To hear Fox News tell it, the Muslim faith – and therefore the 1.5 billion people who practice it – are inherently unable to integrate and live within Western society. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson argued that point explicitly, adding that Islam is so at-odds with American values that a Muslim couldn’t be trusted to be president.
Inevitably, those who make these claims do so by painting the religion of Islam with a very wide brush. They assume all Muslims are terrorists. They call on all Muslims to condemn each and every atrocity committed in the name of Islam or risk being labeled terrorist sympathizers. They assume Muslim refugees are hidden ISIS agents.
To justify these stereotypes, Christian conservatives have gotten remarkably good at cherry-picking portions of Islamic teachings that support the idea that Islam is more violent, sexist, and dangerous than other religions. They point to extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda as proof that the “real” Islam looks like that. They ignore or hide the many examples of moderate Muslims living in peace and harmony in the West – and almost never cite the infinitesimally small percentage of the second largest religion on Earth that actually belongs to terrorist groups.
Religious historians, however, know better. Those whose job it is to actually read the religious books that many people simply skim over to find a certain quote to reaffirm their prejudice have a very different view of religions. For one thing – and this might come as a shock to a guy like Ben Carson – the difference between the violence and sexism in the Quran and the violence and sexism in the Bible isn’t very big. And in some ways, the Bible comes out looking worse.
Consider the following two passages – one from the Bible and one from the Quran. Think you can tell which is which?
- A [holy man’s] daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death.
- Fight them until there is no more [disbelief or worshiping of other gods] and worship is for God alone.
It’s not so easy. Both are barbaric, medieval instructions that could inspire violence in a particularly zealous believer. (For the record, the first is Leviticus 21:9, the second is Quran 2:193. You can find more examples here.)
Penn State professor Philip Jenkins has literally written the book on religious history (several in fact). He studies the historical background of Christianity and has used that knowledge to compare it to that of the Quran. What he found has already enraged Christians who seem to be under the impression that their scripture is kind and gentle.
“By the standards of the time, which is the 7th century A.D., the laws of war that are laid down by the Quran are actually reasonably humane,” he says. “Then we turn to the Bible, and we actually find something that is for many people a real surprise. There is a specific kind of warfare laid down in the Bible which we can only call genocide.”
It is called herem, and it means total annihilation. Consider the Book of 1 Samuel, when God instructs King Saul to attack the Amalekites: “And utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them,” God says through the prophet Samuel. “But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
When Saul failed to do that, God took away his kingdom.
“In other words,” Jenkins says, “Saul has committed a dreadful sin by failing to complete genocide.”
In fact, a great deal of the Old Testament focuses on stories involving the mass murder of people. Carson, who is a self-professed biblical literalist, is particularly smitten with the story of Noah – a story about the near genocide of the human species. Many other stories involve God commanding his Chosen People to wipe other tribes off the face of the Earth.
Disturbingly, Jenkins points out that many of the Bible’s ugliest passages have been used by Christians to commit atrocities. Famously, scripture was often cited by god-fearing Southerners to justify slavery. And, Jenkins says, the story of Saul “is often used, for example, in American stories of the confrontation with Indians — not just is it legitimate to kill Indians, but you are violating God’s law if you do not.”
Of course, most Christians aren’t genocidal. They’ve found a way to separate the worst lessons of the Bible from the more secular humanism that has flourished in Western culture over the past several hundred years. Jenkins argues that this is a natural evolution for any religion as it grows out from its more ancient origins. “What happens in all religions as they grow and mature and expand, they go through a process of forgetting of the original violence,” he explains. He even has a term for it: “Holy amnesia.”
We’ve seen this sort of moral reckoning with more nascent religions. The Mormon Church was steadfastedly and systematically racist until as recently as the 1970s. It slowly changed. It has also been depressingly anti-gay, but in the face of new homophobic rules its church elders had recently proposed, thousands of its members protested, many even turning in their resignations from the church. We are seeing, before our eyes, it changing again.
Muslims have wrestled with their scripture as well. Like many Christians, most Muslims seem to recognize that the stories and lessons in the Quran were written in a very particular context in a distant time. Calls to kill the “infidel” mean as little to them as instructions to stone disobedient children might to a Jewish person or Christian. Islam is as diverse as the 1.5 billion people who practice it.
So the next time you hear a conservative politician try to justify their Muslim-bashing by suggesting Islam is something different than other religions, perhaps consider a particularly apt lesson from the Bible: “Don’t judge, lest you be judged.” Jesus knew as well as anybody that no one looks perfect when viewed under the microscope, even his own followers.
Feature image via Tim Evanson/Flickr