One of the clearest, most honest, and best-informed statements about Islam that I have ever seen from a contemporary Christian prelate. George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, speaks at the Legatus Summit in Naples, Florida, on “Islam and Western Democracies” (thanks to all who sent this in):
September 11 was a wake-up call for me personally. I recognised that I had to know more about Islam.
In the aftermath of the attack one thing was perplexing. Many commentators and apparently the governments of the “Coalition of the Willing” were claiming that Islam was essentially peaceful, and that the terrorist attacks were an aberration. On the other hand one or two people I met, who had lived in Pakistan and suffered there, claimed to me that the Koran legitimised the killings of non-Muslims.
Although I had possessed a copy of the Koran for 30 years, I decided then to read this book for myself as a first step to adjudicating conflicting claims. And I recommend that you too read this sacred text of the Muslims, because the challenge of Islam will be with us for the remainder of our lives — at least.
Can Islam and the Western democracies live together peacefully? What of Islamic minorities in Western countries? Views on this question range from nÃ¤ive optimism to bleakest pessimism. Those tending to the optimistic side of the scale seize upon the assurance of specialists that jihad is primarily a matter of spiritual striving, and that the extension of this concept to terrorism is a distortion of koranic teaching. They emphasise Islam’s self-understanding as a “religion of peace”. They point to the roots Islam has in common with Judaism and Christianity and the worship the three great monotheistic religions offer to the one true God. There is also the common commitment that Muslims and Christians have to the family and to the defence of life, and the record of co-operation in recent decades between Muslim countries, the Holy See, and countries such as the United States in defending life and the family at the international level, particularly at the United Nations.
On the pessimistic side of the equation, concern begins with the Koran itself. In my own reading of the Koran, I began to note down invocations to violence. There are so many of them, however, that I abandoned this exercise after 50 or 60 or 70 pages. I will return to the problems of Koranic interpretation later in this paper, but in coming to an appreciation of the true meaning of jihad, for example, it is important to bear in mind what the scholars tell us about the difference between the suras (or chapters) of the Koran written during Muhammad’s thirteen years in Mecca, and those that were written after he had based himself at Medina. Irenic interpretations of the Koran typically draw heavily on the suras written in Mecca, when Muhammad was without military power and still hoped to win people, including Christians and Jews, to his revelation through preaching and religious activity. After emigrating to Medina, Muhammad formed an alliance with two Yemeni tribes and the spread of Islam through conquest and coercion began. One calculation is that Muhammad engaged in 78 battles, only one of which, the Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. The suras from the Medina period reflect this decisive change and are often held to abrogate suras from the Meccan period.
The predominant grammatical form in which jihad is used in the Koran carries the sense of fighting or waging war. A different form of the verb in Arabic means “striving” or “struggling”, and English translations sometimes use this form as a way of euphemistically rendering the Koran’s incitements to war against unbelievers. But in any case, the so-called “verses of the sword” (sura 95 and 936), coming as they do in what scholars generally believe to be one of the last suras revealed to Muhammad, are taken to abrogate a large number of earlier verses on the subject (over 140, according to one radical website). The suggestion that jihad is primarily a matter of spiritual striving is also contemptuously rejected by some Islamic writers on the subject. One writer warns that “the temptation to reinterpret both text and history to suit “˜politically correct” requirements is the first trap to be avoided”, before going on to complain that “there are some Muslims today, for instance, who will convert jihad into a holy bath rather than a holy war, as if it is nothing more than an injunction to cleanse yourself from within”.
Be sure to read it all.