I debated that Islam is not a religion of peace at a debate organised by the Literary and Historical Society in University College Dublin yesterday. Here is my contribution. The full debate will be online later.
Is Islam a religion of peace? That’s like asking is a rainbow yellow? Parts of it are, but the rainbow itself is not. Like most religions, Islam is a religion of contradictions. But I want to start by making an important distinction between Muslims and Islam.
I’m sure we will hear the word Islamophobia a lot here tonight. I reject and challenge the use of the word ‘Islamophobia’. It conflates two different concepts (bigotry towards Muslims, which is unjust, and criticism of Islam, which is just) and it uses language that suggests that those who criticise Islam have a mental illness.
Are Muslims peaceful? Of course they are. That’s like asking are humans peaceful. Like all people, most Muslims are peaceful, and some Muslims are violent. We should give Muslims the respect of treating them as individual people, not a monolithic block that are described as either peaceful or violent.
Most Muslims are ordinary Sunnis or Shias whose priority is to live normal lives. Most Muslims piously follow their religion, while some in the West drink alcohol and don’t wear veils but consider themselves culturally Muslim. Some Muslims are persecuted Ahmadiyya or female or gay or reformist Muslims.
Some Muslims are leaders of Islamist regimes that impose Sharia by force on other Muslims and religious minorities, including the Wahhabi Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia with its religious police and a law that defines atheism as terrorism, and the Shia regime in Iran where a psychotherapist was executed in 2014 for publishing innovative interpretations of the Quran.
Some Muslims are members of international terrorist groups, from the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon with its aim of obliterating Israel, to the Sunni ISIS who promote their supposed Caliphate by murdering concertgoers in Paris.
Some Muslims are religiously motivated murderers. In Bangladesh, three secular bloggers and a publisher were hacked to death last year. In Pakistan, when Christian woman Asia Bibi was condemned to death for insulting Mohammad, two politicians who supported her were murdered, one by his own bodyguard.
But we should not blame all Muslims for the injustices perpetrated by Islamist regimes or Islamist terrorist groups. Indeed, we should recognise that most of the victims of Islamist injustices are Muslims. We should oppose prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and violence against Muslims, and we should treat Muslims with the same respect, as people, as we accord to ourselves.
But independently of treating Muslims as individuals, there is the question:, which e are discussing tonight is Islam a religion of peace? And I suggest that the answer is no, unless you ignore the evidence of reality. Religions are typically good at ignoring the evidence of reality, but I suggest that here tonight e should focus on reality.
Unlike religions in secular democracies, Islam in Islamist States is not merely religion, in the sense that we use the word religion in the Western world. Islam is an integrated religious, judicial, political and military system of social governance.
And you cannot disentangle the religious, judicial, political and military elements of Islam, and say that just one of those is Islam, because it is the combination of all of these that constitutes Islam. Islam is a way of life, not merely the type of religion we think of in Western societies.
And therefore Islam cannot be peaceful, because as a system of social governance, at a minimum, 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.
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. But the values of Islam and Sharia are shackled to the Quran and the Hadith, documents that are up to thirteen centuries old. And any proposed changes to the way Islam is governed must be made consistent with those texts, that reflect the values of a more violent and undemocratic era.
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 followers were governing in Medina, and not surprisingly you get much more peaceful and equality based values in the passages written when they ere being persecuted than when they were governing.
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 the original Arabic. But the difficulty with that is that Islam has no central theological authority. Which means that ISIS or Al Qaida can argue that their interpretation is the genuine word of Allah as you are to claim that your interpretation is, just as easily as you can the other way around.
And it is worth noting here that the theologically influential Sunni Al-Azhar university in Cairo, which issues fatwas on various issues, has specifically issued a statement refusing the declare ISIS as apostates. I think that anyone who suggests that Islam is a religion of peace should as a minimum be able to say that ISIS are apostates.
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 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, this is when he was in charge — through centuries of atrocities against Hindus in India, to today when Islamist States will persecute people for doing or saying or believing the wrong thing.
The IHEU has just published its 2015 Freedom of Thought Report, an annual global report on discrimination against humanists, atheists and the nonreligious. The countries with the best records are all secular, with separation of church and State.
Four fifths of of the countries with the gravest violations are Islamic or mostly Islamic. They include Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen in Western Asia; Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives and Pakistan in Southern Asia; Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in South Eastern Asia; and Comoros, Egypt, Gambia, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Sudan in Africa.
So if you ask me are Muslims peaceful people, I say yes, they are as peaceful as anybody else. But if you ask me is Islam a religion of peace, clearly it is not it is not, unless you ignore the evidence of reality.
It is an ideology imposed by force, and unable to adjust to the human rights standards that the Western world are evolving towards, not perfectly, but certainly a lot more than Islam is.
So, if you believe that freedom of conscience, freedom from discrimination, and equality before the law are more peaceful than hanging blasphemers, or flogging adulterers, or cutting the hands of thieves, I ask you to support the motion.