Q. I have been concerned of late with a growing sense of anger and frustration on the part of some of my friends over the apparent intolerance and violence of Islam. I know little of Islam, yet it seems that it can be a tolerant religion. Also, we must learn to live together. Most Americans (US) are having their view of Islam colored primarily by the statements and actions of the radical Islamists. This is making it very difficult for Americans to support Islamic countries and organizations, or believe that democracy is compatible with Islam. Unfortunately, the case of Abdul Rahman is putting another blight on the world's view of Islam. The freedom to believe as a person chooses is fundamental to a democratic society. To be punished for converting is anathema, to be killed is so bad as to defy description.

Also, I just received an e-mail which I am forwarding to you. Does the Qur'an REALLY teach that someone must be punished, or even killed, for converting from Islam to another religion? Please tell me some of the relevant passages in the Qur'an. I have access to the Qur'an and would like to read this for myself. Are there any other websites that discuss the Qur'an, Shari'a law, and civil society?

A. Like you, we too have a growing sense of frustration with some Muslims at the way they choose to react to certain events, and the way they present Islam. We deplore their activities. But we are also not unaware that right now, there is a lot of incitement going on, and that many Muslims feel threatened -- they perceive an all out war on Islam where it is fair to malign and prevaricate against Islam. Let us take for instance the plethora of books written by non-Muslims purporting to explain Islamic warmongering, etc. Those very writers seek to forget that even the present war in Iraq is heavily supported by rightwing Christian groups that have books about the Rapture, etc. Take a look on the Internet, at Amazon.com, and let us see who really promotes hate.

Every time someone speaks of Muslim hate, s/he is in fact promoting hate against Muslims. We hear of the Imams in the mosques preaching hate -- and I have also talked about this -- but how many people have actually visited mosques and heard Imams indulging in this kind of preaching? On the other hand, I can tell you that the frequent rants of people like Hinn, Falwell, Graham, etc. reach far more Christians and non-Christians than the inane remarks of some Imams. We are deluged with terms from Islamophobes parading as scholars (notably they are never cited by bona fide scholars in Islam), spewing terms like "dhimmitude", etc., which for medieval Christians and Jews, for the most part, had more of a positive connotation than the pseudo-historical hate that is now being purveyed (consider the rights, or rather lack thereof, of non-Christians and Jews under Byzantine rule, to which Islamic Law was responding in many cases).

In times of war, or perceived war, people act differently. After 9/11, Americans, because of the reality of the situation, and also because of the propagandistic actions by certain groups, saw this totally as a war by Islam against them. We cannot blame them for this. Now let us put this into perspective. Over the last century, have Muslims been bombing American cities? Have Muslims been sending missionaries who have, through economic methods, etc., threatened families and cultures? Look at Asia and Africa in particular where Christian missionary activity is conducted in the most un-Jesus manner possible, where people are economically blackmailed and taught to hate their religion and denigrate it in order to accept Christianity. On the contrary, Christians who accept Islam are taught to respect Jesus (albeit differently -- as a Prophet, not God’s son), and to respect their parents who remain non-Muslims. The point is that right now, in a time of chaos, we find that while Islam is portrayed as a hate-filled religion, a lot of the hate messages are from those outside of Islam.

If I may use a concept from the Princeton polymath, Cornel West, focus is being put on one particular group -- "the other" -- while we are forgetting our own faults. In order not to take West out of context, I digress here to show the analogy and my take on it: we hear, for example, of Black crime, of Black drug problems, as if that problem does not exist among Whites. The conclusion: Blacks are prone to evil, and few people bother to think and analyze who is doing the "research", who is presenting it, what role does the personal bias of the "researcher" have in such "research", how much disinformation is being purveyed; and if the statistics present a certain picture. Do we consider that the Blacks, while being legally emancipated, are still economically and culturally still enslaved, and that if people are forced to live in a certain situation, or perceive themselves as being coerced, how they will react?

This is not to say that Muslims are blameless. The email/photos you sent (assuming that they have not been tampered with, which is possible in our digital world) portray a horrible people; the same mindset as those Americans who (after 9/11) talked about nuking Mecca, the same mindset that had an American General talk about his God being true and the Muslim God (which is the same and referred to as Allah in Arabic) being false, the same mindset that had evangelical preachers like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson demonizing Islam and all Muslims, and the list goes on and on. The Muslims in Europe have had it difficult for many years. Remember that they are not only a religious minority, they are also discriminated on the basis of race and nationality. Muslims remember Bosnia, and how it took such a long time for the “civilized West” to step in and stop the genocide committed by their Christian brethren. Yes, these are an angry people, making abhorrent statements, but angry nonetheless. Let us understand their mindset before talking about their religion. After all, if we judge Christianity by those evangelists who called for the Iraq war, would we be fair to Christianity?

On the issue of Islam punishing apostasy by death, this is not in the Qur'an. And in classical Islam, the concept of apostasy had nothing to do purely with religion, but rather with subversion since the state was theocratic. It is the same as the capital punishment in Western legal systems for the crime of subversion/sedition. Purely on the basis of religion, the Qur'an acknowledges all religions and says: "there is no compulsion in religion." You may note that in NO Islamic State was there ever the concept that the citizenry had to be forced into Islam. In Christianity there was Constantine and others who slaughtered other Christians who did not subscribe to their ideology, and while that time is long past, it still functionally continues. Even here in the US, there are still arguments about crosses and Biblical verses in the courthouses, and until recently, Muslims had to swear on the Bible in order to give testimony.

The case of Abdul Rahman is truly problematic. But as Akbar Ahmed pointed out in his book "Islam Under Siege", that is a code in Afghanistan that has nothing to do with Islam. Yet for what it is worth, ask yourself why this man would go to the police station and declare his conversion? Doesn’t it appear to be some incitement for publicity here? Muslims in Afghanistan are angry -- as they are in Iraq -- that under the pretext of doing good, many Christian missionaries went there to convert Muslims under the worst possible conditions. And instead of spreading good news, all they caused, and still continue to cause, is hate.

I cannot provide you with the verses of the Qur'an that you asked for because there are no such verses. Since various translations of the Qur'an are available, we suggest the following: that those who claim the Qur'an says a certain thing should produce the verses. If they cannot, then their claim is empty. We cannot recommend any website because we feel that Islam is, like all other religions, not monolithic. But we can recommend some reading, and we suggest the writings of Muhammad Asad, Fazlur Rahman, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Abdullah Ahmad An-Naim, Sayyed Husain Nasr, and Mahmoud Mamdani. And at the risk of sounding like I am promoting myself, I would suggest my own writings that are in academic journals that can be referenced through my site at San Diego State University.

The Qur’an states that the Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sabeans and any who believe in God and do good works will have their reward with their Lord. The Center for Islamic Pluralism which I co-founded teaches that we have no right to pronounce penalties for apostasy on anyone, and that Islam recognizes all other faiths. For the Qur'an says: "for each among you there is a way and a method" and also "to every nation we have sent a Prophet." I am fully aware that Muslims do acts of terrorism and horrible deeds. So too do Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. Let us not blame each other, but correct ourselves first. Remember Jesus’ saying about taking the log out of our own eye before seeking to take the mote out of our brother's (Cornel West's aforementioned paradigm sounds the same). I say this not as a polemic against you, for your question is honest and straightforward. I say this also to Muslims: how dare we talk about Christian hate or problems with theology: rather look at the ethics of Christianity and marvel at their goodness, than look at a few Christians who do un-Jesus like acts. No non-Muslim country is under occupation by Muslim countries right now. And democracy is not necessarily Christian, it just happens to be compatible with modern interpretations of Christianity. In the same manner, democracy is not incompatible with Islam, rather the theoretical aspect of democracy has more of a fertile ground in Islam than it does in Christianity as the Qur'an tells Muhammad to consult the people.

Many Muslims are not willing to have market democracy, one that only serves American/Western interests. As many Muslims ask, and I do too, in the case of Hamas (and let’s be clear that I do not support terrorism in any way): since they were democratically elected (and the US/West claims to promote democracy in the Middle East), how, in God's name, can we then say we will not deal with them? And to add insult to injury, cut off an entire nation of millions completely from aid! Is it not hypocritical to promote then reject something when the results do not meet one’s expectations? I had stated and continue to state: before democracy comes education, it does not happen overnight nor can it be forced upon people. And a bunch of misguided/misinformed people cannot understand Islam. If Islam is indeed bad, then let us learn this by genuine objective material, not by the Islamophobic rants of bigots.

Muslims throughout the world are trying to come to grips with change while under terrible pressure. After the genocide of World War II, the mantra was "never again," yet we are repeating all of the old evils, with restructured canards, seeking to make enemies of 1.4 billion Muslims whose only sin is to be associated with some extremists. I wonder why, when a President (Ahmadinejad) supposedly calls for the extermination of Israel, his view is associated with Islam, but when the US president speaks of the next crusade, or an evangelist calls for the assassination of the Venezuelan president, our “fair and balanced” media are not as eager to connect their statements with their faith. Should we not apply the same standards to Islam?

Webmaster's note: While the Iranian President might be viewed as a crackpot, some journalists have reported that President Ahmadinejad's comments were mistranslated / misquoted, quite possibly as part of a deliberate smear campaign to pave the way for aggression against Iran, as was the case with Iraq and Saddam Hussein's phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). These journalists claim that what Ahmadinejad stated was that the Zionist regime will disappear, not that he wants to wipe Israel off the map.

Incidentally, there are tens of thousands of Jews living in Iran (supposedly the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel). One would think that if Ahmadinejad wanted to rid the world of Jews, he would start at home. To the best of our knowledge, the Jews living in Iran are not being persecuted or wiped out, or the Western media would certainly have reported it.

Posted May 13, 2006