In the wake of attempted murder in Streatham by a young man steeped in a violent teaching which misuses the name of Islam, and the recent history in France of that same teaching, I could easily understand what led a French teenager called Mila to denounce Islam on social media, and then on national TV. She proclaimed herself an atheist and claimed the right to abuse any religion provided she didn’t abuse any person. I like the robust secularism of French law, preferring it to the imperial Christianity of the British law, or the piety of the US constitution, which asserts the equality of human beings with as much certainty as it permits the virtual slavery of so many of its citizens. I would like therefore, to approve Mila’s public attack on Islam but cannot, partly because she is attacking a violent distortion of Islam, and partly because of her give-away remark, “ I hate Islam, it’s a religion of hate.” It’s worth pausing just to appreciate the lovely absurdity of that sentence; and to hope that this spirited young person might also do so.
It is however true that from its earliest development Islam has been spread by conquest, and that non-violence as a moral commitment has no place in Islam so far. Sharia Law in a number of countries still demands very violent penalties for a range of crimes and especially for apostasy. If one listened too often to the hysterical violent outbursts of some Imams, one would get as poor a picture of Islam as one would of Christianity from listening to Trump-supporting evangelicals in the USA.
Many Christian critics who have not read the Quran, and probably not much of their own Bible, have called Islam a violent religion. On behalf of them all, I have read and studied both, and can assure them, and my readers, that the Bible is incomparably more violent than the Quran. Indeed the God sometimes depicted in say, the books of Joshua or Samuel, is himself a violent thug. As a follower of Jesus I regard this depiction as simply wrong; a God who demands ethnic cleansing is not the ‘dear father’ of Jesus.
Research statistics in Europe and the USA show that a much smaller percentage of Moslems than of Christians are convicted of violent crimes or approve of the use of violence against civilian populations. If all citizens were as law-abiding as Moslems, UK costs of policing and prisons would be considerably less.
Religions, for better and for worse, come bearing the marks of their historic origins. How vital it is that believers interpret their holy books and traditional teachings in the light of the divine spirit who speaks in the present moment for the sake of the future. God is greater than the best human wisdom, but never less. A God who for example tells is to torture gays, is not the true God.
Religious people, often quite innocently, get trapped by their religious traditions.
The great Zen teacher Chao-Chou was visited at his retreat by a monk.
Have you been here before? He asked. The monk said, yes.
Have a cup of tea, said Chao- Chou. Another monk arrived.
Have you been here before, the teacher asked. The monk said, no.
Have a cup of tea, Chao-Chou said.
The Retreat Director hearing what the teacher had said, asked, I see why you said that to the first monk, but why did you say it to the second?
Director! said Chao-Chou
Yes, Teacher, said the Director.
Have a cup of tea, Chao-Chou said.
When we get too sure about our religious tradition, its theology or its laws, we need Chao-Chou to recall us to reality, to the blessed mystery of things as they are, and of ourselves, as we are.