Sunday, 29 July 2012

I really wanted to find a religion of peace

Reading Dr Elsa Schneider's account of her discovery of Islam, I was struck by a statement she made: I really wanted to find a religion of peace. I was the same; I expected to find a religion of peace. It never occurred to me that a major religion could be an ideology of conquest.


I first became more closely acquainted with Islam when I became friends with a Muslim couple in the mid 1990s. From them I gained some understanding of what muslims do, what they believe and what some of their attitudes are. I learned about the Hajj (the pilgrimage that muslims are supposed to make if they are able to); the 5 daily prayers (these were diligent muslims and they never missed their prayers); refraining from drinking wine, not eating pork etc; opposition to figurative art and music; reverence for Mohammad; opposition to Israel and a dislike of Jews; a positive attitude to such places as Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the benefits of Sharia law, and the general superiority of the muslim way of life. Opposition to comparative religion and anything that might relativize Islam or lead to a questioning of its teachings. Also, a tendency to interpret everything from psychology to astronomy
as knowledge that is already contained in the Quran.

I also learned about some of the sectarian divisions within Islam: the Sunnis, the Shi'ites, and Sufis. I also learned about some of the muslim views on such things as the healing power of honey. What I did not get from these people was any insight into the nature of the religious texts and their interpretation. Nor did I get any insight into the character of Muhammad except that he was supposed to be a thoroughly likeable and pretty near perfect person. Given the thoroughly positive recommendations of these people, I became curious about the Quran and thought it would be interesting to have a look at it. I thought that I would find edifying stories and poetic parables with a peculiarly Arabian wit and character to them. I thought I might discover a very humane message that was tolerant of human weakness and indulgent of human pleasure. I think I might have gained this idea from reading the Rubayaat of Omar Khayyam, the only thing I had ever read with a vague connection to the Middle East that springs to mind.

On reading the Quran, I was rather taken aback to discover that it repeated the same sort of things over and over again. Moreover, these themes were not positive but thoroughly negative in character. For example, a theme that is constantly reiterated is the doom awaiting the non-believer. Lurid descriptions of the torments awaiting the non-believer in Hell followed by a comment such as "Lo! Allah is merciful, wise." are very, very common. The impression that I immediately got was that the Quran delighted in telling how non-believers were going to suffer followed by the rather contradictory message that Allah was compassionate. These 2 things are irreconcilable for me. But Islam is highly dualistic, it divides people very starkly into believers and unbelievers (kafir) I was disappointed by the way the Quran was written for I had expected it to be on a more elevated level. Instead it was repetitious, bombastic and faintly ridiculous. I spent some time searching the book for something different but to no avail. It was all pretty much the same.

Needless to say, withouta believer's mentality that this was the most perfect book ever written, nor a desperate curiosity to know more about Islam, I abandonned the Quran as a poorly written and rather nasty book. Some years later, after Sept 11th 2001, I again became curious about Islam and muslims. I remember, when the Twin Towers were hit by the planes, being in my kitchen listening to the radio when the news bulletin interrupted the broadcast. I rushed to the TV to see if it was covered there - it was. My initial reaction was not "this is the work of middle eastern terrorists or muslims" but rather "this could be the action of environmentalists protesting about the USA's dismal green performance." Having discovered that it was carried out by muslims, I again became curious about Islam, as many people did. In fact, following the attacks, Islam appears to have gained many western converts. This will remain one of the supreme paradoxes of the 3rd millenium. I had lost contact with my muslim couple so I did not turn to them for their account. Had I done so I might well have been diverted from the truth. Muslims seem to have a peculiar blind spot for the negative aspects of the religion. This may have something to do with the particular emphasis that Islam places upon the supremely serious sin of disbelief.

Many of us brought up in a non-muslim culture have been led to believe that the worst sin is murder. But for muslims this is not the case. In Islam the worst sin is disbelief. What the psychological effects of this are one can only imagine but it may go some way to explaining the intolerance of questioning and doubt that is frequently displayed by muslims. Anyway, having acquired access to the world wide web by this time, I decided to search for "critics of islam" on Google. One of the results of this search was a link to faithfreedom.org  This is a site developed by ex-muslims which aims to expose the dubious claims of the religion and in particular to debunk the prophethood of Muhammad. Needless to say the site's authors receive countless death threats and abusive, blood curdling emails. They also offer a challenge to anyone who can expose any untruth in anything on their site with an offer to pay them $50,000 if they can demonstrate that any of their claims are false. I spent of lot of time studying this website and I concluded that what they were saying is true. This site had a link to another website called thereligionofpeace.com. It was here that I found a day by day, blow by blow account of the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam all over the world. Likewise jihadwatch.org, where I became acquainted with the work of the great Robert Spencer. Robert Spencer was able to show just how closely the jihadists were following both the example of Muhammad and the commandments in the Quran.

I have tried to discuss with muslims the subject of Islam's justification for acts of violence and the atrocities carried out by muslims around the world. I have found that they are able to say things with great conviction that they have no way of substantiating. If I draw attention to the violence of the jihadists, they answer that they "are not real muslims. Islam does not support violence." So I show them the excerpts from the Quran such as, "Kill the unbelievers, wherever you find them." To which the response is, "that's taken out of context", with the implication that, seen in its proper context, the passage would mean something competely different. This is stretching credibility to its limit. So I ask them to show me the context in which this does not mean what it appears to mean. This they cannot do, so I can only conclude that it does mean what it appears to mean. Where do they go from here? Back to the belief that Islam is perfect, non-violent and entirely peaceful (and somewhat misunderstood).

Pressed on these matters and their inability to explain the discrepancies, I find they start to make excuses like "I am not an expert. I cannot comment." The fact is most muslims have had the message dinned into them since childhood that Islam is the true path, that those who disbelieve in it are committing the worst of sins and that those who commit such sins can expect no mercy when judgement day comes. This is a huge barrier to reasonable and responsible enquiry. Unlike my muslim acquaintances I have an enquiring mind and I have sought to find answers. I also have the advantage of coming from a culture in which free thought, sincere use of reason, and an openness to doubt have allowed people to view ideas and beliefs more dispassionately than muslim culture does.

You may wonder why I bother myself with such matters. The answer is that I care about the future awaiting my children and their children. I do not want them to be faced with a choice between the mental slavery that Islam offers, grinding oppression under a muslim state, or death. These have typically been the choices offered to non-muslims when Islam has arrived on the doorstep of unsuspecting peoples down the ages. I also care about other non-muslims, both in my own country and elsewhere. I must say I've discovered wells of empathy for others that I didn't know I had. I feel a genuine concern that as few people as possible will suffer under such religious totalitarianism. I am also a student of western culture and it would be the most tragic loss were Islam to trample down and devalue the achievements of the western world, as it almost certainly would. I also feel concern for other non-muslim countries and peoples that could also be obliterated by Islamic infiltration and conquest. If you want to know what a muslim culture does for (or should I say to?) its people, take a look at Pakistan.

If you think such fears are alarmist, do bear in mind that muslim birth rates are far higher than most non-muslim birth rates. Many countries now have a muslim population that is growing much faster than the indigenous one. Though the muslim population is still a minority at present, the time is not far distant where parity between the two will be reached and from there onwards the muslims will begin to predominate.

What effect will that have on those societies? That very much depends on how committed those muslims are to Islam. Where religiosity is greater, tolerance will be lower. That is a good rule of thumb. If you think that's exaggerating, just bear in mind that where the indigenous population will have a higher proportion of older people, the muslim one will have a higher proportion of the young. The energy and dynamism will be with the latter.

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