I’ve been teaching an online course in world religions, and we’ve reached the unit on Islam. Some interesting discussions have been going on. In the course of the discussions some students made a comparison between Islamic extremism and Christian extremism, as, for instance, in the Crusades. Here is a digest of some of the comments I have made.
Islamic rejection of the West began well before the Crusades, as they began immediately moving across northern Africa, up through Spain, only to be stopped by Charles Martel. At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Muslims were pressing hard upon Constantinople, which was what ultimately led the patriarch to call upon the Pope for help against their agression. The Crusades began as a reaction against Muslim aggression.
Offhand I cannot think of another religion that used the military to begin the spread of their faith. To the radical Islamists, it is a conviction that the world must be purged of "blasphemous" elements as a way of praising Allah that drives their violent acts. It would seem that the suicide bombers are acting entirely in the name of their religion, or at least in the name of their perception of what their religion teaches.
For them it is about the purity and absolute monarchy of God. The "infidels" (that's us) must be brought to their knees. By this reckoning, terrorizing us becomes a noble thing.
The Islamist radicals do not seek to use religion to justify their acts; rather, they believe that their religion causes them to act. That is, they believe themselves to be true to their religion for acting. Indeed they are sincere about what they believe. So sincere, in fact, that they will resort to mass murder or suicide.
(Incidentally, so much for the notion that, as was popular for awhile in the late 20th century, "it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere"!)
There are definite strains of belief contained in the Qur'an which can be reasonably understood to say that terrorism is required of its adherents. Although there is serious debate about whether this is the correct understanding of the Qur'an, one thing is clear: those who resort to Islamist fundamentalism are not simply looking for a justification for it. Rather, they believe that their acts are justified, even required, by their religion.
The Crusades, on the other hand, did not specifically call for violence against innocents; things got out of hand, to be sure, but there was not a call to arms that could be compared to the jihadist violence of the Muslims. The Church's call to the Crusaders was simply to make a pilgrimmage to Jerusalem. It was implied, of course, that Jerusalem would need to be taken. But this would mean fighting against soldiers, not innocents.
The god of Islam is fundamentally a god who demands pure allegience; in the end, any means of achieving this could theoretically be justified. Although he is called "Allah the merciful" there is little evidence that he is actually merciful at all. This may be what leads the Islamists to their extreme position.
Another thing that bears consideration in this discussion is this: I find it remarkable that there are very few Muslim leaders who can be heard in strong opposition to the violence, though there are some. Imagine what leaders of Christian churches would say if there suddenly a slew of "Christian" suicide bombers. Of course, even that would be hard to imagine: Christian extremists of that ilk are very hard to find. One exception would be people who blow up abortion clinics, but even in that case, which is exceedingly rare, they try to do it when no one is in the clinic.
Reason alone tells us that there must be something endemic in a religion that breeds so many violent fundamentalists. A careful examination of the Qur'an tells us the same thing.
“Islam” means "submission." But here is the problem: the god to whom they are to submit is himself not really manifestly merciful and kind, though one can find references to his requiring that of his people. But Allah himself demands submission, and there is an eschatological dimension to this demand. That is to say, terrorists infer that they are carrying out his judgment against those who refuse to submit.
Now contrast this to Christianity: those who refuse to submit to God are warned, called to repentance, and invited to believe in One whose mercy was manifested in the atonement.
Though Christianity also has a strong eschatological element, it is applied in an entirely different way. In the case of Christianity, missionaries go forth to call people to repentance and faith; in the case of Islam, jihadists go forth instead.
In short, I'd have a much easier time believing that Islam is a religion of peace if there weren't so many of them going around killing people all the time. If the majority of Muslims oppose this, then where is the outrage? Frankly I have little use for such a religion of "peace" (do you see my bias showing?).