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Islam's Complex, But Not a Threat

By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
          The response to my commentary two weeks ago about the so-called ground zero mosque tells me that people are scared. They are frightened for the physical survival of our country, and they are worried the culture they associate with America is under siege.
        The culture of America is always under siege. Countless new arrivals have transformed American culture over the generations. Muslims from places as diverse as Morocco, Albania and Malaysia will change American culture, too. Whoever follows them will change it again. The idea that a handful of Islamic radicals can destroy a nation of 300 million people protected by the world's largest military is absurd.
        But questions about the Muslim world and its intentions toward the United States deserve answers, and I don't mean the ignorant rants polluting cyberspace. Fortunately, we have Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and an Oxford-trained religious scholar whose writings I have cribbed for much of this column.
        Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam isn't one thing. There are many philosophies and sects embracing rationalism, science, mysticism, fundamentalism and liberalism. Islamic practice depends on local conditions and mores. Islam is the faith of more than a billion people all over the world. Such success would be impossible if a banker in Jakarta had to see the world in exactly the same way as a herder in Sudan.
        Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was an illiterate and wealthy businessman from Mecca whose revelations over a 21-year span beginning in 610 were collected in the Quran. Muhammad had no thought of creating a new religion. He was responding to his corrupt and decadent society that had strayed from long-held Arabic principles of social justice and concern for the poor. Society was doomed, he said, if it did not embrace the fundamental laws of human existence: to share wealth, to respect the weak and vulnerable. He said the Quran was simply a reminder of the truths his society already knew.
        Unlike Jesus, Muhammad directed his followers not to convert others. He said God's prophets had shared the truth with Jews and Christians already and that now he was sharing it with Muslims. The revelations to Christians and Jews were valid and sufficient. The Quran says "there shall be no coercion in matters of faith."
        The Quran has much to say about social justice and little to say about the nature of God. Muhammad thought theology was useless speculation. Unlike the Bible, the Quran has almost nothing to say about law. Shariah, the body of Islamic law that upsets so many Westerners and is practiced by few Muslim countries, developed a century after Muhammad in response to the corruption of absolute monarchs who had gained power in the Arab world. Much of shariah seems to have stemmed from regional norms, since things like punishing adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy with death are found in shariah and in the Bible. The veiling and isolation of women was adopted from Greek Christian practice.
        People are worried about a passage in the Quran they believe requires Muslims to kill infidels. In its historical context, the passage means Muslims can defend themselves from religiously motivated attack. The Old Testament says much the same thing about Jews.
        The vile and blasphemous philosophy of Osama bin Laden and his ilk dates from the mid-20th century, not the Quran. Islamic rulers in the Middle East had dominated much of civilization for centuries. By the end of World War I, the Islamic Middle East was little more than a colony of the West. To believers, that was proof that the favor of God had been lost because Muslims were not living a life consistent with God's will. Religious and secular leaders in the Middle East have been trying to respond to this crisis ever since.
        Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Saddam Hussein in Iraq thought the solution was to create a strictly secular society, accomplished in part by imprisoning and executing Muslim activists. A Pakistani Muslim, Abdul Ala Mawdudi, in the 1950s said God's favor could be reclaimed by waging war on barbarians. Sayyid Qutb, executed by Nasser in 1966, said Muslims needed to isolate from secular society and wage war on non-Muslims. Both views were completely new in Islam, were directly contradicted by the Quran and flew in the face of Muhammad's life of engagement in the world and respect for others.
        Far more Islamic is this message: If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, I have always been one.
        That is from a eulogy for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by Islamic radicals, delivered at an interfaith memorial service by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam trying to build the Islamic center near ground zero.

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