Beyond the Text

Does the Koran prove Muslims are violent?

The trouble with Americans, according to Pat Robertson, is they don't read the Koran enough.

No, the Baptist minister, religious broadcaster, and Christian Coalition founder has not switched sides. He recommends the Koran as a source of enlightenment because he believes too many people are under the mistaken impression that "Islam is a religion of peace," as President Bush put it.

That comment "is leading to needless confusion," Robertson recently told The Washington Times. "In terms of Islam, I don't think the issues have been ventilated at all in the press because no one has read the Koran." According to the Times, Robertson wants the news media to "investigate the content of the Koran and what he says are many passages inciting Muslims to kill nonbelievers."

One need not be an expert on Islam to see the problem with Robertson's argument that the Koran shows Muslims will forever be at war with the rest of us. If we are trying to understand a religious group's current attitudes and ambitions, wrenching scriptural passages from their context can be risky.

That context includes not just the surrounding verses but the ways in which the passages have been interpreted over the centuries. Indeed, disagreements about the meaning and relevance of particular teachings can make it impossible to identify a single Muslim (or Jewish or Christian) position on some issues.

It's not hard to find passages in the Koran that seem to support the idea that Islam is a belligerent religion conducive to terrorism. The Koran not only promises "a disgraceful chastisement" (4.102) and "the fire of hell" (9.6) for "unbelievers," it urges Muslims not to "take the unbelievers for friends" (3.28).

Worse, it commands Muslims to "fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness" (9.123). Elsewhere it says to "kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out....Such is the recompense of the unbelievers" (2.191).

Of course, one could play the same game with the Bible. God commands the Israelites to drive out the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, warning, "You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me" (Exodus 23:32-33).

Later Moses emphasizes that "you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them...You shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire" (Deuteronomy 7:1-5). The Israelites are also commanded to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Deuteronomy 25:19).

When Israelite men start consorting with Midianite women, God orders Moses to "assail the Midianites and defeat them," lest the temptation to pagan practices continue (Numbers 25:16-18). Moses later chastises the commanders of his army for sparing the Midianite women and children (Numbers 31:13-18).

On the face of it, these passages do not evince much tolerance for nonbelievers. But it is obviously absurd to conclude from them that modern-day Jews must be implacably hostile toward followers of other faiths, bent on eradicating them or converting them by force.

We know for a fact that practicing Jews can live in peace with people of different religions. Robertson seems to concede that the same is true of practicing Muslims, but the way he puts it is more disconcerting than reassuring. "I have never advocated ferreting out Muslims in America," he told the Times. "They are citizens like I am."

The answer to the question of why some Muslims consider it their religious duty to kill nonbelievers cannot lie in the Koran, the authority of which is accepted by all followers of Islam. That is the point President Bush was making when, soon after the September 11 attacks, he declared that Islamist terrorists twist their religion into a justification for their vile crimes.

Robertson is not alone in arguing that Islam is especially prone to such twisting, but surely it is more productive to focus on the beliefs that distinguish peaceful Muslims from terrorists. Such an inquiry would highlight the principles that prevent religious differences from escalating into violence without tarring all Muslims as potential murderers.

"I don't want to alienate Muslim people around the world," Robertson told the Times. He could have fooled me.

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