It’s extremely easy to identify outrages around the world for which ‘Muslims’ are responsible. It’s easy to identify many peaceful, generous and kind Muslims in our communities. How should react to this situation?
A brief history of Islam reveals that the idea that it is a ‘religion of peace’ is ill founded. From the days of the Prophet, a substantial feature of its political manifestations was a strong expansionist, imperialism; thus in the first few years it conquers most of the Middle East, including the Persian Empire, North Africa and the Iberian peninsular. The Mughal Empire in India was similarly an Islamic state, including a period of aggressive persecution of other religions, resulting in the martyrdom of many Hindus and Sikh. Its later Caliphs were only repulsed from the gates of Vienna for the last time in 1688, though it is simplistic to see the Ottomans as only Muslims; their empire was multi-religious, and there were Christians on both sides of that fight. On the other hand the recruitment of the Janissaries by demanding a tribute of the best of the young people of the Christian villages of the Balkans shows a mailed fist. Similarly the fact that the Caliph told all Muslims to ally with him in World War I is worth consideration. Ayatollah Khomeni’s statement:
“Islam’s jihad is a struggle against idolatry, sexual deviation, plunder, repression, and cruelty. The war waged by [non-Islamic] conquerors, however, aims at promoting lust and animal pleasures. They care not if whole countries are wiped out and many families left homeless. But those who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. All the countries conquered by Islam or to be conquered in the future will be marked for everlasting salvation. For they shall live under [God’s law]…. Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless.’
The 13th century Ibn Taimiya articulates a more comprehensive theological justification for the marauding, arguing that the property of non-Muslims must revert legitimately to the followers of the true religion; Jihad is the means to recover these illegally usurped possession, offering a justification for any Muslim to steal from an infidel. This legitimation of their earlier practice suggests that independent Arab marauders descending on villages to steal did do so with religious sanction. This, occurring in advance of the formal expansion of the Islamic Empire, softens up the target for actual conquest.
So we have a picture of a religion whose mainstream ideology is committed to the violent conquest of its opponents, for their own good, of course, but still…
There’s a parallel in church history. Following Elizabeth I’s rejection of her sister Mary’s Catholicism, the Pope, in 1570 in Regnans in Excelsis stated:
4. And moreover (we declare) her to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.
5. And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship. fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents , so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the above said matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”
In 1588 the Spanish Armada sought to conquer England for Catholicism, and in 1605 Guy Fawkes sought to blow up the entire English establishment at the state opening of Parliament. Tensions over James II’s Catholicism led to his replacement by William III in what today we would describe a bloodless coup d’etat, though it has gone down in history as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, led by James’ heirs, were the last hurrah for Catholic imperialism.
Yet during this period many Catholics remained loyal to the Protestant crown. Indeed it is one of the ironies of history that the Pope was supporting William III at the Battle of the Boyne against James II because James was allied with the French, who were the Pope’s enemies at the time; that this is now remembered as Protestant v Catholic is an example of myths overwhelming truth! A steady process of emancipation followed, largely completed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, although even today it is not entirely complete; the presence of a Catholic on the throne is still illegal, and a Roman Catholic Prime Minister would have to forgo certain powers with respect to the Church of England. So today being a Catholic raises no issues of loyalty to the state.
This pattern therefore offers a possible template for our attitude to Islam. There are clearly some within that religion who remain committed to violence to advance the cause of Islam, yet there are others, not just within specific ‘denominations’, who would reject such attitude. This history shows that a major world religion can retreat from its earlier beliefs and come to live in harmony with others, and also that it is unfair to tar all those with a particular label with responsibility for the actions of their co-religionists. Yet there are clearly issues; the image at the top of the blog is the present experience of one visible critic of Islam…