critics usually react to the word "evil" with condescension
and derision. Describing something as "evil," in their view,
generally brands one as an unenlightened throw-back to the dark ages --
or the equivalent of a televangelist preaching hellfire and damnation.
Who forgets the outcry when President Reagan described the
as the "Evil Empire?" Or today, when President Bush refers to
the "Axis of Evil?" Commentators unequivocally condemn the
word as an outmoded judgmental term unfit for today's multi-cultural
world. Unless, of course, one wants to use it to describe the
United States of America
or Western Civilization itself.
The question, "Is America evil?" is routinely discussed not
just on message boards and in chat rooms -- the Internet equivalent of
bathroom walls -- but by tenured professors and in respected newspapers.
A New York Times book review on January 11, 2004, quotes author Lance
Morrow from his book: "Evil, An Investigation".
"Americans are struggling now with the possibility that their
country may be evil -- or, to be more practical, that their country may
be doing evil in the world." Just two weeks later, the front page
of Book Review section reads: "Is
an evil empire? Seven new books seem ready to think so."
Most Americans are shocked at the notion of an evil
. Considering our history, the attack on our country's character is hard
to fathom. Over the last two centuries immigrants came in droves,
seeking refuge from tyranny and poverty. They found unequalled freedom
and opportunity secured by a stable democracy. During that time,
totalitarian barbarity threatened to consume the world.
played a crucial role in defeating European and Japanese fascism in
was left in ruins and half enslaved by Communism. In Asia,
was in ruins and
soon became Communist. We then faced the Communist strain of
totalitarianism; one that would result in the deaths of 100 million
people and threatened to engulf the world. Once again, our military
might was crucial. We contained Communism until it fell of its own
internal contradictions. In short,
has saved civilization.
Given the recent worldwide attacks by Islamic terrorists, why isn't the
question "Is Islam evil?" With few exceptions (
, for example), Islamic countries are fascist, autocratic or theocratic,
where women are subjugated and minorities persecuted. Islamic countries
are rife with poverty and have been for centuries. Polls show that in
many Islamic countries a majority of Muslims lionize the man responsible
for the atrocities of September 11th and the terrorist gangs who
routinely slaughter civilians in Israeli buses and restaurants. In Arab
schools and on Arab television, children are taught the glory of
becoming suicide bombers. Almost everywhere that Islam borders other
cultures, there is violence.
The idea, then, that Islam is evil has far more plausibility than the
is evil. But merely, raising the question, "Is Islam evil?"
provokes an instant, inevitable outcry: "Bigot!"
"Racist!" "Zionist!" Indeed, the attempt to suppress
debate on this question is so intense that few people in the mainstream
will ask it.
The level of banality goes beyond the empty name-calling. Typical
knee-jerk questions are: "How can you call all Muslims evil?"
"Have you ever met a Muslim?" "Don't you think Muslims
have children, too?" Notice the switch from the religion to the
demographic group. Muslims, as individuals, range from lapsed to devout,
from "in name only" to fully practicing Jihadists. As in all
religions, some individuals retain the label even if they don't practice
the religion. Indeed, knowledge of the religion varies from person to
person. It is not at all unusual to find members of a religion who don't
understand the doctrines, practice, or history of their religion. As a
broad label, "Muslim" is nothing more than a meaningless
demographic term. To judge a religion, one considers those who
understand and practice the religion. Would we judge Catholicism by
someone who, following the tradition of their parents, calls themselves
Catholic but has no knowledge of the teachings of the Church, the Pope,
the Saints, and the Bible?
Why is Islam exempt from critical analysis? In Western society, there is
no shortage of critics of Christianity. Indeed, on many college campuses
it is open season on anything that has the faint odor of Western
Civilization -- Christianity included -- even though Christianity, like
Islam, originated in the
. One might wonder why Islam, which sees itself as a continuation or
fulfillment of Judeo-Christianity, is not subject to the same intense
criticism. Instead, multi-culturalism treats Islam as a protected
species -- an indigenous ethos inseparable from a people. Consequently,
self-appointed Politically Correct thought-police stifle debate on Islam
by shamelessly playing the race card -- even though Islam is not a race.
We Americans are incredulous to hear the vilification of our country,
our traditions and our principles. Yet, we hesitate to publicly condemn
Islam as evil when that is far more plausible. Or even raise the
question! Yet, it is clearly on people's mind. So much so that it is
often answered in a pre-emptive manner. "Don't blame Islam for the
acts of a few", we are told. "Islam has been hijacked by
militants," say our leaders. No discussion. No one explicitly asks
the question. No one dares. We must not allow ourselves to be deterred
by this intimidation. The question is both legitimate and important:
"Is Islam evil?"
Negative moral pronouncements – bad and evil – are unavoidable if we
are to take the requisite actions to avoid what is harmful to our lives
and well being. Belief systems and ideas should be judged in the similar
manner. Ideas have consequences; if they lead to inimical results they
are harmful. If, by their very nature, they are blatantly horrific in
their implications, are they not evil? Tyranny, slavery, subjugation,
and irrationalism are clear cases. However, most evil ideologies are
packaged to sell – including religions. Let’s dissect Islam and ask
if it is inherently evil.
How shall we address this question? To understand how a belief system,
like Islam, can be evil, we have to start by asking: what do the ideas
mean in practice? When Islam is practiced, what kind of person does one
become? What kind of society is an Islamic society? Islam has 1400 years
of history to help us answer these questions. And we should compare
Islam to other religions and philosophies. However, let us proceed with
caution. Merely listing historical atrocities by demographic group --
whether Christian, Jews, Muslims, or secular -- tells us little. We need
to provide an attribution analysis to determine whether it was because
of the religion or despite the religion. By carefully considering the
interplay between ideas and events, we can understand what ideas mean in
To get to the heart of Islam, start with its founder: Muhammad. Like
Christianity, Islam's essence is tied to the nature of a central figure
who gives the religion its distinctive soul. Muhammad's professional
life as a religious leader can be divided into two, roughly equal
periods. In the first, he preached tolerance while he struggled for
acceptance in Mecca. But in the second period, after he rises to power
in Medina, he became increasingly harsh, mean-spirited and warlike.
In Medina, he inaugurated his reign of terror by assassinating two
critics who posed no physical threat: an elderly man and a poetess.
Unaccustomed to the farm life of Medina, he tried his hand at raiding
caravans traveling to and from Mecca. After several failed attempts he
finally succeeded -- during the holy month. (As usual, he conveniently
had a revelation to justify this breach of regional ethics.) Muhammad
had found his calling: plunder.
The mere existence of the Jewish tribes in Medina threatened
Muhammad’s authority. Muhammad packaged his religion as the completion
and perfection of the monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity.
His converts were Arabs; Jews refused to accept him as an authentic
prophet of their religion. In a policy of ethnic cleansing, he banished
two of the three Jewish tribes and slaughtered the third. Of the several
dozen battles fought either by Muhammad or in his behalf, only one, the
Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. Islam, however, classifies them all
as defensive, virtually removing any meaning from the word. Muhammad had
perfected his technique: slaughter.
The chapters in the Koran, called "Suras", are Muhammad's
"revelations" from God. The Suras from the Medinan period
reflect the corruption of Muhammad's rule. Sura 9, one of the last
revelations, contains some of the most uncompromising doctrines of
aggression and belligerence. The progression from the early Meccan Suras
to the latter Medinan Suras transforms the nature of the religion. The
Koran and the Hadith (the collection of Muhammad's deeds and sayings,
often called "the living Koran") paint a bleak but
unmistakable picture: Islam is a warrior religion of conquest and
Compare and contrast Muhammad's life to the life of Jesus. Is Jesus a
violent warrior? His worst act of violence is overturning the tables of
the money-changers in the Temple. In fact, in one part of the Gospels he
appeared to be advocating pacifism. Although he is called "King of
the Jews," he never ruled and gave no indication of ever wanting
earthly rule. According to the followers who recorded his deeds and
sayings, Jesus' career consisted of a few years as an itinerant preacher
ending with his crucifixion. According to the Gospels, he didn’t rise
to power but rose to heaven.
As a devout Jew, Jesus' holy book was the Old Testament, which does have
some harsh passages and violent episodes. But the Jesus of the Gospels
is more concerned with the spirit of the law than with the letter.
(Witness his preaching on the Sabbath.) He boiled his religious beliefs
down to two essentials: love God, and love thy neighbor. In effect,
Christianity modified the religion of the Old Testament's ever-jealous,
ever-vengeful, take-no-prisoners Yahweh and his never-ending rules and
regulations (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy) with a more benevolent and
less legalistic message. Paul solidified this transformation by
exempting converts from Jewish law.
By contrast, Islam is a more of a throwback to the harsh old days when,
for example, Moses (acting on God's orders) had a man stoned to death
for gathering wood on the Sabbath. It is true that Muhammad's early
revelations have the more tolerant and peaceful aura we associate with
the New Testament. (Interestingly, it is these early passages that are
often shown to American audiences and university students, creating a
distorted picture but one that more closely matches the Western view of
a religion.) But his revelations grew more "Old Testament," as
it were, as his power grew.
Christianity began as a reformation of Judaism. Early Christians didn't
focus on living well in this life but on saving their souls before the
impending return of the Messiah. As a result Christianity has no
political doctrine, except, perhaps, "Render unto Caesar, What Is
Caesar’s." Thus, the Roman Empire could become Christian while
remaining an empire. Many centuries later, Christian apologists for the
monarchy preached the doctrine of the divine right of Kings to justify
royal supremacy, but John Locke could argue for individual liberty and
against the Devine Right doctrine while still remaining a devout
Christian. The lack of an explicit Christian political doctrine enabled
Christians to consider differing political forms and philosophies
without clashing with the authority of a revealed text. Muslims have no
Of course, both Christianity and Islam share the problems of dogma and
authority, elements that lend themselves to illiberal societies. In
suppressing Christianity, Roman Emperors were fighting what they
considered an intolerant monotheistic cult. After the Emperor
Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 AD, Christians rose to power
in the empire and by the end of the century nearly suppressed all other
religions. It wasn't long before pagans were fed to the lions. It would
be more than a thousand years before religious tolerance returned to
In theory, Islam allowed for some toleration for Christians and Jews.
But they were subjected to slavery and a second-class status called
Dimmis, which was far worse than “Jim Crow”. Due to Islamic
proscriptions on domestic slavery, Islam invented a large-scale
race-based slave trade. Arab Muslims imported slaves from Europe and
Sub-Saharan Africa. Islamic slave raids were common in southern Europe
and sometimes reached the shores of Ireland.
Christians and Jews are called "People of the Book" in the
Koran, and as such are allowed to live and practice their religion in
subjugation. Polytheists, atheists, pagans and idolaters aren't so
lucky: they must convert or be killed. One of history's bloodiest
atrocities, prior to the 20th Century, took place during the Muslim
conquest of India. Hindus were massacred wholesale. India’s Buddhists,
no military and political threat to anyone, were virtually wiped out.
The vast destruction of Buddhist buildings, art and culture was a
terrible loss to history.
It is true that the 1400 years of Islamic history were punctuated by
periods of tolerance, in which Muslim scholars, with the aid of
Christian and Jewish scholars, managed to salvage some of the ancient
Roman and Greek wisdom. Under Islamic rule, mathematicians adopted Hindu
numerals and advanced algebra. However, the greatest minds of the
Islamic world, Avicenna and Averroes, were persecuted.
Averroes (ibn Rushd), one of history's preeminent Aristotelian scholars,
was banished by the Caliph; his books burned. Aquinas did for
Christianity what Averroes couldn't do for Islam: he reconciled
Aristotle with Christianity -- thus setting the foundation for the
secular, rational, scientific (and Hellenic) worldview, with its
emphasis on living well in this world, that, with the Renaissance,
became the dominant worldview in Europe; and via the Enlightenment,
America. Along with the growth of secularism, religion also transformed.
The work of Aquinas reformed Catholicism and ultimately set in motion
the questioning spirit that led to Protestantism.
Why was the Christian West able to move forward while the Islamic East
proceeded to decline? Was it just the fluke of Aquinas’ demise on his
way to a tribunal and possibly escaping a fate similar to Averroes --
with similar consequences for Europe?
Proponents of a moderate Islam point to a time when Muslim countries
allowed the study of philosophy and science. But given its history, one
has to wonder if Islam can furnish the environment for the stable and
long-term development of modern civilization -- or if it is just a place
to occasionally hide the great works and great thinkers during an
otherwise vast period of darkness.
What is undeniable is that, over the centuries, the Islamic world
decayed. For a while the stagnant systems Muslims lived under were
limited in their harmfulness because the authorities had only primitive
means of forcing submission. As soon as modern technologies became
available, Muslim leaders had the tools to increase the oppression. They
did so by adopting the modern collectivist policies of fascism and
socialism while marginalizing Islam. The failure of this faux
modernization sparked an Islamic revival. Instead of turning to the
individualism and freedom welcomed in Eastern Europe and the Pacific
Rim, Muslims turn backwards. With the Islamic revival came a renewed
interest in the full practice of the religion -- including its
bellicosity and its imperial ambitions of world conquest.
We are told that the answer to fundamentalist Islam is moderate Islam.
The word "fundamentalist" comes from Protestantism, but used
in a generic sense means a literal interpretation of a religion. In
Christianity, fundamentalist denominations are considered different
sects of Protestantism. In Islam, fundamentalism is called "Islamic
Revivalism." Is this a different kind of Islam, or just a different
degree of devoutness? Do moderate Muslims belong to a different Islamic
sect, or are they just less dedicated (or perhaps even lapsed)? If by
"moderate," we mean "reformed to reflect moderation and
modernity" -- like reformed Christianity -- where are the reformed
Muslim theologians and texts like there are in Christianity? Is there a
"moderate Islam," or is this just an oxymoron?
Perhaps, in theory, there could be a reformed, tolerant Islam, based on
the revelations of Muhammad's early Meccan period; but an omission of
intolerant, political Islam could merely leave young Muslims enraged at
the hypocrisy of the reformers who deviate or ignore the true Islam. We
are left with the following problem: it only takes a few true Muslims,
who want to practice Islam in its entirety and heed the call to Jihad,
to take weapons of mass destruction into Western cities and destroy
civilization. At this point in time, these weapons can only be created
with state sponsorship – a temporary limitation. Thus, we must return
with some urgency to our original question: Is Islam evil?