Why do politicians and other religious illiterates intone the vacuous mantra that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’every time there is an atrocity like the Manchester bombing, last week?
9/11 should have stopped such nonsense in its tracks sixteen years ago. But no, they continue to inform us that Islamic terrorism has nothing whatever to do with ‘peaceful’ Islam.
Theresa May gave Donald Trump and the Republican Party the benefit of her witlessness in a speech during her January visit to the US: “We should always be careful to distinguish between this extreme and hateful ideology and the peaceful religion of Islam,” she lectured them.
The Prime Minister is, of course, just the latest in a long line of dissembling Western leaders. It started with President George W Bush. Six days after the 9/11 atrocity he went to the Islamic Centre in Washington to assure traumatised Americans that “Islam is peace” and that the religion has nothing to do with the “acts of violence” perpetrated by the airline hijackers.
The problem with this supposed division between violent extremists and the rest, is that all forms of Islam – from the “twisted version” propagated by ISIS to the most moderate westernised version – have a factor and focus that unites them: they all revere Islam’s founder and prophet, Muhammad.
For Muslims, he is second only to Allah, and indeed occasionally the Quran even gives him equivalent authority: “Obey Allah and the Messenger (Muhammad) that ye may obtain mercy” (3: 132). For every Muslim he is the greatest moral example in history, a mercy for the world and a model for all time.
For centuries across Muslim lands it was impossible to raise objections to him as the objector would risk execution for apostasy. Glorified legends and sanitised stories about Islam’s prophet were able to flourish without contradiction, while outside the Muslim world there was minimal interest in the man or his religion.
However, increasing post-WW2 immigration from Muslim countries and the dramatic 9/11 wake-up call has brought Islam into full engagement with the West for the first time. Therefore things have changed: the religion has become subject to our tradition of critical inquiry, Muhammad’s life and character have been put, increasingly, under the microscope and, particularly, the advent of the internet has enabled open scrutiny of both Islam’s founderand his religion like never before.
Of course, in the West it is our democratic duty to examine, challenge and debate any belief system that is impacting our society; that’s how a free society works. We’ve done it with Christianity and atheism. We’ve done it too with communism, fascism and even climate change.
We are doing it now with Islam and, as this process is new to Muslims, it has made many defensive and over-sensitive to criticism. Nonetheless the job must be done if we are to remain an open society, and we must do it despite the efforts of the political class to protect Islam, of the liberal Left to damn critics as Islamophobic and racist, and of Islamic community leaders to play the victim card. We still have freedom of speech – just.
For as long as Muhammad was a lone and persecuted prophet in Mecca, he cut a sympathetic Gandhi-type figure who simply preached his new religion to mostly deaf or hostile ears. But after his migration to Medina in 622 (significantly, the start-date of the Islamic era) he became the powerful warrior-governor of this desert community.
It was here he resorted to violence if it was necessary to impose his (and, as he understood it, Allah’s) will, and it was here at its foundation that Islam lost any claim to be a religion of peace.
In his ten years as Medina’s governor, Muhammad fought eight major battles, personally led eighteen military operations and oversaw thirty eight others. He himself was wounded twice.
He had a poetess, Asma Bint Marwan, assassinated at night while she slept at home with her five children. She had been virulent in her criticism of him and called for rebellion against him so, apparently, she had to go.
After one successful battle, Muhammad authorised and attended the slaughter of hundreds of prisoners; they were beheaded in batches and their bodies pitched into a trench he’d had dug in Medina’s market place.
So it simply isn’t credible to clean up Islam as a religion of peace. Even today Muhammad’s swords are proudly displayed at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul for all to see, and until recently mainstream Islam gloried in its early history of military conquests and successful battles as a sign of Allah’s special grace towards believers.
Muhammad was no peaceful religious leader like Jesus Christ or the Buddha, nor indeed was he a political pacifist like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. He used the sword frequently during the birth of his religion.
Muslim community leaders may describe Salman Abedi’s massacre at Manchester Arena as “unIslamic”, and politicians, media and police may explain that he was an ordinary young British Muslim radicalised by his regrettable links to Libya.
But they cannot bolster their theories by arguing that true Islam has nothing to do with violence. At heart it is not a religion of peace and never has been.