Last year, following the withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip, I felt a small bit of hope for the prospects of peace in the Middle-East. It was a small step only—indeed, little but a shuffle. But even if they were only inching along, it seemed to me a step in the right direction; the first real bit of positive progress in perhaps the entire Middle-East in several years.
In speaking with a Muslim acquaintance—one of Palestinian descent, no less—I asked him about his opinion of the prospects for peace in the Middle-East. My friend was cynical. He held no “illusions.” There could be no hope for peace.
In retrospect, I should have listened to my friend. As the events of the previous few weeks have unfolded, my hopes have been dashed. I’ve felt disillusioned and betrayed.
I probably shouldn’t be so emotionally invested in the issue. At first glance, it would seem to have little direct impact on my community or my life. But, given the manner in which the U.S. has inextricably tied its fate to the Middle East, I cannot help suspecting that the repurcussions will be felt here at home. Nor can I disregard the importance of the region in context of Christian (and even more specifically, LDS) theology.
My anger is not exclusive to either party in this conflict. Rather, I feel betrayed by both sides.
I feel betrayed by the Muslim community every time I hear of some new villany by radical elements of Hamas, by Hezbollah, or by any of the radical Muslim communities throughout the world. I have spent some time studying Islam. There is great beauty in that faith. Many wonderful things have been achieved by the Muslim world. A good case can be made that while Europe was reverting to virtual barbarism after the fall of the Roman Empire, Islam was responsible for maintaining the torch of civilization. The Muslim world maintained the Greek works lost to the West for centuries. Muslim scholars advanced such fields as chemistry, medical science, mathematics (al-gebra), and astronomy. While Christian history overflows with swordpoint conversion, warfare over points of doctrine, and wholesale slaughter in the name of orthodoxy, Islam has a much greater history of tolerance and acceptance. The Koran specifically commands Muslims to protect and respect “people of the book,” traditionally interpreted as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. There are comparatively few historical examples of coerced conversions or religious violence until the modern era. Spanish History provides a typical example. In the centuries of the Ummayad caliphate in Iberia (Spain), Christians and Jews were typically freely permitted to follow their religion. They could rise to economic prominence or hold high political office in the Muslim Government. The Catholic Church was allowed to operate with little interference. Following the completion of the Reconquista (the Christian conquest of Spain), all Jews were immediately expelled on pain of death, while Muslims were subjected to a rapid succession of forced conversions and expulsions. The Inquisition worked vehemently to enforce orthodoxy and root out Judaism, Islam, and Christian Protestantism.
Yet despite all this, the image of Islam to which the West is most exposed is that of the violent fanatic. The fundamentalist elements dominate the world scene with their terrorist affiliations, their hyperbolic rhetoric, and their fatwas against authors and cartoonists. They seem to be permitted by the rest of Islam to stand as representatives of Islam to the world. Fundamentalists and dangerous radicals exist in all religions of course, but none seem to be so prominent as they are in the Muslim world.
Honest evaluation would force us to acknowledge that Western society (Europe and the U.S.) is partially responsible. The Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, has very legitimate grievances against the past imperialist policies of the West, the current economic and cultural imperialism of the U.S, and against Israel. When people are not provided a legitimate avenue by which to seek redress for grievances, it is only natural that they will turn to illegitimate avenues—such as terrorist violence.
Yet none of that justifies the evil done under the banner of Islam. Two wrongs do not make a right. They have been wronged, but they still can control how they react to their circumstances. They can choose to use their imagination, hope, and agency to rise above their situation and choose a better course than that of bloodshed.
Why is it that radical Islam has remained stuck in a paradigm of brutality and force? Why is it that they stubbornly cling to old methods of violence when those methods have consistently proven impotent? Over half a century of kidnapping, hijacking, murder, and outright warfare has done nothing to further their goals. Albert Einstein insisted that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Is there some strain of Islam which holds the seeds of such insanity? Every time some Muslim extremist organization issues an illiberal and reactionary fatwa, they reinforce outside attitudes against their cause. Every time they engage in any sort of terrorist activity, they steel the resolve of their foes to maintain their hard-line approaches. No headway can be made under such conditions. Surely their methods contain madness.
And yet if there is madness in their method, there may be method to their madness. Not only do they undermine their own goals, but by acting so malevolently, they goad their adversaries to respond in kind. And as their adversaries answer violence with violence—typically in disproportionate measure—that retaliation stokes the flames of anger in the Muslim community, creating a ripe crop for the extremists to harvest. The extremists should be recognized as either true madmen or else traitors to their own alleged causes, concerned merely with accumulating power.
Many muslims around the world insist that the terrorists and radicals are not representative of the Muslim world, that they are truly extremists. I sincerely believe them. And that simply increases the culpability of the mainstream Muslim world in this tragedy. I would ask my Muslim brethren: Why have you allowed radical extremist elements to dominate events in the Middle East and around the world? Why have moderate, mainstream elements not been very visibly active in repudiating their extremist elements? Christianity has pretty successfully marginalized the extremist elements within their ranks. Few take seriously the White Supremicists or Fred Phelps (Pat Robertson aside…). Why is the Muslim world unable or unwilling to marginalize their violent and radical elements? How can they be so apparently complacent in allowing the radicals to control the destiny of the Islamic world? At the risk of falling victim to ethnocentrism, is Islam somehow lagging behind the cultural and philosophical development of other religions, such that it can find the bloodshed of innocents morally acceptable?
I do not believe that the Muslim Middle East must relent in its quest for justice and respect. To attempt to ignore the seething discontent of millions of Muslims would be foolish and counterproductive. It would eventually burst forth again in violence. On the contrary, the Muslim World must instead provide an alternative method with which to pursue their goals, one based on humane principles. Islam find a more enlightened, more morally persuasive voice if it is to successfully stand against those who have abused them. It must to find its Gandhi, its Martin Luther King jr. Those icons proved that nonviolent resistance will ultimately be successful where violence can only lead to ruin. Muslims must use those tactics not only against the international influences who take advantage of them, but against their own extremist elements. They must show the rank-and-file of Muslim society that there is a more viable alternative to suicide bombings and attacking schoolyards. As they do so, public opinion around the world will, as it did with India, rally around them, and the enemies of Islam will be pressured by their own ethical sensitivities as well as world opinion to change their approach. The grievances of the Muslim community will begin to be taken seriously, and their enemies will be forced to give way.
This is admittedly a great deal to ask of the Muslim community. It can be dangerous to challenge the established powers in the Muslim World, particularly in the violent political environment of the Middle East. The path will not be easy. It will entail a great deal of hardship. Progress will be slow. Yet it is crucial that they find the courage to take this path. Until Muslims do this, they will find their hopes perpetually foiled by themselves.