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The reasons are many, the history long

Combating the ungodly violence that stains many religions

By Richard Higgins, 9/16/2001

So what's Allah got to do with it? Nothing and a lot. Nothing because Tuesday's murderous attacks were, by a very wide consensus, acts of hate clothed in religious terms. A lot because the actors were apparently guided by devotion to a particular, and extreme, interpretation of Islamic duty.

A copy of the Koran was found in bags linked to the terrorists. A small number of Muslims, however misrepresentative of the whole, were filmed crying "God is great" in Palestine. How could this be? How holy was this "holy hell" Osama bin Laden crowed about in an intercepted e-mail last week?

Muslims joined non-Muslims in blasting the blasphemy at the heart of the attacks.

The Koran does not justify aggression. It condemns suicide. However, it allows for holy war when Islam is under attack. The suicide bombers may have constructed a twisted geopolitical distortion of that idea - that the killing of thousands of innocent people was standing up for Islam.

Worse, they may have believed that it would earn them martyrdom, that Allah - or God - would somehow smile on their slaughter and take them into heaven. An abominable belief, yes, but Christians should recall that it was the buying and selling of indulgences to secure wealthy people a place in heaven that provoked Martin Luther to leave the Roman Catholic Church.

Khalid Duran, a reform-minded Muslim scholar who has been attacked by extremist groups because of his writings on Islam, called the terror attack the "mother" of all perversities.

"What they have concocted, theologically, is an enormous perversion of Islam," said Duran, author of "Children of Islam," a book that seeks to explain Islam to Jews. "On the other hand, we do have these groups of fanatics. This cannot be denied."

Duran noted that Muslims have no corner on fundamentalism. "No religion is safe against this kind of misinterpretation. Look at South Africa, where apartheid was justified on a certain way of reading the story of Noah's descendants in the Bible, or the Orthodox Jew who assassinated Rabin in the name of God and Judaism."

Duran, who has taught Islamic studies at several universities, said that a movement sometimes called Islamicism or Jihadism was subsuming classical Islam in countries around the globe. Its adherents, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, are able to spread a misinterpretation of Islam by exploiting the illiteracy and poverty of their people.

"If they say, as the Taliban does, that women should not wear white socks, and they claim that this is based on Islamic law, people believe them, even though in 14 centuries of Islam it has never before occurred to any Muslim country that women should not wear white socks. To say it comes from the Koran is ridiculous."

If the terrorists are found to be operatives of Osama bin Laden, their religious imperative to attack the centers of American power may derive from bin Laden's emphasis on combating the "defilement" of Muslim holy land by Americans, whom he calls "Crusaders and Jews."

"Bin Laden teaches that the prophet Mohammed, on his deathbed, told his followers to throw the heathens out of the Arabian peninsula, the land, he always says, that is dearest to God," Duran said.

Bin Laden also sees the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia during and since the Gulf War as a test of Muslim resolve, as in the early days of Islam. "It is this sense in which Islam is under attack and in which it is the duty of Muslims, in his view, to fight back."

But nowhere in the Koran, Duran added, is jihad defined in a way to justify a massive slaughter of innocents - not to mention the uncounted Muslim innocents at work in the World Trade Center towers Tuesday morning.

Some defenders of Islam, angered at the focus this week on Islam's reputation for violence, turned the tables on other religions. In an interview on Beliefnet.com, John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and an author of numerous books on Islam, said Muslims are offended that Islam is seen as more violent than either Christianity or Judaism.

"Read your Hebrew Bible, the conquests of Judaism," Esposito said. "In Christianity you have the Crusades. Both have a tradition of holy war. All three suffer from the fact that this notion can be manipulated by extremists."

But Muslim reformers like Duran and others were more unsparing and agreed that examining Islam's warts was necessary.

In a global e-mail to moderate Muslim scholars, Ishtiaq Ahmed, a prominent political scientist at the University of Stockholm, urged his colleagues and supporters not to hold their tongues for fear of fatwahs.

Events last week have convinced him "more than ever before," he wrote, "that violence, terror, religious bigotry, sectarianism and narrow-minded and mean apologies for oppression within Muslim groups must be challenged uncompromisingly and with utmost honesty."

Richard Higgins writes about religion.

This story ran on page D8 of the Boston Globe on 09/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.



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