Every now and then you hear calls from critics of Islam for Islam to reform itself—for mosques and madrassas to teach against the Islamic doctrines that inspire terrorists. A dramatic example of this demand occurs in the film Fitna when Geert Wilders invites Muslims to tear the offending pages out of the Koran. In one scene you can hear the sound of tearing pages in the background.
If thy page offend thee, pluck it out? The only trouble with this sort of recommendation is that it assumes that there is enough positive material in the Koran and other foundational documents to form the basics for a reformation. But is there?
According to Moorthy Muthuswamy, an expert on political Islam, “61 percent of the Koran talks ill of unbelievers or calls for their violent conquest and subjugation, but only 2.6 percent talks about the overall good of humanity.” Hmmm. Seems as though that would amount to an awful lot of offending pages.
It’s a similar story when you turn to the sira, the biographies of Muhammad. Take the earliest of these, the one written by Ibn Ishaq. Of the 130 short chapters which detail the life of Muhammad after his arrival in Medina, over 70 are about raids, battles, and assassinations or else they are about preparations for raids and battles, division of spoils, odes upon battles, names of those who fought, etc. According to a content analysis done by Bill Warner of the Center for the Study of Political Islam, at least 75% of the sira is about jihad. These are inconvenient facts for those who hope Islam can be reformed. No matter how reform-minded you may be, it is difficult to come up with a symbolic interpretation of the Koran’s numerous calls to make war on unbelievers, since that was literally what Muhammad did.
So, rather than encourage Muslims to remove the violent and hateful parts of the Koran, it might make more sense to encourage them to renounce it in toto. The “good” parts of the Koran are so bound up with the “bad” parts that trying to separate them is an impossible task. Besides, there is no warrant in Islamic tradition for picking and choosing. Islamic authorities say that the Koran given to Muhammad is a replica of the original which is inscribed on “imperishable” tablets in heaven. And, just for the record, “imperishable” beats “set in stone” by a wide margin. Talking of reforming Islam by re-interpreting the Koran is like talking about reforming a marble statue. Some things don’t lend themselves to reformation.
Of course, asking Muslims to totally reconsider the Koran is no piece of cake, either. It’s a hard sell, to be sure. But then, none of the “soft” sell solutions appear to be working. Over the last decade or so we’ve tried:
- The democracy solution (which has led to numerous Islamist victories at the polls)
- The secular solution (the belief that Muslims would happily exchange burqas for bikinis)
- The assimilation solution (the belief that, given the chance, Muslims would prefer to blend into the multicultural soup)
- The appeasement solution (once Muslims see that we’re willing to give them everything they ask for, they’ll be satisfied and will stop making demands)
All these solutions assume that Muslims suffer from a sense of inferiority over their religion and culture. That may have been true fifty years ago when Islam appeared to be going nowhere, but now that Islam is on the move, the opposite is true. Muslims feel a sense of superiority about Islam. Faced with a choice between the best that the secular West has to offer, and the splendor and certainty of the Koran, they choose the Koran. Therefore, any adequate response to the threat from Islam has to be based not on shoring-up the self-esteem of believing Muslims but on breaking it down. The most direct way to do this is to shake their faith in the Koran as the revealed word of God.
You may counter that it’s nearly impossible to change deeply held beliefs, but, as I maintained in a previous piece, history demonstrates time and again that deeply held beliefs are not nearly as deeply held as they appear. What happened to the deeply held beliefs of the devotees of Zeus and Jupiter? What happened to the deeply held beliefs of the Millerites, Rappites, and Shakers? And, more recently, what happened to the deeply held beliefs of European Christians? It’s ironic that our society which is so committed to change, nevertheless insists on the unchangeability of other people’s beliefs. It’s one of the legacies of multiculturalism that we have come to believe that our own culture is infinitely malleable, while simultaneously believing that non-Western cultures are infinitely immutable. And since we think Muslim beliefs can never be changed, we never suggest that they ought to be changed.
It’s decidedly in the interest of non-Muslim societies to cast doubts on the Koran. Having said that, I disagree with the idea that simply exposing the violent or hateful messages of the Koran is enough to discredit it. Maybe God really does hate unbelievers. It’s much more to the point to raise doubts about the divine authorship of the Koran.
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