“In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals.” — Mahatma Ghandi
As a practicing Muslim, I have been grappling at understanding the motivation behind the violent act of terrorism last week. The two shooters, a married couple, dropped off their newborn daughter at a grandmother’s house and went on a killing spree, murdering 14 colleagues of the husband at a holiday party in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif.
A family member in Pakistan told a newspaper that the wife was a “modern girl” who became increasingly religious while attending a conservative Islamic school. Soon after moving to America with her husband, she started sharing extremist messages online and influencing her husband with a distorted interpretation of her religion.
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In my understanding of Islam, women are not takers of life. They are not even allowed to slaughter animals for food. Rather, women are regarded as givers of life. This is the position of women in Islam, at least in the majority interpretation understood by over a billion Muslims in the world.
There is currently a fringe minority of Muslims who have hijacked the Islamic message of peaceful coexistence, inclusiveness and tolerance and twisted it into an extreme message of death, destruction and exclusiveness that is far removed from mainstream interpretation.
As Karen Armstrong, a well-known religious scholar and writer, discussed in a lecture at Boise State University several years ago, this phenomenon is not unique to Islam. Other major religions have at times experienced a reinterpretation of mainstream theology into an extreme form that is irreconcilable with conventional teachings.
An extreme reinterpretation of any major religion can lead to new religious strains that do not bear much resemblance with the parent religion. The new ideas are then picked up by an impressionable and often youthful audience as legitimate religious knowledge and can spread like wildfire over social networks if unchecked.
When I was at the University of Illinois, I wanted to take Taekwondo lessons. Before I was invited to join the school, I had an interview with my future master, who listened to the reasons why I wanted to learn martial arts. He instructed me on how to respect the sport and to never use these lethal skills to bully or hurt other people. Rather, he taught me to use these skills to improve my confidence and he insisted that they be used as a force for good rather than evil, should they be needed some day.
The same is true with religion. I do not need to remind anyone that twisted religious teachings can be dangerous in the hands of reckless young men and women who think that killing innocent civilians and getting killed is a shortcut to heaven. Once these ideas are ingrained in the minds of youngsters who have lost their moral compass, it can be very difficult to dislodge them.
The recent ideological strains of Islam are dangerous for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They will not be defeated by weapons but with ideas. We will need to enlist the help of Muslim countries and the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims who are battling this war of ideas with the extremists within their midst. This battle of ideas will be fought in mosques, schools, social media and cyberspace.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, the French government is considering taking some actions against radical Islam which are very different from the measures advocated by some of our American politicians. For example, the French government did not cower in fear and close its borders to the thousands of Syrian refugees who are fleeing for their lives. Rather, France said that it would still welcome these refugees even though one of the terrorists may have slipped among them with a false passport. Another common-sense measure is a proposal that all mosques in France be led by imams and teachers with religious degrees in Islamic law and jurisprudence.
The knowledge contained in the sacred texts of all religions must be held as a trust and jealously guarded by scholars and teachers against deviations and reinterpretations. As the 13th century Muslim sage Rumi said: “A bee and a wasp drink from the same flower. One produces nectar and the other a sting.”
Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.