and looks at an alien faith only to see its deficiencies, one can find plenty of ways to denounce that alien faith and venerate one’s own. But as I learned from my encounter with anti-Semitic literature in that Istanbul bookstore some years ago, that is not the way to understand the world — or change it for the better.