"Islam: Religion of the Sword?"

By Richard D. Connerney

Published October 16, 2001 7:50PM (EDT)

Read the story.

Connerney says, "Representative democracy does not take well in the Muslim world" while implying that it fits well within the Christian world. Connerney is surely aware that our founding fathers' proposed secular democracy severely clashed with contemporaneous church leaders, and that modern Christian Reconstructionists want to base our American judicial system on Old Testament statutes. Even America's most patriotic evangelists will gladly inform you that the Kingdom of God is not a democracy.

Connerney concedes that "To an extent, this ambivalence exists in many religions, including Judaism and Christianity. Muslims are not the only ones to have waged wars in the name of religion. So have Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. The validity of the comparison ends there, however. It seems plain that Islam is confronted by the problem of religious violence in ways that other religions are not." Connerney then insists that "Fundamentalism, as a literal and non-historic approach to religious scripture, exists in every tradition, but only in Islam does it go hand in hand with widespread violence."

So according to Connerney, the Thirty Years War, the Crusades and the Inquisition were merely historical aberrations that are entirely unrelated to the sacred texts that inspired them.

Finally, Connerney says, "To accomplish a true secularization of the Muslim world would be to ignore the meaning of the Quran at the core -- or at least as it is now interpreted by the most passionate believers."

The very same thing could be said for most Biblical literalists. Islam doesn't resist modernism because it contradicts the Quran. It resists modernism because the West dominates the world. If the situation were completely reversed, with Islam dominating the industrial world while scattering Christians and Jews among poverty-stricken tribes in the Middle East, the three faiths' religious extremism would be entirely reversed.

-- Todd Morrow

Richard Connerney's interpretation of the Islamic faith is both uninformed and myopic in its scope.

He makes it seem as though our Christian and Jewish brothers have never had fringe elements associated with them.

Need we remind everyone of the Spanish Inquisition, where years of torture, murder and pillage occurred. Shall we discuss the Crusades, in which thousands of Arab Christians, Jews and Muslims were slaughtered by the European conquistadors.

Mr. Connerney decided to pick and choose his interpretation of Islam. By no means is what he said representative of Islam, nor should it be interpreted as such.

-- Arsalan Tariq Iftikhar, Midwest Communications Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, St. Louis, Mo.

I read many articles recently on your Web site, including: "Islam: Religion of the sword?" by Richard D. Connerney. It saddens me that your media outlet has attracted so many anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bashers. Muslims and Arabs are being psychoanalyzed and molded into a vicious, hate-filled and violent people through the lens and sick intellect of racists, bigots and people who have an axe to grind or have a political and religious agenda behind this demonization.

Recently, I have read respectable Muslim scholars bashed as terrorists' supporters and respectable Muslim organizations maligned as fronts for terrorism. Is Salon going to open the discourse and allow Muslims and Arabs to speak, or is it going to let bigots and racists incite hate and fear of Muslims and Arabs?

Racism and bigotry do nothing but fuel extremism.

-- Fadwa Wazwaz

Since September 11 we have all been waiting for a single honest and enlightening word about the relationship between Islam and militancy. There has been so much cant and sophistry, so much false politeness, so great an unwillingness to face disturbing realities. Richard Connerney has now given us that much-needed honest and enlightening word. There are points in his argument that might be challenged, especially his attempts to contrast Islam and early Christianity, but a wonderful basis for discussion has been offered us here. Precisely how to achieve peace when two epochs of human history are clashing--we have not even begun to face the enormity of the problem.

One of the things that will result from the discussion, I believe, will be a new appreciation of the Enlightenment, which has had bad press for quite a while now. I thank Richard Connerney for stimulating a more honest and better informed discussion.

-- David Farrell Krell, professor of philosophy, DePaul University, Chicago

This article is such a mishmash of half-truths, outright misunderstanding, quasi-analysis, and slap-dash misreading that it is hard to know where to start. You might have done better to find an actual scholar of Islam who has some access to the voluminous exegesis on all subjects Muslim. And your writer might do well to do a little research on the subject of religion and politics in Islam -- start with Ibn Khaldun's 14th century classic (more relevant than ever in the last month) "Al-Muqaddimah," and then move on to the recent and excellent "Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics" by L. Carl Brown.

Usama bin Laden is without a doubt within an Islamic tradition, but then so is Mubarak and so is the Saudi monarchy. The struggle between the ulama (religious scholars) and the state is as old as the religion, and it has never been permanently resolved, nor will it any time soon. But that is no reason just to throw up one's hands and declare hopeless "a religious vision that is terrorist-prone, modernity-proof, plagued by fanaticism and susceptible to the hellish clarion call of jihad." (Again, the author might profit by having a look at the turn-of-the-century career of the Islamic modernist Al-Afghani, who was not, of course, an Afghan.) Islamic modernism may be on the downside right now, and probably will remain so until the pleadings of a Thomas Friedman find fruit, but it is not inconsequential. It has a history, and it will rise again.

"Our" ideas of religious tolerance may feel fuzzy right now (though I don't fuzzy up to the Christian fundamentalist bigots who call for the extermination of my own social group), but a valid historical analysis would find that the total death count of Christianity still takes the prize ... cold comfort, perhaps, but this was supposed to be a scholarly piece.

Gotta close by saying that the imagined color of the airplane, sir, really doesn't add much to an analysis of religion and state in Islam. It does, however, give us fair warning of the fuzzy thinking that follows.

-- Stephen Arod Shirreffs

As Mr. Connerney writes:

"Can the world truly continue to tolerate medieval minds with access to 21st century military hardware? Is there really room in the family of world faiths for a religious vision that is terrorist-prone, modernity-proof, plagued by fanaticism and susceptible to the hellish clarion call of jihad?"

I think Sept. 11 brings us to only one conclusion to this question. NO.

I have spent time in every country across North Africa and the Middle East. I've argued with educated men about the right and reason for the existence of a secular state with freedom of religion; and at some point, every time, I have seen in their eyes -- their mind closing. How does a state negotiate with a closed mind?

-- Catherine Oller

In this confusing time of identity, suspicion and fear, even the headline of Connery's article, "Islam: Religion of the Sword?" made me cringe.

Religions, especially those entrenched in politics, change with society to reflect advancement. Nowadays only rare brands of mysticism and personal spirituality are not in some way or another tied to politics (religion means "to tie down"). In fact, probably all organized religions are by necessity partially political in nature. Whenever a spirituality becomes a group phenomenon, there will be politics involved. Thus, to isolate Islam as a politically based religion is to miss the larger picture of all religions. Additionally, Islam is supposedly a continuation of Judaism and Christianity. By the time Islam arrived on the scene circa 700 A.D., the Christian empire had been a religious force for centuries.

Additionally, as a reflection of the changing times, the term "jihad" has come to mean a personal holy war, not a physical destructive war. All scholars will agree that the Islamic jihad exists only as a metaphor today. Osama bin Laden is exploiting the doctrines of a beautiful religion in order to brainwash and manipulate his followers into giving their lives for this "holy" cause. But the cause is not holy under the modern interpretation of Islam.

In this time of confusion, the American public needs reliable truth, not fuel for the already destructive fires of hysteria. Connerney's headline was a large dry dead tree, filled with sap. It has fallen recklessly on the ashes of America. I pray no innocent Muslims are injured as a result of the ignorant fire it may ignite.

Learn. Love. Peace.

-- Fasih Hameed

I recently got a subscription to your service. I feel certain that I would not have done so if I had known that you were going to print racist, jingoistic trash like "Islam: Religion of the Sword."

It is quite ironic that the writer feels license to sit in the United States of America, with its rate of violent crime, and call the followers of Islam "violent." In Jordan, where I do ethnographic research, the murder rate is under 20 people a year (the population is about 5 million.) In my hometown of New York, the murder rate (for about 8 million) is in the hundreds -- and everyone is thrilled that it has been so greatly reduced. Not to mention the violence that the U.S. government has been responsible for abroad.

It's true that criminals in Islamic countries more often justify their acts in terms of Islam. This is not surprising. Islam is different from the other religions of the book. Unlike contemporary Christianity and Judaism, it is integrated into all facets of life. Therefore, advocates of causes from feminism to educational reform to yes, terrorism, look to Islam for legitimation. Islam did not produce any of these movements. To claim (inaccurately) that it did is to start down the slippery slope toward racism and hate crimes.

-- Laura Pearl

In his article, the author states that jihad "is the very origin of Islam, the sine qua non of the faith." This is a blatant misrepresentation. Jihad is essential (sine qua non) but not the origin, much the same as stopping at a red light is essential but not the origin of driving. Islam does not derive itself from jihad. Jihad is a part of one's everyday life but does not define it.

Do I attempt to find the owner of the dollar bill I found? Do I watch the game or mow the lawn? Do I try to understand another's point of view or simply dismiss it? All of these are jihad. He does not bother to distinguish between the physical struggle of jihad and the non-physical struggle of jihad after his opening paragraph. Instead, the article attempts to reinforce the incorrect association of "jihad" and "war."

He states, "It is no secret that representative democracy does not take well in the Muslim world," implicitly stating that the reason that there are no democracies in Muslim-majority countries is because of the teachings of Islam. He ignores the fact that all of the Muslim-majority countries and many non-Muslim majority countries are or were ruled by dictators that were put into power by the United States, and that the United States takes covert steps to reinforce those dictator's regimes. Whenever a democratically elected government is put into place anywhere in the Third World the United States takes steps to remove the democratically elected leaders and replaces them with military dictatorships. Witness the history of Chile, Panama, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Guatemala. This is only a partial list.

Finally, he gets into his huge problem: "This idea, of a government without a religious vision of absolute truth, is contrary to the Muslim community's very conception of religious community. And herein lies the keystone of our problems." An Islamic government is the greatest fear of the secular West. This ancient fear was created during the Crusades 1,000 years ago by the European Christian demagogues who started the real "holy war."

Long periods of peace and freedom have existed in only one civilization in recent history. This was during the rule of the Islamic empire from 800 to 1600. Peace, freedom of thought and action, and invention had never been so widespread in a civilization until that period in history. Any Jew who knows his history will tell you that the Golden Era of the Jews was in Spain under Islamic rule. Christian and secular European colonialists slowly chipped away at this until the final destruction of Islamic rule in Turkey in the early 1900s, as the author so conveniently pointed out. He describes with obvious ignorance of the facts the "successful secularization" of Turkey. Kamal Ataturk, the destroyer of Turkey, brutally enforced Turkey's secularization. Religious learning was forced underground. The language was changed from Persian letters to Latin letters, thereby rendering the entire population illiterate in the state's official language. Any public displays of a religious nature were banished and violators were imprisoned. There is still no freedom to publicly practice religion in Turkey. Until very recently a woman could be arrested for wearing a scarf on her head!

The current era of peace and freedom in the United States has been comparatively short-lived. It is also fraught with problems that are slowly compounding. Money and power is slowly moving away from the masses into the hands of very few. There is more crime and imprisonment in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The government no longer acts in the interests of its people. It acts upon the interests of "interest groups." Why? I propose that it is because there is no moral foundation for the laws in the United States. Some people are saying that their laws are better than another's laws so those are the ones that get implemented. How can a person tell another person what is right and what is wrong? There must be divine guidance for morality and morality must underlie the laws of a nation. Otherwise our human deficiencies get magnified and some people become oppressed. Witness nearly every ethnic group that immigrated to America or was forcibly enslaved here. They've all been oppressed to some degree until recently.

The Christians of Europe in the Middle Ages failed at creating a just government. The Islamic government of the same time succeeded. The American democracy has a great many similarities to a real Islamic government. Why not give it a try?

-- Dawood Ali


I'm grateful that someone was finally brave enough to run an article questioning the assertion -- repeated over and over again by "journalists" who have never read a single page of the Qur'an -- that Islam is a religion of peace. As nice as it sounds, the reality is much more complicated than that. I'm really sick of seeing countless articles where they ask a moderate Muslim to provide the "true" meaning of the Qur'an, then rule out anything a "radical" believes. That's like quoting friendly Rabbi Schwartz at the reform temple saying that the Orthodox Hasidim don't know the Torah.

My heart goes out to Muslims as much as it does to anyone, but let's be honest about what the Qur'an really says. It's full of beautiful phrases like this one: "For those [wives] of whom you fear disobedience, send them to beds apart and beat them."

And they wonder where the violence comes from?

-- Richard Baimbridge

Hungarians had a 150-year-long fight with the Ottoman Empire, and this is what we got out of it: The croissant!

The croissant, which seems so essentially French, actually originated in Hungary. The name -- "kifli" in Hungarian -- means "crescent moon," and has a remarkable history.

At the end of the 17th century the Turks laid siege to the city of Budapest and, in order to subjugate the city, tunneled under the city walls. As the Hungarian bakers practiced their trade in the early hours of the morning, they were able to raise the alarm in time and the enemy failed in their attempt to capture the city. As a symbol of the victory the bakers baked the emblem of the Turkish empire, the crescent moon, out of puff pastry. It caused a sensation in Vienna as well as in Budapest and it was the Austrian-born Marie Antoinette, queen of France, who brought it with her to Paris in the 18th century.

-- Istvan Banyai

I am a history major with an M.A., and did much of my graduate work on the origins of Islam, so I am somewhat versed in its lore. I am not a premium member, so I have not read the full article on Islam. But I disagree with the assertion that Islam somehow rose by the use of military might, whereas Judaism did not. The Quran was finished by the time the conquests of Persia and Rome had begun, since the Prophet had died. Those conquests were a byproduct of the unity created by Islam, not part of the religion. The Quran is full of battle and war, as you say, but it is battle and war for the purpose of the survival of the Prophet himself, who grew up in a violent part of the world, and was the target of many attacks by those in power he was threatening. His war prowess was important to the faith, but mainly in a self-survival mode. This is probably how Bin Laden sees his fight, actually, as a struggle against forces bent on his, and Islam's, destruction. He would not have seen the WTC attacks as a first strike, but as retaliation for the attacks we have made on Islam (in his opinion). But to say that Islam is a religion based on war is going too far.

There is a constant myth that Islam grew and conquered by the Sword. This is false. Islam conquered its neighbors, but did not try to convert those they had conquered. The conversions came later, as people saw religious, political and social benefits to conversion. As non-Muslims, they had to pay a poll tax, which made them want to convert while simultaneously making their leaders want them to stay non-Muslims.

Now, concerning Judaism. There is not a clear history of how and when Judaism was formed, since most of the Old Testament was written around 600 BC, half a millennium after the time of Abraham and Moses, the supposed founders. Reading through the books of War, the books of Judges and Kings, of conquest after they left Egypt and began to take the Promised Land, one reads of constant battles, sanctioned and supported by God. This is how the Jews come into world history -- before this time there are only legends, but from this time on we have indications that they exist as a people and a religion. And it is through war that they define themselves. None of this is to imply that there are not elements of peace, nor of morality, in Judaism, only that it grew and survived, even according to the Bible, as much by war as did Islam. To say that one is more warlike than the other is wrong.

Christianity is another story. It grew up in the Roman Empire, too weak to espouse anything other than passive resistance, love and forgiveness. Yet from shortly after its inception until the present day, Christians have seen their own religion as simply a continuation of the Jewish religion, and thus the origins of Christianity, to many Christians, also involve war. As does its long history. Christians have used the Old Testament to justify wars from the earliest times, through the Crusades, and up until now. Both Hitler and the Allies believed firmly that God was on their side in World War II.

In short, at least from the intro to your story, I think you are using Western eyes to misinterpret Islamic history and to gloss over our own Western faiths. I doubt bin Laden would agree with your version. To him, Christians and Jews have killed most of the people he knows, have been killing his fellow Muslims for hundreds of years, and are now conspiring to kill him. The West has used religion as an excuse to occupy Palestine, to roll tanks over little Muslim children, to occupy Saudi Arabia (where we prop up the hated family government), and to obliterate Muslims in Iraq. He sees us as the followers of violent religions, and himself as a defender of violent onslaughts -- a defender justified in its use of horrible force by the horrible crimes committed against Islam. That is why people are burning American flags around the world.

Let me give a disclaimer. I am not saying I agree with bin Laden, only that he feels that way. We have to understand who we are at war with, or we will underestimate his will, and the danger from other quarters. Our long-term solutions need to understand the causes of the conflict, and not reduce them to simple naive Western misconceptions.

-- Joseph B. Comstock

By Salon Staff

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