Recently President Obama caused quite a stir with some remarks that he made at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he commented on crimes committed in the name of religion. The backdrop to his remarks was, of course, a series of spectacular terrorist attacks carried out by radical Islamists, and the President asked how heinous crimes can be carried out in the name of religion.
What made his remarks so controversial was that he seemed to minimize the difference between Christianity and Islam on this score. On the one hand he asserted that radical Islamists “professed to stand up for Islam, but in fact, are betraying it.” But then he went on to say, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
The President is right – up to a point. The vast majority of Muslims in the world today are undoubtedly peaceful, law-abiding people, simply interested in getting on with their lives. Many of the atrocities of the “Islamic State” have been roundly condemned by Islamic scholars. And it is true that during the Crusades and Inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. But the President’s remarks missed a key point. While there is nothing in the teachings of Christ that could be used to sanction violence, the idea of jihad does, in fact, occupy an important place in the Koran.
The President himself, perhaps unwittingly, put his finger on the problem. He went on in his speech to speak up in favor of freedom of religion and of speech, and then said that we need to “uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments. Between church and between state.” He pointed to the freedom of religion that we enjoy here in the U.S., and then said, “That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith.”
Alas! Therein lies the whole problem. There is no separation of mosque and state in Islam. Islam, by its very nature, is theocratic. And this is why Muslims can condone violence in the name of the faith.
It didn’t start out that way. A caravan trader until he married a rich widow, at age 40 Mohammed claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel. “Proclaim! In the name of the Lord and Cherisher, Who created – “ (Koran, 96:1) the angel supposedly told Mohammed, thereby launching his career as a prophet. Mohammed went forth and began preaching a new religion based on monotheism. But his message encountered opposition in his hometown of Mecca, and he eventually found it necessary to relocate to Medina.
His relocation was a turning point in his career. He now found himself as the leader of a community, and had to concern himself with civil administration. In Sura 2 of the Koran, Mohammed laid out his program for the new religion. It would feature prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity. But Islam was now more than just a religion; it was also an organized political state, and as such it had to have the means of self-defense. In this case, however, war became a religious duty. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you” (2:190). Mohammed’s rationale was simple: “Slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter . . .” (v. 191). Violence was sometimes necessary to establish peace and order. “And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah” (v. 193).
This does not necessarily mean, however, wanton, indiscriminate bloodshed. Jihad was conceived originally as a defensive war, and Mohammed urged restraint. Muslims are to fight the enemies of Islam, “But if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression” (v. 193). And Mohammed specifically declared, at least at this early stage, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (v. 256).
At first Mohammed showed a certain amount of deference to Jews and Christians, the “People of the Book.” But as time went on and they too opposed his message, he came to see them as enemies of Islam as well. In Sura 9, written near the end of his life, Mohammed accused both Jews and Christians of being essentially polytheistic, and urged his followers to “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day . . .” (9:29). Nevertheless, if Jews and Christians were willing to submit to the authority of an Islamic government and pay a Jizyah, a kind of poll-tax, they would be permitted to live.
Thus the idea of a holy war is part and parcel of Islam. Within one century of Mohammed’s death Muslim armies had marched across North Africa and into Spain and France. They were in control of a vase empire that extended from Persia to the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless it is hard to find a warrant in the Koran for some of the barbaric atrocities committed by the so-called “Islamic State” of by Boko Haram in West Africa. Muslims are urged in the Koran to fight those who actively oppose Islam. There is no justification for massacring unarmed civilians, kidnapping schoolgirls, or beheading journalists and aid workers.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Islam does sanction the use of violence to defend the faith, and that sets it apart from Christianity. Islamic scholars have said that what Mohammed did essentially was to lay out a just war theory. But as Sir John Glubb, a British military officer with extensive experience in the Near East, noted, “The Prophet, it is true, only used war and murder against the enemies of Islam, who were obstructing the propagation of the faith. Nevertheless, once violence is admitted, it is all too easily abused” (A Short History of the Arab Peoples, p. 36).
The state has a responsibility to protect the life and property of its citizens, maintain public order and establish justice. But the individual conscience must remain free, because in the end we are all accountable directly to Almighty God, and no fallible human authority should be permitted to intrude. The sword should never be used to advance or impede religion.