November 17, 2018

Tough love for Islam

We’re conditioned to respect all religions. But what happens when we’re confronted with a religion that looks more like a political ideology? When I criticize Islam, I don’t criticize its spiritual beauty; I criticize the fact that in too many places around the world, the religion has morphed into a violent and totalitarian movement.

It’s not a coincidence that, since 9/11, more than 24,000 terrorists acts have been committed under the name of Islam. After the latest murderous attacks in Paris, even a staunch liberal like Bill Maher had the politically incorrect nerve to say what so many of us are afraid to say: “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with this orchard.”

What’s wrong with this orchard? Well, for starters, it harbors an extremist and literalist interpretation of Islam that has morally contaminated large segments of the Muslim world.

While practices and beliefs in Islam are hardly monolithic, it’s disheartening to see such widespread support among Muslims for strict religious law (Sharia) as the official law of their countries. According to polling from the Pew Research Center, this support is most prevalent in places like Afghanistan (99%), Iraq (91%), the Palestinian territories (89%), Pakistan (84%), Morocco (83%), Egypt (74%) and Indonesia (72%).

When you consider that a strict interpretation of Sharia law can often mean cutting off the hands of thieves, lynching gays, stoning adulterous women and the death penalty for apostates, it’s not a pretty picture.

And yet, in much of the West, we act as if Islamic terrorism is simply the result of some “bad apples,” and, well, every religion has its fanatics. This cozy and convenient narrative has run its course. Islamic terrorism is not an isolated phenomenon — it’s a violent outgrowth of a global, triumphalist and totalitarian ideology that is on the march and hiding behind the nobility of religion.

When French President Francois Hollande says, “These terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Islamic religion,” he’s being politically correct, but not accurate. Islamic terrorism has very much to do with the extremist interpretation of classic Islamic texts. Until we acknowledge that inconvenient truth, we have no chance of combating this disease.

Moderate Muslims who “condemn terrorism” and then defend Islam as a “religion of peace” are not taking responsibility for a malignant ideology that must be confronted and rooted out, and not simply denounced.

But how do we do that?

For my money, there’s no better approach than that of Ahmed Vanya, a fellow at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an American-Muslim organization that openly confronts the ideologies of political Islam.

Vanya loves Islam, but his is a tough love. He doesn’t get defensive about the religion’s failings. He’s not out to defend Islam as much as to modernize it. In his must-read article “Beautifying Islam,” published on the website of the Gatestone Institute, Vanya confronts the monster head-on:

“A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only The Religion of the Bigots but The Religion of the Bullies.” 

He is clear-eyed about his own tradition: “Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suited for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny, such as Islamism and jihadism.”

But like any good lover, Vanya gives his beloved the benefit of the doubt: “If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator.”

To live up to these noble ideals, Vanya calls for a humanistic “reinterpretation” of classic Islamic texts: “If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.”

In other words, it’s not enough to marginalize violence; we must also marginalize violent teachings. 

“Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time,” Vanya writes. “Therefore it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.”

When Muslim leaders and preachers start to spread that tough love message throughout the Muslim world, the modernization of Islam will have begun.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at