Last week a group of students in Swarthmore College prevented me from talking or reasoning with them, or with the audience. It was sad to see young students unable to participate in a peaceful argument. I’m also saddened that we have missed on an opportunity to enjoy a constructive debate about our world, which is something I always enjoy. Therefore, I have decided to imagine that our debate did take place and was not interrupted by an irresponsible burst of emotional hostility. I will assume that what I imagine is a common argument was made, and I will try to answer.
One of the cornerstone arguments of the anti-Israel/pro-Islamic activists who come from Muslim communities or leftist activism, is that the homicidal apocalyptic phenomena which is coming from a tiny radical minority in the Middle East, is nothing more than a response to the combination of brutal inhumane Israeli occupation, merciless American imperialism, and political economic western backed tyrannies. Although, such opinions should not sound any less defective, misleading, and insufficient than the opinion that satirist cartoonists bring their own death by ridiculing people most holy beliefs. However, for the sake of the argument I would like to ask my readers to join me in the experimental thought that all of this is absolutely true and correct. That the incredible cruelty that we witness now on a daily basis, and that nearly half a century of Islamic terrorism targeting primarily Jews, Christians, Westerners and Muslims themselves, is nothing but a reaction to an equal western barbarism.
There is nothing intrinsically bad with the current mainstream Islamic tradition or the mainstream culture of Muslims. It is the atrocities committed by Israel and the west which force an inherently good culture to produce some of the worst mass murderers known to the modern world. Nevertheless, the majority of Arabs and Muslims are as peaceful as anyone else, and driven by the same desires and fears as anyone one of their fellow humans. Any general accusations, or even hinting that Islam or Muslim culture is somewhat dominated by some bad ideas should be instantly labeled as racist and Islamophobic. In the light of this assumption I would like to examine some of the events took place last week:
Last week some individuals of the extremely insignificant Islamic radical minority, which does not by any means represent the true peaceful loving nature of main stream Islam, publicly executed a Jordanian pilot, burning him alive in an astonishing demonstration of barbarity. It is naturally expected from the moderate Muslim majority to publicly denounce and condemn such abhorrent acts of extreme cruelty, which they did. Al Azhar University in Cairo, widely held to be the capital and chief center of moderate Sunni Islam, issued a statement denouncing and condemning the horrific act and claiming that those who performed it are indeed no part of the Islamic faith. Al Azhar added that the monstrous fighters of ISIS –monstrous indeed no doubt- “require the punishment mentioned in the Koran for these corrupt oppressors who fight against God and his prophet: killing, crucifixion or chopping of the limbs.” This of course came shortly after Egypt president Sisi was globally celebrated for publicly demanding “a revolution in religion” and a “reform of Islam”.
Al Azhar is significant, and we should pay attention to this. Al Azhar is the oldest most prestigious center of Islamic learning in the world. It is held to be the center of Islamic modernity in its war on radicalism. It has students from every country in the world, and it is one of the main reasons Obama chose Cairo to be his podium for addressing the Muslim world in his landmark New Beginning speech in 2009.
The entry for Al Azhar University in The Encyclopedia Britannica states that it is the “chief centre of Islamic and Arabic learning in the world.” Obama described Al Azhar as “a beacon of Islamic learning…that carried the light of learning through so many centuries”. The bottom line is the legitimacy of Al Azhar’s theological and legal opinions is indisputable to the majority of the Muslim world — assuming the majority follows moderate Al Azhar and not the insane minority.
Now let’s again examine their statement “requires the punishment mentioned in the Koran for these corrupt oppressors who fight against God and his prophet: killing, crucifixion or chopping of the limbs.”
I don’t know about you, but I personally have a problem here. You see, crucifying people and chopping of body parts is not exactly my idea of peace and moderation. We are now wise enough to know that such acts of extreme cruelty is not accepted in any cultural conext any more by any normative rationale. This beacon of moderate Islam has miserably failed to establish an objection to extreme cruelty and violence. They actually did the absolute opposite as they established the theological ground for killing, crucifying, and chopping of limbs of others given they are convicted with being “corrupt oppressors”. Think about this for a moment; the chief center for Islamic learning globally and what is held to be the most moderate Islamic institution is incapable in condemning brutality and barbarity without calling for applying them simultaneously. They are not just self-contradictory, but the capital of Sunni Islam scholarship has no principle objection to applying violence and public extreme cruelty –as it is the case with crucifixion- to those which are seen as corrupt oppressors, let them be Israelis, Americans, Muslim brothers or blasphemous cartoonists. It is needless to say that any attempt to interpret “corrupt oppressor” is exactly what opens the wide gates of jihad depending on any political conflict you are interested in, and one does not need to think too hard to conclude that taking down towers, a barrage of rockets from Gaza, bombing of buses and pizza restaurants, as well as stabbings in public transportation are merely a variation of the methods used to deliver justice to those who deserve it. You can split a few hairs here and there, and try to argue about who qualifies to be labeled as a “corrupt oppressor”, but it will still be left for the perpetrators own judgment of who is.
Moderate Al Azhar quite successfully has refuted all our presuppositions about the good peaceful ideology, the small bad radical minority, and the moderate majority in just one statement. Al Azhar is telling us here that there is nothing America, Israel, or the infidel west can do to force the main stream Islamic tradition to turn cruel and violent, violence is already there waiting for any person with the right label to provoke it. If our passionate anti-Zionist anti-Imperialist activists were wrong about that, why should they be right about bad Israel and tyrant America? This again is to remind us that many of irrational pro-Islamic and anti-Zionist activism is out there to protect Islam, and not Muslims, and even in many cases can be seen accurately as camouflaged anti-Semitism.
One does not need to look too far in order to find some evidence of the great consequential moral gap between the tradition which produced the statement of Al Azhar and the evil Western civilization. The very recent American response to the CIA torture report should serve that purpose perfectly. The American people consensus consider physical torture –which to no extent was near crucifixion or chopping of limbs- of the same monstrous terrorists to be a dark stain on American values, American honor, and the American flag. You should not search too much in Israeli public media to find the same harsh and sincere self-criticism of many of Israeli policies. It is my opinion that this huge moral gap accounts for almost all the miseries of the Middle East. Regardless of what America, Israel, or the west does. Extreme application of violence is an integral part of the doctrine of those extremists as well as many of those who we label moderates.
For the past three months or so the government of moderate Sisi and home of enlightened Al Azhar, has systematically engaged in the business of hunting, arresting, publicly humiliating, and imprisoning homosexual Egyptians. Simultaneously, a stronger more violent state sponsored campaign was launched on atheists. Not exactly what the west had in mind regarding Sisi’s “reform of Islam” and “revolution in religion” don’t you think? Last week I was screamed at, cursed at, and even was successfully prevented from speaking at Swarthmore College by people who did not agree to what I was saying. Some of them fit the typical idea of the unveiled, perfect English speaking, moderate Muslim young women who live and study in the west. Similar “moderates” failed to do the same during my speech at Temple University the next day. Some of them sadly were students of journalism. This, along with the open call for crucifixion, chopping limbs, and Sisi’s moral policing should make one thing very clear; these people have no clue as to what constitutes civil society. Blaming ourselves and Israel for everything that goes wrong in the world, accompanied with some wishful thinking towards the “culture and religion of peace,” may make us feel better and hopeful, however it can’t stand in the face of the very obvious truth, that this major culture which is controlling huge parts of the developing world has been taken over and even dominated by some very bad ideas, and they, not us, and certainly not Israel, are the reason why we expect to see cruel and horrific deaths of multiple people the next time we look at news.
Assuming that Israel and the West made all the necessary accommodations and concessions to the warriors of the Islamic world, would peace be achieved with a society whose only debate about violence is about determining who deserves his body parts to be chopped of? Is such a society capable of making peace? More importantly, are they capable of maintaining peace? We should know with certainty that crucifixions, limbs mutilation, women oppression, sexual repression, atheist hunting, systematic human rights violations, speech restrictions, and anti-Semitism will indeed cause many things, but not peace.