Part of what motivates people to oppose a mosque at Ground Zero is worry that any form of Islam, except perhaps the most liberal, contains the seeds of religious violence because the Qur’an does, too. The so-called sword verses seem to legitimize various degrees and rationales for violence, and a complex legal discussion has emerged over the centuries in Islamic jurisprudence and politics over what is and isn’t appropriate for jihad.
So, the argument goes, we need to worry about even moderate Muslims, as opposed to–well, as opposed to whom?
Many American Christians in this debate are posing the Qur’an against the Bible and Muhammad against Jesus as if the latter elements of each pair contain no legitimation of violence. But most Christians in church history would say that that is not true. “Moderate” Christians, throughout the history of the church, have favoured violence in various circumstances: to preserve order (police force), to incarcerate and punish criminals (forcible confinement), self-defense (including justifiable deadly force), and “just war,” to name a few, very large categories. Only outright pacifists, always a minority of Christians, say otherwise.
(I say “always,” because I side with those historians who find even the early church not consistently, even generally, pacifistic. Converted soldiers, for example, are not required to leave their duties, but quite the contrary. And once you get beyond A.D. 312, there is no question where majority opinion among Christians lies on this matter.)
To this day, Buddhism has been employed to legitimate all sorts of violence (e.g., Sri Lanka and the history of various countries in Southeast Asia). Hinduism has been similarly invoked (e.g, the Hindutva movement). Various forms of atheism came into their own in the twentieth century, the bloodiest century ever. So what and whom are we talking about when we say we’re worried about people whose ideologies might justify violence?
1. Humanity is prone to violence and will use any legitimation that lies to hand.
2. Some religions and philosophies are, yes, more “useful” than others to legitimize violence. But let’s consider this point more carefully under “3.”
3. Some religions and philosophies more readily legitimize some forms of violence rather than others (e.g., a Christian theory of just war is much more defensible, most Christians agree, versus a Christian defense of imperialism or of chattel slavery, let alone forced “conversions” of a population).
4. We cannot, therefore, oppose the Ground Zero mosque on the grounds that even mainstream Islam legitimizes some violence sometimes–as if Christianity (or secular humanism, or what have you) doesn’t. It all depends on what violence is legitimized in what circumstances. And so the key point here is that the particular violence in question, the violence of 9/11, has been explicitly and repeatedly condemned by the Muslim leaders who want the mosque and community center to be built.
I am pressing these points hard because we need clear, sharp thinking about these matters–and we’re getting precious little of it from our political and cultural leaders, it seems. If we are going to see the American experiment succeed–and, indeed, the Canadian one, or the Australian one, or the modern one–we must think rigorously about the principles, limits, and opportunities of multiculturalism and religious diversity in particular. Let’s keep at it, neighbours.