"Sophisticated" critics usually react to the word "evil" with condescension and derision. Describing something as "evil," in their view, generally brands one as an unenlightened throw-back to the dark ages -- or the equivalent of a televangelist preaching hellfire and damnation. Who forgets the outcry when President Reagan described the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire?" Or today, when President Bush refers to the "Axis of Evil?" Commentators unequivocally condemn the word as an outmoded judgmental term unfit for today's multi-cultural world. Unless, of course, one wants to use it to describe the United States of America or Western Civilization itself.
The question, "Is America evil?" is routinely discussed not just on message boards and in chat rooms -- the Internet equivalent of bathroom walls -- but by tenured professors and in respected newspapers. A New York Times book review on January 11, 2004, quotes author Lance Morrow from his book: "Evil, An Investigation". "Americans are struggling now with the possibility that their country may be evil -- or, to be more practical, that their country may be doing evil in the world." Just two weeks later, the front page of Book Review section reads: "Is America an evil empire? Seven new books seem ready to think so."
Most Americans are shocked at the notion of an evil America. Considering our history, the attack on our country's character is hard to fathom. Over the last two centuries immigrants came in droves, seeking refuge from tyranny and poverty. They found unequalled freedom and opportunity secured by a stable democracy. During that time, totalitarian barbarity threatened to consume the world. America played a crucial role in defeating European and Japanese fascism in WWII. However, Europe was left in ruins and half enslaved by Communism. In Asia, Japan was in ruins and China soon became Communist. We then faced the Communist strain of totalitarianism; one that would result in the deaths of 100 million people and threatened to engulf the world. Once again, our military might was crucial. We contained Communism until it fell of its own internal contradictions. In short, America has saved civilization.
Given the recent worldwide attacks by Islamic terrorists, why isn't the question "Is Islam evil?" With few exceptions (Turkey, for example), Islamic countries are fascist, autocratic or theocratic, where women are subjugated and minorities persecuted. Islamic countries are rife with poverty and have been for centuries. Polls show that in many Islamic countries a majority of Muslims lionize the man responsible for the atrocities of September 11th and the terrorist gangs who routinely slaughter civilians in Israeli buses and restaurants. In Arab schools and on Arab television, children are taught the glory of becoming suicide bombers. Almost everywhere that Islam borders other cultures, there is violence.
The idea, then, that Islam is evil has far more plausibility than the idea that United States is evil. But merely, raising the question, "Is Islam evil?" provokes an instant, inevitable outcry: "Bigot!" "Racist!" "Zionist!" Indeed, the attempt to suppress debate on this question is so intense that few people in the mainstream will ask it.
The level of banality goes beyond the empty name-calling. Typical knee-jerk questions are: "How can you call all Muslims evil?" "Have you ever met a Muslim?" "Don't you think Muslims have children, too?" Notice the switch from the religion to the demographic group. Muslims, as individuals, range from lapsed to devout, from "in name only" to fully practicing Jihadists. As in all religions, some individuals retain the label even if they don't practice the religion. Indeed, knowledge of the religion varies from person to person. It is not at all unusual to find members of a religion who don't understand the doctrines, practice, or history of their religion. As a broad label, "Muslim" is nothing more than a meaningless demographic term. To judge a religion, one considers those who understand and practice the religion. Would we judge Catholicism by someone who, following the tradition of their parents, calls themselves Catholic but has no knowledge of the teachings of the Church, the Pope, the Saints, and the Bible?
Why is Islam exempt from critical analysis? In Western society, there is no shortage of critics of Christianity. Indeed, on many college campuses it is open season on anything that has the faint odor of Western Civilization -- Christianity included -- even though Christianity, like Islam, originated in the Middle East. One might wonder why Islam, which sees itself as a continuation or fulfillment of Judeo-Christianity, is not subject to the same intense criticism. Instead, multi-culturalism treats Islam as a protected species -- an indigenous ethos inseparable from a people. Consequently, self-appointed Politically Correct thought-police stifle debate on Islam by shamelessly playing the race card -- even though Islam is not a race.
We Americans are incredulous to hear the vilification of our country, our traditions and our principles. Yet, we hesitate to publicly condemn Islam as evil when that is far more plausible. Or even raise the question! Yet, it is clearly on people's mind. So much so that it is often answered in a pre-emptive manner. "Don't blame Islam for the acts of a few", we are told. "Islam has been hijacked by militants," say our leaders. No discussion. No one explicitly asks the question. No one dares. We must not allow ourselves to be deterred by this intimidation. The question is both legitimate and important: "Is Islam evil?"
Negative moral pronouncements bad and evil are unavoidable if we are to take the requisite actions to avoid what is harmful to our lives and well being. Belief systems and ideas should be judged in the similar manner. Ideas have consequences; if they lead to inimical results they are harmful. If, by their very nature, they are blatantly horrific in their implications, are they not evil? Tyranny, slavery, subjugation, and irrationalism are clear cases. However, most evil ideologies are packaged to sell including religions. Lets dissect Islam and ask if it is inherently evil.
How shall we address this question? To understand how a belief system, like Islam, can be evil, we have to start by asking: what do the ideas mean in practice? When Islam is practiced, what kind of person does one become? What kind of society is an Islamic society? Islam has 1400 years of history to help us answer these questions. And we should compare Islam to other religions and philosophies. However, let us proceed with caution. Merely listing historical atrocities by demographic group -- whether Christian, Jews, Muslims, or secular -- tells us little. We need to provide an attribution analysis to determine whether it was because of the religion or despite the religion. By carefully considering the interplay between ideas and events, we can understand what ideas mean in action.
To get to the heart of Islam, start with its founder: Muhammad. Like Christianity, Islam's essence is tied to the nature of a central figure who gives the religion its distinctive soul. Muhammad's professional life as a religious leader can be divided into two, roughly equal periods. In the first, he preached tolerance while he struggled for acceptance in Mecca. But in the second period, after he rises to power in Medina, he became increasingly harsh, mean-spirited and warlike.
In Medina, he inaugurated his reign of terror by assassinating two critics who posed no physical threat: an elderly man and a poetess. Unaccustomed to the farm life of Medina, he tried his hand at raiding caravans traveling to and from Mecca. After several failed attempts he finally succeeded -- during the holy month. (As usual, he conveniently had a revelation to justify this breach of regional ethics.) Muhammad had found his calling: plunder.
The mere existence of the Jewish tribes in Medina threatened Muhammads authority. Muhammad packaged his religion as the completion and perfection of the monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity. His converts were Arabs; Jews refused to accept him as an authentic prophet of their religion. In a policy of ethnic cleansing, he banished two of the three Jewish tribes and slaughtered the third. Of the several dozen battles fought either by Muhammad or in his behalf, only one, the Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. Islam, however, classifies them all as defensive, virtually removing any meaning from the word. Muhammad had perfected his technique: slaughter.
The chapters in the Koran, called "Suras", are Muhammad's "revelations" from God. The Suras from the Medinan period reflect the corruption of Muhammad's rule. Sura 9, one of the last revelations, contains some of the most uncompromising doctrines of aggression and belligerence. The progression from the early Meccan Suras to the latter Medinan Suras transforms the nature of the religion. The Koran and the Hadith (the collection of Muhammad's deeds and sayings, often called "the living Koran") paint a bleak but unmistakable picture: Islam is a warrior religion of conquest and oppression.
Compare and contrast Muhammad's life to the life of Jesus. Is Jesus a violent warrior? His worst act of violence is overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Temple. In fact, in one part of the Gospels he appeared to be advocating pacifism. Although he is called "King of the Jews," he never ruled and gave no indication of ever wanting earthly rule. According to the followers who recorded his deeds and sayings, Jesus' career consisted of a few years as an itinerant preacher ending with his crucifixion. According to the Gospels, he didnt rise to power but rose to heaven.
As a devout Jew, Jesus' holy book was the Old Testament, which does have some harsh passages and violent episodes. But the Jesus of the Gospels is more concerned with the spirit of the law than with the letter. (Witness his preaching on the Sabbath.) He boiled his religious beliefs down to two essentials: love God, and love thy neighbor. In effect, Christianity modified the religion of the Old Testament's ever-jealous, ever-vengeful, take-no-prisoners Yahweh and his never-ending rules and regulations (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy) with a more benevolent and less legalistic message. Paul solidified this transformation by exempting converts from Jewish law.
By contrast, Islam is a more of a throwback to the harsh old days when, for example, Moses (acting on God's orders) had a man stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. It is true that Muhammad's early revelations have the more tolerant and peaceful aura we associate with the New Testament. (Interestingly, it is these early passages that are often shown to American audiences and university students, creating a distorted picture but one that more closely matches the Western view of a religion.) But his revelations grew more "Old Testament," as it were, as his power grew.
Christianity began as a reformation of Judaism. Early Christians didn't focus on living well in this life but on saving their souls before the impending return of the Messiah. As a result Christianity has no political doctrine, except, perhaps, "Render unto Caesar, What Is Caesars." Thus, the Roman Empire could become Christian while remaining an empire. Many centuries later, Christian apologists for the monarchy preached the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings to justify royal supremacy, but John Locke could argue for individual liberty and against the divine right doctrine while still remaining a devout Christian. The lack of an explicit Christian political doctrine enabled Christians to consider differing political forms and philosophies without clashing with the authority of a revealed text. Muslims have no such advantage.
Of course, both Christianity and Islam share the problems of dogma and authority, elements that lend themselves to illiberal societies. In suppressing Christianity, Roman Emperors were fighting what they considered an intolerant monotheistic cult. After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 AD, Christians rose to power in the empire and by the end of the century nearly suppressed all other religions. It wasn't long before pagans were fed to the lions. It would be more than a thousand years before religious tolerance returned to Christianized Europe.
In theory, Islam allowed for some toleration for Christians and Jews. But they were subjected to slavery and a second-class status called Dimmis, which was far worse than Jim Crow. Due to Islamic proscriptions on domestic slavery, Islam invented a large-scale race-based slave trade. Arab Muslims imported slaves from Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic slave raids were common in southern Europe and sometimes reached the shores of Ireland.
Christians and Jews are called "People of the Book" in the Koran, and as such are allowed to live and practice their religion in subjugation. Polytheists, atheists, pagans and idolaters aren't so lucky: they must convert or be killed. One of history's bloodiest atrocities, prior to the 20th Century, took place during the Muslim conquest of India. Hindus were massacred wholesale. Indias Buddhists, no military and political threat to anyone, were virtually wiped out. The vast destruction of Buddhist buildings, art and culture was a terrible loss to history.
It is true that the 1400 years of Islamic history were punctuated by periods of tolerance, in which Muslim scholars, with the aid of Christian and Jewish scholars, managed to salvage some of the ancient Roman and Greek wisdom. Under Islamic rule, mathematicians adopted Hindu numerals and advanced algebra. However, the greatest minds of the Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes, were persecuted.
Averroes (ibn Rushd), one of history's preeminent Aristotelian scholars, was banished by the Caliph; his books burned. Aquinas did for Christianity what Averroes couldn't do for Islam: he reconciled Aristotle with Christianity -- thus setting the foundation for the secular, rational, scientific (and Hellenic) worldview, with its emphasis on living well in this world, that, with the Renaissance, became the dominant worldview in Europe; and via the Enlightenment, America. Along with the growth of secularism, religion also transformed. The work of Aquinas reformed Catholicism and ultimately set in motion the questioning spirit that led to Protestantism.
Why was the Christian West able to move forward while the Islamic East proceeded to decline? Although not without his critics, Aquinas did not suffer the same fate as Averroes. Instead, Aquinas was canonized within 50 years of his death. Western Christendom was able to benefit from the Philosopher, as Aristotle was called. Christianity was able to reform but only in the West. The Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions stagnated without an Aquinas.
Proponents of a moderate Islam point to a time when Muslim countries allowed the study of philosophy and science. But given its history, one has to wonder if Islam can furnish the environment for the stable and long-term development of modern civilization -- or if it is just a place to occasionally hide the great works and great thinkers during an otherwise vast period of darkness.
What is undeniable is that, over the centuries, the Islamic world decayed. For a while the stagnant systems Muslims lived under were limited in their harmfulness because the authorities had only primitive means of forcing submission. As soon as modern technologies became available, Muslim leaders had the tools to increase the oppression. They did so by adopting the modern collectivist policies of fascism and socialism while marginalizing Islam. The failure of this faux modernization sparked an Islamic revival. Instead of turning to the individualism and freedom welcomed in Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim, Muslims turn backwards. With the Islamic revival came a renewed interest in the full practice of the religion -- including its bellicosity and its imperial ambitions of world conquest.
We are told that the answer to fundamentalist Islam is moderate Islam. The word "fundamentalist" comes from Protestantism, but used in a generic sense means a literal interpretation of a religion. In Christianity, fundamentalist denominations are considered different sects of Protestantism. In Islam, fundamentalism is called "Islamic Revivalism." Is this a different kind of Islam, or just a different degree of devoutness? Do moderate Muslims belong to a different Islamic sect, or are they just less dedicated (or perhaps even lapsed)? If by "moderate," we mean "reformed to reflect moderation and modernity" -- like reformed Christianity -- where are the reformed Muslim theologians and texts like there are in Christianity? Is there a "moderate Islam," or is this just an oxymoron?
Perhaps, in theory, there could be a reformed, tolerant Islam, based on the revelations of Muhammad's early Meccan period; but an omission of intolerant, political Islam could merely leave young Muslims enraged at the hypocrisy of the reformers who deviate or ignore the true Islam. We are left with the following problem: it only takes a few true Muslims, who want to practice Islam in its entirety and heed the call to Jihad, to take weapons of mass destruction into Western cities and destroy civilization. At this point in time, these weapons can only be created with state sponsorship a temporary limitation. Thus, we must return with some urgency to our original question: Is Islam evil?
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References. This article was accepted and published by
- a website run by ex-Muslims.