(first published in De Morgen on Sep 13, translated and extended)
Dear liberal Muslim,
I address this open letter to all of you who profess a tolerant and peaceful Islam; who have no wish to impose their religious views on others; who are prepared to live in peace with Christians, atheists, Hindus and Jews; who endorse the bedrock principles of a secular democracy, including the separation of religion and state, freedom of expression, and universal human rights.
As all of us, you have watched with horror at the events unfolding in Syria and Iraq. For you, perhaps, witnessing the brutalities of the group called ISIS is even more unnerving, as they are being carried out in the name of your faith. Like any decent human being, however, you feel nothing but revulsion for these atrocities. Perhaps you felt a sense of relief when spokesmen of your community publicly denounced ISIS, a group that is tarnishing the public image of your religion. These courageous Muslims will no longer be cowed by religious extremists, for whom publicly renouncing ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate is an act of treason or apostasy. British imams have issued a fatwa against ISIS. In the Netherlands, prominent Muslims have started a media offensive against jihadist groups. Recently, a group of 120 Muslim scholars have condemned the jihadist ideology of ISIS in an open letter.
These are hopeful signs, and still sorely needed. Radicalized Muslims from all over the world continue to swarm to the newly established caliphate. My own country, Belgium, has the dubious honor of being the world’s leading exporter of jihadi fighters per capita.
Perhaps you are acquainted with parents who have seen their own son or daughter leaving for Iraq or Syria. Perhaps you are one of them. Reading interviews with these desperate people is often heart-wrenching. Imagine what it feels like to see your own child gradually falling under the spell of some sectarian ideology, and leaving one day for a distant country, unannounced and vowing never to return. Some have blamed these parents: if only their kids had been given a proper education, this would have never happened. This is just callous. Many of these young people were raised in warm and loving families, and were given the best education that money can buy. Jihadism is a poisonous ideology, and exceedingly difficult to shake off, once you are infected.
There is one thorny issue, however, that I would like to raise. Many spokesmen of your community, who have now bravely condemned the brutal fanaticism of ISIS, often hasten to add that the group’s ideology has “nothing to do with islam”. Hatred and persecution of unbelievers, they assure us, has absolutely no basis in the Quran or Hadith. Invoking a number of Quranic verses, they argue that true Islam is peaceful and tolerant. The 120 Islamic scholars from your community who have blasted ISIS’ ideology, have done so almost exclusively on scriptural grounds. A devastated father, whose daughter had left him to establish a new life in the caliphate as a jihadi bride, had made up his mind to send her off to a Quran school as soon as he managed to bring her back, to show her that the Holy Book offers no support for ISIS’s barbarism.
My advice to you, for what it’s worth: please don’t do that. If you rely on the divine authority of the Quran for condemning ISIS, you are granting the basic premise of those whom you attack. Not only are you playing a game of chess on the jihadists’ board, abiding by their rules, you have contented yourself with a handful of pawns, whereas they have an extra queen or three. Why is that?
Every Holy Book in the tradition of Abraham and Moses contains ample incentives to violence and hatred. The punishment for apostasy, as prescribed by the Jewish Torah, is death by stoning. What is distinctive about the Quran is that it contains numerous direct and unequivocal injunctions to hatred and violence. In contrast with the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah, the Quran is also regarded as the literal word of God in its entirety, even by many liberal Muslims, rather than being inspired by God.
Peaceful verses in the Quran, such as that there is no compulsion in religion (Sura 2:256) and that whoever kills a soul has killed all of mankind (Sura 5:32), are certainly there, but they are few and far between, and often hedged with qualifications, such as “unless it be for mischief in the land”. Moreover, according to mainstream theology, many peaceful verses from the early Meccan period are cancelled out by later verses, by the principle of abrogation (naskh), which is itself derived from the Quran. Even without abrogation, anyone can start cherry-picking from the Quran, and there is no shortage of verses supporting the ideology that motivates ISIS. Nearly every page in the Quran is filled with invective against unbelievers and their unspeakable crimes.
Do you believe that people like me, merely because we do not believe in the existence of Allah, are committing a horrendous crime, and deserve to be eternally tortured, regardless of our life conduct? Do you believe that this is a fair punishment? Of course you do not. I trust that you respect non-believers as fellow human beings, and have no desire to see their flesh burn for eternity. Dear men, are you kind to your wife and children because this is commanded by the Holy Book? Of course not. You are kind to your wife because she is your wife and you love her.
The Book to which you are paying lip service as the Word of God, perhaps without having read it cover to cover, is unremitting in its insistence that unbelievers will burn in Hell (94 out of 114 suras hammer home that point). More than a hundred verses call on believers to wage holy war (jihad) against unbelievers, and the number of verses expressing hatred of infidels exceeds 500, depending on how you count.
Evangelical Christians, for their part, believe that both you and I will burn in a different Hell, merely because we find it absurd that an Almighty Being can impregnate a woman and spawn a child on earth. Do you believe that is a just punishment? Of course you do not.
As long as you worship the Quran as the literal word of God, rather than seeing it as a relic from times of sectarian warfare and military conquests, you are confronted with a staggering dilemma. With every opportunity, radical preachers will use that very same book against you, and you will be forced into exegetical contortions to explain away or rationalize disturbing passages. The more violence you do to the Quran, it is sad to say, the less you will find in it.
Despite the noble intentions of those 120 scholars denouncing ISIS, their conclusions sound half-hearted and disturbing in some of their tacit implications. Rather than condemning the persecution of the Yazidis outright, the letter notes that, according to some utterances by the Prophet, they should be regarded as People of Scripture, along with Christians and Jews, and hence good Muslims should not “harm or mistreat” them (So what if they had been Hindus or atheists?). Rather than rejecting the very concept of holy war against unbelievers, the letter makes several qualifications, noting that it is only permissible with parental consent and that the jihadists’ intentions for martyrdom need to be sincere. In addition, the letter makes subtle theological distinctions between “wicked evildoers” and “unbelievers”, and between offensive and defensive jihad. The letter is an injunction against cherry-picking of the Quran, based on cherry-picking.
You believe in freedom of conscience. You believe that every human being is free to believe what moves between heaven and earth. You do not despise other people for their convictions, or lack thereof. You would rather live with them in peace and harmony.
Such noble values as these, however, are not derived from the Quran or any other Holy Book. They come from you. They are the voice of your conscience, amplified by centuries of moral progress. Perhaps you imagine that they also constitute the central message of the Quran, because you believe that Allah is compassionate and merciful. Nothing is further from the truth.
Perhaps some of you no longer see the Quran as a perfect divine revelation, but as a faint glimpse of the divine at best. Perhaps you have relinquished your faith in heaven and hell, without publicly acknowledging so, while still cherishing the feeling of solidarity during Ramadan, or the synchrony and spiritual force of Islamic prayer. Even an unbeliever such as I can be moved by an Islamic call to prayer, or admire the beautiful figurative art that Islamic culture has produced.
Is it possible to listen to those wonderful Arabic recitations, without also believing that the singer is a mouthpiece of the divine? That those verses are not infallible injunctions of a supreme Being, which no mortal is allowed to dispute? To abandon that very premise, as I am well aware, is to risk being branded an apostate. Fear in the face of such an accusation is perfectly understandable.
Even so, however, we will need more courageous Muslims to step forward and challenge precisely those assumptions. The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz is an admirable example, as is the French-Moroccan philosopher and Islamic scholar Rachid Benzine, author of Le Coran expliqué aux jeunes. These Muslim reformers at least candidly acknowledge the existence of intolerant verses in the Quran, rather than whitewashing them and putting the blame on bad translations and inaccurate interpretations. The Quran, in their view, can still be seen as a trace of the divine, but it is also the outcome of a long and unreliable chain of human transmission, and bears every mark of its historical and social context.
I think more liberal Muslims need to abandon “vacuous literalism”, as Nawaz puts it, and confront the existence of disturbing verses in the Quran. As long as you pay lip service to the Quran as the literal Word of God, unabridged and without amendments, you are playing a mug’s game on your enemy’s own playing field.