In 2012, anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative funded ads throughout the Metro system with a quote from the Quran next to a photo of the burning Twin Towers. Ads that cost Metro $35,000 over a failed effort to block them.
Now she’s back with another awful ad, this one claiming that “Islamic jew-hatred” is “in the Quran” as a response to an ad about “Israel’s occupation” from the American Muslims for Palestine. From Geller’s blog:
The DC Metro transit authority made multiple demands for the substantiation of every claim in our ads before they would accept the ad, and I, of course, happily provided that substantiation. The libelous American Muslims for Palestine antisemitic ad (below) did not have to provide substantiation. The MTA had no problem with their antisemitism. And you cannot provide evidence of a smear and a bigoted lie. But it is proof of the AMP’s hate.
Our ads are in response to the vicious Jew-hating ads that American Muslims for Palestine unleashed on Washington, DC Metro buses last month. And might I add, had we not sued and won in NYC and DC for violating our First Amendment rights when they tried to refuse our previous ads, our ads might never have gone up.
Because of the 2012 court ruling stating that Geller’s ads are protected speech, a Metro spokesperson said they declined to challenge them this time around. But they do sport the disclaimer: “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Advertising space is a designated public forum and does not imply WMATA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”
For the uninitiated, here’s a description of Geller from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labeled her Stop Islamization of America foundation a hate group:
Pamela Geller is the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead. She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam and makes preposterous claims, such as that President Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X. She makes no pretense of being learned in Islamic studies, leaving the argumentative heavy lifting to her Stop Islamization of America partner Robert Spencer. Geller has mingled comfortably with European racists and fascists, spoken favorably of South African racists, defended Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and denied the existence of Serbian concentration camps. She has taken a strong pro-Israel stance to the point of being sharply critical of Jewish liberals.
Both Judaism and Islam rely on oral traditions that explain and put texts into context and can help counter misperceptions of the religions.
One of the sources of Islamophobia and Judeophobia is the selective quoting of religious passages that, either taken out of their literal context or without the context of how they have been interpreted, suggest that the adherents of Islam and Judaism repeat and harbor seemingly harsh views. When the literal context is missing, sometimes just referring to the preceding or following verses is sufficient to counter any misconceptions and let a stereotype go. In other instances, the religions’ oral traditions may help elucidate how adherents read those verses.
As Passover approaches, I want to highlight two well-known (at least among Jews) portions of the Jewish oral tradition that appear at the Passover seder and how, in broad terms, they relate to some well-known portions of the Islamic oral tradition because they are used by adherents to help put other texts into context. The Passover seder relates the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Within the story, there is a listing of the ten plagues with which the Egyptians were smitten. As each plague is recited, Jews either spill a drop of wine or use a finger (more traditionally) or utensil to take a drop of wine from their cup and discard it on a plate or napkin. It is not clear how far back the common explanation for this ritual goes, though it is at least as far as Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel, or Don Isaac Abarbanel. (1437-1508) who wrote, “The custom is to drip drops of wine out of the cup when counting the plagues to indicate that our joy is not whole because on our account an entire people was punished. Even though the enemy deserved that defeat, it does not cause us real joy.”
My guess is that the explanation, if not the tradition itself, developed over time. A likely reason is that Jews saw a “difficult text,” or one that can have multiple interpretations, and wished to emphasize the interpretations that resonated with their view of their religion’s morality. A similar portion of oral history that works its way into many seders is a midrash, or interpretation of the Torah, found in the Talmud that describes what was happening in Heaven as the Red Sea closed over the Egyptian army that was pursuing the Children of Israel: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?” As is the case with many midrashim, some Jews take this as a literal revelation and others as a story made up later to provide a moral lesson. For my purposes here, it does not matter which it is. Rather, what matters is that hundreds of years after this midrash was first recorded, Jews find it worthwhile to retell every year because it provides context for our understanding of an important Jewish text.
Turning to Islam, I would like to highlight a few portions of its oral history. One I take from anessay by Imam Shamsi Ali, who writes, “Our oral history records Muhammad’s last sermon as containing the following guidance: ‘Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has any right, nor any preference to claim over another. You are brothers.’” I chose this quote not because of its meaning, but because of how Imam Shamsi Ali explicitly ties it to the oral history. Still, an Internet search shows that this is indeed a popular quote, appearing in numerous locations. That should not be surprising given that it is the type of quote that should resonate with Muslims when thinking about the moral messages provided by Islam, with the equality of human beings being one of those messages.
A second piece of the Muslim oral tradition was cited by Arsalan Iftikhar in his interview with Loonwatch: “…we should be reminded of a well-known Islamic parable that tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed and his interactions with an unruly female neighbor, who would curse him violently and then dump garbage on him from her top window each time he walked by her house. One day, the prophet noticed that the woman was not there. In the spirit of true kindness, he went out of his way to inquire about her well-being. He then went on to visit his unfriendly neighbor at her bedside when he found that she had fallen seriously ill.” This is indeed a well-known parable, found frequently on the web, including in comments at Loonwatch.
But, here is one potentially surprising thing about this particular story: it is not clear that it is authentic. While there are similar stories, some investigations of this particular one have yielded results such as “I have not found a basis for this specific incident in the books of hadeeth or reliable works of prophetic biography, and it seems as though this story has become popular on the tongues of people without any source to support it, and Allah knows best” as well as “although the record of this particular incident is found in almost all the books of ‘Seerah’ or biography of the Prophet (saws) and is oft-repeated by the Muslims, to the best of our knowledge there is no record of this specific incident in any of the authentic and established Books of Sunnah. And Allah Alone Knows Best.” As with the midrash on the angels preparing to rejoice, for my purposes it does not matter if this story is authentic. The fact that this story is so popular even without it being found in what may be called the reliable or authentic hadith or Books of Sunnah only strengthens the point that Muslims repeat this story not because they are “forced” to because it is part of canonical literature that must be repeated, but, rather, they repeat it because its message resonates with their view of the morality of Islam.
Another reason that I chose the quotation provided from Imam Shamsi Ali is the further observation provided by his co-author, Rabbi Marc Schneier, in one of his essays in the samebook. Rabbi Schneier writes, “Most Jews and most Muslims, however, are simply unaware of the good news that the other side has an oral tradition that moderates the sometimes harsh language of the written law. The ignorance among the majority in both faiths allows the demagogic purveyors of hate to peddle their poison virtually unchallenged.”
Compare this with a statement by one such demagogic purveyor of hate, Robert Spencer, who has written, “Rabbinic Judaism ever since the destruction of the Temple had evolved non-literal ways to understand such commands, while in Islam such literal interpretation is still very much alive.” In fact, Spencer is misleadingly inaccurate on both counts: Judaism had evolved non-literal ways of interpreting “problem texts” before the destruction of the Temple, and there are both literal and non-literal interpretations of “problem texts” very much alive in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is the latter point, however, that is the more important. By suggesting solely that there are literal interpretations of “problem texts” in Islam, Spencer hides the existence of similar interpretations in Judaism and Christianity as well as the many Muslims who highlight stories such as Muhammad’s concern for a woman who would throw trash on him (whether the story is literally true or not) as a lens through which they interpret any texts that could be read to call for retaliation for aggressive acts. As Imam Shamsi Ali writes in one essay, “The guidance found in scripture is not meant to be taken only literally. … Our stance is that though the Qur’an is sometimes exact, to extrapolate the wisdom in its passages, we need not see the texts as simply static, literal words.”
Strikingly, the Qur’an has no problem citing Jewish Oral Law. “Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.” Qur’an 5:32. The reference may be to Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (“Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours…’”) or potentially other similar references such as Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a). Whether one believes an Islamic interpretation that Qur’an 5:32 was revealed to Muhammad, or a secular one that the ayah repeats something that Muhammad heard, this ayah shows a continuity of belief and a tie between the oral Jewish tradition (which by that point had been written down) and written Muslim tradition.
Yet for some “demagogic purveyors of hate,” as Rabbi Schneier calls them, this is not a sign that Muslims view the Qur’an as part of a continuous revelation sometimes referencing Jewish and Christian scriptures. Instead, these Islamophobes claim to “find further proof of plagiarism of apocryphal Jewish literature; this time in the Jewish Mishnah Sanhedrin” or title a section of an anti-Islam screed “Plagiarism in Quran,” citing the same passages. If only the Qur’an had managed to avoid the charge of plagiarism by introducing the text by saying something like “We decreed upon the Children of Israel.” Oh wait, it did! Presumably, the demagogic purveyors of hate would not be satisfied with anything short of a footnote and embedded hyperlink in the text when it was compiled over 1300 years ago.
Certain Islamophobes who accuse the Qur’an of plagiarism in this verse, despite the explicit reference to a decree to the Children of Israel, seem less concerned with how Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”) does not reference Tobit 7:15 (“And what you hate, do not do to anyone”) or a well-known (among Jews) saying of Hillel the Elder(traditionally c. 110 BCE, died 7 CE): “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” One notable demagogic purveyor of hate, Ali Sina, has written, “There is nothing in the Quran and Hadith that would make us believe that Islam is compatible with the Golden Rule.” Actually, Wikipedia provides a dozen quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith that are variants of the Golden Rule. The one that struck me the most was one that echoed Hillel: “A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. Prophet said: ‘As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them. Now let the stirrup go! [This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!]’ —Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146.”
All three of the Abrahamic faiths thus not only cite the Golden Rule in some form, but have traditions citing it as a maxim that sums up the morality of their religious texts or beliefs. It is only by being selective in what they cite from the written and oral traditions that the demagogic purveyors of hate could hope to obscure this commonality. Instead, it is worth taking the time to review the full range of the traditions of each religion, notably those cited repeatedly by their adherents because they resonate with their view of their religion’s morality. And then, it is time to let the stereotype, and the stirrup, go.
The anti-fascist publication Expo has reported that Kamil Ryba, head of the EDL’s sister organisation the Swedish Defence League, has been sentenced to six months in prison for threatening the staff at GT, the Göteborg edition of the Swedish daily Expressen.
Ryba turned up at the GT offices last December to protest against Expressen publishing the names of people who had anonymously incited racial hatred. He threw an egg and said he would come back with a knife next time. Ryba subsequently returned and left a package containing a knife and a copy of the Qur’an, which was addressed to the editors of Expressen and GT. The package was seen as a possible bomb threat and GT staff were forced to evacuate the building.
Ryba pleaded not guilty. According to GT, he claimed that by including a knife with the Qur’an he intended to convey that Islam is a violent ideology, not a religion. However, he was convicted of the offence of violating civil liberty, on the grounds that he had made threats that endangered freedom of expression. Ryba’s lawyer stated that he will appeal against the verdict.
Kamil Ryba with Stephen Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”), Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller at ‘counterjihad’ rally in Stockholm in 2012
Throughout his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), professional Islamophobe Robert Spencer misleads the reader by selectively comparing Muhammad to Jesus. Muhammad is portrayed as a “warrior prophet” and contrasted with the (supposedly) non-violent Jesus. Spencer argues on page four of his book that his “Muhammad vs. Jesus” comparisons are intended to “draw a distinction between the core principles that guide the faithful Muslim and Christian.” We are told that Islam’s militancy stems from its founder, as Christianity’s peacefulness traces back to its earliest figure. Although Robert Spencer is a fringe extremist, his sentiments are shared by many average Christians (and even non-Christians). To the average Westerner, Muhammad was a man of violence, whereas Jesus was the quintessential pacifist.
Prof. Philip Jenkins explored a similar mindset when it came to the Koran and the Bible. Jenkinsexplained (emphasis added):
Unconsciously, perhaps, many Christians consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the ugly words of the Koran standing in absolute contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians – and Jews – the Koran teaches savagery and warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity…
But in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with “texts of terror,” to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races – of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted.
The comparisons between Muhammad “the warrior prophet” and Jesus “the pacifist” are equally faulty. For one thing, many were the “warrior prophets” in the Judeo-Christian tradition before Muhammad, including Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, Saul, and so many others. Moses, the prototypical “warrior prophet”, was the key figure of Judaism–would these Islamophobes vilify Judaism as they do Islam? (Nowadays it is often considered socially taboo to criticize Judaism but completely acceptable to malign Islam. Why the double standard?)
For the record, these Biblical prophets and holy figures are just as much a part of Christianity as they are Judaism. Christian theology holds these personalities in very high regard. Therefore, to suddenly limit the discussion to Jesus alone is misleading. Yet, this disingenuous tactic is critical to the Islamophobic rhetoric. If Islam is to be deemed a violent faith based on the personality of Muhammad, then both Judaism and Christianity must similarly be designated as violent faiths based on the personalities of Moses, Joshua, and all the other myriad of figures in the Bible who engaged in acts of violence far more atrocious than anything Muhammad stands accused of.
Leaving aside this point, it ought to be noted that Jesus as a pacifist is pure fiction. Prof. Reza Aslan recently published a book on Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which disproves the myth of the pacifist Jesus. Although Aslan’s message may be news to some lay persons, it is in fact (as Reza Aslan himself points out) “old news” in scholarly circles. Thanks to the viral Fox News interview and Aslan’s addictive writing style, Zealot became a best-seller. Christian Islamophobes wrongfully assumed, without reading the book, that Aslan was attacking the character of Jesus. In fact, however, Aslan reveres Jesus, even while he dispels many of the myths about the man.
One of the myths that Aslan dispels is the idea that Jesus was a pacifist. Many Christians think of Jesus separately from the personalities of the Old Testament. But, in fact, there is a great deal of continuity in the Biblical narrative. According to the Bible, God rescued Moses and his people from Egypt and promised them the land of Canaan. However, Canaan was occupied by pagans, so God commanded the Jews to completely annihilate the indigenous population. This divinely sanctioned genocide helped establish a Jewish kingdom in the Promised Land. After some time, however, the Jews were conquered by outside forces. By the time of Jesus, the Jews were under imperial occupation by Rome.
What many Christians (and others) fail to realize was that Jesus was a Jew. He was in fact one of many different Jews who claimed to be the Messiah. The Messiah, it was believed, would be a conquering king sent down to liberate the Jewish people, “fight Hashem’s [God's] wars” (Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:4), and then not only conquer but punish (with great vengeance) the enemies of Israel. Jesus’s connection to the war heroes of the Bible is underscored by the fact that he is called “a Davidic king”–the same David who engaged in acts of war and genocide against the Philistines and Amalekites. Aslan writes:
[A] fair consensus about who the messiah is supposed to be and what the messiah is supposed to do: he is the descendant of King David; he comes to restore Israel, to free the Jews from the yoke of occupation, and to establish God’s rule in Jerusalem. To call Jesus the messiah, therefore, is to place him inexorably upon a path–already well trodden by a host of failed messiahs who came before him–toward conflict, revolution, and war against the prevailing powers.
This was the role Jesus was claiming for himself by saying he was the Messiah. This is why the Romans crucified him.
In his book, Reza Aslan writes:
It was a direct commandment from a jealous God who tolerated no foreign presence in the land he had set aside for his chosen people. That is why, when the Jews first came to this land a thousand years earlier, God had decreed that they massacre every man, woman, and child they encountered, that they slaughter every ox, goat, and sheep they came across, that they burn every farm, every field, every crop, every living thing without exception so as to ensure that the land would belong solely to those who worshiped this one God and no other…
It was, the Bible claims, only after the Jewish armies had “utterly destroyed all that breathed”…only after every single inhabitant of this land was eradicated, “as the Lord God of Israel had commanded” (Joshua 10:28-42)–that the Jews were allowed to settle here.
And yet, a thousand years later, this same tribe that had shed so much blood to cleanse the Promised Land of every foreign element so as to rule it in the name of its God now found itself laboring under the boot of an imperial pagan power, forced to share the holy city with Gauls, Spaniards, Romans, Greeks, and Syrians–all of them foreigners, all of them heathens–obligated by law to make sacrifices in God’s own temple on behalf of a Roman idolater who lived more than a thousand kilometers away.
How would the heroes of old respond such humiliation and degradation? What would Joshua or Aaron or Phineas or Samuel do to the unbelievers who had defiled the land set aside by God for his chosen people?
They would drown the land in blood. They would smash the heads of the heathens and the gentiles, burn their idols to the ground, slaughter their wives and their children. They would slay the idolaters and bathe their feet in the blood of their enemies, just as the Lord commanded. They would call upon the God of Israel to burst forth from the heavens in his war chariot, to trample upon the sinful nations and to make the mountains writhe at this fury.
Far from the meek prophet of the First Coming, Jesus on his return will command a very strong military force that will “destroy every ruler, authority, and power”. Not only is this consistent with the legacy of conquests by the Biblical prophets, it is actually a fulfillment or completion of the task that Moses initiated: holy war and conquest in the name of God. In First Corinthians (part of the New Testament) it is prophesied that instead of loving his enemies, Christ will subdue and humble them under his feet:
1 Corinthians 15:24 [Jesus] will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power.
15:25 For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet.
Reza Aslan concludes:
[T]he Jesus that emerges…[is] a zealous revolutionary swept up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–[which] bears little resemblance to the image of the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.
Once Jesus is understood as a continuation and culmination of the Biblical narrative, it becomes clear that he was not a pacifist. The Biblical war ethic that Jesus believed in was arguably more violent than the equivalent Koranic discourse Muhammad operated from. (More on this in a future article.) The only difference was that Jesus’s rebellion was cut short by his crucifixion, whereas Muhammad triumphed against his former tormentors.
It should be noted that Jesus, like Moses and Muhammad, was an enigmatic personality; nobody can know for certain who the real Jesus was. People (including scholars) subconsciously project into Jesus their own self-image. Remembering Jesus as a pacifist is a healthy option for the Christian believer, especially when it forms the basis of a peace-loving theology. But, once that pacifist image is used by right-wing warmongers as a stick to bash Muslims over the head with, it’s time to call foul.
Jihad, Jihadi, jihadist, even — most ridiculous of all — counter-jihadist. These labels are used by laypeople and journalists alike, often using jihad as a synonym for “any violence undertaken by Muslims.” An extreme example is the ad campaign posted a few months ago on New York City buses, equating Muslims to savages and any opinion not supportive of Israel as “jihad.” In fact, the ads — the creation of Pamela Geller, who is the head of what has been deemed a hate group — equate savagery with jihad, as well.
More recently, another set of bus ads have hit Chicago — this time, trying to counter some of the hate. The first features a young family with the caption, “My jihad is to march on, despite losing my son. What’s Yours?” On Twitter, too, check out the #MyJihad hashtag, where statements vary from the inspirational (“My jihad is to build friendships across the aisle”) to the humorous (“My jihad is not to eat the whole box”).
So what does jihad really mean, then? The media and anti-Islam manipulation of the word has so obscured the actual meaning that confusion is inevitable. I even encounter, alarmingly, a reluctance on the part of journalists and lay people to believe Muslims who try to explain their own religion and what jihad actually means.
Well, I’m a Muslim woman, an American, and a former corporate lawyer, and I know my religion pretty well, as I’ve not only been a practicing Muslim all my life, I have an additional degree in Islamic law. So let me explain what jihad, a specifically defined term of art, means in Islam.
The word itself means “effort” or “struggle.” Generally speaking, jihad can be divided into two broad categories: the internal jihad and the external jihad. The internal jihad is the struggle to make oneself better — more just, more fair, more compassionate. The external jihad is the struggle to make society better — more just, more fair, more compassionate. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, who died in 632, once famously described the internal jihad as the “Greater Jihad” and the external jihad as the “Lesser Jihad.” The most difficult struggle and the greatest, in other words, is the struggle to improve our own selves.
The external jihad can again be divided into further categories. How can we improve society? First, by “jihad by the word” which is using verbal persuasion to try to correct an injustice in society, such as letters to the editor or petitions. If that doesn’t work, then Muslims may use “jihad by the hand,” which is doing good works to correct an injustice in society, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. And the last resort is “jihad by the sword,” which is taking up arms to correct an injustice in society.
But here’s what vast majority of Islamic scholars, for centuries, have decreed when it comes to jihad by the sword: it can be exercised only to overthrow an oppressor or in self-defense. That’s right: only in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor.
Some scholars over the centuries have even contended that the jihad doctrine does not allow the overthrow of a mere run-of-the-mill oppressor, but only one who is actively preventing people from practicing their religion.
Other Islamic scholars, however, disagreed with this opinion; they said that invading a country and oppressing its people was sufficient reason to fight back (I suspect that’s what Americans would do if we were invaded), and that no suppression of religious practice was necessary. But, even so, they confirmed, jihad must be exercised only in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor.
What about al Qaeda’s version of jihad? It’s not jihad. Terrorism has never been allowed in Islam, not in 1,400 years of history, and in early Islam it was severely punished.
Using religion as justification for violence is not unique to any one religion. Religion was used to justify the Crusades, as well as the Spanish Inquisition, and the attendant killing of tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews. In modern times, the Serbs’ genocide of Bosnian Muslims and themassacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat by Hindus also were at least partly, by some, justified by religion. But no religion condones murder or genocide.
To the Pamela Gellers of the world, a Muslim living in the U.S., going about his or her business and living everyday life as an American, is practicing jihad. But if that means that Muslims are trying to make themselves better people, then that’s a good thing. If that means that Muslims are trying to make their societies better by working within the law to correct injustices, then that’s a good thing. And it’s no different from what most of us are trying to do, regardless of our religions.
‘Koran discovered with coffee cup stain on the front cover, US marines deployed to all Starbucks franchises.’
The quip, retweeted by celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, exemplifies the belligerent incomprehension with which so many, including self-proclaimed liberals, have responded to protests against the film The Innocence of Muslims.
Rioting over a YouTube clip that offends the Muslim sky fairy? How tremendously foolish! How childish; how superstitious; how very, very silly!
Well, we’ve certainly seen ignorance paraded over the last few days but it’s as much by smug progressives as anyone else.
Consider a historical analogy.
In 1857, Bengali soldiers (known as ‘sepoys’) shot their British officers and marched upon Delhi. The Great Indian Rebellion became very violent, very quickly. The rebels massacred prisoners, including women and children; the British put down the revolt with a slaughter of unprecedented proportions.
Now, that rebellion began when the troops learned that their cartridges, designed to be torn open with their teeth, would be greased with beef and pork fat, an offence to the religious sensibilities of Hindus and Muslims alike. Had Twitter been an invention of the Victorian era, London sophisticates would, no doubt, have LOLed to each other (#sepoyrage!) about the credulity of dusky savages so worked up about a little beef tallow. Certainly, that was how the mouthpieces of the East India Company spun events: in impeccably Dawkinesque terms, they blamed ‘Hindoo prejudice’ for the descent of otherwise perfectly contented natives into rapine and slaughter.
But no serious historian today takes such apologetics seriously. Only the most determined ignoramus would discuss 1857 in isolation from the broader context of British occupation. In form, the struggle might have been religious; in content, it embodied a long-simmering opposition to colonial rule.
That’s why those who pretend the protests against The Innocence of Muslims came from nowhere merely reveal their own foolishness.
‘Today, many Americans are asking — indeed, I asked myself — how could this happen?’ said Hillary Clinton after the riots in Libya. ‘How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction? This question reflects just how complicated and, at times, how confounding the world can be.’
The echoes of George Bush’s infamous query ‘Why do they hate us when we’re so good?’ suggests nothing whatsoever has been learnt from the last decade and the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.
For this is, of course, the same Hillary Clinton who, as recently as 2009, proclaimed Mubarak, Egypt’s torturer-in-chief, and his wife, ‘friends of my family’, acknowledging a relationship that exemplified the pally connections between the US elite and every dictator and despot in the region. Mubarak might have been crossed off the Clinton Christmas list but President Obama forges ever closer relations with the tyrants of Saudi Arabia, delivering the biggest ever arms deal in US history to fortify a reactionary and criminal government against its populace.
No, Hillary Clinton might not recall such matters. But the people of the Muslim world are considerably better informed – and that’s the context for their anger.
But what about the movie itself? Why should such a shoddy piece of amateur filmmaking become such a flashpoint?
Again, shift to a more familiar referent and the outrage becomes at once markedly less strange. The Protocols of Zion were, of course, also a bodged-up job, a childish forgery thrown together by racist cranks from the Tsarist secret service. But no-one’s surprised when Jews (and their anti-racist allies) mobilise against some fresh incarnation of that notorious document, since we all, quite correctly, recognise any new publication of the Protocols as a conscious and deliberate attempt to promote hatred.
The Innocence of Muslims should be understood in the same fashion. This is a film produced at a time in which, across Europe and the United States, the far right has developed an Islamophobic doctrine that replicates, almost exactly, the key tropes of traditional anti-Semitism.
Jews will not integrate. Jews are more fertile than Christians and are outbreeding them. Europe is becoming a province, a colony, of a Judaic entity. Europe will either be Judaicised or there will be a civil war. Most likely, Jews will resort to terrorism as part of their takeover. They are already spoiling for violence.
All of that sounds like the rantings of an old-school fascist. But replace ‘Jew’ with ‘Muslim’, and you’re left with a workaday opinion piece from any mainstream conservative paper.
The structural homology here is not accidental. Mattias Gardell notes how:
The tradition of Islamophobia is, like anti-Semitism, rooted in the medieval Christian hostility to the ‘enemies of God’, with these perceptions disseminated, expanded upon, restructured, rearticulated and reactivated in various social and political contexts, from the Turk scare in early modernity, via the colonial expansion, to the War on Terror.
Many stories told about Jews in medieval and early modern Europe were also spun around what were then termed Moors, Saracens or Red Jews: Muslims were devil-worshipping, sexually deviant, man-eating monsters; Muslims ritually defamed the cross and consumed the blood of ceremonially slaughtered Christian children in blasphemous communions. Church art portrayed Mohammed as the Antichrist, and Muslims as horned devils, Christ-killers, dogs or a hybrid race of dog-men. Lars Vilks – the Swedish artist who depicted Mohammed as a dog – may claim originality, but the dog motif goes back hundreds of years and is as old as the Judensau (the medieval depiction of Jews in obscene contact with a sow).
Elsewhere, the journalist Colm Ó Broin has produced a neat demonstration of the relationship between the old hate and the new hate, with a close comparison of the writings of the notorious Islamophobe Robert Spencer on Muslims alongside the propaganda of Julius Streicher, the editor of, Der Stuermer. Streicher, you’ll recall, went to the gallows at Nuremberg – but Spencer holds forth regularly on FOX News.
The labour leader August Bebel famously dubbed anti-Semitism the ‘socialism of fools’, since some supposed radicals subscribed to crackpot theories about Jewish finance. In a similar fashion, Islamophobia today often gets served up as an add lepated secularism by vulgar atheists, indifferent to how often their conversations about Muslim theology slide neatly into anguish about Muslim birthrates (an obvious giveaway of the racialised imagination and its biological concerns).
Should Muslims be worried about rising Islamophobia? Of course they should! As the recent report by the Institute of Race Relations, Pedlars of Hate, makes clear, anti-Islam bigotry is becoming a key element of the revival of the far Right – a Right that doesn’t merely slander Muslims but also takes action against them.
The Innocence of Muslims was, quite obviously, intended as a provocation, and many Muslims have argued that the minority of shrilljihadis who raised their sectarian and violent slogans at protests around the wold fell entirely into the intended trap.
Then, again, this too is familiar. Twentieth century race-baiters knew all about goading their victims into a certain response, and then using that response to justify a fresh pogrom. Not unexpectedly, German far-right extremists (who have some historical experience with this strategy) are now planning fresh screenings of the film.
Those who call themselves progressive might note that a certain Karl Marx followed the Great Indian Rebellion closely. While he acknowledged and decried the excesses of the rebels, he declared these were ‘only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India.’
In other words, Marx, one of history’s more famous atheists, stood firmly with the ‘ignorant’ sepoys against their ‘enlightened’ opponents.
‘John Bull,’ he wrote, ‘is to be steeped in cries for revenge up to his very ears, to make him forget that his Government is responsible for the mischief hatched and the colossal dimensions it has been allowed to assume.’
Add ‘Uncle Sam’ to that sentence, and you have a remarkably apt assessment of what’s taking place today.
It was a trial that captured headlines across Canada—the so-called “honor killing” of three teenage sisters and their father’s first wife in a quadruple murder staged to look like an accident.
On January 27, the girls’ brother, Hamed, 21, and their parents, Mohammad Shafia, 58, and Tooba Yahya, 42, were each found guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. All received the maximum sentence of life in prison.
On police wiretaps captured in the days following the murders, a remorseless Mohammad Shafia referred to his slain daughters as treacherous whores who had “betrayed Islam.” The family is originally from Afghanistan, and sweeping statements about their cultural and religious background have put Canada’s Muslims on the defensive.
Imams across Canada and the US responded by issuing a fatwa declaring honor killing, domestic violence, and misogyny as “un-Islamic.” Nevertheless, the murders have prompted a fresh wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, and the usual assortment of crackpots have seized this tantalizing opportunity to vilify Islam.
Pseudo-scholarRobert Spencer recently discussed the case on Sun TV with English-Canadian talk show host and fascist sympathizer, Michael Coren. The 13-minute segment appears at the end of this article.
Spencer’s Five Big Lies about honor killings are refuted in this article, in order of appearance.
1. A Bogus Statistic
Spencer began with the baseless assertion that, “91% of honor killings worldwide take place among Muslims.” What is the source of Spencer’s statistic?
He makes the same claim on his website, Jihad Watch, and links to an article on the Middle East Forum as the source. This is an anti-Muslim propaganda site founded by Daniel Pipes, and the article referenced is authored by Phyllis Chesler, who is yet another rabid Islamophobe. Chesler cites an ill-defined “study” as the ultimate source of this statistic:
This study analyzes 172 incidents and 230 honor-killing victims. The information was obtained from the English-language media around the world with one exception. There were 100 victims murdered for honor in the West, including 33 in North America and 67 in Europe. There were 130 additional victims in the Muslim world. Most of the perpetrators were Muslims, as were their victims, and most of the victims were women.
The “methodology” she describes is filled with weasel words, and it’s unclear who actually conducted the study or for what purpose. Culling 172 incidents from self-selected articles in the English-language media does not constitute a valid sample.
In the very same article, Chesler concedes, “Definitive or reliable worldwide estimates of honor killing incidence do not exist.” Then how has she managed to glean a precise statistic of 91%?
Taking her study at face value, do you think 33 honor killings constitutes an epidemic? Stinging insects kill more than 40 people each year in the US, which is more than the number of honor killings Chesler reported over the course of her study for all of North America. Chesler says, “to combat the epidemic [emphasis mine] of honor killings requires understanding what makes these murders unique.”
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, have all said that honor killings cut across cultural and religious lines. No credible organization cites a statistic that supports Robert Spencer’s assertion, which Phyllis Chesler seems to have pulled out of her hat.
2. Misinterpretation and Misuse of The Reliance of the Traveller
Coren asked Spencer if it’s true that there is Qur’anic and Sharia support for honor killings, and Spencer said, “Absolutely, Michael,” and, ”Islamic Law stipulates there’s no penalty for a parent who kills a child.” As we have already established in a previous article, this is a blatant lie:
In a pathetic attempt to prove Islam sanctions honor killings, the loons have dredged up ”Reliance of the Traveller,” a classical manual for the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence written over 600 years ago. A convoluted interpretation of select passages has gone viral, and is now routinely cited on the pages of hate sites and in comments on numerous articles related to honor killing.
Geller quotes a section of The Traveller on her website that says certain crimes, including the killing of one’s offspring, are not subject to retaliation, implying Muslim parents have a free pass to murder their children under Islamic Law, which is a bold faced LIE. Retaliation is a form of reciprocal justice, lex talionis, commonly known as “an eye for an eye.”
A crime that is not subject to retaliation can still be punished by other means. Restrictions on reciprocal justice in the Qur’an were meant to reduce blood feuds and the cycle of vengeance. The concept of retaliation is also found in Jewish and Christian scriptures, and like honor killing, traces back to the ancient Code of Hammurabi.
Even if The Traveller sanctioned honor killing (which it doesn’t), it would be the interpretation of one Islamic cleric who lived centuries ago, and not a formal part of Islamic Law. Sharia is drawn primarily from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and neither sanctions honor killing.
Honor killing is a form of murder where the victim is denied a fair trial, which is contrary to Islamic law. Islam forbids acts of murder and vigilantism, and likens the killing of one human being to the killing of the entire human race (Qur’an 5:32, 6:151, 17:33).
Is Sharia exceptionally harsh or extremely lenient, even in the case of a serious crime like murder? Apparently it’s whatever suits Spencer’s agenda at the moment. In any case, a “renowned scholar” should certainly understand the ancient concept of reciprocal justice.
Is Spencer ignorant or deliberately deceptive?
3. The Case of Syria and Jordan
Spencer cites “relatively moderate” Muslim-majority Jordan and Syria in an effort to provide real-world examples of Sharia-sanctioned honor killing. His examples fall short in two major ways.
First, although a single honor killing is one too many, these murders are not epidemic. Jordan has around 15-20 honor killings each year, and Syria has about 200. Both of these Muslim-majority countries have low overall homicide rates, in contrast to many countries in the non-Muslim world, most notably in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Central and Southern Africa.
Second, Syria and Jordan have mixed legal systems largely based on French Law, derived from the Napoleonic Code. In Syria, Articles 192, 242, and 548 have historically been invoked to reduce sentences in honor killing cases, and all are derived from the Napoleonic Code, not Sharia.
In Jordan, Articles 340 and 98 have historically been invoked to reduce sentences in honor killing cases, and they also derive from the Napoleonic Code, notSharia.
While Spencer was correct when he said some religious and cultural conservatives in Jordan have resisted legal reform, Queen Rania and King Abudllah II have been outspoken advocates. In a report released last November, the United Nations praised Jordan for amending Article 340 so that it no longer exonerates the perpetrators of honor killings.
Spencer’s examples fall short because neither Jordan nor Syria has a high rate of homicides of any kind, and the legal loopholes in question are primarily a legacy of French colonialism, not Sharia. However, Coren asks no questions of substance, so it’s on to the next lie.
4. Khidr in Chapter 18 of the Qur’an
Spencer tries to “prove” honor killings are supported in the Qur’an, citing the well known story of Khidr in the 18th chapter as a justification. From Jihad Watch:
Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 18, “The Cave,” verses 60-82
Verses 60-82 of Sura 18 contain one of the strangest, most arresting stories in the entire Qur’an: that of the journey of Moses and Khidr, one of the great road-trip stories of all time…
In Islamic tradition this man is identified as Al-Khadir or Al-Khidr, or, more commonly, Khidr, “the Green Man.” Some identify him as one of the prophets, others as a wali, a Muslim saint….
…Khidr murders a young man in an apparently random act, and Moses criticizes him again (v. 74)…
…Khidr killed the young man because he would grieve his pious parents with his “rebellion and ingratitude” (v. 80), and Allah will give them a better son (v. 81)….
…Another point emerges in Islamic tradition: don’t kill children, unless you know they’re going to grow up to be unbelievers. “The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) used not to kill the children, so thou shouldst not kill them unless you could know what Khadir had known about the child he killed, or you could distinguish between a child who would grow up to he a believer (and a child who would grow up to be a non-believer), so that you killed the (prospective) non-believer and left the (prospective) believer aside.” The assumption thus enunciated may help explain the persistence of the phenomenon of honor-killing in Islamic countries and even among Muslims in the West…
Notice the child was not related to Khidr, and there was no honor motive. This “apparently random act” doesn’t fit the profile of a so-called “honor killing.”
The story is meant to convey the message that believers should have faith in God’s wisdom. Events may seem harsh and inexplicable, but when the veil is lifted and the broader truth is exposed, the believer will see that what has happened is ultimately for the best.
Spencer provided no examples of any Muslim citing the story of Khidr as a justification for honor killing, nor did he mention any scholars who have adopted his interpretation. In fact, the story of Khidr has historically been associated with charity and good works in the Islamic world.
As for the Hadith Spencer quoted (Sahih Muslim Book 019, Number 4457), Muslims are instructed not to kill children, “…unless you could know what Khadir had known.“ Khidr was granted eternal life and bestowed with direct knowledge of God’s will, which no ordinary Muslim can claim. It is simply not possible to know whether a child will grow up to be a believer, so it makes no sense to use this as a justification for murder.
Spencer also claims that the Judeo-Christian tradition sends the “opposite message” with respect to killing children, specifically citing Genesis 22:1-13 as an example. In this Old Testament story, the Prophet Abraham was poised to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord, but just as he placed a knife to the boy’s neck, God sent an angel to intercede, and Isaac was spared.
The same story exists in the Qur’an and carries the same moral message. The major difference is that Isaac is replaced by Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. A “renowned scholar” of Islam should surely be aware of the corresponding story in the Qur’an (The Rank Makers 37:100-109).
In fact, numerous verses in the Bible recount the killing of children, and stipulate harsh punishments, including the death penalty. The following is not a comprehensive list:
9 If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.
Deuteronommy (13:6-10) says if your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” … You must stone him or her to death. Death by stoning is also the punishment stipulated for a “stubborn and rebellious” son in 21:18-21.
In Judges (11:30-40), Jephthah killed his young daughter (and only child) by burning her alive to fulfill his vow to God, in exchange for a victory in battle.
In 2 Kings (2:23-25), when youngsters made fun of the Prophet Elisha’s bald head, he called down a curse “in the name of the Lord,”and two bears came out of the woods and tore 42 of the youths to pieces.
As a Catholic and self-proclaimed religious scholar, it seems reasonable to assume Spencer has read the Bible, so what explains this glaring double standard?
Is Spencer ignorant or deliberately deceptive?
The bottom line is that honor killings are not Islamic. Spencer’s lies, no matter how often they’re repeated, can’t change that fundamental truth.
Note: This article is page III of a series on the Christian just war tradition. If you haven’t already, might I suggest that you first read page I (the introduction) and page II (about the early Church).
Saint Ambrose (Fourth Century)
The relationship between Christianity and imperialism traces itself all the way back to the early Church fathers who enlisted themselves as “prayer warriors” for the Roman armies (read page II: Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?). However, even though they prayed for the success and preservation of the Pax Romana, the early Christians felt uncomfortable serving as soldiers in a largely pagan military.
This changed with the conversion to Christianity of Rome’s emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD). Wim Smit writes on p.108 of Just War and Terrorism:
With the reign of Constantine (306-337) and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion, the attitude of most Christians towards military service changed. The question no longer was: can service to God be reconciled with service to the emperor, but what kind of conditions and rules should be satisfied during battle? This revolution in Christian thought started with Ambrose…and was later systematised by his pupil Augustine (354), who can be seen as the founder of the just war tradition.
Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD) served as a Roman imperial officer and sought to justify the Empire’s wars. Prof. Christopher Tyerman writes on p.33 of God’s War:
The conversion of Constantine and the final recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in 381 prompted the emergence of a set of limited principles of Christian just war which, by virtue of being fought by the Faithful, could be regarded as holy. The identification of the Roman empire with the church of God allowed Christians to see in the secular state their protector,the pax Romana being synonymous with Christian Peace. For the state, to its temporal hostes were added enemies of the Faith, pagan barbarians and, more immediately dangerous, religious heretics within the empire. Eusebius of Caesarea, historian of Constantine’s conversion, in the early fourth century reconciled traditional Christian pacifism with the new duties of the Christian citizen by pointing to the distinction between the clergy, immune from military service, and the laity, now fully encouraged to wage the just wars for the Christian empire. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), as befitted a former imperial official, consolidated this symbiosis of the Graeco-Roman and Christian: Rome and Christianity were indissolubly united, their fates inextricably linked. Thus the war of one was that of the other, all Rome’s wars were just in the same way that those of the Old Testament Israelites have been; even heresy could be depicted as treason. Ambrose’s version of the Christian empire and the wars to protect it which constituted perhaps the earliest formulation of Christian warfare was, therefore, based on the union of church and state; hatred of foreigners in the shape of barbarians and other external foes; and a sharp intolerance towards dissent and internal debate, religious and political.
The term “barbarian” comes from the Greek word barbaros, meaning “anyone who is not Greek.” The Romans expanded the word to refer to anyone outside of the Greco-Roman world. It was thought that the “civilized world” referred to the Roman Empire, which was surrounded by “barbarians.” Prof. Glen Warren Bowersock writes on p.334 of Late Antiquity:
The term barbarian[ was] derived from Greek ideals of cultural “otherness”…The image of barbaricum began at the frontiers…There was the idea of a wall around the empire, separating Rome from the other gentes [nations]…Every “good” emperor set up inscriptions of himself as domitor gentium barbararum [conqueror of the barbarian nations]…Barbarians were contemptible, unworthy enemies…Many stereotypes were simply ethnocentric [racist]…Barbarians were natural slaves, animals, faithless, dishonest, treasonable, arrogant, drunken sots…
Christians were not detached from the construction of these images…Some, like Ambrose, projected barbarians as drunks and faithless savages…
The pax Romana had to be “defended” against these “barbarians,” something which was done by conquering their lands. This imperial mentality was, from the very start, accepted by Christianity. The early Church fathers, for example, believed that “God ordained the imperial powers” to “advanc[e] the gospel;” they appreciated “the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.” The “barbarians” surrounding the Roman Empire threatened not just the state, but also the Church; their paganism and heresy was a threat against true belief. Therefore, war against them had to be justified. Who better to justify this than the former imperial officer Ambrose of Milan? Prof. Frederick H. Russell writes on p.13 of The Just War in the Middle Ages:
The fuller development of a Christian just war theory was futhered in the writings of Ambrose, a new kind of Christian. Trained in imperial administration and the former prefect in Milan, Ambrose brought a Roman political orientation to his ministry…The courage of soldiers who defended the Empire against barbarians…was full of justice, and Ambrose prayed for the success of imperial armies.
Prof. Russell writes further:
To the Roman animosity toward the barbarian was added the element of religious animosity between believer and unbeliever, thus rendering the internal and external threats to the Pax Romana more politically explosive. To point the way out of this crisis Ambrose about 378 the De Fide Christiana for the Emperor Gratian, who was at the time attempting to consolidate Roman authority on the Danube after the defeat of the Arian Valens by the Visigoths. Ambrose assured Gratian of victory, for it had been foretold in the prophecies of Ezekiel and confirmed by Gratian’s faith. Ambrose even identified Gog, the wicked enemy of Ezekiel’s prophecies, with the contemporary Goths, who were thereby destined to destruction.
The just war theory was thus generated as a way “to point the way out of this crisis,” the crisis being the need “to consolidate Roman authority.” More specifically, civil wars and rebellions within the Empire were to be forbidden, whereas Rome’s foreign wars to be justified. Indeed, the emerging doctrine was to be applied to fellow Christians in order to prevent themselves from fighting each other when they could be fighting the infidel instead. Prof. Alex J. Bellamy writes on p.24 of Just Wars:
Ambrose was the first thinker systematically to blend Christian teachings with Roman law and philosophy (Johnson 1987:54). He followed Cicero in acknowledging the possibility of justifiable wars and recognizing the difference between abhorrent civil wars and wars fought against barbarians (Swift 1970:533-4). Wars against barbarians, Ambrose argued, were legitimate because they protected both the empire and the Christian orthodoxy.
Ambrose, the first thinker behind the just war theory, justified his belief in two ways: (1) He was inspired by the wars in the Old Testament, and (2) He argued that Jesus’s non-violent teachings in the New Testament applied only to individuals but not to states. Prof. Bellamy writes:
Ambrose argued that there were two grounds for justifying war. First, he found evidence in the Old Testament to support the view that not only was violence sometimes justified in order to protect others from harm, it was sometimes required on moral grounds or even directly commanded by God (Swift 1970:535). Second, Ambrose agreed dthat Jesus’ teaching forbade an individual from killing another in self-defence…Nevertheless he argued that whilst an individual may not kill to save himself, he must act in the defense of others…
Ambrose argued that “wars could only be fought in self-defense (broadly understood, as in the Roman tradition), when directly commanded by God, or in defence of religious orthodoxy”(Ibid.). He ”demanded that the state should not tolerate any religion other than Christianity” (p.112 of Ralph Blumenau’s Philosophy and Living). Heretics and pagans should be fought, both within and outside the Empire.
Ambrose melded the Church to the state’s powerful military. ”Ambrose proposed that the incorporation of nails from the Cross into the imperial helmet and bridle symbolised Christianity’s support for enduring secular military authority” (p.77-78 of Prof. Michael Witby’s Rome at War). He ”used Christianity to uphold imperial power” (Ibid.), but also used the imperial power to uphold Christianity. The Church provided the state with the religious justification for war. The Church, in return, benefited from these wars by using the state to enforce the faith and punish “barbarians” (pagans and heretics). Prof. Mary L. Foster writes on p.156 of Peace and War:
Ambrose, former praetorian prefect and then bishop of Milan (339-397)[ was] the first to formulate a “Christian ethic of war.” He drew upon the Stoics, particularly Cicero (106-43 B.C.), and legitimized the view by referring to holy wars spoken of in the Old Testament from Abraham and Moses to Maccaebus. Ambrose further justified the view by arguing that Christianity was, and must be, protected against the barbarians by the armed force of the Roman Empire. Both Augustine and Ambrose saw the Christian Empire as empowered to resist paganism and heresy.
For Ambrose, wars fought against pagans and heretics were, by definition, just: “if a Christian general fought a pagan army, he had a just cause” (Prof. Joseph F. Kelly on p.164 of The World of the Early Christians). In fact, the machinery of the state should be used to conquer the world under the banner of Christianity. Prof. Reinhard Bendix writes on p.244 of Embattled Reason:
Ambrose justified war against those who do not belong to the community of the faithful [pagans and heretics]…Warlike actions are justified [against the non-believer]…The goal of Ambrose was to establish a universal faith. All people should be brothers in the common, Christian faith, even if wars against non-believers were needed to accomplish this ideal…
Discrimination against pagans was justified in the eyes of Christian Fathers like Ambrose by the absolute belief in Christ as the only road to salvation. Accordingly, it is man’s religious duty to proclaim, and fight for, this truth in the whole world. Ambrose wrote his commentary decades after Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world, recognized and supported publicly. With this support, Ambrose could presuppose a universal ethic based on a shared belief in [the Christian] God and on that basis fight in the name of the church against the heathens who were still the great majority [outside of the Roman Empire].
Ambrose declared an all-out war against paganism, and recruited the Roman emperors to do so. ”No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose,” who was “a major influence upon both [Emperors] Gratian and Valentinian II” (Ted Byfield on p.92 of Darkness Descends). In a letter addressed to the Roman emperor, Ambrose wrote:
Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes fo the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith. For there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth the true God, that is, the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things. For he alone is the true God, who is to be worshiped from the bottom of the heart, ‘for the gods of the heathen,’ as Scripture says, ‘are devils.’ (Ibid., p.93)
Here, we see a reciprocal relationship emerging between the Church and Roman state. The Church legitimated Roman wars to expand the Empire and protect its hegemony, so long as the state enforced the Christian religion by fighting against heretics and pagans.
Jews, for example, were infidels worthy of death. James Carroll writes on p.104 of Jerusalem, Jerusalem that Ambrose “wanted to kill Jews (since, after all, Christian heretics were being killed for denying details of orthodoxy, while Jews rejected the whole of it).”
Prof. Madeleine P. Cosman writes on pp.262-263 of the Handbook to Life in the Medieval World (Vol.3):
The church’s attitude toward war would indelibly be changed by Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the so-called Edict of Milan (313), which recognized Christianity as a religion that could be practiced openly; church and state could now be conjoined in the same cause. A momentous meeting in the year 397 of Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (d. 397), and the emperor Gratian resulted in the declaration of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant outlawing of other “pagan superstitions.” Church leaders began to encourage rulers to wage a holy war on pagans for the sake of God and the church to defend the empire from heretical “traitors.”
There is much discussion, even in some scholarly circles, about “just war” vs. “holy war.” I have read countless books where Western authors write of how it “was only during the Crusades that the Christians developed the concept of ‘holy war’ like the Islamic concept of jihad.” These are all bogus discussions. Quite clearly, the Christian just war tradition was the legitimization of “a holy war on pagans” from its very inception. This is the case starting with the originator of the doctrine itself, Saint Ambrose, who harnessed imperial power to promote the Christian faith, a partnership that would outlast the Roman Empire itself.
It is often argued that Jesus Christ (7–2 BC to 30–36 AD) preached pacifism and that this was the stance of the early Church. According to this standard narrative, the Church “fell from Grace” with the conversion of Constantine and it was only then that pacifism was abandoned. Such conventional wisdom, however, is not very accurate.
As for Jesus of the Bible, a closer analysis shows that he was not opposed to violence (see: Jesus Loves His Enemies…And Then Kills Them All). He was (basically) non-violent during his lifetime, all the way up until he was nailed to the cross. At that time, Jesus was not in a position of authority, power, or capacity to do otherwise. He was at the mercy of his enemies.
However, in the Bible itself Jesus promises to kill all his enemies when he returns. At that point in time, he would no longer be a persecuted preacher but a “Warrior King” commanding large armies of both heavenly and earthly beings. How can it then be said that Jesus of the Bible believed in pacifism? His use of non-violent means was temporal and tactical, not principled and value-based.
It hardly matters what people do when they are not in a position to do otherwise. It is once they are in a position of power and authority that what they do really matters. Imagine, for instance, if the Dalai Lama practiced non-violence while his people were still under Chinese authority but at the same time he issued proclamations that he would wage war against the Chinese and kill all their leaders once his country is liberated. Would anyone think of him as pacifist if this were the case?
As for the early Church, the characterization of it as pacifist is also problematic. Modern scholarship has moved away from this outdated conception. For example, Prof. James Turner Johnson, considered “one of the most influential contemporary interpreters of the [just war] tradition today,” notes that the “evidence presents a picture not of a single doctrine [within the early Church], but of plurality; not of universal rejection of war and military service, but of a mixture of acceptance and rejection of these phenomena in different sectors of the Christian world” (p.17 of Johnson’s The Quest for Peace).
There was no one view among early Church fathers with regard to war and military service. Instead, the evidence suggests that there existed a multitude of views on this issue, a fact that “challenges the conventional view of the early church [as uniformly pacifist]” (Prof. J. Daryl Charles on p.108 of War, Peace, and Christianity). Prof. James Turner Johnson, Prof. J. Daryl Charles, and many others have argued the point that even those Church fathers who were opposed to military service were so not because of a principled belief in pacifism but (1) because they believed the return of Jesus to be imminent and (2) because being a part of the pagan Roman military would involve idolatry.
Prof. J. Daryl Charles notes that the early Church’s abstention from military service was due to “the predominance of a conspicuously otherworldly expectation–the expectation of the coming of Christ’s kingdom” and the “rejection of idolatrous practices within the Roman army” (Ibid., pp.109-110). Neither reason could be used to support a principled belief in pacifism. As for the first reason, this implies that the early Church was not opposed to the use of violence, only that they were waiting to use it upon Christ’s return (an event they believed would occur imminently, even in their own lifetimes). If, for example, the Tamil Tigers abstained from violence until their leader was released from jail, would anyone believe this to be support for pacifism?
Furthermore, this “otherworldly” attitude applied not just to military service but to all “worldly matters.” They were in a state of “praying continually, watching and fasting, preaching to all they could reach, paying no heed to worldly matters, as things with which they had nothing to do, only accepting from those whom they taught as much as was absolutely necessary for life” (p.86 of Henry Donald Maurice Spence-Jones’ The Church of England, Vol. 1). They did not involve themselves in matters of state at all, including but not limited to military service. One cannot equate this to a belief in pacifism any more than it would mean a rejection of governance.
In other words, just because early Christians did not believe that they themselves should not participate in such functions did not mean they thought it was wrong for others to do so. For example, many Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel enroll in religious schools and are thus exempted from military service. As religious students and rabbis, they believe that their lives should be dedicated to Jewish studies and many expect the rest of society to support them. But even though they themselves refuse to serve in the military, many of them strongly support the Israeli military and indiscriminate violence against Palestinians. When other Israelis criticize them as chickenhawks for refusing to serve in the military (even as they push Israel to perpetual war), the standard response by these Ultra-Orthodox Jews is that they serve the IDF in a religious capacity: they pray for the military’s success. No rational person would have the temerity to say that these Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pacifist. They might not want to go to war themselves, but they are certainly not opposed to it.
Likewise, the early Church was not opposed to war or the Roman military itself; they just didn’t want any “worldly” function in it themselves. The Church fathers actually prayed for the success of the Roman military in its imperial wars against “barbarians.” Here, we see the emergence of a theme that emerged with the early Church and sustained itself throughout Christian history: the support for European imperialism. Prof. Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez writes on p.78 of The Encyclopedia of Religion and War:
In fact, numerous Christian writers in the first three centuries already affirmed that God ordained the existing imperial powers, including their coercive functions, for maintaining order, restraining sin, and advancing the gospel. The injunction of Paul to “be subject to the governing authorities” whose authority has been “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV; cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17) was echoed in the writings of Justin, Tertullian, and Origen (185?-254?). Each author acknowledged the benefits of Roman order as part of God’s plan and assured the authorities of Christian support and prayers.
Prof. Palmer-Fernandez goes on to say that “these early writers were also expressing appreciation for the value of a Pax Romana maintained by force.”
The Church fathers saw themselves very much in the same way that Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel see themselves, and as pagan Roman priests in that time also did. Prof. Darrell Cole writes in a section entitled “Fighting Through Prayer” in his book When God Says War is Right:
The Christian pacifism movement claims Origen (A.D. 185-254) as a hero, but it’s hard to decide whether the term “pacifist” can truly and fairly be applied to him, at least in the way we think of it today. To modern ears, pacifism means the complete rejection of warfare as an inherently immoral practice. This was not Origen’s view, though he was certainly opposed to Christians becoming soldiers.
The only work where Origen was concerned with Christian participation in warfare is the polemical Contra Celsum written in response to a Roman philosopher named Celsus…[He argued] that all Christians should be give the same considerations as those in the pagan priesthood who were not required to give physical service in the military, but instead served the cause by praying for the emperor and the soldiers to triumph in battle.
[Origen wrote:] And, of course, in war time you do not enlist your priests. If this is a resonable procedure, how much more so is it for Christians to fight as priests and worshipers of God while others fight as soldiers. Though they keep their right hands clean, the Christians fight through their prayers to God on behalf of those doing battle in a just cause and on behalf of an emperor who is ruling justly in order that all opposition and hostility toward those who are acting rightly may be eliminated. (VIII.73)
Moreover, Origen added, Christians supplied an irreplaceable aid to the emperor. By overcoming in prayer the very demons that cause wars, Christians actually help more than soldiers. So even though Christians did not go on campaign with the emperor, they did go to battle for him “by raising a special army of piety through our petitions to God” (VIII.73).
This support and prayer for Rome’s military was at a time when the imperial armies were ever expanding the Empire’s borders. During this time, the Roman Empire was involved in many wars: in the first three centuries A.D., Roman legions conquered lands in modern day Germany, Britain, Wales, Scotland, Romania, etc. Also included in these conquests (and prayed for by the Church) was the conquest of parts of the Middle East.
The early Christians remained passive participants in the military effort not for long. In fact, the “evidence…is fairly strong that from A.D. 170 onward there were significant members of Christians in the [Roman] army, and ‘the numbers of these Chrisitans began to grow, despite occassional efforts to purge Christians from the army [by the Romans], through the second and third centuries into the age of Constantine. We may estimate the number of Christian soldiers at the beginning of the fourth century in the tens of thousands’” (p.112 of Prof. J. Daryl Charles’ War, Peace, and Christianity; he is quoting Johnson’s The Quest for Peace).
Once Constantine converted to Christianity, the early Christians no longer faced the barrier to military service they once had: they no longer needed to fear indulging in the pagan practices of the military. Furthermore, by this time, the Church had realized that Jesus Christ may not be coming back as soon as they thought. As such, it is no surprise that soon afterward Christian theologians would formally tackle the issue of war. Is this not a strong indication that it was the issue of paganism, not a principled adherence to pacifism, that compelled the early Church to be so uneasy with military participation?
* * * * *
According to the “fall from Grace” theory, the Church suddenly changed its views about pacifism with the conversion of Constantine. If this were really the case, then the question arises: of what relevance is early Christianity’s supposed pacifism during a time when it was not in a position of power? What does it say about such a belief if, the moment Christianity assumed power, this “pacifism” was suddenly abandoned for a policy of imperialism?
The truth is that there wasn’t a sudden reversal of opinion, but rather a gradual development of an idea that had already taken root with the early Church. With the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the West’s imperial power and Christianity would formally fuse together. It would be, as we shall see, a bond that would endure the test of time.
* * * * *
As I mentioned in the introduction, my intention is not to demonize the entire faith of Christianity. There exists no shortage of Christians today who endorse pacifism and oppose America’s unjust wars in the Muslim world. Such people have my utmost respect. If some of them base their pacifism in their belief that the early Church was pacifist, I don’t see any reason to expend energy trying to set the record straight. I only chose to address this issue since some anti-Muslim Christians forced my hand by continually arguing this point (the early Church was pacifist, look how peaceful our religion is compared to Islam, etc.).
Having said that, I don’t think pacifist Christians should think any of this should stand in the way of their pacifist beliefs. As I mentioned earlier, the early Church fathers seemed to differ among themselves. Anti-military views certainly existed, and even if one cannot find clearly principled pacifism, this is still a starting point that the modern-day Christian can draw on.
Furthermore, I think people of all religions–Jews, Christians, and Muslims–would be a whole lot better off if they didn’t feel the need to validate their beliefs by looking at how their religion was practiced in a mythical “golden age” of the past. This very much limits freedom of thought and religious interpretation. What is needed are new, more merciful and compassionate readings of the text.
By knowing the reality of one’s tradition, reformist believers will be better equipped to deal with the arguments raised by right-wing followers who will bring up a lot of the same points I brought up to justify their beliefs. See, for instance, this article by none other than “Dr.” Robert Morey. Reformist, liberal adherents of religion will be in a stronger theological position if they base their views in fact instead of myth. Instead of always needing to validate your beliefs by citing some guy who lived hundreds of years ago, why not just use a much simpler line of argumentation like the following:
The early Church had a mixed view with regard to war, with a portion of them rejecting military service. After reflecting on the issue myself, I tend to be on the pacifist side. My own reasons might not be the exact same as those held by earlier Christians, but there is much overlap. Furthermore, I don’t need to be 100% beholden to their views.