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Problem with Islam


Peter Laurie

Problem with Islam

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I just got another of those viral emails that purport to show how vile Islam is and how Muslims have a plot to take over the world and impose sharia on everyone.
These emails usually contain a few threads of truth woven into a tissue of lies.
Yes, there’s a problem with Islam, but it’s not inherent in the religion. Most religions can be twisted to any purpose. Many, if taken literally, prescribe behaviours from primitive tribal societies that violate modern notions of freedom, equality and human dignity.
There’re definitely aspects of some Islamic societies most Barbadians (including Muslims) find repugnant: the imposition of the death penalty for offences like adultery, homosexuality and apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) that in our society would not even be an infraction of the law; the lack of religious liberty coupled with the persecution of people of other faiths including Christians, Jews and the Baha’is; and, worst of all, the denial to women of basic rights we take for granted.
This leads many non-Muslims to see Islam as a backward, hate-driven religion incompatible with the standards of a modern civilised democratic society.  
Yet from the eighth to the 13th century, Islam gave rise to an enlightened civilisation in which the arts, sciences, mathematics and medicine thrived and enriched the world. There was also a degree of tolerance for Jews that far exceeded what obtained in Christian Europe.
Furthermore, there’s nothing inherently intolerant in the Koran. Of course, you can cherry-pick your passages, but you can do the same with the Bible. Islam has waged wars of aggression; but so has Christianity.
Just think of the slaughter of Jews and Muslims during the Crusades; or Christian Europe’s colonial exploitation, genocide and enslavement. Persistent Christian anti-Semitism paved the way for the Holocaust.
Which brings us to the problem with Islam.
Islam has yet to come to terms fully and universally with a modern world characterised by respect for human rights, freedom and democracy. Some Islamic countries, like Turkey, have made great strides, but others, like Afghanistan, remain mired in a religious practice that is less the expression of a faith than of a primitive tribal patriarchy based on the oppression of women.
For any ancient faith, coming to terms with modernity is a difficult undertaking.
The Vatican, for example, in 1864 denounced freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, the validity of any other religion, and condemned as anathema the idea that the pope “can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization”.
It was not until the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that the Catholic Church tried to come to terms with the modern world.
But this has been no easy task.
On the one hand, some of the faithful wish to embrace modernity so wholeheartedly that the very essence of the religion becomes indistinguishable from the secular culture. On the other hand, some, nervous about the trends of the modern world and sceptical about the Vatican II idea of the church as the People of God, wish to return to a clerical dictatorship promulgating fundamental certainties.
But there’s no avoiding the issue. Religions draw nourishment from the world around them.
No religion can feed on its own self. It must develop doctrinally and ethically in constant and critical interaction with modern science and scholarship. Otherwise, it’s in danger of becoming a museum artefact, and its adherents fundamentalists with a siege mentality.  
So, let’s not blame Islam or any other religion.
It’s a matter of each religion’s internal evolution.  
What we must do is insist on the universal application of three indispensable conditions of modern civilization: the full equal rights of women with men, the separation of church and state, and respect by all religions for universal human rights. We can never excuse the subjugation of women as “their” culture.
Our laws must be based on reason, not revelation.
We must protect religion from itself.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and a commentator on social issues. Email [email protected]

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