The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Did the Koran Make Them Do It on 9/11?

No, says Philip Jenkins, one of the world’s most serious and best respected students of Christian history.  Jenkins has chronicled as few others the story of Middle Eastern persecution and suppression of Christianity; his analysis of the relationship of modern religious life to ‘difficult’ texts in their scriptures — like just about everything he writes — strikes me as useful and profound.

Writes Jenkins:

Such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture — or, conversely, that the mere existence of a scriptural text means that its doctrines must shape later history. When Christians or Jews point to violent parts of the Qur’an (or the Hadith) and suggest that those elements taint the whole religion, they open themselves to the obvious question: what about their own faiths? If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.

Read the whole thing for a frank and serious take on one of the vital questions of our time.

(And thanks to Mustafa Akyol for the tip!)

Published on October 31, 2011 8:09 am
  • J

    My heart wants to go with this, but my head reminds me that the 9-11 terrorists explicitly acted on an understanding of their faith. I just can’t think of many examples of terrorist violence perpetrated by Christians acting on the basis of their faith. Tom McVeigh is sometimes trotted out, but he clearly did not act on the basis of his faith (if he even had any). Once a decade or so an abortion doctor is assassinated by someone acting on fundamentalist Christian ideas, but those cases are few and far between. Fact is, hardly a day goes by when there is not a terrorist act, usually a suicide bombing, perpetrated by a Muslim acting on what he understands his or her faith to demand (often killing other Muslims). I want to believe slogans like ‘Islam is not the problem’ or ‘Islam is no worse than Christianity,’ but I can’t get my desire to jibe with what I actually see happening in the world today.

  • Michael Bender

    One of the silliest statements I’ve heard, and from a man I generally admire, was President Bush: “Islam is a religion of peace.” Where is there any proof of that? Where was there any shame, apology, or even embarrassment from the world wide Muslim community? Just imagine the reaction of a similar case where the actors scream as they blow up the World Trade Center: Christ is great!
    Contrary to J, my heart tells me, Phillip Jenkins is a fool.

  • D

    One wonders if Mr. Jenkins has ever gotten around to actually familiarizing himself with the texts, tenets and atmospherics of Islam and the hideous utterances about Jews, Christians and the West to be found in mainstream media outlets across the Islamic world. The violence and hostility is entirely rooted, invoked and sanctioned by Islam. He might then consider connecting the dots before engaging in moral
    equivalence arguments that accuse contemporary Judaism and Christianity of the kind of “savagery” being perpetrated daily by Muslims who have yet to discover their own renaissance.

  • http://davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com/ David Hoffman

    Sorry, but he is wrong. I do not believe that any Christian or Jewish sect calls for Holy War as a central part of their doctrine. Even during the Crusades, the idea of holy warriors was more than a little controversial. The Byzantines, who fought against Islamic armies for centuries, rejected the idea entirely.In Islam, Jihad is considered to be obligatory by every school of Sunni or Shiite jurisprudence.
    Moreover, Islamic interpretations of the Koran have tended to be more literal than Christian or Jewish interpretations of the Bible and far less bound by historical or cultural context. A Christian or Jew can consider certain parts of the Old Testament as no longer binding in today’s world. A Muslim cannot, for the Koran is for all times and places.
    Mustafa Akyol is a liberal who is trying to reform the Islamic religion. I doubt very much that he will succeed. It is more likely that as the Islamist gain more power in his native Turkey he will be obliged to emigrate or risk getting killed.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery”

    I am afraid I must disagree in the case of Christianity’s sacred texts. There are no commandments of violence within it. Such violence as has been committed “in the name of Christianity” finds no clear sanction in the Gospels or the Letters of St. Paul or anywhere else in the New Testament, but, on the contrary, just the opposite.

    As for commandments for violence in the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch specifically, it is interesting that there are Orthodox rabbis in Israel today, a small minority, who actually employ these texts to incite violence against Palestinians, or even against fellow Israeli Jews who are perceived as being favorably disposed towards compromise on the issues diving Palestinians and Israelis. The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin is the most notable example, though the slaughter or innocents in the Cave of Abraham is also notorious.

    I am of the conviction that these latter acts are in fact not justified by a literal interpretation of the Torah texts (or oral law for that matter) for reasons I painstakingly spelled out in an essay I wrote some years ago titled “The Torah and the West Bank,” the only original piece of scholarly research I ever published.

    You’ll find it in the 1987 (?) Summer Issue of the journal Judaism published by the American Jewish Congress (or Committee?) If I’m not mistaken it was the first highly critical piece of commentary on Israeli government policy towards the West Bank ever published in the mainstream Jewish press in America. (I may be wrong about that — it sounds implausible.) If I knew how to do it I would put it online.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.”

    Islam, whose name means surrender, is a religion that was designed for and grew-up in an armed camp. It is most susceptible to the manipulation of fanatics who want to weaponize its followers.

    It is not a coincidence that most of the world’s violence is created at the interface of Islam and its neighbors.

  • Krishan Bhattacharya

    Ditto ‘J’ and Michael Bender above.

    Mayor Bloomberg has made similar noises, saying that the attacks of September 11 had ‘nothing to do with Islam’, which is delusional on its face.
    This behavior is the result of the belief in the afterlife, and the doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. Those two doctrines are central to Islam (as are similar to commandments found in the Old Testament), and are reiterated ad nauseam in the literature of Islam. The difference from the Bible, however, is that the Christian (I am an atheist if you’re wondering) can ignore Leviticus and Kings II and turn the page to the Jesus of Matthew and other books. The Koran calls for holy war and the scourging of unbelievers on almost every page. It is left to the moderate to scour the Koran for passages calling for peaceful behavior.

  • http://therandomtexan.wordpress.com/ Mike Anderson

    So to paraphrase Jenkins and the NRA, “Scriptures don’t kill people, people kill people.” Not too helpful in understanding motive, is it?

  • http://ttheamericanculture.org Mike D’Virgilio

    “If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery”

    I can’t speak so much to Judaism, although in a sense this would apply to that faith as well, but there is something in Christian theology called progressive revelation. My guess is that Mr. Jenkins either doesn’t know what that is, or has not thought about it very seriously.

    As Christians, we believe that God’s work in history through his people was progressively revealed over time, with his culmination in the person of Christ. The experience of the people of Israel and God’s commands to them cannot be shorn of it’s historical or biblical context.

    So understood correctly, our founding texts do indeed shape our religion, just not in the way Jenkins implies. The analogy is false and inaccurate.

  • RSC

    Everything from patriarchal oppression to environmental devastation to genocide of natives people is blamed on the Bible, and we can’t impute a little violence to the tenets of Islam?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/goodandtruth Coleman Glenn

    As I mentioned in a comment on Jenkins’ post (still awaiting moderation), I think that looking directly at the Qur’ an, while a worthwhile enterprise, actually misses a large part of what Islam means for most Muslims. As I see it, it’s a very Protestant approach – the essence of a religion is determined by its sacred text (Sola Scriptura), and each individual member of the faith has an obligation to interpret it for himself. From what I gather (and I admit I’m not an expert), Islam doesn’t tend to work this way – the Qur’ an is interpreted by one of a few “schools” of scholarship (madh’hab), and the interpretation of scholars is much more valued than an individual’s interpretation. So to ask whether the Qur’ an promotes violence, while a worthwhile question, doesn’t really get at the question of whether Islam as a faith promotes violence – to do that requires taking a look at those different schools, some of which seem to promote violence more than others. For a non-Muslim to try to convince a Muslim of one of the more violence-tolerant schools that their interpretation of the Qur’ an is wrong seems like a very steep uphill battle, since even the majority of *Muslims* aren’t free to make that kind of interpretation, only a select few scholars, working within centuries-old schools of interpretation.

  • http://blogs.jpost.com/content/warped-mirror PetraMB

    I count myself among the most devoted WRM fans, but this post here is one of the very few very weak ones to appear on this blog.

    First, it’s either ridiculous or perhaps just a sign of desperation when we are asked to take the word of an expert on Christianity when it comes to the question of 9/11 and the Quran. Secondly, the question is itself stupid, because obviously, the Quran doesn’t make anyone do anything; instead, what counts is the way the Quran and Muslim scriptures are nowadays interpreted by the most influential Muslim clerics and preachers, and what is widely believed by Muslims.

    So no matter what even the most respected expert on Christianity thinks, the fact of the matter remains that many of the most influential Muslim clerics glorify jihad — e.g. Yussuf al Qaradawi, who has explicitly stated (including in one of his books) that war between Muslims and Jews is ordained by Allah. He has also stated in his widely watched Al Jazeera show that Hitler was a tool of Allah and that he hopes that “the believers” will eventually be able to finish what Hitler couldn’t accomplish (Al Jazeera show January 2009, available with translation by MEMRI).

    Then, even though I’m currently abroad, I live in a place that is just a few kilometers outside the range of the barrage of rockets unleashed by Islamic Jihad in Gaza in the past few days — and you can be absolutely sure that each and every member of Islamic Jihad is firmly convinced that what they’re doing is commanded by Islamic scripture. Or use Google to check out the ideas of the late Nizzar Rayan, a widely respected Hamas jihadist and cleric who taught at Gaza’s Islamic university and sent his own teenage son on a suicide bombing mission.

    Another point to consider is that we all remember the violent Muslim protests against some cartoons in an unknown Danish newspaper — but can anyone point to any Muslim mass demonstrations protesting any of the numerous atrocities committed in the name of Islam?

    One last point: The July/August issue of Foreign Affairs has a piece by Marc Lynch (Veiled Truths) who attacks Paul Berman’s work. The truly interesting thing about Berman’s article is that even though he is all for uncritically embracing every Muslim who claims to be a “moderate”, he actually acknowledges that guys like Qaradawi do represent the Muslim mainstream. And frankly, if a widely and wildly popular Muslim mainstream cleric advances the view that Hitler was Allah’s tool, it doesn’t matter much in the real world if the most respected expert on Christianity thinks that Qaradawi got Muslim scripture wrong.

  • JP

    He’s dead wrong. The Jihadist follow the Doctrine of Abrogation in their theology. “Cancel and Replace” in which the earlier, peaceful Surah’s are Canceled and replaced with the later at the end of Muhammed’s life. Which are the violent, Global Caliphate variety.

  • http://westernhero.blogspot.com/ silverfiddle

    Few things are more tedious than listening to critics quote the koran.

    Anyone can take any text and make it mean anything.

  • John Burke

    Um, so where exactly in the Gospels, the Epistles or the Acts — the founding texts of Christianity — are the bellicose statements like those attributed to The Prophet in the Koran?

    And maybe I missed it, but which armies did Jesus or Peter or Paul lead in military campaigns to conquer Palestune, Egypt, Syria, Persia, Anatolia, Africa and Spain as Muhammed and his early successors did in subduing half the Mediteranean world for Islam?

    I thought Christianity spread peacefully throughout the Roman world for several centuries in the face of episodes of deadly suppression by the authorities. And poor me, I thought all those saints and martyrs who gave up their lives without a fight were somehow different from “martyrs” who kill themselves with bombs as they murder others.

    One can make out a decent argument that “Christendom” from the fifth through the 19th century sometimes waged war in the name of the Cross, but there is no way to equate the Christian gospels with the Koranic exhortations to bloody conquest.

  • WigWag

    Jenkins is very smart and his books are well worth reading but even smart people can write dumb articles. That’s what Jenkins appears to be guilty of.

    Yes it is true that the holy book of the Jews implored the Israelites to treat the Canaanites and the Amalekites in a manner that seems barbaric by today’s standards. Of course that was the day of an “eye for an eye” and given half a chance, the Canaanites and the Amalekites would have treated the Israelites in precisely the same manner. The point is that all of this happened several thousand years ago.

    It is also true that the Crusaders may have referred to biblical passages to justify their barbarity on the way to the Holy Land. But of course this occurred several hundred years ago. Christians may even have cited scripture as they annihilated the native American population, enslaved black Africans or colonized Africa and Asia but this too occurred more than a century and a half ago.

    Jews and Christians have conquered their bigoted past even if there continue to be a small number of horrific exceptions. Much of the Islamic world continues to be plagued by violence, bigotry and hatred.

    If one reads Jenkins books or Eliza Griswold’s “The Tenth Parallel” it becomes obvious immediately that at the fault line where the Christian and Muslim world’s meet for the most part it is the Muslim community perpetrating violence against the Christians, not the other way around.

    In the West, even the most devout Christians and observant Jews have made peace with modernity, liberalism, tolerance and pluralism; this simply isn’t true for most of the Islamic world.

    Several thousand years ago I am sure that most of the Israelites were not cold blooded killers even in the barbaric (by modern standards) world that they lived in. Several hundred years ago I am sure that most Christians were not cold blooded killers even as their co-religionists rampaged across Europe and the Middle East.

    I am equally sure that most contemporary Muslims are not killers or even bigots but that doesn’t mean that much of the contemporary Islamic world is not barbaric. The sad reality is that it is; that is unless you don’t consider capital punishment for apostasy and
    homosexuality barbaric or plural consanguineous arranged marriages of young girls barbaric.

    There is every reason to believe that someday the Islamic world will grow out of it’s infantile condition just as the Jewish and Christian world has. Until that time arrives the West needs to acknowledge that while individual Muslims may not be our enemy, the Islamic world at large still is.

  • Luke Lea

    @WigWag – WygWag makes some excellent points. I would add, in the case of the Muslim world, the unfortunate reality is that the violent extremists, though a tiny minority, can intimidate the non-violent majority through the unspoken yet implied threat of lethal reprisal.

    Fear of reprisal, I suspect, is one reason moderate Muslims don’t speak out more forcefully or more often than they do, even in America. My personal view is that they ought to show more courage, since as it stands, the American public is unaware, for instance, that 80% of Muslim immigrants in this country are unaffiliated with any mosque and of the minority who are affiliated the overwhelming majority — 99% maybe? I don’t really know the figures — condemn the suicide bombers and assassins.

  • WigWag

    It would be interesting to see an exchange between Professor Mead and Peter Berger about the Jenkins article; Mead is always very thoughtful about issues pertinent to religion and Berger is both erudite and eloquent when discussing the sociology of religion. I am glad that Professor Mead brought the Jenkins article to our attention; it would be even more interesting if he provided his thoughts about it.

    One point that Jenkins did not make, is that Rabbinic Judaism which is the form of Judaism practiced by virtually all Jews (even the most observant) for almost two thousand years, is quite a different religion than the form of Judaism that was practiced by the biblical patriarchs. In fact, Rabbinic Judaism is almost as different in practice from the religion practiced by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as modern Christianity is.

    There is no strand of either modern Judaism or Christianity that looks to the orders the deity gave to the biblical patriarchs for how Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians or any other religious group should be treated today. Unfortunately, tens of millions of Muslims believe that the Koran should be the final authority on how Muslims should interface with other faith traditions.

    Jenkins is a thoughtful guy (as far as I can tell from his books). It would be interesting to get his take on the following:

    There are 48 majority Muslim nations in the world today; half make apostasy a crime and all of the Arab nations and Iran make apostasy a crime punishable by death. There are 119 majority Christian nations in the world today; not one of them makes apostasy a crime including the 16 nations where Christianity is the official religion of the State.

    There is something frightening going on in the contemporary Muslim world. The only group that even begins to approach the Muslim world in terms of intolerance is the multicultural-worshiping modern progressive left.

  • http://somercet.blogspot.com/ somercet

    Ugh. What an awful blogpost. I suppose there have been (pick one) Protestants who saw Catholics as unregenerate; were they ever elevated to positions in peacetime? Did the Holy See ever adopt this reasoning? Or is he just bored with “picking on” Muslims and now thinks to smear the side that is avoiding this bad behavior?

    tl;dr More mush from the left.