|First, one can kill huge numbers of people, while also avoiding any casualties to oneself, without even fighting a war. Consider the economic sanctions on Iraq that are killing off nearly 5,000 children a month, all because our government opposes one man. My point is not to justify war, but to draw attention to one of its faces that we routinely ignore.
Second, Islam did not invent war; it merely teaches a specific approach to it. This approach forbids aggression, or attacking one's enemies unawares, and it also instructs Muslims to cease hostilities if aggression against them ceases. The last point may seem unimportant until one recalls that the U.S. destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the Japanese had broadcast their terms of surrender. More recently, the U.S. army shot about 100,000 Iraqi troops retreating from the battlefield during the Gulf War, with senior U.S. generals calling it a "duck shoot."
Third, it is not just any type of aggression Muslims must resist, but religious persecution. Thus, jihad is not for extending territories, protecting political or economic interests, or killing one's foes, reasons for which all nations, including Muslim, generally go to war.
Fourth, the Qur'an also teaches the precepts of forgiveness and peace. As it says, "Since good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou evil with something that is better, and lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity may then become as though he had always been close unto thee, a true friend" (41:34); and " . . .when you are greeted with a greeting of peace, answer with an even better greeting, or at least the like thereof" (4: 86).
Of course, quoting verses selectively from the Qur'an is not the best way to convince people of the truth of one's argument, much less to impart a holistic understanding of its teachings, but such are the limitations of a ten-minute talk. The point I want to stress is that the Qur'an asks us to read it for its best meanings and it defines Islam as "sirat ul mustaqeem," the straight path, the middle path, the path of moderation, not excess.
There is no question that some Muslims have fallen into extremism and excess and there is also no question that we need to do a better job of reading the Qur'an for liberation than we have done so far. This requires us to struggle constantly to try and redefine our understanding of it. That is why I'm never averse to anyone wanting to know what Islam "really" teaches because such questions can help in that definitional struggle, or jihad.
But, unfortunately, many people who are beating up on Muslims today to identify the "real" Islam are not really interested in our doing so; rather, they use such questions to cast the proverbial first stone at us. To such people, I would say, you have no right to ask this question until you also are willing to assume the responsibility of asking "which is the ?real' U.S.: the one that advocates freedom, civil liberties, and democracy at home, or the one that carries out wars and violence and repression abroad?" Surely, there is much to be learned by asking the "real" U.S. also to "please stand up."
-----------------------------------------------------------------------Talk given at Ithaca College, Oct. 29th, 2001