In this day and age people tend to fall into “either-or” thinking where a person who disagrees with a position is automatically assumed to support any abuse or bad behavior that is alleged to come from the opposite position. For example, the allegation that a person who opposes a certain restriction on gun ownership is guilty of enabling whatever mass shooting should come along. It is dangerous thinking and allows a demagogue to bully people or slander someone who thinks differently.
I make this point because this article, talking about some troublesome attitudes towards Muslims, is going to probably result in somebody claiming that I am ignorant of or indifferent to the sufferings of innocent people at the hands of radical Muslims or that I am taking a “one religion is as good as another approach.” Both accusations would be false.
I profess the truth of Christianity and profess that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Our Lord. Because Islam professes that Jesus Christ was merely a man, of course I cannot accept Islam as true. Unlike many, I’ve read the Quran. However, I cannot believe it is Revelation. It’s largely a circular argument invoking the authority of Muhammad to claim authority for the Quran and invoking the authority of the Quran to claim authority for Muhammad. In addition, it speaks wrongly about what Christians believe—error being something one would not expect to be found in a “divine text."
However, the fact that we who are Christian believe Islam teaches error does not give us the right to speak falsely about Muslims, nor to treat them as being less human than the rest of us—and these are things that are commonly being done. Since the Catechism makes clear that we are not allowed to mistreat others, when it teaches...
1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity. (225)
1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: (357)
Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 469–470.
...it is clear that we cannot discriminate against individual Muslims on the basis of our repugnance for radical Islam or for cultural practices in the Middle East. In other words, just because we believe their religion to be wrong that is not a justification for treating individual Muslims wrongly.
It’s no secret that with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, combined with the atrocities of ISIS and Boko Haran over the past few years, people are focussing on one common denominator that they all share. That shared characteristic is a belief in Islam. Because of this, many Americans support politicians who propose restrictions on Muslims coming to America. The basic motive behind this reaction is the need to be safe. The need to be safe is not wrong in itself. However, when people fear, they often behave irrationally. When they behave irrationally, they sometimes do injustice in the quest for security.
Matters are not helped when the government gives the impression of ignoring the legitimate concerns as if they had no intention of addressing these concerns (for example, the President’s barb about his opponents being afraid of orphans and widows). The government does have the obligation to ensure the well-being of residents of the nation and if they do not, or appear to be indifferent, people begin to look to politicians who promise simple solutions without considering whether there are any negative consequences.
Moreover, when a group is unpopular, people tend to scapegoat it and point to the worst elements within the group as if it was the central characteristic of that group. We have a bad habit of doing this in America—the equating of all African Americans with violent crime, equating all Hispanics with illegal immigration, equating all Irish immigrants with drunkenness and crime, equating all Japanese with being fifth columnists, and now equating all Muslims with terrorism.
But the problem with this association is nobody asks whether the claim that all Muslims think this way is true. Instead people assume that being a member of this group opens them up to suspicion of having the characteristics of the worst members. To avoid being a target of suspicion, an individual of this group has to prove their innocence—but that person will never be able to prove their innocence. The good members of the group are seen as “haven’t done anything…yet."
Muslims are Not a Bloc
This is made worse by the fact that people don’t know much about Islam, but think they know more than they do. There are people who think Muslims are a menace to our security and have never read the Quran (I have), but often misquote a fragment of Sura 9:5 (“slay unbelievers wherever you find them”) to justify their fear. They assume that the faithful Muslim is a Quran literalist in the same sense as a Christian Bible literalist and then say that to be a faithful Muslim, one must obey everything it commands. To put it in a syllogism:
- A devout Muslim must carry out everything the Quran teaches.
- The Quran professes that Muslims must slay unbelievers.
- Therefore a devout Muslim must slay unbelievers.
Such thinking assumes that Islam is a monolith in which everyone who professes to believe Islam is true believes and practices in the same way. However Christianity and Judaism do not have this thinking. Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants all profess a belief in God and Jesus Christ as God but differ widely in how they believe the Christian faith ought to be practiced. Now obviously contradictions cannot all be true and objectively some of these groups will profess error. I am a Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be the Church established by Our Lord. But if I assumed that all Christians recognized what Catholics believed I would be surprised.
Likewise, Judaism has Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches. They have some different ideas on what it means to be a Jew and disapprove of the other branches where they disagree. Buddhism has different schools of thought on how it should be practiced. People recognize these divisions and don’t assume that all Christians, all Jews and all Buddhists are marching in lockstep within their beliefs.
But when it comes to Islam, it is assumed that all Muslims think alike and that the behavior of terrorists and anti-American Imams are representative of what Islam is supposed to be. People barely are aware of Sunni vs. Shiite, let alone groups like Wahhabism and Sufi. They don’t recognize that the range of interpretation of how to be a “good Muslim” is just as diverse as the range of interpretation on how to be a good Christian or a good Jew. I have had encounters with Muslims who told me that they believed Wahhabism to be heretical in its interpretation of the Quran.
Obligation to Seek and Speak the Truth
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating indifferentism where it doesn’t matter what one believes. Obviously it does matter. If Jesus Christ is the Son of God (and I profess He is), then religions that deny this are in error. The obligation to know, love and serve God requires to seek Him and follow Him as He wills, not as we will. However, God wills that we follow Him by speaking truth and not to bear false witness against those who are in error.
I don’t think False Witness is limited to a direct lie. I believe it also involves spreading negative claims about a person or group without checking whether it is true or not. I’m sure my fellow Catholics have experienced anti-Catholic claims that we know are false but have been repeated ever since the emergence of Protestantism in the 16th century. We resent these falsehoods being made about us and we resent it when anti-Catholics allege that bad behavior that we reject try to portray that bad behavior as the norm for Christianity. We know that an individual reading Catholic writings without understanding them can lead one to draw a wrong conclusion.
So why do we assume that when faced with a fragment of one Sura in the Quran that we interpret it correctly without knowing the context? In fact, the fragment of Sura 9:5 actually needs to be seen in the context of 9:1-6:
1.A (declaration) of immunity from Allah and His Apostle, to those of the Pagans with whom ye have contracted mutual alliances—
2.Go ye, then, for four months, backwards and forwards, (as ye will), throughout the land, but know ye that ye cannot frustrate Allah (by your falsehood) but that Allah will cover with shame those who reject Him.
3.And an announcement from Allah and His Apostle, to the people (assembled) on the day of the Great Pilgrimage—that Allah and His Apostle dissolve (treaty) obligations with the Pagans. If then, ye repent, it were best for you; but if ye turn away, know ye that ye cannot frustrate Allah. And proclaim a grievous penalty to those who reject Faith.
4.(But the treaties are) not dissolved with those Pagans with whom ye have entered into alliance and who have not subsequently failed you in aught, nor aided any one against you. So fulfil your engagements with them to the end of their term: for Allah loveth the righteous.
5.But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
6.If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah; and then escort him to where he can be secure. That is because they are men without knowledge.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali, trans., “The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an,” 2004.
Some Muslims see the adjoining verses as requiring them to treat fairly with the pagans who treat fairly with them and thus condemn the radical interpretation of jihad. Now I am not going to take a side and say “Muhammad intended this Sura to be interpreted as XYZ…” But I do think it is important that there are many different ways which these verses are interpreted by people who consider themselves to be faithful Muslims. Therefore, we cannot assume that the interpretation given by radical Muslims is held universally by all Muslims.
Are Our American Attitudes Interfering with Our Christian Obligation?
There is much more I could have written about the “All Muslims think alike” belief. But hopefully this will suffice to help people think about the common assumptions today. Since this is a Catholic blog, I do want to discuss some concerns that these attitudes bring to mind. The question that comes to mind is this: When we voice the popular American views, do we bear witness to our faith? Or do we bear false witness by leading non-Catholics to decide we are jerks and they want no part of what we profess? Pope Francis addressed this in his Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium when he wrote:
99. Our world is being torn apart by wars and violence, and wounded by a widespread individualism which divides human beings, setting them against one another as they pursue their own well-being. In various countries, conflicts and old divisions from the past are re-emerging. I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This was Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they may all be one … in us … so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Beware of the temptation of jealousy! We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.
100. Those wounded by historical divisions find it difficult to accept our invitation to forgiveness and reconciliation, since they think that we are ignoring their pain or are asking them to give up their memory and ideals. But if they see the witness of authentically fraternal and reconciled communities, they will find that witness luminous and attractive. It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Apostolic Exhortation (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013), 79–80.
Will the message of salvation be heard if our witness is one of hostility and treating those who are different unequally? Or, if one will not hear the Pope, perhaps they will hear the Word of Our Lord?
7 “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. 30 Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. 35 But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.
New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Luke 6:27–36.
Our Lord’s teaching sometimes pushes us in uncomfortable ways. Loving our enemies is certainly a part of that uncomfortable push. No, we’re not obligated to seek out martyrdom. But we are not allowed to use our fear as an excuse not to follow Our Lord’s teaching. Certainly God does not desire the destruction of Muslims. He desires us to help them both in physical need and in their need for Christ. But if we look at them all with the suspicion of being mass murderers and change our laws to treat them unequally because of our fear, will they be able to see Christ in us? Or will our faith be derided because of our actions?
The Christian edict to love our enemies does not mean we are forbidden from defending ourselves from those who would harm us. But we’re not to punish the good and the evil alike. Those who are innocent are not to be punished for sharing an affiliation with the guilty. We would reject attempts to link all priests with those who committed sexual abuse. We would reject all attempts to link all pro-lifers with those who committed murders at abortion clinics. We reject such claims because they attempt to claim that the evil done by some are a characteristic of the whole. In other words, we deny that those who did evil represent what it means to be Catholic or pro-life respectively.
We should likewise realize that not all Muslims think the way the radicals do and actually resent the insinuation that they do. They also resent being treated as if they are simply terrorists who haven’t acted yet. If we would reach out to Muslims of good will and dialogue with them, perhaps bringing them over to a true understanding of Our Lord, then we need to avoid behaving in a way which causes scandal by leading them to think Christians hate them.
When it comes to seeking out the right policies to deal with terrorism and the right leaders to implement them, let us remember our duty as Christians to evangelize the whole world. Do our political beliefs drown out the message Jesus wants us to teach?