Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Let’s ask the OIC
President Trump’s order to pause immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries provoked two opposite and almost equally strong reactions, the one decrying what it saw as an illegitimate move against a religion, the other welcoming a sensible breathing space while better vetting procedures are developed. But scarcely beneath the surface of this dispute was a more basic one of two diametrically opposed opinions on Islam. One sees it as a religion of peace and tolerance, primarily because most Muslims live at peace with their non-Muslim neighbors, while the other focuses on the Quran’s repeatedly commanding the faithful to attack and destroy unbelievers, and to wage jihad until the final extinction of other religions. Can so fundamental a disagreement be resolved? There is a way to do so, and we need to use it quickly.
Each of these stances has a standard response to the other. The “religion of peace” school argues that the Quran’s urging violence against non-Muslims is relevant only to the seventh century context in which Mohammed was struggling to establish Islam, and is taken out of context when read as advocating violence against infidels today. But the “religion of conquest” school argues that however many Muslims are peaceful, the number who read the Quran literally and therefore either pursue or support in principle violent jihad is so large that it must be regarded as an integral part of the religion.
Let’s set aside for the moment the question which side is right so that we can first look at something that is rather odd about all of this. It is strange that in so important a dispute, we rarely (if ever) hear authoritative voices instructing the faithful in loud and clear terms as to which interpretation is correct. Imagine a comparable dispute about the nature of Catholicism. Everyone would immediately look to the Pope to settle the question. The Pontiff would instruct his flock as to how they should, and should not, read the Bible. But the crucial argument that the Quran’s calls for violent jihad against unbelievers are not relevant to the modern world is generally made only by individual Muslims that have no special authority to speak for the faith.
Is this because Islam lacks a central authoritative agency such as the papacy? There is indeed no pope of Islam, but nor is there a pope of all Christianity. The truth is that Islam is more, not less organized than Christianity. It has a clear focal point: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC is composed of 57 countries that are either majority Muslim, or have large Muslim populations. It describes itself as “the collective voice of the Islamic world,” and is widely accepted as such. Accordingly, Islam is not worse, but much better placed than Christianity to give authoritative instructions to the faithful as to how its holy book should be read.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that instead of trying to decide which interpretation of Islam is correct, we should simply ask the OIC to decide the question for us. It alone has the authority to give a definitive answer.
But is the OIC in the habit of deciding basic questions of doctrine on behalf of Islam as a whole? Indeed it is. The most notable example was its response to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948. In 1990 the OIC adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which essentially said that where the Universal Declaration was inconsistent with Sharia law, Sharia must prevail. That was accepted -- though also much criticized in the West -- as the authoritative Islamic view of the matter.
Do we have the right to insist on a ruling by the OIC? Of course we do, because the question how the relevant passages of the Quran should be read has a serious impact on our lives. We are regularly subjected to vicious terrorist attacks by Muslims who read them as fully relevant to the modern world. Bloody civil wars are either caused or exacerbated by that reading, and we are impacted by the resulting refugee crisis.
But in any case, the Muslim world itself badly needs a ruling, which is long overdue. Polls show that a clear majority of those who live in Muslim-majority countries believe that the Quran requires jihad against non-believers in general, and the West in particular. The 2009 World Public Opinion poll found this even for 62% of Jordanians and 61% of Egyptians, hardly the most virulently anti-Western of Muslim countries. A 2015 Al-Jazeera poll found that 81% of all Muslims support the Islamic State. It’s certainly possible that one or more of these polls is unreliable, but at the very least they show that sharply different understandings of the Quran exist, and that therefore guidance by the OIC is needed.
There are three possible outcomes of a request for a ruling. OIC might rule that the relevant passages of the Quran indeed apply only to the 7th century context; or that they are timeless in their applicability; or it might refuse to give a ruling. Let us take these one by one.
The first would represent an authoritative ruling that the Quran is misread by jihadis and their numerous sympathizers. However, that ruling would be pointless unless the OIC took steps to enforce it. It would need to instruct the faithful everywhere that they must all now live at peace with other faiths, and that killing people whose only crime is being non-Muslim will earn them not 72 virgins, but a place in hell.
Enforcing the ruling would certainly require taking steps to ban the militant reading of the Quran that is taught to children in many schools across the Islamic world. Enforcement would also have to include sweeping away any customs that are visibly relics of a “conquest” phase. For example, if the faithful are to live at peace with other religions, the practice of those faiths cannot be made a criminal offence, as in Saudi Arabia.
But what if the OIC were to rule instead that everything in the Quran is valid for all time -- even those parts of it that call for violence against and/or subjugation of non-believers? If the OIC were to rule in this way, it would follow that Islam was a religion unlike any other. We usually think of a religion as a set of beliefs and values, together with the rituals that express them. But this hypothetical ruling would mean that Islam was much more than a religion as we understand that word. To the extent that jihad against unbelievers were an essential part of modern Islam it would also embody a conspiracy to murder, and to the extent that it aimed eventually to subject all non-Muslims to Sharia law it would represent a conspiracy to overthrow the Constitution of the United States. Religions, as we understand that term, are protected by our Constitution, but conspiracies to murder and to overthrow our Constitution are not.
If the OIC were ever to rule in this way, it would follow from that ruling that every Muslim would become a party to those conspiracies. Speaker Paul Ryan famously said that we can’t impose a religious test for immigration, because “that is not who we are.” But we are also not a foolish people. No prudent society could neglect to screen immigrants for a possible membership in organizations that advocate and practice criminal violence and sedition, regardless of whether they also have a religious basis.
The third possibility is that the OIC could refuse to issue a ruling. But since the OIC is naturally well aware of the violence being done by so many Muslims in the name of Islam, a refusal to offer guidance as to how to read the Quran’s calls for violence against unbelievers could only mean that the militant reading will stand. That would give tacit blessing to the violence. Clearly, we should have to regard this third possible outcome as a variant of the second. A true religion of peace would want to resolve any ambiguity about its nature, once and for all, and it would surely want to outlaw violent jihad.
A ruling by the OIC would represent a crucial decision by Islam. Depending on what that ruling might be, violent jihadis will either have been excommunicated or accepted. And consequently, Islam would either deserve and get the same protection that any other religion deserves under US law, or it would not.
John M Ellis is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Chairman of the California Association of Scholars