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Is Islam a Violent Religion? Ben Cohen vs. Michael Luciano

It's The Daily Banter vs. The Daily Banter on the question of whether Islam is a violent faith.
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Editor's note: This article was originally published in September of 2014, but remains relevant in light of recent events in Germany. 

Recently, Daily Banter writer Michael Luciano wrote a piece criticizing President Obama's claim that the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, isn't actually "Islamic." Many people on Facebook, twitter, and the post's comment section disagreed with Michael's argument, and Daily Banter editor-in-chief Ben Cohen is no exception. Below, the two debate whether Islam is a violent religion.

Excerpt from Michael's piece:

"When faced with horrific acts being carried out by certain Muslims in the name of Islam, there is always this disingenuous tendency by some to wave off the activity as being something that no true Muslim would do. Whatever unsavory deeds have been done, so goes the claim, those deeds are in no way justifiable by the religion itself.

"The evidence marshaled for this is always the same, and it is true: Most Muslims are not violent militants and terrorists. But this isn’t because Islam isn’t a violent religion."

Ben: Firstly, I don't think you are technically wrong here. If taken literally, the major religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) are inherently violent. Just take a look at Leviticus. It seems to me however, that it's kind of an irrelevant point. Religion means many different things to many different people. Religious people aren't just a bunch of idiotic sheep who take the dictates of their particular religion and say, "I don't have to think any more as my religion tells me what I need to do!" They interpret texts in different ways and have their own unique understanding of what their religion is. Let's take the text you quote from the hadith:

"Allah’s Apostle said, 'The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.'" [Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:83:17]

Every Muslim I have ever met would disregard it and look at it in its historic context. It was written in the 7th century and has little to do with modern life. Of course some idiots choose to justify murderous behavior by interpreting it literally, but then you could pick literally belief system to do the same thing. I mean, George Bush used 'freedom and democracy' as excuses to invade Iraq and take their oil.

Michael: As you point out, most religious people don't adhere to the violent commands in their holy texts. However, some do. Like all Muslims, members of ISIS believe the Quran is god's final revelation, which as you note, was written 1,400 years ago. While many if not most Muslims seem to understand that it's not advisable to live in accordance with the prevailing cultural morality of 7th century Arabia, some do not. And without question those who wage violent jihad can quite plausibly point to the Quran to justify their actions. Like the Bible, the Quran is a violent book that largely reflects the social norms and morality of the time and culture in which it was written. And comparatively speaking, these times and cultures were violent.

You say George W. Bush invaded Iraq for the oil using the pretext of freedom and democracy, but I don't see how that's comparable to what motivates ISIS. The Iraq war was certainly a mistake based on bullshit, but ISIS is quite sincere in its efforts to establish a caliphate. In fact, its members actually aspire to become martyrs in the cause.

Ben: I don't think all of the people who got behind the Iraq war thought it was bullshit. There were ardent neocons who promoted it who genuinely believed that freedom, democracy and market capitalism could be spread via the barrel of a gun. Do I blame freedom and democracy for the war in Iraq? No. I blame the warmongers who used the concept for their own purposes.

The problem I have with making a point about Islam being inherently violent is that it removes the culpability of the individuals and attacks a belief system practiced peacefully by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Pulling up nasty quotes from texts written 1,400 years ago doesn't really prove anything other than the fact that it was a very different world back then. You seem to be adamant that religious people have to follow their religion literally whereas most religious people (at least that I know) don't.

Michael: Just because a religion is adhered to peacefully by hundreds of millions of followers doesn't mean that the religion itself is peaceful. Take the quote you mentioned from the hadith I cited in my article. It gives pretty clear instruction on what to do with adulterers and apostates, and that's kill them. Muslims who disavow this passage show themselves to be more moral than Muhammad himself, though most would probably never admit it.

But regardless of how some or most Muslims interpret this passage, it's nonetheless there for us to read plainly enough. So on the contrary, it's entirely fair to attack a belief system that clearly advocates death for those who, for example, renounce their faith.

Furthermore, it should be noted that disturbingly high percentages of Muslims actually want sharia imposed in their countries. Pew Forum conducted a poll last year and found that in 24 of countries surveyed, most Muslims want sharia, and that in several of those countries, a majority of those favor corporal punishment for crimes like theft, and favor stoning for adultery and apostasy. Sexual violence is also a huge problem in many Muslim societies thanks in large part to the blatant misogyny of the Quran, which again, isn't surprising since the book is a cultural byproduct of 7th century Arabia. So there are quite a few Muslims who do in fact take the nastier parts of Islam's founding texts quite seriously.

Ben: When you say 'the religion itself' that can mean a number of things. Religions are divided into thousands of different factions each with their own interpretation of historic texts. For example, Christianity in the U.K. would be almost unrecognizable to many in America. No prominent bishop in the U.K. would disagree with the theory of evolution for example, and no schools are arguing creationism should be taught in schools. Sure there are millions of self described Muslims who want sharia in their countries, but millions of other Muslims who think it's ridiculous. I have many Christian friends in the U.K., and all of them think guys like Pat Robertson and John Hagee are raving lunatics. They view the Bible as in interesting historical document and broadly follow the teachings of Christ. They also derive great meaning from the worshipping, singing, and community aspects of their religion, so self describe as Christians, even though Robertson would probably say they are nonbelievers destined for hell. Every Muslim I've met views their religion the same way.

Michael: Does the passage I cited from the hadith not advocate the death penalty for adulterers and apostates? Yes or no.

Ben: Yes. But so what? Most Muslims don't pay any attention to that. It's a bit of meaningless historic text. Extremism almost always takes off in times of political and economic upheaval. The more uncertain the political or economic situation, the more people 'cling to guns and religion' to quote President Obama. Arab countries have been particularly affected by political and economic upheaval in the past 100 years, so it stands to reason that more extreme religious factions take off that promise stability (i.e., a caliphate). People distort ideologies for their own purposes all the time. It could be Marxism, socialism, fascism, Christianity, or whatever.

Michael: While there are some ambiguities in holy books, other parts of them are very clear. When a Muslim doesn't think that adulterers or people who leave Islam should be killed, I'm thankful that he's not taking his faith that seriously. And yes, I am making a judgment, based on a straightforward reading of that hadith, that this is what Muhammad -- Islam's prophet -- called for.

It seems that baked into your argument is the strange idea that we cannot or must not pass judgment on religions by simply reading their founding books, but instead must wait and see how religious people act before making such determinations. You can do that if you'd like, but I think we're entirely capable of reading those books and deciding for ourselves whether they're appropriate moral guides in the 21st century, or whether they're violent or at least insults to common decency. On this basis, we can in fact evaluate a "religion itself."

Ben: I think that's a very cut and dried understanding of what religion is. Christianity isn't just about the bible, and neither is Islam solely about the Quran. There are centuries of tradition in thousands of different cultures surrounding religion, and while holy text is obviously a key component of each religion, it's place isn't set in stone. This is my problem with people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They paint religion as an 'either or' proposition where to be a Muslim you must subscribe to all the teachings of the Quran. Either you do, or you're not a proper Muslim.

It's a ridiculous proposition, though, given the majority don't subscribe to every exact teachings, and choose to think intelligently about context and interpretation. There's a lot of contradictory text in all religions, so it would be impossible to follow one to the letter. That doesn't make religion (or a particular subset) bad. It's just text to be interpreted, and many practitioners see it as such. I don't view extreme fundamentalists as being religious in any sense of the word. They may think they are religious, but the majority of Muslims/Christians/Jews think they are violent psychopaths who are about as far away from 'God' as is humanly possible.

Michael: It seems we've hit a wall. I don't think Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris believe that to be a Muslim or a Christian you have to believe or do everything your holy book says. I know I don't. But if we're trying to answer the question of whether a religion is inherently violent or can at least plausibly inspire violence in its followers -- which is the point of this exchange -- then we need to start somewhere. And I believe that that somewhere is the holy books, which to emphasize, is the reason these religions exist in the first place. Any person with decent reading comprehension skills is entirely capable of reading the hadith, for example, and determining, "I could see how saying that apostates should be killed could be an issue." You on the other hand want to put the cart before the horse and look at how all religious people behave and make a determination on that basis.

Well if that's the measure, then we can never answer the question, or really talk about Islam or other religions in any meaningful way for that matter. It seems you're content with saying that the Quran and the Bible and so forth are really just peripheral factors when it comes to the behavior of their followers, who have various interpretations of them. If this is the case, and the disparate behaviors of religious people become the standard by which we examine a religion, then we can't really examine a religion at all.

Ben: I don't quite understand what you mean. I'm not saying the the Quran and Bible are just peripheral factors in their respective religions - they are of course the major source. But religious people are not a seething mass of ignorant idiots incapable of understanding nuance, context, and metaphor. You are suggesting there is some agreed upon set of principles in each of the major religions that you absolutely have to sign up to in order to be deemed a Christian/Muslim/Jew etc. Intelligent religious people don't look at their holy texts in this way at all. They view them as spiritual guides to be studied, debated, and interpreted.

I practice the Chinese martial art Wing Chun, and as an active member of the Wing Chun community I often disagree profoundly with the way some people practice the art, almost to the point where I probably wouldn't call it Wing Chun. But that's my interpretation and I'm sure many people would say that I can't call myself a Wing Chun practitioner. The art is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving, and that is due to people disagreeing with supposed 'core principles' or ancient dogmas. Wing Chun today is nothing like the Wing Chun of 50 years ago. Religion operates in exactly the same way, and is always in a state of flux. Christianity in the U.K. is nothing like Christianity in the U.S., and it doesn't really matter whether you believe there HAVE to be agreed upon dogmas, because there just aren't. One of my favorite Christian thinkers, John Shelby Spong said the following:

"Plenty of people out there think of me as the Antichrist or the devil incarnate because I do not affirm the literal patterns of the Bible. But the fact is I can no more abandon the literal patterns than I could fly to the moon. I just go beyond them."

Anyways, I'll let you have the last word!

Michael: You say, "You are suggesting there is some agreed upon set of principles in each of the major religions that you absolutely have to sign up to in order to be deemed a Christian/Muslim/Jew etc."

Yes, I absolutely am. In order to talk about a religion or any "ism," we need to know what these words mean. While there's certainly room for interpretation in some respects, there are very clear founding principles of each faith. For example, I would say, quite uncontroversially I think, that a Muslim is someone who believes there is one god -- Allah -- who gave his final revelation to Muhammad, and this revelation is the Quran. Similarly, a Christian is someone who believes that god put Jesus on Earth so he could die on the cross and thus vicariously redeem humankind of sin.

These are very basic principles of each faith, and if you're going to argue otherwise in the face of 1,400 years of Muslim theology and 2,000 of Christian theology, then fundamentally we just don't agree on what these terms mean, and therefore cannot resolve the dispute in question.


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