According to a verse in the Koran, it is said, there must be no compulsion in religion. So why are Muslims so often violently intolerant? The question is raised anew by the fanatical Muslim reaction to Pope Benedicts recent speech in Germany by millions who neither knew nor cared what he was actually saying. The response included curses, threats, denunciations, demands for apologies, the burning of churches, and the murder of a nun.
Lets acknowledge that Christians too have sometimes more often than we like to recall used the sword to spread their faith and to suppress heresy and unbelief. But nearly all Christians now admit that this was not only wrong, but contrary to the spirit of Christ, who told us to turn the other cheek, pray for our persecutors, and, when meeting unbelief, to do nothing more violent than shake the dust from our feet and move on.
The Christian faith conquered the Roman Empire through Christians who took these commandments very literally. These were the countless martyrs who died under hideous tortures to bear witness to Christs resurrection. Typical was St. Lawrence, who, while being burned to death on a giant griddle, quipped to his tormentors, You can turn me over now. I think Im done on this side. Sometimes the martyrs example converted their persecutors on the spot.
Let us posit that true Islam forbids compulsion in religion. In that case, Muslims who use the sword are Bad Muslims, giving their faith a bad name among non-Muslims, as in the fourteenth-century passage the Pope cited in his German speech.
That speech was not an attack on Islam, but an affirmation that faith and reason are harmonious, because God is the God of reason. His Son is the Logos, the Word, as the Gospel of John says, through whom all things were made. One of the things this means is that religion can and must be discussed rationally. Faith and reason can never be opposed, though human reason has its limitations when confronting such mysteries as the divine Trinity.
Just as good Christians have had to swallow their pride and confess that the sword was the worst means of propagating their faith, good Muslims must face the fact that Bad Muslims have disgraced Islam in the worlds eyes and are still doing so by giving it the bloody reputation the Pope alluded to when he quoted the offending words. If you conquer by fear, you may count on being hated. Do Muslims want the very name of Allah to terrify the world? Or do they want it to signify goodness and mercy? These questions should answer themselves.
Whatever true Islam may be, the world judges by what it sees. And as someone has put it, Islam is as Islam does. Right now the fanatics are doing most of the audible talking and too much of the visible acting; and a community is judged not so much by the character of the majority, but by its prevalent powers, even if they are only a violent and tyrannical minority.
Today the world sees Saudi Arabia, for example, banning Jews, Bibles, the public display of Christian symbols, and the celebration of Mass. It sees Irans ayatollahs calling for the killing of authors. It recently saw democratic Afghanistan sentence to death a Muslim convert to Christianity. It has seen terrorists threaten to behead captives unless they convert to Islam, and now the murder of an old nun. It has seen Sunni and Shiite Muslims slaughtering each other and bombing each others mosques.
If these are all violations of true Islam, one could easily get the wrong impression. At least the Bad Muslims disdain to prevail by reason and persuasion. They are promoting the identification of Islam with sheer savagery. And the real tragedy is that good Muslims put their own lives at risk if they oppose them.
Fear may make quick and superficial conversions, but Christians have learned that it fails in the long run. Fear, after all, is our enemy, and one of the New Testaments most frequent sayings is Be not afraid. Our faith has been spread by the courage of our martyrs, such as the murdered nun, who died saying, I forgive. She remembered that Christ died for all of us, including Muslims.
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