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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What is the biggest challenge facing the religion today?

by John Kaltner

The most immediate challenge facing Muslims today is terrorism. Violence done in the name of religion is not a problem unique to Islam, but no other faith in recent times has had to struggle more with the reality and effects of terrorism. It has been a divisive issue within the Muslim community, and it has had a negative impact on Islam’s reputation throughout the world. For many non-Muslims, Osama bin Laden or the suicide bomber has become the quintessential face of Islam, which is often equated with intolerance, hatred, and aggression.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of Muslims disavow religious violence and they believe it goes against the spirit of their faith. They reject the message of hostility espoused by al-Qaeda and similar groups as a misguided perversion of Islam’s call for peace and harmony among all people. They maintain that the Qur’an and other Muslim sources have been misinterpreted and distorted by terrorists to legitimize atrocious acts that violate the core principles of the faith. Countless Muslims of good will have come together and have joined with like-minded people from other religions to denounce those who support and justify violent acts in the name of faith. It is not uncommon to hear Muslims and others say that Islam itself has been hijacked.

Despite the efforts to condemn violence and restore the good name of Islam the fact remains that terrorist acts continue to be associated with it. The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, is the most notorious recent example, but other incidents can be cited from around the globe. The Philippines, Bali, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Spain, and England are just a few of the other countries that have experienced first-hand the horrifying and tragic results of Islamic terrorism.

Another part of the world that is commonly added to that list is the Middle East, particularly those involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While it is true that much of the violence found there has appealed to Islam for support, it would be a mistake to equate it with the events of 9/11 or similar attacks. The problems between the Palestinians and Israelis are the result of many historical, social, cultural, and political factors that have contributed to the hostilities. Religion has played a role on both sides of the conflict, and all parties bear some responsibility for the state of affairs, so most observers argue that the situation is too complex to ascribe simply to Islamic extremism. In other words, it is important for non-Muslims to differentiate among different types of violence or terrorism done in the name of religion.

It is also essential that non-Muslims make a distinction between Islamic terrorism and terrorist acts done by Muslims. The former makes an explicit appeal to Islam to endorse or de-fend terrorist activities. Osama bin Laden’s justification for the 9/11 attacks is a prime example of this. In his 1998 fatwa titled “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” he lays out his case against the United States by citing the Qur’an, the hadith, and Islamic teaching to support his conclusion that Muslims have an individual duty to “kill Americans wherever they find them.” In this way, the terrorist acts he calls for are legitimized (in his mind, at least) by Islam.

Quite different from this is terrorism done by Muslims. This refers to acts of violence that are undertaken by, or authorized by, individuals who happen to be Muslims, but no attempt is made to justify those acts by appealing to Islam. The crimes committed by Saddam Hussein while he was the President of Iraq fall under this category. His terrorist activity, some of it di-rected against his own people, is well documented, but he never attempted to defend it in relig-ious terms. In fact, like many Middle Eastern political leaders, his style of governing was more secularist than religious in its orientation.

One of the most serious problems in this area currently facing Islam is the fact that many non-Muslims believe Muslims are not doing enough to speak out against Islamic terrorism. Some people, especially Westerners, have expressed a desire for a more vocal and united stand by Muslims against those who engage in terrorist activities. They interpret the lack of such a unified response as indicative of a preference by Muslims to look the other way when it comes to terrorism. Such a reaction, while understandable at times, misreads the situation and neglects the real reason why a strong Muslim voice opposed to terrorism is lacking. Unlike certain other religious groups, Islam lacks a hierarchy or centralized authority that can function as a mouthpiece to give the ummah’s official view on a given matter. There is no system in place that allows Muslim leaders to effectively take a position and then communicate it to the public.

This is a crucial issue that must be confronted and addressed. In fact, many Muslim leaders and organization have spoken out against terrorism and have denounced specific acts of violence. The problem has been a lack of effective communication. One of the most significant challenges facing the Islamic community today is figuring out ways to make sure its anti-terrorism message is heard by as wide an audience as possible.


Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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