Islam and our history


What is it about the Islamic faith that sends some of its followers into periodic violent outbursts? We saw it again this month as Muslims in several countries across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa rioted against the United States.
American offices and businesses were attacked, including a war-like assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, resulting in the death of the visiting Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The immediate surface reason for this wave of violence was an amateur movie made in the United States and seen mostly on YouTube which mocked and ridiculed Islam’s founder, Mohammed. But religious sensitivity was also used, almost certainly, as a cover by Islamic radical elements to whip up rage against this country and weaken our presence wherever Islam dominates.
This editorial opens with a purposely provocative question. Many readers are Catholics, presumably, some of whom might feel a bit smug about how restrained and civil we are when people make fun of us and portray our founder in ways we find offensive. We would never go on murderous rampages, we think.
But our history includes centuries of such behavior.
Popes used armies to gain and enforce their control of people and territories. Mobs of Catholics attacked and killed whole communities considered heretical. The Inquisition gave approval from the highest church authorities for torture against people suspected of abandoning the faith. Chapters of 16th- and 17-century European history come under the heading “Wars of Religion,” in which Catholics fought to maintain control of territory slipping into the hands of various reformers.
Since religious and civil authority was tightly tangled in those days, each side was assisted, egged on or led by secular rulers grasping for their own kind of control and loot.
But we don’t do those things any more, you might say. True enough. However, it took us Christians centuries to work our way out of the conviction that we had a right to use violence because we had The Truth and error has no rights.
Up to 50 years ago, the Catholic Church still officially preferred that it be the state religion wherever Catholics were a majority, or even a plurality, with other religions only tolerated. Few of us knew that, but it was a living, breathing part of our faith in the highest circles. In the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 we finally gave up on brute force and governmental favoritism as a proper support for religion. The council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty pointed out that a faith commitment must be freely held. While error may have no rights, the conscience of every person has a right to be free of coercion. This requires special care where a plurality of cultures and traditions exist together.
The experience of the United States in keeping religion and civil structures distinct showed the world’s bishops at the council that such “separation” need not harm religious faith. Moreover, it seemed to promote the peace and vitality of the entire community.
Catholics can understand the pain, and the anger, of Muslims when the things they hold sacred are treated with contempt. Some people in both communities will act out their anger in violence. The struggle to live in community with people who laugh at us and reject our truth is never easy, even when we have a philosophical basis for doing so.
A growing number of Muslims are looking for ways to bring their religious community into the pluralistic world of today, so different from the tight tribal outlook that shaped their founding and inspired most of their history. We don’t hear as much about these elements in Islam as we do the violent ones, but they are there.
They need the help of patient diplomacy from the United States and other Western nations. They will be helped by an understanding patience from both Catholics and Protestants in the West who remember our ragged history. These Muslims also aim to free religious faith from a marriage of convenience with force and violence.
Frank Wessling

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1 thought on “Islam and our history

  1. An excellent editorial! Seldom do we examine history. For too many of us our entire perspective is limited to the last few years, or at best to our remembered lifetimes. Sometimes reading a really good history of the time in which we were 12-25 will reveal how poorly we really understood and remembered that period, much less the 2000 history of the Church which most of us never studied anyway.

    Even today for Catholics, the way in which the faith is seen and lived out on a daily basis is heavily influenced by the local culture. Few American Catholics appreciate the joy with which our African cousins celebrate a two-hour mass! The best “answer” to Islam is to be a great Catholic. “…and love thy neighbor as thy self” was not a suggestion.

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