When I was searching Reddit for yesterday’s post, I came across this editorial image. Originally I was somewhat torn about whether or not to post it, because something like this usually provokes a great deal of anger among some people who feel it unfairly portrays Muslims – moderate or radical – as enabling the violence and barbarism that we see in some parts of the world today.
More than that, it grossly oversimplifies a highly contentious issue that requires a little more than a pithy image and no accompanying text.
Ultimately (obviously) I decided to do it, if only as an excuse to think aloud for a bit. So is Islam really this bad? Does it deserve such a negative portrayal? Is it more dangerous than the other Abrahamic religions?
The short answer is: Yes. I think it is; however, that’s not so much a result of the religion itself but of where it’s taken hold.
I mean, let’s be honest … for all practical purposes there doesn’t appear to be a significant difference between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam when it comes to the amount of bloodshed and death each of its holy books contains. The less said about how it tells its followers to treat adulterers, homosexuals, apostates, your average non-believer (and just women in general) the better. There is no reason Christianity or Judaism shouldn’t produce the same kinds of radicals we see in some parts of the Muslim world purely on the basis of the laws laid down in Exodus and Leviticus.
I think the reason for the difference we’re seeing today lies more in society’s response to radicalization when it occurs. Currently, the worst kind of religious nuts you’re going to see in the United States are going to be homophobic sociopaths like the Phelpses, anti-science peddlers like Kirk Cameron and Ken Ham, or paranoid conspiracy theorists like Jack Chick. I’ll tell you what, though … they’re nothing. They may be crazy. They’re no doubt dangerous in some ways. However for the most part, they stay well within the confines of the law to spread their insanity. If they step outside of it, then they will be prosecuted and either fined or imprisoned just like anyone else.
Say, for example, you make a video making fun of them. You call them names, you make fun of the god they believe in, and you finish everything off by mooning the camera. They might get angry. They may be offended. Hell, they might even want to throttle you for being so disrespectful to them and their god. (Or not, who knows. They’re probably used to people thinking they’re crazy.) For as angry as they would be, there is no evidence that would suggest that any of them would respond by finding out where you live and killing you and your family. Once again – there is a pretty thick line between the behavior of our “radicals” here versus those in other countries, and the secular rule of law is the reason why.
In some parts of the world, you will still see beheadings, stonings, and the hacking of limbs in compliance with Sharia law. You will see young girls – even below the age of 10 – being married off to old men. If they make any attempt to educate themselves they will be shot and killed. Education is feared and hated. Skepticism and doubt are punishable offenses. Mobs will form and riots will sweep entire cities if their religion is insulted. Shops and homes will burn, and people will die. All because someone insulted a book.
I’ll gladly share a hotel room with Jack Chick and Fred Phelps for an entire week before even making eye contact with someone so delusional and tightly wound that they’ll fly into a psychotic rage if you insult their prophet, deliberately or otherwise. The problem is, there’s plenty of them, and they get a tremendous amount of encouragement. In places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, some parts of Africa and the Middle East, the secular (or moderate Muslim) government doesn’t have the resources to project itself everywhere. The resulting power vacuum provides the perfect environment for clerics and their radical, violent interpretation of (as it happens) Islam to fill the void. It has to be violent and brutal; if it isn’t, another group will quickly wipe them out. The kind of barbarism punished in our society is encouraged in theirs if it means gaining influence and control over a lager area of land and resources.
It’s been argued that Christianity has had its time in the sun with this sort of behavior, and that’s certainly true. Just rewind the clock about 600 years and you’ll see in Europe an entire continent rife with brutal religious theocracies where the act of speaking against the church resulted in a significantly shortened life span. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the age of reason that the Church finally began giving up some of its control. Slowly, secular moral philosophy and more rational discourse began shaping the laws of Western nations and the influence of religion began to wane. Even in light of this fact, there’s no excuse for allowing it to happen in another part of the world with another religion today.
I’m not suggesting I have a solution to this problem, other than maybe helping out existing governments regain control over their less governable regions and encouraging moderates to speak out more openly about effective ways to reduce the influence of the more radical elements of their religion. (Easy to say when you don’t have to face the consequences, I know.) But I do know that the problem isn’t as simple as Islam’s existence itself, and it doesn’t serve anyone to act as if they’re not facing a problem that hasn’t faced any major religion in the course of its history. It’s a real one, it is at this point in history relatively unique to Islam, and I believe it needs the cooperation of the international community in order to solve it.