What can we say about Islam?

The terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo once again gives rise to the controversy over whether there is a violent element that is part of the religion of Islam. Nicholas Kristof argues for a distinction between Muslim terrorists and the vast majority of adherents to Islam.

The small number of terrorists, Kristof says, cannot be considered representative of the 1.6 billion members of the Muslim faith. The vast majority of Muslims had nothing to do with this attack and have condemned it. Muslims are far more often the victims of terrorism than are non-Muslims. The current divide is not between faiths, but between terrorists and moderates. Don't respond to intolerance with intolerance of our own.

I completely agree with everything Kristof says and emphatically assert that any violence or discrimination against Muslims in our midst must absolutely be avoided and condemned. Yet I am not convinced that we have the complete picture.

All religions have their strengths and weaknesses. Catholicism still has vestiges of the notion that only by being Catholic can you attain salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). The Christian right can be guilty of intolerance of gays and other groups. On the Jewish right, we have those who use the Hebrew Scriptures to block possible accommodations with Palestinians on agreements that could move the peace process forward. While Christians may no longer kill those they disagree with, they certainly have a bloody history of doing so.

These are delicate issues, but one cannot really move forward if we cannot have an honest discussion about religion. Religious groups do sometimes hold positions that are not acceptable in any society. Even the Supreme Court has at times ruled that certain practices were incompatible with our society. No religion is always right, and simply because a religion may espouse certain beliefs does not make slavery, oppression of women, discrimination against gays or other examples of intolerance acceptable.

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Pope Francis has broached this topic in his concern over fundamentalism in all religions. He notes that when positions become rigid, it is difficult to see the truth or value in what others have to say. There is no way for people of different faiths to live together unless they can genuinely respect and value what is important to their fellow travelers in life.

I think perhaps the problem with Islam is that moderates, while not silent, have not been nearly as vocal and are not being heard nearly as well as those who distort their religion for violent purposes. Even some moderate Muslims at times feel that the jihadists may have it right: They are being oppressed by the West and need to fight back. It needs to be made clear that they don't have it right -- those resorting to violence do not represent Islam. The true, peaceful nature of Islam needs to emerge more strongly.

I think NCR has been an example of a newspaper that has tried to play such a role in Catholicism since 1964. Their incisive reporting and commentary demonstrate that conservatives and traditionalists are not the only voices in the church. There is more than one view as to what Catholicism is and should be. Loyal and devout Catholics may at times have valuable insights that Catholic leadership do not currently share.

I'd like to see Pope Francis make it a major initiative of his papacy to work together with Muslim leaders to develop a joint approach for strengthening moderate Islam around the world. There is a great need to counteract the recruiting mechanisms that are distorting the values of Islam and radicalizing so many young Muslims. Enough people have died on all sides of the divide, including far too many young people. It is time to stop the killing and seek peace. Let the great religions of the world show that indeed they are not the problem, but can serve as vehicles for peace by letting the best of their traditions shine forth.


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