NEW YORK – As the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism continue to ravage Islam from within, Muslims have understandably sought to convey to non-Muslims that Islam is a tolerant religion. Since September 11, there has been no shortage of reminders that the root word of Islam means “peace” or that those advocating jihad against the West are deviant “hijackers”.
Historians wax lyrical about Islam’s “golden age” when non-Muslims and Muslims lived side-by-side in harmony and reassure us that Islam’s current crisis is a growing pain, akin to phases other religions have undergone in their early histories. And while a worrying level of ignorance remains – a recent Pew Research Center poll found that only half of Americans were able to identify the Koran as Islam’s equivalent of the Bible – education efforts have worked so effectively that many educated non-Muslims have come to believe that unflattering manifestations of Islam are aberrant. Of course these perceptions are rarely based on direct contact with the religion, for, as any outsider who has taken a closer look at Islam can attest, further inquiry produces as many unsettling questions as it does tidy answers.
Why, for instance, are many of the world’s most pious and knowledgeable Muslims also the most hostile toward non-believers? Why do non-Muslims face significant discrimination, even in the Islamic world’s most moderate nations? (In Malaysia last month for instance, 35 masked assailants dressed in robes attacked and partially scorched a commune led by a Muslim apostate.) This is to say nothing of the rights of women in most Muslim countries. Is it all simply a matter of interpretation (ie abuse for personal or political gain), or does the sustained prevalence of such patterns reveal something inherent about the faith?
Few people want to address this last question openly, lest they be labeled anti-Muslim. But as clear answers to the question of what is ailing Islam in the 21st century remain elusive, the writers of The Myth of Islamic Tolerance, including Bat Ye’or, Mark Durie, Muhammad Younus Shaikh, Daniel Pipes and David Littman, among others, are within bounds to tackle the issue head on.
Their premise is that contemporary Muslim rage and intolerance is not historically isolated; and moreover, that it is rooted in the religion itself. This is not an easy idea to swallow, if for no reason other than it contradicts what one wants to believe about the world’s fastest growing religion – that at its core it is sane and rational. And there is ample reason to be leery; several of the book’s authors are affiliated with Christian and Zionist movements, while some passages come across as hostile and misleading.
Consider the first sentence of the forward written by Ibn Warraq, “Islam is a totalitarian ideology that aims to control the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects; the life of its followers without qualification; and the life of those who follow the so-called tolerated religions [Christians and Jews, which the Koran refers to as People of the Book], to a degree that prevents their activities from getting in the way of Islam in any way.”
And yet The Myth of Islamic Tolerance warrants our attention. Any study of contemporary Islam would be incomplete without it. Collectively, the essays expose an unsettling fact: that Islam’s famed tolerance of non-Muslims has over the centuries fallen well short of an embrace. It is true that Islam calls for no coercion in matters of faith and that it encourages Muslims to respect the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). But it is also true that the Koran incessantly distinguishes between believer and non-believer and calls for unequal treatment of the two. The most obvious example of this is found in the jizya, or poll tax, which requires dhimmis (protected subjects) to pay for military protection.
Read it all.