Is Islam the problem?
It's an increasingly public debate the White House seems less than thrilled to have. President Bush insists that "our quarrel is not with Islam," because, well, "Islam means peace." End of story.
David Forte, a legal scholar whose writings defending Islam have reportedly influenced many in the White House, argues Bin Laden & Co. are simply political extremists using Islamic rhetoric. "Nothing this evil can be called religious," Forte contends.
On the other side of the debate are scholars such as Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, who says "Islam" may not be the problem, but Islamic fundamentalism most certainly is.
It's a fascinating question: Have the evildoers "hijacked a religion" or were the evildoers in the cockpit all along?
Of course, this is a grossly unfair way of putting it. There are over 1 billion Muslims in the world and some 6 million in the United States alone. It would be morally absurd to claim that all of these people subscribe to an evil religion.
Still, the factions of contemporary Islam speaking the loudest today seem to endorse a world view at odds with what we in the West consider morally acceptable: the beating of Afghani women who teach girls to read; the imprisonment and occasional execution of religious dissidents, etc.
This debate is not merely academic. If Islamic fundamentalists believe that war with America is inseparable from their faith, that will have very real consequences. But focusing on Islam, or whether religions can be evil, is the wrong approach. The problem isn't Islam, it's some of the people who practice it.
Firstly, it's obvious that religions and extremist interpretations of them can be evil. The Ku Klux Klan claims to be devoutly Christian, in much the same way the Taliban claims to be devoutly Muslim. In India, the Thuggees centered their faith around the robbing and killing of tens of thousands of innocent people by surprise (often at weddings). That's not nice, which is why the British rightly wiped out the entire cult in the 19th century. And, of course, the Inquisition was at minimum extremely rude.
And that's the point. At one time or another all religions have been nasty. For all of the passages in the Koran that have been used to justify violence, one can just as easily find passages in the Jewish or Christian Bibles justifying violence.
The difference is that Europeans and Americans, broadly speaking, no longer have the desire to use religion to justify violence. Vast numbers of Arabs, North Africans and East Asians still do. Our inquisitions are in the past, their inquisitions happen every day.
Much of Muslim world simply lives in a different time than the West. Oh sure, some of the big cities, with their cars and satellite dishes, may look modern. But their culture is horribly behind the times.
This isn't because Islam isn't reconcilable with modernity - there are millions of Muslims in America perfectly comfortable with democracy, technology, etc. No, it's because these cultures have been kept in stasis by corrupt political leaders and reactionary religious ones.
Consider all of the flapdoodle over President Bush's use of the word "crusade." (On Sept. 15 he said, "This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.") Now, nobody - and I mean nobody - in America thought Bush meant a capital "C" crusade like the one unleashed by Pope Urban II in 1095.
But throughout the Middle East, Bush's statement was considered a monumental accidental admission of our real intentions. "For them, events like the Crusades, a thousand years ago, are as immediate as yesterday," Middle East expert Mary-Jane Deeb told The Washington Post. "And they are very, very powerful events in the Arab mind."
Meanwhile, Muslims use the word jihad in its literal sense, i.e. a holy war, and nobody in America or Europe is at all offended, despite the fact that the West has been a victim of Muslim jihads just as much as Muslims were victims of Crusades - take the Ottoman Empire for example. But you don't hear us shrieking about their insensitive use of the word because, frankly, we don't remember or care enough to know we should be offended. That's all in the past.
It's unfashionable to say some cultures are more "backward" than others, but that doesn't make it any less true (the lifestyle of millions of Afghans today is indistinguishable from, or worse than, the way they lived centuries ago).
The West went through the Protestant Reformation, the Counter Reformation, hundreds of revolts and revolutions, the Enlightenment and dozens of Wars to unshackle itself from the sort of mindset that seeks religious justification for cruelty and barbarity.
Much of the Muslim world has yet to go through such a process. When they do, I have no doubt that they will still be Muslims. They just won't use that as a justification to murder people.