A few years ago I wrote a column about all the crazy things people have to believe (or pretend to believe) in order to participate in their organized religion of choice. Christians had to explain that suddenly empty tomb. Jews had a sea that suddenly parted. The Mormons have Joseph Smith discovering some gold plates in upstate New York and then translating them into the Book of Mormon along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.
Muslims didn’t get their good word on gold plates, but instead stood by while Allah revealed the contents of the Koran to Muhammad, with the angel Gabriel serving as messenger.
So whether it’s Christians or Jews or Muslims, or the 1973 New York Mets (inspired by the famous words of relief pitcher Tug McGraw), “ya gotta believe.”
But what I failed to mention in that column were all the teachings from your favorite organized religion that you have to disbelieve in order to make it palatable in civilized society. Even though the New Testament’s Ephesians 6:5 says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear,” most Christians have given up on the slave society.
Neither Jews nor Christians pay too much attention to the book of Leviticus (10:6): “Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people.”
The Mormons have had to drop that stuff about the multiple wives.
So, too, most Muslims turn their back on the part of the Koran that sets out the rewards for the holy warriors: “Those who kill or are killed by unbelievers will return to the garden of Paradise, where they will enjoy many lustful pleasures — sex with virgins, pleasant food and drink . . . And theirs shall be the dark-eyes houris (celestial virgins), chaste as hidden pearls.” You can bet that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the U.S. would never want to take that bet.
That’s why the president of the United States refers to the zealots who comprise the Islamic State as “terrorists” and not “Islamic terrorists.” That, of course, does not satisfy some of our own zealous “America first” patriots.
Last week, for example, the Times of Trenton reported on a program in West Windsor that brought police, emergency responders, and township officials together with the Institute of Islamic Studies, which will soon transfer its operations to a new mosque on Old Trenton Road. “We learned, they learned, I learned,” said Sgt. Mark Lee, an organizer of the event. “We’re building bridges.”
A nice event, with a nice outcome, or so it seemed. Then I discovered the online reaction to the article.
“9/11/01 is all I need to know,” wrote one reader.
Another: “Should we all learn to speak every language spoken in our community to better serve the people? How about NO. You guys learn about our ways when you decide to move here.”
And one more: “What is there to talk about what it comes to Islam? Islam calls for the death of all non-Muslims? Your ‘Muslims’ are here to establish sharia. That means replacing western culture with Islamic compliant culture.”
So that’s why people like me urge Muslims to speak out against the atrocities being performed in the name of their religion overseas. I encouraged that last week in a sidebar to a U.S. 1 cover story on the pharmaceutical entrepreneur who is mobilizing friends, most of them from that same community-minded Institute for Islamic Studies, to develop an organization that will connect inner-city people in need with medical specialists willing to deliver pro bono care.
I have to admit that such a request is holding Muslims to a different standard from the rest of us. When the Branch Davidians triggered their Armageddon confrontation with federal authorities in Waco, Texas, no one asked mainstream Christians to differentiate themselves from the splinter sect in Waco. But given the current political atmosphere, and the Muslims’ minority position in a country that still sees things through a 9/11 filter, I asked the question nonetheless.
The members of the Institute of Islamic Studies did not hesitate to reply: “We condemn terrorism whenever it happens and wherever it happens,” said Sajid Syed, the entrepreneur who was featured in last week’s U.S. 1 story. “After the Paris massacre, we immediately put out a press release and posted it on our website. Earlier this year on the high holidays, we ran a full-page ad in the Trenton Times.”
Added his wife, Simin Syed: “We condemn the attacks, and whoever has done this is not acting in the way of religion. We don’t even believe they are Muslims; a Muslim cannot take a life like this.”
But some argue it’s not so easy. In the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, writer Graeme Wood quoted a Princeton University professor of Near Eastern studies, Bernard Haykel, to argue that the Islamic State terrorists base many of their actions on their interpretation of the Koran and Muslim teachings. Trying to ignore the Islamic influences in the terrorist movement, Haykel told the Atlantic, leads to a “cotton-candy view” that misses “what their religion has historically and legally required.”
By acknowledging the religious underpinnings of this terror group, Wood contends, we gain an advantage. “The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: It allows us to predict some of the group’s actions.” The current caliph, Wood writes (and I simplify greatly in this summary of his lengthy article), is following the medieval interpretation of Koranic law, including the notion that it must go on an offensive jihad to gain territory and then fight to an apocalyptic end. For this reason, Wood writes, “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.”
Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State cannot operate underground. “If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement.” Wood continues: “Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. . . As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive.”
Appreciating the religious views driving the Islamic State might cast doubt on the premise that the group draws most of its recruits from economically depressed neighborhoods in Europe and even the United States. While there are good reasons to work toward increased economic opportunity, that theory holds less water after reading the Atlantic article. Who among us hasn’t had a friend or relative suddenly veer off on a spiritual odyssey, find Jesus, forsake alcohol, prepare for the rapture, and then just as suddenly come back to the fold. And, yes, all is forgiven.
The Atlantic article suggest that the current program of air strikes and limited ground combat might be “the best of bad military options” to “slowly bleed” the Islamic State.
I have one idea of my own: When we capture these guys let us resist the urge to seek an eye for an eye. Instead (recalling one of the tenets of organized religion that is easy to swallow but not always easy to follow) do unto others as you would have them do onto you: Imprison them in cells that resemble their normal life at home. Let them wear their native dress, never an orange jump suit. Promise them that, for their violence against the unbelievers, they will simply grow old and withered — to the point where even the chaste pearls of paradise will not be interested if and when these martyrs finally arrive.