What is the biggest challenge facing the religion today?
by John Kaltner
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
©2006 John Kaltner
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
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
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.