Blind Faith

By Irshad Manji
The Wall Street Journal

Muslim reaction to the beheading of Nicholas Berg tells us a lot about what’s happening in the Islamic world. More than that, it reveals what’s not happening, yet needs to, if Muslims are going to transcend the intellectual and moral crisis in which we find ourselves today.

First, the good news. A few scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of Sunni Islam, are denouncing Mr. Berg’s decapitation. So are a handful of Muslim lobby groups in Europe and North America. Add some English-language newspapers based in the Middle East, and a picture of progress emerges.

But the big canvas shows that many of these Muslims continue to cradle a dangerous delusion. Islam, they still insist, had nothing to do with this horrific crime. Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general for the Muslim Council of Britain, described Mr. Berg’s decapitation as “utterly repugnant to the Islamic rules of war.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Ibrahim Al-Fayoumi of Al-Azhar. He told an online news source that “Islam respects the human being, dead or alive, and cutting off the American’s head was an act of mutilation forbidden by Islam.”

Sound familiar? In the days following September 11, Muslim spokespeople mouthed the mantra that the Koran makes it absolutely clear when jihad can and can’t be pursued, and the terrorists unquestionably crossed the line. To quote a Muslim American scholar who typified this perspective, Allah “says in unequivocal terms that to kill an innocent being is like killing entire humanity.”

Wishful whitewashing. The Koran verse that’s cited as “unequivocal” actually bestows wiggle room. Here’s how it fully reads: “We laid it down for the Israelites,” meaning those who believe in one God, “that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all mankind.” Sadly, the clause starting with “except” can be deployed by militant Muslims to fuel their jihads. That’s precisely how Nicholas Berg’s executioners justified their travesty.

Which means religion is no innocent bystander in the violence perpetrated by Muslims. Just as moderate Christians and Jews acknowledge the nasty side of their holy texts, modern Muslims ought to come clean about how our sacred script informs terror. One can argue that certain passages are being politically exploited–and, indeed, they are. The point is, however, that they couldn’t be exploited if they didn’t exist.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of this Koranic loophole, which reads, “except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land.” Osama bin Laden had it in mind when he announced a jihad against America in the late 1990s.

� Did economic sanctions against Iraq, imposed by the United Nations but demanded by Washington, cause the “murder” of half a million children and counting? Bin Laden believed so.

� Did the bootprints of American troops in Saudi soil qualify as “villainy in the land”? To bin Laden, you bet.

� As for American civilians, can they be innocent of either “murder” or “villainy” when their tax money helps Israel buy tanks to raze Palestinian homes? A no-brainer for bin Laden.

Most Muslims can agree that Osama bin Laden is morally Neanderthal for manipulating the Koran to pursue this strain of jihad. The question remains, can we Muslims agree that his mercenaries are scripturally supported at all?

Of course, context is important. But the scholarship that puts such verses “into context” reeks of evasion.

Consider one high-profile argument that defends “authentic” Islam as a religion of peace. According to this argument, since God advised Prophet Mohammed in good times and bad, the Koran’s tough verses merely reflect the bad times Mohammed faced in his 25 or so years of spreading Islam. Mohammed began by proselytizing in Mecca, where slaves, widows, orphans and the working poor latched on to his unconventional message of mercy. God knows, these outcasts needed a dose of mercy in the economically stratified and morally decadent money capital of Arabia. At first, then, the Koran’s revelations emphasized compassion.

But within no time the business establishment of Mecca grew threatened–and threatening. Mohammed and his flock pulled up stakes and moved to Medina in order to protect themselves. That, goes the argument, is when the Koran’s message of compassion turns to retribution. In Medina, some residents welcomed the Muslim influx, and others decidedly didn’t. Among those who didn’t were Medina’s prominent Jewish tribes, which colluded with Mecca’s pagans to assassinate Mohammed and annihilate Islam’s converts. The reason they failed is that God instructed Mohammed to strike preemptively. (Evidently, the pre-emptive doctrine didn’t begin with President Bush.)

This, the argument continues, is where all the vitriol in the Koran comes from. However, the argument persists, retribution isn’t the spirit with which Muslims started out. They resorted to it for the purpose of self-preservation, and only temporarily. The older, “authentic” message of Islam is the one on which Mohammed launched his mission.

How emotionally comforting. While I would love to believe this account of things, the more I read and reflect, the less sense it makes. For starters, it’s not clear which verses came to Mohammed when. The Koran appears to be organized by size of verse–from longer to shorter– and not by chronology of revelation. How can anyone isolate the “earlier” passages, let alone read into them the “authentic” message of the Koran? Muslims have to own up to the fact that the Koran’s message is all over the map. Compassion and contempt exist side by side, as they do in every sacred book.

Moderate Muslims, like moderate Christians and Jews, shouldn’t be afraid to ask: What if our holy script isn’t perfect? What if it’s inconsistent, even contradictory? What if it’s riddled with human biases? As an illiterate trader, Prophet Mohammed relied on scribes to jot down the words he heard from God. Sometimes the Prophet himself had an agonizing go at deciphering what he heard. What’s wrong with saying so?

What’s wrong with not saying so is this: If we Muslims can’t bring ourselves to question the peaceable perfection of the Koran, then we can’t effectively question the actions that flow from certain readings of it. All we’ll be doing is chanting that the terrorists broke the rules, without coming to terms with where they got their concept of “the rules” in the first place. In which case, we’ll only be sanitizing what we don’t want to hear.

That’s no way to address Islam’s intellectual lethargy, or the moral dereliction that goes with it.

Ms. Manji is the author of “The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith,” published in January by St. Martin’s Press. Her Web site is http://www.muslim-refusenik.com.


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