Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

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"Is Islam a religion of peace?" Why is such a nonsensical question still being asked?

One of my favorite people in the world is a someone I know only through Facebook. This person is religiously and politically conservative, incredibly civil, and willing to countenance long and passionate debates on her posts. The other day, my friend mentioned that a non-profit organization is hosting a conference sometime soon that will include that question about Islam as a theme.

I blame President George W. Bush. Really. After the 9/11 attacks, in a laudable attempt to tamp down anti-Muslim sentiment, he repeatedly referred to Islam as a religion of peace. Which unfortunately is as meaningless as calling it a religion of violence. But Bush's statements set the bar for responses that continue through today.

Why do I say the question is nonsensical?

Imagine you have been sent to Earth from Alpha Centauri, assigned to get an answer to this question: "Is Christianity a religion consistent with reason?" When you get here, you read the King James from cover to cover. Intrigued yet confused, you realize you need to consult with the authentic followers of the faith. Who to choose?

Simply picking the largest group doesn't feel right. After all, true insight can rest with a few. So you look around. Do you talk to Westboro Baptist Church? The snake handlers of the Appalachians? Pentacostals? Southern Baptists? Texas Baptists? Primitive Baptists? Orthodox? Catholics? Roman or sedevacantists?

All include apparently sincere believers who have stories about how their faith has changed their lives. Every single one.

Who do you choose and why? And remember, you are an outsider who believes in none of it. So the claims of the snake handlers are as prima facia appropriate as the work of the Curia.

You use your mind-reading powers (a special alien indeed!) and discover that many who call themselves Christian -- and for whom their faith is vital -- believe things and behave in ways that conflict with the branch of Christianity they say they belong to. Which is more confusing. Is Christianity what the leaders say it is or how the believers live their faith? Lots more believers than leaders, after all.

You also find many people who call themselves Christians and behave as if their faith is totally compatible with reason. So based on the evidence, you beam your answer back home.

"Is Christianity a religion consistent with reason? It can be."

And you get a new question beamed back: "How is that possible?" So you collect a group of those Christians and ask them to explain it to you.

There are about a billion people on this planet who say they are Muslims. They are split into about as many sects and sub-sects as Christianity. With deep and dividing disputes between those sects that make little sense from the outside. (Nothing special about Islam in that. Seriously: filioque?)

And the vast, vast majority of them live their lives without engaging in a scintilla of faith-inspired violence. In fact, many say their faith inspires acts of charity and generosity. Based on the evidence, therefore, the only correct answer to the question "Is Islam a religion of peace?" is: "It can be."

This is only a disputable answer if you define Islam per se to exclude the hundreds of millions of self-professed Muslims who live peacefully. Which seems not a particularly honest or useful approach.

So the more interesting question is: How can Islam be a religion of peace? And the way to get an answer is to find Muslims who live peacefully and ask them how it works.

In my exchange of messages with my friend, she said: "Problem is, they're denying what their holy text actually says." There be dragons with that approach.

Proof-texting Judaism and Christianity is fun for all ages. With exegetical explanations that, from the outside, make a pretzel look like a ruler. But Christian critiques of Judaism and Protestant attacks on Catholicism sometimes falter in another way. For traditional Judaism, much of the Torah is literally (and I mean literally) incomprehensible without the Talmud. For Catholics, if I understand correctly, Bible-only "sola scriptura" is nearly as wrong-headed.

Islam has its traditions that are at least as integral to understanding the Koran as the Talmud is for traditional Judaism. Hadiths. Strains of jurisprudence. With some of those deep and divisive arguments within Islam about who has it the most right. So which do you choose?

Religions and cultures with which we are unfamiliar are a lot harder to understand than most of us think. I suspect that most Americans would answer the question "Is Buddhism a religion of peace?" with a yes. The Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, and so on. Even the battling Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Kaine from the old TV series Kung Fu was as peaceful as people would let him be.

But this very day, Buddhists in Burma are accused of violent oppression of Muslims, no less than "ethnic cleansing." And history includes plenty of examples of violence in the name of Buddhism.

Is Buddhism a religion of peace? It can be.

To hold a conference where non-Muslims start by defining the "real" Islam makes no sense. It is certainly possible to find American Muslim theologians who are peaceful in their relationships with non-Muslims (and with other sorts of Muslims, which is where the vast majority of the world's Muslim violence is directed). Bring 'em in and ask them how they understand their faith.

My friend's conference planning, however, starts with a pre-determined response to the question about Islam as a religion of peace: "The answer, we believe, is a firm no."

But that absolutist answer is disproven by the existence of even one peaceful Muslim who is convincingly devout and familiar with the tenets of his/her faith.

Unless you aren't actually asking a question at all.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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