Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
On Wednesday, a British citizen killed four people near the Parliament building in London. Seven others remain in critical condition. Police have identified the attacker as Khalid Masood, 52. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack and UK officials have said they believe the assault was “Islamist-related.”
So, is it?
It’s a complex question, one that people have struggled to answer for hundreds of years. The short answer is that no matter what people say, Islam (like the other Abrahamic faiths) is a little bit violent, but we should view it in the historical context in which the religion was created and also never assume that Muslims themselves act violently just because their scripture, at times, endorses it.
Does the Koran condone violence?
Islam was born into a violent context. The Koran was written in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula during a time of war. The prophet Muhammad and his early followers had to fight constantly for survival in a brutal desert environment where various tribes were competing for resources. In other words, the first Muslims were a scrappy, persecuted crew in a dog-eat-dog world and this experience almost definitely influenced the way they wrote the holy texts that later became Islamic scripture.
Knowing the historical context of the birth of Islam helps us understand why parts of the Koran and other Islamic texts are so brutal. There are over 100 verses that appear to condone violence in one way or another in the Koran alone?—?and that’s not even getting into the hadiths, or sayings, of the prophet Muhammad, which include some pretty gruesome stuff, too.
Some Koranic verses are explicitly violent. “Kill [nonbelievers] wherever you find them,” says a line in the 2nd sura, or chapter. “Strike off their heads and strike from them every fingertip,” says another, also referring to what Muslims should do when they encounter someone of another faith.
Other verses in the Koran do not explicitly condone violence but could be interpreted that way. One widely quoted (and sometimes misquoted?—?even by Obama) verse occurs in the holy book’s 5th sura. It states that murder is bad unless someone has “spread mischief in the land.” Obviously “spreading mischief” or “villainy” (as it’s sometimes translated) in “the land” can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, which has proved problematic for Islam over the years.
Similarly, the Koran says that those who “wage war against Allah” should be punished with execution, crucifixion, or the “cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides,” which sounds particularly unpleasant. Again, “waging war against Allah” is vague. That very vagueness is exactly what terror groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda exploit to increase their own power.
In Islamic scripture, it’s not just infidels who deserve to die. The hadiths (which are the second-most important piece of Islamic scripture after the Koran) contain stories of gay people and adulterers being put to death for their abominable crimes?—?and some people have taken this to mean that Islam allows for homosexuality and adultery to be punished by execution.
The religion of peace
Of course, just because medieval Islamic scripture decrees certain things doesn’t mean that contemporary Muslims do them. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are peaceful people. Indeed, Islam itself is based on peaceful values: the word “Islam” comes from the Arabic word for peace (salaam). Muslims’ primary way of greeting each other is salaam alaykum, or “Peace be upon you.”
The Koran also contradicts itself about the whole accepting-people-of-other-religions thing. Though some verses advocate killing infidels, others say the opposite. “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith,” says the 2nd sura, for example. The Koran also encourages its followers time and again to be kind, generous and loving to each other. “Compete with each other in doing good,” says one verse. “Allah is with those who are of service to others,” says another.
The Bible is violent, too
It’s also important to remember that Islam is a younger religion than Christianity or Judaism and therefore may just be going through a kind of rebellious adolescent phase. Christianity was the age that Islam is now about 1300 years ago. Remember what Christianity was doing 1300 years ago? Gearing up to savage the Western world with the systematic rape-pillage-and-murder campaign known as The Crusades?—?that’s what.
But don’t think Christianity has since grown up and stopped mass murdering people since then. The Holocaust, after all, happened in Europe?—?one of the most Christian and supposedly enlightened places in the world?—?a mere 70 years ago. Radical Christians have committed contemptible crimes more recently, too. Look at the dozens of Christians who have murdered abortion doctors or bombed abortion clinics, for example. Most of those killers believed they were following Christian doctrine the same way a suicide bomber from Libya or Pakistan believes he’s acting in accordance with Islam.
What’s more, many of the white American men who’ve committed horrifying mass shootings in the US in recent years?—?from Dylann Roof to Adam Lanza to Jared Lee Loughner?—?came from Christian backgrounds, but the media rarely scrutinizes their religious heritage when searching for a motive. Instead, news outlets choose to employ the very morally problematic double standard of suggesting that black and brown killers are terrorists while white people are “mentally ill” or merely “lone wolves.”
The Bible, like the Koran, contains plenty of violent stuff. The book of Deuteronomy is clear about what Christians should do if they encounter someone who believes in another god: “Take the man or woman who has done this evil deed … and stone that person to death.” The Pentateuch in the Old Testament notoriously suggests that gay people should be executed. “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Sheesh!
So is the Torah
Judaism has plenty of violence in it, too. Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism also suggests that homosexuals should be punished with death for their “detestable” acts. Jewish law also prescribes violent punishment for women who cheat on their husbands (controversially, it doesn’t consider a married man cheating on his wife to technically be adultery).
Headlines are dominated by stories of Muslim terrorism; stories about Jewish terrorism are few and far between. That’s partly explained by there being far fewer Jews in the world than there are Muslims (16 million Jews compared to 1.6 billion Muslims). So to some extent, you not hearing about Jewish terrorism is just statistical: Since terrorists come from all religions and all cultures, it follows that the larger ones will have more terrorists, numerically speaking.
But Jewish terrorism still happens. In fact, the Jews were masters of guerrilla warfare thousands of years before Al Qaeda was even born. More recently, in the 1930s and 40s, Jewish militant groups in pre-state Israel, like the Irgun and the Stern Gang, carried out insurgent attacks on the British military and government workers who were in charge of Palestine at that time. Some of the leaders of these underground Jewish militias went on to occupy top roles in the government of Israel when the country was created in 1948.
Jewish terrorism still happens in Israel today. In Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank, a secretive ultra-Zionist group called The Hilltop Youth carries out assaults on Muslim and Christian Palestinians and their property. They also attack the IDF, which they view as illegitimate. The gang has perpetrated hundreds of attacks in recent years. In July 2015, for example, suspected Hilltop Youth members firebombed the home of the Dawabshes, a family of Palestinian Muslims, and spray-painted Jewish stars on the side of the house before fleeing the scene. The attack destroyed the home and killed both the Dawabshe parents and their 18-month-old baby.
So are we right to be wary of Islam? Yes, but no more so than all of the Abrahamic faiths, all of which are rooted in scripture that at times condones violence. Islam is no exception. But are Muslims innately more violent than anyone else? No. And singling them out that way is misguided and dangerous.