So here I am recalling being lost in Java in a ‘I sort of know where I am but I am on the wrong side of the volcano’ kind of way and meeting some poachers in the national park. They were shooting bats with ancient air rifles and taking the meat back to the village so I tagged along. They were a great bunch of guys and it mattered very little to me that they were Muslim. We ate the bats back at their home which was dirt floor surrounded by thatched walls. Via a network of friends and contacts they eventually figured out where I needed to be and put me on the back of someone’s moped and drove back around the volcano. They were good people. It was a great day.
I had been travelling East from Ambon. A couple of years later Jemaah Islamiyah invaded Ambon sparking a one sided civil was that left an estimated 10,000 people dead. Ambon is or was the only majority Christian province in the world’s second largest democracy and the world’s largest Muslim country. It is also the place where Christianity and Islam had coexisted in relative peace for at least seven centuries. When I left Indonesia 200 churches were burning across the country. Read more here. No Mosques were. Then we had the Bali bombings, then a few years later, after six months of security warnings, we had Martin Place.
Apparently Islamic violence has nothing to do with Islam. (Somewhere Dawkins’ eyes are rolling into the back of his head and George Orwell is rotating in his grave. See further the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’).
By this illogic the hostage taking at Martin place, just before Christmas, in a (very) nominally Christian Western Country had nothing to do with Islam – which would be a fair comment if we ignore the broader context. For example, when was the last time a Catholic forced hostages to hold copies of the Nicene creed against windows? When was the last time a Hindu flew a plane into a building? When was the last time a Buddhist blew something up? Outside of the communist block (there still is one by the way), when was the last time an atheist forced someone to convert at gunpoint? These rather obvious questions lead to the bigger question of whether Islam and pluralism can coexist? We might also ask, where did all this God business and all its craziness come from anyway?
To get to the root of this we need to visit ancient Sumer circa 2000BC in the fertile crescent in modern day Iraq . Agriculture had taken off but the agrarians needed rain which belonged to the sky gods including the sun god. If it didn’t rain it was assumed that the sky gods required offerings which took the form of child sacrifice and self-cutting. Abram belonged to this culture but received a new revelation – there was only one ‘God of heaven’ who required only one cut (circumcision) and provided an alternative to sacrifice - in this instance a goat. The same God called Abram’s family to leave his home town and start both a new religion, a new race, and a new nation in ‘the land of Canaan’. I will leave the scholars to debate where that was, but broadly speaking it includes modern day Israel and Palestine.
Abram had two sons. The first was with his wife’s female servant. Uptight evangelical morality wasn’t on the scene yet, polygamy was normal, there was no government, and none of the old patriarchs would last long in any church I have ever been to – in short, life was good. The first son Ishmael was the father of the Arabs. Abram said of him that he would be a wild and violent man and that ‘his hand would be against every man’s hand’ but God would bless him. Abram’s second son Isaac was with his wife this time (good idea guys) and he inherited the promise i.e. Canaan. Isaac was the father of the Jews. Abram disbursed the brothers prophesying that they would never be able to live together in peace. Go figure.
Isaac had two wives and lots of kids whose descendants kind of forgot about Canaan and spent 400 years in Egypt while the Canaanite tribes got busy with child sacrifice and sexual perversion. Then Moses showed up and told them it was time to go to Canaan again. After 40 years Moses eventually led the Israelites to the only place in the Middle East that doesn’t have oil. Guess Ishmael got the blessing on that one. The Israelites at this time still believed in the ancestral ‘God of heaven’ but were pretty keen on the Egyptian gods as well. Moses wasn’t and demanded circumcision, animal sacrifice, and laid down a strict moral law including what we would today call a civil and criminal code. Few people have bothered studying the law of Moses but it is a foundational underpinning of the Western World legal system and culture. Most people have heard of the ten commandments. Moses also created a Priest class. The world now had a new organized, literate and highly structured religion. Only one part of Abram’s original mission remained – to conquer Canaan.
Moses’ successor led the invasion with instructions that were chilling and clear. There was to be a complete annihilation of the Canaanite religion and culture. All artifacts were to be destroyed, all buildings torn down, every field filled with stones. Every adult male was to be killed. There was to be no let up until Canaan ceased to exist and became only Israel. The Israelites made Islamic State look tame…except that they failed. It was just easier to settle down. The Canaanite religion remained – if marginalized. In time the Israelites mostly converted back to the culture Abram had left. Over the centuries the pendulum swung back and forth between the old and new ways. This cultural conflict is what most of the Old Testament is about. The Old Testament prophets spoke about this and related issues. They also prophesied about a Messiah that would come and save Israel from their sins. Believing Jews today are still waiting for the Messiah. Christians believe he came in the form of Jesus and it is this event that is celebrated at Christmas.
Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled all of the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament, some of which were highly specific. For his part Jesus was pretty cagey about it and what claims he made about himself were mostly made to his inner circle. His concern seemed to be that any public claim to Messianic status would distract from his message – and get him and all his followers killed. That said, the symbolism of riding to Jerusalem on a donkey in public fulfilment of that prophesy sent a pretty clear message and basically sealed his death warrant. Never-the-less his closest followers were sufficiently convinced that he had subsequently risen from the dead to both make that claim and die for it.
What Jesus did not do was write a book, leave a succession, or really do any of the things you do when starting a new religion. His disciples were members of a new Jewish sect. Nothing more. Nevertheless they started to experience persecution almost immediately. One notable Zealot leading the charge against them was a high ranking Jewish scholar named Paul of Tarsus. It was on his way to arrest a number of Jesus’ followers that Paul experienced an epiphany, joined the new sect, and became a leading proselytizer and teacher. Paul uniquely was able to explain Jewish concepts to the Greco-Roman world drawing on cultural analogues also used by Jesus’ closest disciple John. It was this cultural translation that transitioned this Jewish sect into becoming a universal faith. To a large extent Christianity is Paul’s legacy. His key message – that Jesus crucifixion was the last sacrifice that buys forgiveness of sins for all people for all time; this forgiveness is appropriated through faith in Christ (Jesus) and personal repentance; and that following Christ’s example will lead to eternal life.
Christianity had a complex history under the Roman Empire but became sufficiently popular that eventually Roman Emperor Constantine saw it as something that could unite and strengthen an empire coming under increasing external pressure. Christianity became the official Roman religion though Constantine continued to embrace all the others. At this point the church abandoned Moses’ emphasis on separateness and uniqueness to absorb surrounding practices. The Sun god became the son of God celebrated in the Catholic wafer. Mother Mary replaced the earth mother goddess (in her many manifestations), the pantheon of saints replaced the Greco/Roman pantheon, and the Holy Trinity replaced the pagan trinity of Isis, Horisis and Seb. The pagan winter festival became Christmas and the pagan fertility festival became Easter. The Roman genius for organization also found its way into the church and over time this new structure came to claim an absolute monopoly over forgiveness of sins, and claimed sole right to determine the eternal future of every soul. Hell fire awaited those who rejected the new religion. As much as it incorporated the old religions, Roman Catholicism persecuted what it could not incorporate. The persecuted had become the persecutors. Christianity had moved a long way from the teachings of Jesus, his inner circle, and Paul.
It was this religion that one of Ismael’s (remember him?) descendants, a Bedouin by the name of Mohammad encountered in the seventh century. It is unlikely that Mohammad ever understood Christianity. He didn’t speak Latin and very very few Catholics at that time had ever read the Bible, much less understood it. It is almost certain that Mohammed never saw one. Mohammad did however claim a revelation of his own.
There is a belief common to pagan/occultic practices that there are places and times where the veil between the natural and spirit worlds is thin. Commonly those places are thought to be certain caves, or wooded ‘sacred’ groves. This belief is found across the globe including for example among native Americans and Indonesian witch doctors. It is unsurprising to me that the founder of the Mormon faith received his revelation in a grove while Mohammed received his in a cave. Initially Mohammed was concerned that what he encountered there was a Jin (evil spirit) but he was encouraged to persevere and did so. What came out of this communion was the beginning of what is Islam today. Mohammed positioned the new faith in line with Abram but diverted sharply. The Jewish prophets are not recognised. There is no Messiah. There is no sacrifice for sin. The promise falls to Ishmael not Isaac. Mohammed is the last prophet. The Middle East belongs to his followers. In the end times God vindicates the Muslims not the Christians. However there is no certainty of welcome after death; the Muslim can only hope that their piety and observance is enough to win Allah’s favour. Only by dying in the cause of Islam (Jihad) can one’s eternal future be assured. There is therefore a violent impulse within Islam that is not found in the other Abramic religions. The ten commandments were more or less appropriated. There is no New Testament. Islam remains firmly an Old Testament religion. As a common pumper sticker in Indonesia (when I was there) proclaims: “Islam – the Last Testament.” As the Jews were once told that there would one day be no Canaan, Muslims are told that in the end there will be …only Islam.
So in summary:
- Jews believe that God gave them Palestine, Moses gave them the Torah, and the Messiah has yet to come.
- Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, that Christianity is the fulfilment of Judaism, and that it is their job to tell the world the ‘good news’.
- Muslims believe that Mohammed was the last prophet and that the Jews and Christians got it wrong.
Islam was evidently an improvement on local traditions of moon worship (though it appropriated the moon god symbol) because it spread rapidly through a combination of willing conversion, tribal alliances, and outright conquest. Mohammed continued to expand on his initial revelations throughout his life, often in response to particular situations he and his followers faced, and in response to the domestic challenges that accompanied living with his many wives.
During Mohammed’s life his movement went through broadly three phases. In the first phase they were a small and vulnerable group trying to establish their faith and practice. The focus was perhaps more internal – defining more and more what it meant to be Muslim. Jews and Christians were spoken of favourably as ‘people of the book’ and there seems to have been a certain amount of fraternity. Muslim minorities in many non-Muslim countries may identify with this experience.
In the second phase Islam had become established and was more broadly tolerated. Muslims were encouraged to spread the faith by example and seek to convert others, including Christians, through respectful dialogue. Muslim ‘moderates’ identify with much of the teaching from this era. In this interpretation of Islam there is room for mutual tolerance, there is intellectual and social engagement with the broader society, pluralism is accepted, Jihad can be understood as an internal struggle against sin, or as a struggle more broadly for social justice and ‘right’ in public life. This is pretty much how Christians have come to see the world. In this Christians, Muslims and Jews have a great deal in common. We are in a sense, one big squabbling family – but no one fights like family.
Then there is the Medina period and the period following Mohammed’s death. At Medina Muslims established the first Islamic State and expanded it through conquest. As the Muslim empire expanded there was no pluralism. Persons were allowed the opportunity to convert or they were killed. Christians and Jews, as ‘people of the book’, were allowed to buy peace through taxation, being forced to pay the Jizyah. If the Jizyah was not paid, the war resumed. This war continued into the Middle Ages as the Muslim empire expanded to the borders of Europe. The Spanish eventually defeated the Muslims but Islam’s ambitions towards Europe remain unchanged. What war failed to achieve in the Middle Ages is now being purposed through immigration and fecundity. Specifically Saudi Arabia, in addition to sponsoring Islamic terrorism throughout the world, is pumping large amounts of money into Islamic communities in Britain with the express aim of Islamising what has historically been a key Christian nation.
Setting aside the superficial differences and the Sunni/Shia divide, there are today three Islams just as there were three phases to Islam during Mohammed’s life. The first Islam concerns itself primarily with personal piety. This may express itself in many ways, but the focus is internal to the individual and to the Islamic community. This corresponds to the early experience of Islam and represents no problems for pluralist societies so long as bad cultural practices such as wife beating, female circumcision and child marriage are not tolerated.
The second Islam is that more commonly found in Western societies – the one which seeks engagement and example. There is no harm in being confronted with a faith that preaches more than mindless consumerism and the pursuit of personal gratification. What is unfortunate is that host societies have often failed to engage, intellectually or socially. On the one hand engagement has often been seen as intolerance, and on the other hand we have resented the tribal take-over of geographic areas and communities by Muslims.
(See for example: http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2367/european-muslim-no-go-zones )
Nevertheless at face value there is no reason why Muslims cannot live peacefully in any society but the extent to which an active and resurgent Islam can coexist in the West depends on Muslims. The evidence today points compellingly to an Islam that uses pluralism as a cover to gain influence but rejects pluralism as a value. As an example I recommend reading this summary of Muslim conflict for the year 2014 in Britain. ( http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4996/britain-islamization ). This is what we will soon have to deal with in Australia. This kind of Islam may achieve an uneasy coexistence but it rejects outright any integration. This inevitably leads to alienation and fosters extremism. It is telling that many leaders from the Muslim world either failed to denounce the Hebdo killings or dressed up their denunciations with thinly veiled threats and excuses. In their minds European Muslims should not tolerate insults to the Prophet and violence is justified. To quote one leader “"We resolutely announce that we will never let anybody insult the name of the Prophet without punishment". Just to be clear, that is anyone anywhere. That includes Atheists having coffee at Martin place in Sydney.
The third part of Islam is at war – with anything and anyone that does not conform to its image. The true nature of this Islam is best seen in weak and failed states like Afghanistan, Palestine, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, and large parts of North Africa. But it is also seen in Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia where converting from Islam carries the death penalty. In the West it spills over as terrorism and anti-Semitism. Whatever the form, it takes seriously Mohammed’s mission to bring the world, or at least the Middle East, into submission. In their minds these people are not ‘radicals’ or ‘extremists’ or ‘psychologically unstable’ they are just true Muslims who take the Koran at face value. Remember that Osama Bin Laden was not an unemployed French youth but a wealthy and well educated Saudi with close links to the Bush family, and a former favourite of the CIA (of whom Bush senior was the head) in the 1980’s when he was a Mujahadeen leader. He was also a terrorist.
The fact that the majority of people killed by various violent Islamic movements are Muslims, or that most Muslim’s denounce this behaviour, does not mean that it is un-Islamic. Islamic State of the Levant and the various other groups and their supporters can cite textual support and historic precedent for what they do, and obtain material and moral support from the Muslim diaspora. The fact that many thousands of Muslim people are actively at war in the name of Islam supported by unknown numbers of other Muslims means that this is uniquely a Muslim issue. There is no other religion or ideology in the world today that behaves in this way. Let’s say for arguments sake that two per cent of Muslims support terrorism. With, say a billion Muslims in the world that is twenty million people who support terrorism. There are 23 million people in Australia. Clearly we have a problem.
This kind of Islam cannot coexist with the West or any other civilisation. There can be no rapprochement, no compromise and no negotiation because they will allow none. We are at war. To suggest otherwise is absurd and to imagine that appeasement will buy peace is to repeat the mistake made by Britain and France between the wars.
So the question confronting Muslims today is whether or not to embrace pluralism as a value. We need to be clear here that we are not just talking about renouncing violence. Pluralism can be a tactic on the way to Islamisation. The fact that you are not killing people does not make you moderate. Many Muslims see Islam as the inevitable fate of mankind. The question for them is how to get there and for many that is about timing. If you have just taken over Egypt burning down Coptic churches is OK. If you are a minority in Denmark, better set a good example and start a study group at the University. If you are in Northern Sudan it’s OK to kidnap Christian children and bring them up as Muslims. If you are in Pakistan it is OK to murder ‘blasphemers’. Different tactics – same goal. Others disagree with this behaviour but globally it is predicable and systemic.
So what to do?
In the end movements succeed or fail based on the strength and appeal of their ideas over time. Monotheism has most to offer when it understands that God is kind. It is the idea that we do not need to win God’s favour because we already have it, because we are his children. That forgiveness is something God wants to do; that the heart of God is restoring and building up not punishing and tearing down. That love by its nature allows choice.
It is this idea, however expressed and in whatever tradition, that defeats extremism and builds civilisation. This idea is the bridge between Abram’s children. It is what has built the West. It can be the point of commonality between the West and Islam, but we have to want it.