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MUSTAFA AKYOL > Allah protects churches, Islamists attack them

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Yesterday’s New York Times had two separate but equally worrying opinion pieces on the religious bigotry in Indonesia, (“Indonesia’s Rising Religious Intolerance,” by Benedict Rogers, and “No Model for Muslim Democracy,” by Andreas Harsono). This overwhelmingly Muslim Sunni nation, both articles explained, was the stage of a number of hate crimes against minorities such as “Bahais, Christians, Shiites, Sufis and members of the Ahmadiyya faith.”

Churches in particular, both pieces noted, have been the targets of hard-line Islamists. The latter have pressured local officials “not to authorize the construction of Christian churches or to harass and intimidate those worshiping in ‘illegal’ churches.” Hence, a local mayor has declared a “zero church” policy. Worse, three Christian churches on Sumatra were burnt last year by “Muslim militants.”

As a Muslim, I find all such news simply shameful. All that violence against non-Muslims (or “heretical” Muslims) not only hurts innocent souls, but also defames Islam. Moreover, the militant Islamists who attack other faith communities violate not only the modern notions of human rights. They also, believe it or not, violate the very principles of the Quran.

This is most obvious in the case of churches, or, for that matter, synagogues. These Christian or Jewish places of worship are mentioned in the Quran only once, and in a very interesting way:

“If Allah had not driven some people back by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, where Allah’s name is mentioned much, would have been pulled down and destroyed,” (Sura 22, verse 40).

As you can see, the verse implies that Allah protects “monasteries, churches, synagogues” along with mosques. Those who attack any of these sanctuaries, in other words, would be going against the will of God. (In tradition, Islamic scholars have discussed the exact meaning of this verse, and the common view has been that it honors “monasteries, churches, synagogues,” by listing them along with mosques. Some scholars, such as Ad-Dahhak, also argued that the definition “where Allah’s name is mentioned much,” refers not only to mosques but also all the temples that are listed.)

Based on this foundation, along with similar Quranic verses and Christian-friendly acts of the Prophet Muhammad, Islamic civilization has tolerated Christian worship right from its beginning. The Muslim conquests of the Middle East neither destroyed churches nor prevented their use. As I note in my book, “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” early Muslim rule even permitted the building of new Christian churches, as the archaeological record indicates. (Only later began a tradition of converting the largest church in a conquered city to a mosque, as happened to the Saint Sophia of Constantinople.)

Why, then, do some of today’s Islamists hate and attack Christian churches, violating the very scripture they claim to uphold? 

The answer is complex, but can be rendered to a simple explanation: What is at stake for the militant Islamists is “Islam as identity,” rather than “Islam as faith.” They, in other words, are driven by a fanatic communalism, which sees the world in a “Muslims versus others” dichotomy, and which overlooks all the common values Muslims actually have with others. Hence, they can attack the churches that the Quran praises, or ban the word “Allah” to Christians, as happened in Malaysia, although the Quran insists that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, (Sura 29, verse 46).
This tendency, which I have condemned in these pages before as “Islamo-tribalism,” is an affront to Islam. And that is why the Muslim leaders in Indonesia, and elsewhere, should stand against it rigorously.

May/23/2012

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