Is Islam to blame?

Despite claims of moderate Muslims, a literal reading of the Koran offers cover for acts of terrorism.

By Irshad Manji
Irshad Manji is the author of "The Trouble with Islam Today" (St. Martin's Press, 2005).

Los Angeles Times

July 22, 2005

I believe thursday's bombings in London, combined with the first wave of explosions two weeks ago, are changing something for the better. Never before have I heard Muslims so sincerely denounce terrorism committed in our name as I did on my visit to Britain a few days ago. We're finally waking up.

Except on one front: the possible role of religion itself in these crimes.

Even now, the Muslim Council of Britain adamantly insists that Islam has nothing to do with the London attacks. It cites other motives — "segregation" and "alienation," for instance. Although I don't deny that living on the margins can make a vulnerable lad gravitate to radical messages of instant belonging, it takes more than that to make him detonate himself and innocent others. To blow yourself up, you need conviction. Secular society doesn't compete well on this score. Who gets deathly passionate over tuition subsidies and a summer job?

Which is why I don't understand how moderate Muslim leaders can reject, flat-out, the notion that religion may also play a part in these bombings. What makes them so sure that Islam is an innocent bystander?

What makes them sound so sure is literalism. That's the trouble with Islam today. We Muslims, including moderates living here in the West, are routinely raised to believe that the Koran is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will, untouched and immutable.

This is a supremacy complex. It's dangerous because it inhibits moderates from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. To avoid the discomfort, we sanitize.

And so it was, one week after the first wave of bombings. A high-profile gathering of 22 clerics and scholars at the London Cultural Center produced a statement, later echoed by a meeting of 500 Muslim leaders. It contained this line: "The Koran clearly declares that killing an innocent person [is] tantamount to killing all mankind." I wish. In fact, the full verse reads, "Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind." Militant Muslims easily deploy the clause beginning with "except" to justify their rampages.

It's what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he announced a jihad against the U.S. in the late 1990s. Did economic sanctions on Iraq, imposed by the United Nations but demanded by Washington, cause the "murder" of half a million children? Bin Laden believes so (never mind the oil-for-food scandal). Did the boot prints of U.S. troops on the Arabian Peninsula, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, qualify as "villainy in the land"? To Bin Laden, you bet. As for American civilians, can they be innocent of either "murder" or "villainy" when their tax money helps Israel buy tanks to raze Palestinian homes? A no-brainer for Bin Laden.

And, quite possibly, for the July 7 terrorists. Right out of the gate, the European jihadist group claiming responsibility cited — what else? — a defense of Iraq and a disgust with the Zionist entity as its primary incentives. The invasion of the former and the existence of the latter amount to nothing less than murder and villainy in the land. Did this version of the Koran guide the British bombers?Because we don't yet know, we can't rule it out.

Yet that's exactly what British Muslim leaders are doing. To be sure, I stand with those who insist that certain Koranic passages are being politically exploited. Damn right, they are. The point is, however, that they couldn't be exploited if they didn't exist.

Why do we Muslims hang on to the mantra that the Koran — and Islam — are pristine? God may very well be perfect, but God transcends a book, a prophet and a belief system. That means we're free to question without fear that the Almighty will feel threatened by our reasoning, speculating or doubting.

How about joining with the moderates of Judaism and Christianity in confessing some "sins of Scripture," as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has said of the Bible? Anything less leaves me with another question: Why is it that in diverse societies, those who oppose diversity of thought often feel more comfortable getting vocal than those who embrace it?