A friend from Gaza posted the following apocryphal story on facebook as news broke of the Paris attacks:
“An ISIL member stopped the car of a Christian couple.
ISIL member: Are you Muslim?
Christian man: Yes, I’m Muslim.
ISIL Member: If you are a Muslim, recite a verse of Quran.
Christian Man recites a verse from the Bible.
ISIL member: Okay, you can go.
Later his wife tells him: Why did u tell him you are a Muslim? If he knew you were lying he’d have killed us both!
‘Do not worry!’ answered the husband. ‘If they knew the Quran they wouldn’t kill people.'”
It’s a nice story, but it’s also entirely besides the point. To be sure, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant doesn’t equal “Islam”, a reality demonstrated by its daily brutality against fellow Muslims. And yes, Muslims are the biggest victims of Muslim terror (and most everyone else’s terrorism too, it’s worth noting).
But that doesn’t mean that there’s not something fundamentally wrong with beliefs and practices drawn from its most fundamental texts, tenets and doctrines.
Even US President Barack Obama has resorted to quoting the Quran, specifically 5:32 – “Whosoever slays a soul it shall be as if he had slain all mankind; and whoso saves one life it shall be as if he has saved all mankind” – to demonstrate Islam’s peaceful essence.
But neither he nor most other leaders read the next verse (at least not aloud). It declares the punishment for perceived enemies of Islam to be “execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet”.
The crimes committed in the name of Jesus are so vast and heinous that it would take volumes just to highlight them.
The reality is that while only a tiny minority of Muslims actively support or participate in terrorism, a large share harbour all sorts of chauvinistic attitudes towards other sects, religions, races, ethnicities and nationalities, women, sexual minorities and others with non-normative (from an Orthodox Muslim point of view) beliefs and practices.
Indeed, the problem with critics of Islam like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins is not so much that they are wrong about Islam as much as that they assume Islam and Muslims are somehow unique in their prejudices, chauvinism and violence. If only that were true.
If we turn to the original “People of the Book”, Jews, the situation is little better. American Jews might be the country’s most reliably liberal demographic; but for half-a-century the community has, almost whole cloth, actively enabled and supported one of the world’s most brutal and longest occupations, which has been carried out and deepened year after year in their name and in the name of their religion.
But why stop with Jews? By many measures, the worst country on earth to be a woman is not Muslim, it’s Hindu India, where Muslims have also been subject to horrific massacres and systematic discrimination. If we move a bit farther east, even Buddhism’s reputation as a religion of peace falls apart the moment we cross into Myanmar and observe the near genocidal treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
If I have saved Christianity for last it’s only because the crimes committed in the name of Jesus are so vast and heinous that it would take volumes just to highlight them.
Bad for humanity
Yes, the problem is religion, which as believed, practiced and otherwise lived by billions of people across the world remains bad for humanity, and even worse for the planet. As a newly published study of the effects of religiosity on children makes clear, the more religious their upbringing, the more selfish and mean they are. Of course, it only gets worse as they grow older and have the power to affect the world around them.
But religion is only the beginning, not the end of the problem. How many hundreds of millions of people have been sacrificed and slaughtered in the name of “the fatherland” or the “nation”? No one really knows, because the number is just too big to calculate.
The United States’ record in this regard is nothing to be proud of, as in the name of US “exceptionalism” and “values” – read untrammeled capitalism – untold millions have been killed and entire countries laid waste with the full support, it must be noted, of the majority of US citizens. France, the UK, Japan, Russia; who can boast a better record during the heyday of their power?
And these sins are in fact dwarfed by the roughly 150 million people murdered or starved to death thanks to the nationalist and economic fantasies of just three men – Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
If we return to the present day, even as the US, UK and France wage war against terror they cozy up to some of the most chauvinistic and barbaric regimes on earth.
As ISIL wages its war against the ‘the grey zones’ where peoples of all faiths interact, coexist and even shape each, its worth noting that its strategy was inspired not by the Quran but instead by George W Bush…
Basic human values
What should we expect in response to such a betrayal of the most basic human values on such a grand and perpetual scale? A Gandhi or King? France’s pre-eminent 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it best in condemning his fellow French for their brutal rule in Algeria: “First, the only violence is [ours]; but soon they will make it their own; that is to say, the same violence is thrown back upon us as when our reflection comes forward to meet us when we go towards a mirror.”
As ISIL wages its war against the “the grey zones” where peoples of all faiths interact, coexist and even shape each, its worth noting that its strategy was inspired not by the Quran but instead by George W Bush, whose “you’re either with us or against us” threat after 9/11 it directly and approvingly quotes.
So by all means, let us blame Islam for the carnage done in its name. But let’s be honest about how much all of our most cherished ideals, identities and ideologies have contributed to the death and destruction piling up around us.
And then, let’s figure out how to recapture the sense of justice, mercy and compassion that have always existed – too often in the shadows – at the core of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and many of the world’s other great belief systems, before there’s nothing left to fight over.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.