This is my contribution to the NUI Galway Literary and Debating Society debate last week on the topic ‘Is Islam a religion of peace?’ We’ll have the full debate online tomorrow.
Other speakers were Dr Oliver Scharbrodt, Prof of Islamic Studies at the University of Chester; Shaykh Dr Umar al-Qadri of the Al-Mustafa Islamic Cultural Centre; Abdullah al Andalusi, co-founder of the Muslim Debate Initiative; Ian O’Doherty, journalist at the Irish Independent; and Mark Humphrys, lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU) and writer on religion and politics.
My contribution to the debate
Is Islam a religion of peace? That’s like asking is a rainbow yellow? Parts of it are, but the rainbow itself is not.
Islam covers a spectrum of beliefs From a-la-carte Muslims who drink alcohol and don’t wear veils but still consider themselves to be culturally Muslim, through traditional Sunnis or Shias who just live their normal lives like people of various religions, through persecuted Ahmadis and more mystical Sufis, through Islamists who impose Sharia by force on people who don’t want it imposed on them, through to global terrorists who will happily carve your head off because of their beliefs.
All of this is Islam, and collectively it is not a religion of peace. It is at best a religion of contradictions. For many faithful Muslims it is a source of comfort through submission. And for many dissidents it is a source of violence and oppression.
Also, in its most significant manifestation, asking whether Islam is a religion of peace is not like asking whether Quakers or any particular religion is a religion of peace. It is not even like asking whether Christianity today is a religion of peace.
Because, while Islam certainly includes religious elements, and the core of its claims of power is from theology, it is actually less of a religion and more of a combination of an integrated religious and judicial and political ideology and system of social governance.
And you cannot disentangle the religious and judicial and political elements of Islam, and say that just one of those is Islam, because it is the combination of all of these that constitutes Islam.
And therefore Islam cannot be peaceful, because as a system of social governance, it has to be able to use violence when it needs to, in order to protect Islamic values. Just as secular liberal democracy has to be able to use violence when it needs to, in order to protect secular liberal democratic values. That is the nature of social governance.
So the difference between Islam and secular liberal democracy is not whether either are peaceful or violent. It is the different values that underpin each, and the methods that they are using, and the extent to which they use violence to protect their values.
And I am going to argue today that Islam disproportionately uses violence, the values of Islam require more violence than do the values of secular liberal democracy.
Because the values and the laws of secular liberal democracy have evolved over the centuries to gradually reflect more nuanced ideas about freedom of conscience, and equality before the law, and individual human rights.
Whereas the values and the Sharia law of Islam are shackled to the Quran and the Hadiths, documents that are up to thirteen centuries old. And it has to make whatever changes it is envisaging be consistent with those texts, that reflect the values of a considerably more violent era.
Also, followers of Islam, unlike followers of secular democracy, must believe that the creator of the universe dictated the book that Islam is based on, and that book simply cannot be wrong. Whereas I as a secular democrat can happily say: show me evidence that I am mistaken, and I will change my mind. I won’t retreat into claims of theological claims that force me to to justify retaining the ethics of a more barbaric era.
And when I say more barbaric, I am not restricting that to Muslims. I mean that everybody was more barbaric in times past.
At this stage, can I make the obvious point that I am talking about Islam as an ideology and not about individual Muslims as people?
Most individual Muslims are as naturally ethical as anybody else on the planet. Muslims are empathetic, compassionate, cooperative, reciprocal, fair and just and loving. But their empathy and compassion, and cooperation and reciprocity, and fairness and justice are corrupted by the demands of Islamic ideology.
This is most clearly reflected in the Quran verse 24:2 which states: “Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times. Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God’s law—if you believe in God and the Last Day—and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment.”
Now why would they need to have a verse like that in the Quran? I suggest that it is because there were some Muslims were allowing their compassion to prevent them from lashing people, and so they had to be specifically told to not let their compassion guide them. And that is a very powerful way of getting people to do something, if you tell them that the creator of the universe wants them to.
Like any religious text, the Quran conveys a complex set of values. Parts of it were written when Mohammad and his followers were being persecuted in Mecca, and parts of it were written when Mohammad and his colleagues were governing in Medina, and not surprisingly you get different sets of values coming out of those different sets of circumstances.
The Quran promotes many good things morally. Don’t lie. Be good to your parents. Be good to the poor. Set slaves free. Don’t oppress people. Don’t have compulsion in religion. These are obviously very good things.
But in the same book, you also have that men can beat their wives in certain circumstances. You have verses about cutting off the hands of thieves, killing disbelievers, and fighting non-muslims until they are in a state of subjection.
Now you can argue that these verses mean different things, or that they have to be read in a certain context, or that they have to be read in the original Arabic. You can have any number of different arguments that suggest that these words do not mean what they actually say.
But the difficulty with that is twofold.
The first is that by noticing that there are verses that you have to make those excuses for before you can justify them, irrespective of how you justify them, just by making that distinction, you are noticing that you are applying your own morality to the book. You are not getting your morality from the book, or else you would automatically accept all of them on an equal basis.
The second difficulty is that Islam has no central theological authority. Which means that ISIS or AL Qaida are as entitled to claim that their interpretation is the genuine word of Allah as you are to claim that your interpretation is. And they are as entitled to claim that you are theologically mistaken as you are to claim that they are theologically mistaken.
And the reality of history, when you have these books that give contradictory signals, that can be interpreted by different people on the basis that they think that the creator of the universe is telling them to do things, the reality of history is that Islam Islam has consistently led to violence.
From the massacre of the Jews in Medina after the Battle of the Trench — which was under Mohammad, this isn’t even people misinterpreting his words, this is when he was in charge — through centuries of atrocities against Hindus in India, to today when Islamic States will persecute people for saying or doing or believing the wrong thing.
Today there is a Christian mother, Asia Bibi, who is facing execution by hanging in Pakistan for a blasphemy charge that arose from a domestic disagreement, and two politicians who spoke out for her have been murdered, the Governor of Punjab who was a Muslim and the Minorities Minister who was a Christian. The Governor of Punjab was murdered by his own bodyguard.
So this is what happens when you mix unchanging and unchangeable — or at least very difficult to change — ideologies because they are based on these books that are supposedly written by the creator of the universe, and that have these verses that clearly inspire violence.
So if you ask me are Muslims peaceful people, I say yes, of course they are. They are as peaceful as anybody else. But if you ask me is Islam a religion of peace, I say no it is not. It is not a religion of peace. It is not even a religion. It is an integrated ideology that combines religion, politics, judicial elements and social governance.
And it is an ideology imposed by force, and unable to adjust to the evolving human rights standards that the Western world has gradually adjusted to — not perfectly, but certainly a lot more than basing our ethics on books written hundred or thousands of years ago.
So, if you believe that freedom of conscience, and freedom from discrimination, equality before the law and freedom from discrimination are more peaceful than hanging blasphemers, or flogging adulterers, or cutting the hands of thieves, I ask you to oppose the motion.
My two minute response to the debate
I’ll use my time to respond to two points from the audience.
When I was campaigning against terrorism in Northern Ireland, there was a phrase that we used to use to describe people from both sides of the equation when atrocities their side had committed were pointed out to them, and that phrase was ‘whataboutery’.
Essentially what it means is that, instead of addressing what their side had done, they would try to change the topic onto what other people had done.
I didn’t come here to argue that the West is perfect, and in terms of the human rights abuses of the west that were raised by Joe and others, I was over in Geneva a couple of weeks ago campaigning and briefing the UN Rights Committee about the human rights abuses that you were raising, and others.
So if you ask me to come here and debate that, i will happily debate it, but if you ask me to come here and debate whether Islam is a religion of peace, that is what I expect to discuss.
The second speaker — look, I understand that you are a good person, I really genuinely do, and I don’t want to pick on you, but it is just that you happened to say it — this is one of the things that religion can do, and that faith can do.
When you say about capitalism, I agree with you about capitalism, I think the problem isn’t religion, the problem is faith and dogma, which can be applied to secular things like unregulated capitalism or communism or anything like that.
If you approach any ideology with faith as opposed to proportionate beliefs based on evidence and questioning, then you are going to run into problems.
But the phrase ‘Get over nine eleven already’ — that somebody who I know is a good person would use a phrase like that just shows how these things can, like what I was talking about earlier about desensitisation, can corrupt our normal sense of empathy and compassion and sensitivity and cause us to say things that I’m sure we don’t really believe.
Is that it? Okay, I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.