Monday, August 22, 2005

The West, Islam and invalid argument

Here's an interesting article from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Mon Aug 22 2005
The West, Islam and invalid argument
by Tom Ford

I got off on the wrong foot with Islam. My father, a kindly Christian gentleman, told me Muslims converted people by the sword. You became a believer or they lopped off your head -- conversion by coercion.

My father was guilty of a sweeping generalization -- not all Muslims went around threatening infidels with death. He comes to mind because a lot of people, perhaps because of recent suicide bombings, are attacking Islam with sweeping generalizations.

They usually take three forms: Islam is suspect because Muslims are taught it is the one true religion; Muslims, throughout history, have been intolerant of other religions; Islam fosters violence.

These sweeping generalizations are the seeds of what could grow to be an all-out religious war, which is exactly what Osama bin Laden wants. He wants Jews and Christians to take on Muslims in a fight to the death. In such a war, he says, millions of Muslims would defeat the Jews and Christians.

Maybe not. But it would be a long, bloody and unnecessary war.

Certainly, some Muslims -- a small percentage -- do hate Jews and Christians and Muslims who refuse to do the same. Many of them are members of the Wahhabi sect which is based on the rigid 18th century teachings of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab. The Saudi Arabian government, in order to keep peace at home, has helped promote this sect in many parts of the world.
What Jews and Christians need to do is become friendly with the majority of Muslims, the moderates. And a good way to start is to strike down those pernicious sweeping generalizations.

Sweeping generalization No. 1: Islam is suspect because its followers think it is the one true religion.

Nearly all major religions think they are the one true religion. The Roman Catholic Church proudly asserts it is the only true religion. Some Jews think they are the "chosen people," although as a Jewish friend told me: "Given our sad history, you have to ask: Chosen for what?" The sweet little old lady who sits next to me in the pew of my United Church thinks her religion is superior to all others.

What's important is whether these religions tolerate one another.

And that brings us to the next generalization: Muslims are intolerant of other religions.

Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and a writer whom I admire, said in one article: "Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities. Bin Laden reflects the most extreme version of that exclusivity and he hit us in the face with it on 9/11."
I've just argued that most of the world's major religions do not give other religions "equal recognition." The best we're going to get is tolerance -- and the Muslims showed they could do that more than 500 years ago in al-Andalus, the southern part of Spain. The Moors tolerated Jews and Christians and with their help created a nation of grace and luxury light years ahead of London and Paris, with their muddy streets.

The intolerance came from Ferdinand V of Castile and Isabella I, who used the Roman Catholic faith as a tool to unite Spain. They defeated the Moors and booted the Jews and the Muslims out of the country. They did not, however, destroy some of the biggest mosques. Inside a particularly beautiful one in Cordoba they built a huge, garish church. Years later, to add insult to injury, the Spanish set up the Inquisition to have another go at Jews and Muslims.

A more recent example: A Guelph doctor tells me about the terror he felt when he and his family had to crawl around the floors of their house when they were threatened by a Christian anti-abortionist who wanted to shoot them through the windows of their house.

These and hundreds of other examples lead me to believe that most Muslims are at least as tolerant as most of the rest of us.

Finally, there's this generalization -- that Islam fosters violence.

Let's go directly to the Qu'ran: "Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind."

Irshad Manji, a Canadian writer who is a powerful and useful critic of her Islamic religion, argues in Maclean's that militant Muslims could easily deploy the clause beginning with "except" to justify their rampages.

And so could United States President George W. Bush, a Methodist, who says he can wage unilateral, pre-emptive strikes on those committing villainy.

The supposed connection between Islam and violence runs deep. A Christian cleric tells me: "We say God is Love. Muslims say God is Great, and the Jews say God is One. Christians have engaged in violence but there's a brake on our behaviour that Muslims don't have because we believe God is Love."
Nice theory. But there have been countless examples of violent, Christian attacks with no evidence of any braking action.

An end note: A belated thank-you to Robert Sibley, my University of Manitoba philosophy professor, who taught me all about invalid arguments, including sweeping generalizations.

Tom Ford is editing manager of The Issues Network.

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