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Does Islam foster extremism?
By Cathy Young | August 19, 2002
THE SEPT. 11 attack on the United States in which Islamic radicals killed nearly 3,000 Americans has not only brought the problem of Muslim extremism to the forefront of our consciousness but also led to an effort to understand Islam itself. Is it a religion of peace that has been perverted and hijacked by a few hate-filled bigots, or is there something at its core that encourages violence, intolerance, and the subjugation of women? Are we, as some critics charge, ignoring the more disturbing aspects of Islam in an effort to be politically correct? Or are the critics themselves promoting intolerance and demonizing one of the world's major religions?
Two recent controversies exemplify two sides of this debate.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this year, freshmen will be required to read and write an essay about a book called ''Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations,'' a collection of annotated excerpts from the Koran. After an outcry from Christian groups and conservative TV pundits, the school gave students the option of submitting a one-page essay about why they did not want to read the book. The firestorm has not abated.
Ostensibly, the book was chosen in the wake of Sept. 11 in order to promote understanding of Islam. However, those critical of the university's policy say that it promotes a whitewash: The volume leaves out the nasty-sounding verses that encourage believers to slay infidels and to treat Christians and Jews as enemies - the very passages that have inspired the murderous visions of Al Qaeda.
In the meantime, the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of famed religious leader Billy Graham and a prominent evangelist in his own right, has once again come under fire for his negative remarks about Islam. Shortly after the attacks, in October, the Rev. Graham was quoted as referring to Islam as ''a very evil and wicked religion,'' though he later insisted that he was denouncing Islamic extremism, not all Muslims. Now, he has criticized Islamic clerics for failing to condemn the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and urged them to offer compensation to the victims' families. In his new book, ''The Name,'' the Rev. Graham writes, ''Islam - unlike Christianity - has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths.''
While I am no expert on Islam, I do know that when it comes to tolerance, few religions have a stellar record. The Bible has some brutal passages in which the Hebrews are exhorted to slaughter enemies and sinners. Throughout the history of Christianity, its message of love and peace often got lost in the persecution of heretics and religious wars. In the Middle Ages, Islamic societies - while hardly a beacon of religious tolerance - were generally more hospitable to Jews than Christian ones.
In a 1543 polemic, Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, lashed out at Jews with a vehemence that rivals the screeds often found in the Arab media these days. He urged Christian rulers to take action ''so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews.'' His proposals included burning down synagogues and Jewish schools, razing and destroying the homes of Jews, and forbidding rabbis to teach on pain of death.
Perhaps every belief system that lays claim to the ultimate truth carries the seeds of violent fanaticism and intolerance. This is true not only of religions but of secular ideologies such as communism.
Which religion is inherently more intolerant or bellicose is, in a way, a moot point. What's relevant is whether there is something in Islamic culture today that encourages fanaticism to grow.
Over the past centuries, the mainstream branches of Christianity have evolved to embrace tolerance, pluralism, and freedom. (Luther's anti-Jewish writings, for instance, have been formally repudiated by the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) While some Muslim countries have fostered democracy and modernization, in many places around the globe Islam has been backsliding toward more rigid and intolerant orthodoxy - culminating in the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Some experts who reject attempts to demonize the Islamic faith nonetheless believe that something has gone dangerously wrong in Islam. One scholar who takes this view is noted historian Bernard Lewis, whose recent book ''What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response'' examines the complex reasons for the rejection of modernity, and the hatred of the West, in much of the Islamic world. These are some of the tough issues that need to be raised in any attempt to truly understand Islam and its place in global politics today.