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Posted by on Sep 1, 2007 in Religion | 7 comments

The Koran and Infidels. Make that Non-Muslims.

Mustafa Akyol wrote yet another fascinating column for Turkish Daily News, this time about a subject that will interest not just people who are interested in Turkish politics, but also those who are interested in religion and Islam (in the world). The subject: the Koran and non-Muslims.

Many years ago, I came across a book, which claimed to explain “Israeli terrorism” in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was full of photos showing Israeli soldiers attacking and harassing Palestinians, and presented huge captions that included verses from the Old Testament, and especially the Book of Joshua. If the Israelis were breaking the bones of a Palestinian youngster — a globally notorious scene from the ‘80s — then the caption would include a verse with something like “Thou shall break their bones.” The book’s argument was blunt and simple: The Israelis were torturing a nation because that was what their religion ordered them to do.

The more I learned about the Old Testament and the politics of the Middle East, the more I realized that what the book presented was not analysis but anti-Semitic propaganda. It is true that Israel’s 40-year-long occupation is a pretty brutal one, and that the Old Testament included some belligerent passages, but the reality was much more complex. I noticed that Jewish religious sources also include many words of wisdom and compassion, and that there are so many Jews who are willing to have peace with their Arab neighbors. Indeed the militants who advocate and even practice violence in the name of Judaism — as CNN’s Christian Amanpour recently exposed in her superb documentary, “God’s Warriors” — are pretty marginal. Moreover, the source of their hatred is actually not the confrontational passages of the Torah, but the political and social situation that they are in.

In other words, they go angry and violent not because they read their religious texts, but because they focus on the harsher parts of those texts since they are already angry and violent for a myriad of reasons.

For now, I will not deal with his take on the documentary at CNN, this for two reasons. The first: I did not watch it. The second: after reading a lot about it, I decided that I do not want to watch it either. It seems to be yet another case of political correctness at work. Anyway, back to Akyol’s column:

In recent years, I often recall my experience with that anti-Semitic book and the way it misread the Hebrew Scriptures, because I see that more and more people are doing the same thing with the Koran. When Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda bomb innocents, or when some fringe imam in a radical mosque preaches hatred toward non-Muslims, these greenhorn “Islam experts” find some passages in the Koran, which apparently justify such extremists. No wonder that these extremists themselves refer to similar passages in the Koran or other Islamic sources. The situation is very similar to the strange agreement between the anti-Semites and the Jewish terrorists on the wrong notion that Judaism justifies carnage.

He explains that many Muslims seem to make the mistake that they focus on one sentence and take it completely out of context. Islam’s scholarly tradition, however, called “tafseer” teaches that “a single verse or passage can’t be understood in itself; it has to be evaluated according to the other parts of the Koran, the general goals and principles of the holy text, and the way it was implemented by the prophet.”

He then looks at what the Koran says about non-Muslims, and how Muslims should deal with them. He makes the case that the real teaching of the Koran is that both Christians and Jews (all who believe in the One God basically) will be rewarded for their good deeds in the afterlife. Besides that, he also points out that according to the Koran, Muslims should treat other people well (also when those people are non-Muslims), as long as the latter do not use violence against Muslims (which seems logical).

His main point is that if one wants to understand the Koran, one has to use one’s intelligence, common sense, and reading skills. Looking at one sentence and taking it out of context is idiotic. I agree with Mr. Akyol, but the sad reality is that many Muslims see things quite differently. That is why it is important that people like Mr. Akyol write columns in which they deal with this subject. Lord knows I do not always agree with Mr. Akyol’s politics, but I do believe that he is a moderate and that he is a Muslim who opposes fundamentalism. We need more people like him – in politics, but also in newspapers. Change has to come from two sides: secular Turks and truly moderate Islamists.

Today, by the way, I was reading a book by Orhan Pamuk – one of Turkey’s greatest writers – called Snow. The story describes the life of a man called Ka – a poet who was born in Turkey, but who moved to Germany when he was 20 years old or so. After living 12 years in Frankfurt, Germany, he decided to go back to Turkey to find happiness. Or better said, a wife. He first goes to Istanbul, but his heart and his fate bring him to the city of Kars. Kars is a poor city (at least in the book); unemployment is high; radical Islam is on the rise; the PKK has quite some influence and power; all in all, normally not a nice place to live. Anyway, the battle between secularism and fundamentalist Islam forms a major part of the book. This book made me think about the problems in Turkey (should headscarves be allowed in public spaces or not?). I will write more about this tomorrow, but I have to say that the problem became a bit more clear to me.

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Thanks Michael!

  • No problem Holly.

    (for what exactly?)

  • Lynx

    Interesting take on the subject. What Akyol appears to do is what Christians do all the time; say that what counts is the general intention of the holy book, not specific brutal quotes. It’s a bit hypocritical to give “it’s the intentions that count” treatment to the Torah or the Bible but deny it to the Koran.

    However I am of the belief that a religion is NOT only defined by it’s holy book, but by the way the religion is practiced. Quite frankly the chasm that exists between the practices of early Christians, the Catholics of the XII century and say the Anglicans of today is enormous, in many ways much greater than the ones that exist between different religions of today. Theoretically they all follow the same book, but the reality is that the religion is defined by how the people choose to interpret the book. Today Christians (normal ones, anyway) carefully ignore the multiple places in the Bible where women are devalued and said to be inferior, but not so long ago those passages were considered an important part of the intention of God, reminding people that everyone has their place, and woman’s is below mans.

    Likewise with Islam. I agree with Akyol that Muslim extremists already hate and find justification of their hatred in the Koran, but I dispute that this means they aren’t “true Muslims”. Mind you, maybe they aren’t, it’s quite possible that the global identity of Islam today (assuming there is one, which I don’t know) chooses an interpretation of the Koran that carefully ignores the nasty bits, in which case these extremists aren’t any more in line with Islam than Christians who though men and women should be equal would be in line with Christianity 300 years ago.

    I truly do hope that the identity of Islam really is mostly peace-loving and that this progress towards moderation continues, as has already happened for Christianity and for (non-orthodox) Judaism. As people change, the passages in their holy books that they consider “the really important thing” changes. I fully expect that one day the disapproval of homosexuality that still forms a part of the Christian credo will go the way of female inferiority, and be quietly ignored, as if it were never part of “true” Christianity.

  • Lynx: I have a Koran and am reading it. I have to say that I agree with Akyol’s interpretation.

    I begin to understand why moderate Muslims say that Islamists are not ‘real Muslims’ or taking things out of context.

  • Sam

    Well I think you guys are laboring under the impression that these books make sense period. Religous texts tend to be schizophrenic in nature on purpose for the very reason mentioned above. If you want to rouse the people to anger you have passages to do that, if you want people to be calm and work together you have passages for that. Its what makes them such good tools for manipulation.

    This talk of taking things in context may apply here and there, but largely when it comes to passages about kiling, at least in the bible, they are pretty straightforward. I haven’t read the Koran, but I would be very surprised to find it written any differently, especially with what I have seen from muslims.

    Ultimately, they are tools for manipulation used by unscrupulous men when they need to find others to give up their lives. The rest of the time it keeps people docile.

  • Tano

    ” I decided that I do not want to watch it either. It seems to be yet another case of political correctness at work. ”

    This is just so incredibly lame, Michael.

    How can you expect us to take you seriously when you think so unseriously yourself?

    Attach a catch-phrase insult to something you havent even seen, based on what others say, and thereby conclude that you arent going to watch it? While passing along the insult?


  • Tano: you have never decided not to watch something because of what you read and heard about it? For instance, if you read 5 reviews of a book, all negative, are you still likely to read that book or do you think “wellll it sounds like I can spend my time in a more useful manner.”

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