The debate, despite enlightenment and modernization, remains the same as that which Dante advocated in the Divine Comedy: is Islam evil or a religion of peace? On one side of the argument, and siding with Dante, is Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician and self-declared ‘Islamophobe’ in the real meaning of the word (fearing Islam as religion). Of course, for both Dante and Wilders (who is facing trial in his own country), Islam and the Qur’an are, in the very words of Wilders, ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. Wilders also used adjectives such as ‘retarded’, ‘fascist’ and ‘anti-democratic’ – thus dangerous and worthy of being banned. Different variations on a theme of ‘Islam is evil’ can also be found in the work of several authors, for example Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’or and Magdi Allam among many others.
On the other side of the debate, it is not difficult to find commentators and scholars who are ready to affirm exactly the opposite: “Islam is a religion of peace” as the religion’s name, Islam, implies. Among the most prominent, beyond the politically-correct politicians (such as Bush and Blair), there are scholars such as Esposito and Pescatori among a long list of names. These authors accept the traditional position that Islam, as a religion, is based on love, peace and respect for human life and freedom, while rejecting terrorism and injustice, as any other faith. Hence, those who commit atrocities in name of Islam are at best misguided or, at worst, traitors and impostors.
‘Who is right?’, a student once asked me after I presented a lecture on the topic. My answer of ‘None of them!’ came as a surprise to many. Some of the reasons for my response can be found in my recent books (particularly The Anthropology of Islam and Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism). Yet in this post I wish to emphasize some points which, in books devoted to different topics, may have been lost.
So, why are both positions wrong? Let me say that the reason may be found in a fallacy that I have started to call scripturegnosis. It sounds a bit like the name of a disease, and although it is not, it is still very pernicious and has been with us for a very long time. It is linked to strong forms of ‘culturalism’, in which the culture, as a symbolic object, is supposed to be capable of shaping and controlling the human mind. Scripturegnosis refers to the idea that a text may be able to control the individual and collective behavior of those whom see it as an inspirational or holy text. In our case, scripturegnosists will hold that something called “Islam” exists per-se as a result of its texts, particularly the Qur’an in this case. Indeed, it is not a surprise that Wilders asked for the ban of the Qur’an (compared to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf).
As Muslims are presumed to be controlled by the Qur’an, banning the offending text should do much to ‘resolve the problem.’ Others have suggested, less radically but no less controversially, that passages or pages considered ‘offensive’ by ‘western standards’ should instead be removed. However, as I was discussing above, scripturegnosists are also those whom believe that a religious holy text, in this case the Qur’an, can be ‘peaceful’ by default – and thus interpretations can be judged against the text so that the culprits can be easily spotted. Both positions de-humanize people, reducing the complexity of the human brain to a passive receptacle of symbols and pre-set meanings.
Robert Spencer, in his cunning – yet flawed beyond repair – book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) has noticed:
Contrary to what many secularists would have us believe, religions are not entirely determined (or distorted) by the faithful over time. The lives and words of the founders remain central, no matter how long ago they lived. The idea that believers shape religion is derived, intended from fashionable 1960 philosophy of deconstructionism, which teaches that written words have no meaning other than that given to them by the reader. Equally important, it follows that if the reader alone finds meanings, there can be no truth (and certainly no religious truth). One person’s meaning is equal to another’s. (p.3)
Yet it is not ‘secularism’ or ‘deconstructionism’ that provides the strongest argument against the idea that holy texts speak by themselves, but rather neurology and cognitive science. Our brain, memory and sensory system interpret and alter the reality around us. Emotions, feelings and personal Self modify and make one’s own the circumstantial realities, and among these realities are texts, particularly ‘holy’ ones. Indeed, to illustrate, a person needs only to have some particular parts of his or her brain damaged, and depending upon the area affected, interpretations of texts (both the ‘holy’ and the ordinary) may be significantly altered. Whoever has had the sad experience of knowing somebody affected by Alzheimer’s knows this fact all too well.
Muslims, as any other believers, read (presuming those who read beyond passive recitation) and understand the Qur’an according to their individual psychological and environmental realities that fully influence, together with local traditions and superstitions, their understanding of the text. Even within the same tradition, there exist as many interpretations of the Qur’an as there are readers. Indeed, if the Qur’an were to exert any ‘influence’ upon people, it could only be by means of the trust placed in a religious leader or theologian rather than in the book itself – influence, then, can only ever be purely mediated.
Indeed, following strong scientific findings (see, if you want to know more, for instance James D. Laird), reading a text (for instance a passage of the Qur’an) with a forced smile or frown will change how the person makes sense of the passage. Even the position of the body can influence the understanding of the text. This means that believers, particularly those of unstructured religions such as Islam, are prone to personal exegesis of both the text and religion in general (see my last book, Faith, Ideology and Fear). In this case, the leader, or the charismatic figure, often becomes a point of reference and his or her exegesis reaches many and may be followed (as long as it is accepted as correct). Yet even in this case, the followers, although unconsciously, will tend to follow the charismatic preacher who matches their own, albeit unexpressed, psychological world views and ideology.
Hence, those authors and commentators – whether academics or not – who believe in scripturegnosis inevitably and unwittingly end in becoming ‘theologians’ of the religion they are trying to explain! They engage in the same practice that the believers engage in and, although inadvertently, provide their own exegesis. An ironic example is Robert Spencer’s commentary to the Qur’an which, from an anthropological viewpoint, is no different to, for instance, Qutb’s own tasfir (i.e. commentary of the Qur’an). Spencer, as many others who even oppose him, end up debating theology instead of observing “Islam” as it is lived today – something that can only be done by ‘observing’ how some humans ‘feel to be’ Muslim in the circumstances and context they are living in (Marranci 2008).
So finally, to the question, ‘is Islam evil or not’? I can answer, regardless of whether or not you are a Muslim yourself, ‘is YOUR Islam good or evil?’