A Pox on both their Houses: I – Islamic Extremists

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.

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6 Responses to “A Pox on both their Houses: I – Islamic Extremists”

  1. Frank Staheli Says:

    Excellent post. I do believe that the Arabs suffer a lot of injustice at the hands of the Jews, but I also believe the suffer a lot of the same from fellow Arabs who use them as pawns. Yasser Arafat was always all about Yasser Arafat, and instead of building up the Palestinian areas, he aggrandized himself and his cohorts.

    I think it’s important to remember that while nearly all Muslims don’t think that such violent behavior is appropriate under Islam, they must recognize that those who resort to violent behavior claim that it is Islam that allows them to do so in good conscience.

    I appreciate your honest look at the radical Islam that exists, and I will try to do better at seeing how the Jews (and the US) are contributing to the problem.

  2. Gnostic Says:

    Good observation. it is true that the current conflict in the Middle East was due to Jewish/US policies, that Muslims only reacted and are still reacting to the ongoing aggression. For better clarity, though, you had to remind the readers, that after the 1948 UN resolution, two countries were created on the territories of the former British Empire, namely Palestine and Israel.

    It is a good aspiration to see Muslims developing a peaceful response to the injustice they have been subjected to. Although I do not see how exactly lost lives and their country, Palestine, may be returned back to existence by that. Gandhi’s approach will not work in the Middle East.

    But as for your question “Why is it that radical Islam has remained stuck in a paradigm of brutality and force?” I would suggest to look for the answer in the Muslim religion itself. You may need to better study it. There is a secret pillar in Qhuran, calling to go to conquer other nations and to convert them by force (by sword actually). It promises the favors of Allah for it. Qhuran actually calls the Muslim soldier to either convert the conquered, or to kill them if they refuse to be converted, while promising the same reward in the heavens for both cases. No wonder Muslim religion spread itself within a short time from Arabian peninsula reaching Apenines in the West and Indonesia in the East. When you say “There are comparatively few historical examples of coerced conversions or religious violence until the modern era.” I think you better study the history of the Middle East. Very soon after the advent of Islam it started expanding by forcefully converting the conquered nations. It is only this way that Islam became an international religion.

    So the answer is in the doctrine of Islam itself. Fundamentalism implies adherence to the fundamentals of Islam, the secret pillar.
    It is important to distinguish that Catholic massacres, crusades, or inquisition, although performed in the name of Christianity, had nothing to do with the Christian Doctrine but where the policies of the Catholic popes. Whereas Muslim violence is due mainly to the doctrine of Islam, not only their religious leaders.

  3. Derek Staffanson Says:

    No, Gnostic, you are wrong. It is a common misconception that there is a fundamental tenet of Islam calling for worldwide conversion. There is no more religious justification for violent conversion to Islam than there is in Christianity. And the claim that Islam spread through forced conversion early in its history is likewise inaccurate. The Arabians who rapidly conquered Persia, much of the Middle East, North Africa, and ultimately Spain did not force conversions. Their conquests were marked by much less civilian bloodshed that typical for such wars. Their empire tolerated other religions, and for a period actually resisted converting others–they saw Islam as a special Arabian birthright. It is because the conquered people clamored for conversion–because they were tired with the various arcane theological squabbles which spilled into bloodshed in Christianity, because they wanted to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers, and because they wanted the exemption from certain taxes with Islamic law required for believers–that those nations ultimately converted.

  4. Gnostic Says:

    I think you better study the Qhuran a little more. There is a fundamental difference between Qhuran and, for example, Hindu religion. This is why Gadhi is not possible among Muslims. I am afraid you cannot find the answer to your question “Why is it that radical Islam has remained stuck in a paradigm of brutality and force?” unless you look deeper into the whole doctrine of Islam.

    Your misconception of Islam is due to that part of the doctrine which is presented to you actually to the non Islamic world. And when you say “There is no more religious justification for violent conversion to Islam than there is in Christianity.” I hope you do not mean that there is any justification for violent conversion in the doctrine of Christianity.

  5. Derek Staffanson Says:

    I mean that the central structures of Islam (the Koran and the Hadith of the Prophet) give no more justification for forced conversion than Christianity. The perception that there is some fundamental basis for violence in Islam or some history of violence and coercion in Islamic history which is more egregious than that found in other faiths is simply a result of ignorant Western ethnocentrism.

  6. Gnostic Says:

    So you are saying the violence in Islamic history is a usual stuff, no more egregious than that of the history of other faiths. Let’s see. Although there were constant wars starting from the prehistoric times between the peoples, moreover neighbors, they very rarely aimed for total extermination. Those wars were mostly to suppress the growing powers in the adjacent regions and to tax them, again in order for not to allow them to grow in power. It was with the advent of Islam that the number of slain (by the soldiers of Islam) in those wars grew drastically. One does not need to be a historian to notice that religious wars break out mostly around the adherents of Islam. It is hard to imagine Hindus and Buddhists battering each other because of religious differences. Or Hindus and Christians. Or Buddhists and Christians. Buddhists, Christians and Hindus all manage to coexist peacefully in India. In contrast there is always a skirmish wherever there are Muslims and adherents of other faiths dwelling next to them. The Indian province of Kashmir is a constant battle scene between two neighbors, Muslims and Hindus. In Yugoslavia, for example, there is a constant tension often growing into open wars between Christians and, of course, Muslims (non Arab ethnic groups). In Sudan the genocide of the non Islamic peoples by Muslim Arabs is another fresh example of Muslim violence. Less than a century ago, in 1915, Muslims (this time Turks) massacred almost two million Armenians. Why, because Armenians were Christians, because Armenians would not accept the Muslim religion. The genocide of Armenians in 1915 was not an isolated incident. Prior to that Sultan Abdul Hamid of the Ottoman Empire would massacre hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the nineteenth century. Prior to that both Turks and Persians (another Muslim nation) would systematically massacre Armenians, the only Christian nation surrounded by Muslims. So, independent of ethnicity (either Tuck, Arab Albanian, Croatian, or Persian) Muslims show a persistent tendency to massacre their neighbors in numbers, great numbers. As a result the Muslim nations get the territories of the massacred nations thus growing geographically. The genocide of Armenians, also Greeks, allowed Turks to establish themselves on the territories cleansed of Gjavur (dirty) Christian nations and to expand the Muslim Turkish dominions. The history of Islam is the history of expanding Muslim dominions. The case of Armenians is the most tragic, since because of the genocide in 1915 they lost their entire country. Only one tenth of the territory of Armenia was miraculously preserved. Armenians are still vagabond nation, a miraculously survived witness of Muslim brutality. I am sure Armenians would have a different fate, at least would not be massacred had they have a non Muslim neighbor. Armenians and Persians, for example, were coexisting relatively peacefully throughout long centuries starting from the advent of the Persian kingdom in the sixth century BC. Skirmishes started only after Armenians accepted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. Persians invaded Armenia without aiming for extermination. The extermination became an integral part of their agenda when they, the Persians were converted into Islam. Prior to suffering at the hands of Turks Armenians lost their country to Persians.

    Sorry, I did not mean to overwhelm you by history. My only aim was to show that independent of ethnicity adherents of Muslim religion have a mysterious tendency to either massacre, to exterminate their neighbors or to have them accept their Muslim religion. The only place to look for the source of that tendency is inside the Muslim religion itself. No Muslim will disclose the secret Muslim agenda to any westerner, or any other non westerner. Your Palestinian friend will never tell you anything about that. You have to find it out on your own.

    No offense, but have you lived among Muslims? I mean like born and lived, not just visited for a time, or to conduct a research project. You have to live among them, at least next to them to know them and their religion. Again, the Qhuran you have studied is only the peaceful part of their religion not the complete religion. Muslims are barbaric not only because they are uncivilized. It is in their religion. I am not condemning the Palestinians for their violence, though. I agree with you that Palestinian violence is in response to the Israeli occupation of their country, The state of Palestine was created simultaneously with the state of Israel by the 1948 UN resolution. In general any ‘violence’ aimed to defend one’s self, one’s family, and country is justified. It is also justified to adhere to any means available to get back one’s country from a foreign occupation.

    But the instances of the genocide of Armenians or recently Sudanese was not a defensive endeavor, but an aggressive extermination aimed for expansion. Your description of Arab Khalifat sounds like a paradise with freedom of all religions, including Christians and Jews. It sounds more like the Roman empire. It was in Rome that the conquered peoples were allowed to practice their religion and speak their own languages. Arab Khalifat was homogeneously Muslim except for Christian Armenians in the north and maybe some Catholics and Jews in Spain. Again, Arab Khalifat did not have the religious freedom of Rome. The isolated religious tolerance in Spain is not typical for the entire Khalifat. If Arabs viewed Islam as a special Arabian birthright, what happened to their pride and when? Even then all the conquered peoples were converted to Islam and are Muslims ever since. The fact that non Muslim conquered nations were striving to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers, the fact that they wanted exemptions from certain taxes speaks about harsh coersions they were subjected to by their Arab conquerors. The religious ‘freedom’ in Spain was due to the fact that it was too far away from the center of Khalifat. Throughout the Khalifat Arabs were applying all possible means to force the conquered nations (including through heavy taxation) to accept Muslim religion.

    It is maybe a Western ethnocentrism today to view Muslims as uncivilized barbarians. But it was an Arab ethnocentrism and still is a Pan-Islamism to promote and expand Islam by massacring other ethnic and religious groups who refuse to be converted to Islam, thus obstructing the Pan-Islamist expansion.

    Again, a deeper study of Islam and its history is needed. Before preaching about Islam’s peaceful nature one must take into account atrocious massacres of at least two million (almost all) Armenians, and very recently almost one million Sudanese.

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