Last week, Rep. Allen West was confronted at a town hall meeting by a "Qur'an-wielding" Muslim who wished to talk to the congressman about his attacks on Islam. He was shouted down. That man, Nezar Hamze, is executive director of the Miami chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. On Monday, he posted a letter to Allen West on this blog. This is my response. - BKT
I enjoyed reading your response to Rep. Allen West's anti-Islamic town hall rant. You seem like an intelligent and gentle man. As you may know, I have spent considerable time critiquing Allen West for what I perceive as his failure to represent the ecumenical nature of American democracy, that component of the national character that urges us to mind our own damned business and to not bother judging the contents of a fellow citizen's heart, no matter their religion or political orientation.
Assuming good intentions on the part of our ideological opponents is, I believe, an indispensable component of Americanism. I'm hard on Allen West, but I believe he's probably doing what he perceives to be right, even if he must perform intellectual gymnastics to arrive at that conclusion. The same goes for you.
But you and Allen West have something in common besides good intentions. I believe you are both guilty of intellectual dishonesty. I believe you are trying to fool people -- out of no ill intent -- and I would like you to stop.
Despite his noises to the contrary, Allen West probably has not read the Qur'an. His knowledge of that book, like his knowledge of religious history, seems made up of hastily memorized facts that float in isolation through the contextless vacuum of his skull. But I have read the Qur'an, and I say with some certainty: Even though Allen West has misrepresented individual verses, he is right about the Qur'an's overriding tone. It is combative, obsessed with dominion and obedience. Take, please, the second Surah, Surat al-Baqarah ("The Cow"). While hardly the Qur'an's bloodiest, it is not at all the book of peaceful wisdom described by Islam's friendlier apologists. Its nastier bits have proven very useful to those individuals -- mostly Christians -- who argue that Islam is violent by nature. (For example, whoever wrote this hysterical effusion.) The Surat al-Baqarah describes in detail -- repetitive, boring, not-at-all-divine-seeming detail -- the awfulness of unbelievers and the special torments Allah has in store for them. I am thinking of these verses, in particular:
"... fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers." (2:24)
"... the curse of Allah will be upon the disbelievers." (2:89)
"... and for the disbelievers is a humiliating punishment." (2:90)
"... Allah is an enemy to the disbelievers." (2:98)
"... for the disbelievers is a painful punishment." (2:104)
This goes on and on. Whereas a mortal dictator might find it sufficient to say "Do as I order, or else," Allah is so insecure, so uncertain of his superiority, that he must say it again and again. From this Surah alone, it may be deduced that Allah is less interested in good works and peaceful coexistence among his subjects than in securing their fearful obedience and "love." (I put "love" in quotation marks, because it seems to me a strange kind of affection that is demanded on pain of eternal suffering. I am guessing my boyfriend would react poorly if I demanded that he love me or else be tortured with fire. He would probably call the police, and rightly so. Tell me: Why should we hold Allah to a lesser standard of morality than we would a mortal homosexual?)
An objective reading makes it clear that the Surat al-Baqarah alone would be enough to justify West's attacks on the Qur'an (though not his attacks on Muslims), if it weren't for one pesky fact: West practices a religion based upon a "holy" book every bit as autocratic, neurotic, and bloodthirsty as your own.
Christian and Jewish readers may be surprised to learn that the Surat al-Baqarah is largely a recapitulation of Exodus -- the same Exodus that may be found in any Bible or Torah. The above quotes come from a section of the Surat al-Baqarah in which the writer paraphrases the Hebrew god's commandments to the Israelites during their sojourn through the desert.
Troubled though he may have been, the author of the Surat al-Baqarah was downright benevolent compared to whatever twisted mind conceived Exodus. Because the devout tend to consume their "holy" books with less skepticism than they might bring to bear on other endeavors, it may be useful to briefly summarize that book's pivotal events below.
In Exodus, Moses and his brother, Aaron, are told by "the Lord" to visit Egypt, and deliver the Israelites out of bondage. When "the Lord" delivers this charge to Moses, he explains straightaway that he intends to sabotage the effort. Before Moses has even said "hello" to Pharoah, "the Lord" tells him: "I will harden [Pharoah's] heart so he will not let your people go. Then say to Pharoah: 'This is what the Lord says; that Israel is my firstborn son... but you refused to let him go, so I will kill your firstborn son.'" (Exodus, 4:22)
Yes, that's right: "The Lord" is going to force Pharoah to deny Moses' demands, and then he's going to punish Pharoah for his obstinacy. This isn't just talk either -- "the Lord" is a great believer in follow-through. "The Lord" proceeds to loose plague after plague upon Egypt, turning the Nile to blood, killing the livestock, filling the air with flies, turning the dust to gnats, covering the land with a boil-causing toxic dirt, crushing the crops with hail, consuming whatever's left with locusts, and plunging the country into three days of impenetrable darkness. After each plague, the Pharoah tries to release the Israelites and begs Moses to take them. But each time, "the Lord hardened Pharoah's heart, and he would not let the Israelites go." (Exodus 10:20)
Why would "the Lord" do this? You needn't
speculate, for "the Lord" is perfectly capable of explaining himself. In
the Bible, "... the Lord said to Moses: 'Go to Pharoah, for I have
hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform
these signs of mine among them, that you may tell your children and
grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians, and how I
performed my signs among them, and that you may know I am the Lord.'"
Yes: "The Lord" is doing these things to the Egyptians because he wants to prove his potency. He says this again, just a little later: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Pharoah will refuse to listen to you -- so that my wonders may be multiplied in Egypt.'" (Exodus 11:9) And what are the final two "wonders" that "the Lord" is so yearning to perform? The first is the killing of Egypt's firstborns; the second is the crushing of Egyptian conscripts beneath a million tons of water at the bottom of the Red Sea. Of the former, "the Lord proclaimed: 'Every firstborn son in Israel will die, from the firstborn of Pharoah, who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well." (Note: You can tell this story is entirely fictional, because "the Lord" would surely remember that only a week before, he had killed all the livestock in Egypt, which would render the killing of firstborn cattle rather unnecessary.) (Exodus 11:5)
Mr. Hamze, this is a foundational story not only of your religion, but of Mr. West's as well. Your god is a self-confessed mass-murdering narcissist. How can any thinking adult claim that these are religions of peace?
That's a rhetorical question. I know very well how members of the world's three leading monotheisms try to placate their deity's blood hunger with word games. They claim that the verses in question are taken out of context. They spin the books and try to make their language mean something other than what it so very clearly means. Sometimes, believers will claim that the hideous events described in their "holy" books took place in a different time, when the deity related differently to the world. Christians will often insist that their messiah rendered irrelevant the crazy bloodthirst of the Old Testament, and that the New Testament, alone among the monotheisms' "holy" texts, is full of sweetness and light. (This is demonstrably untrue: In the New Testament's very last book, the Revelation to John, the angel says: "I will cast [Jezebel] on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer immensely, unless they repent of their ways. I will strike her children dead." (Revelations 2:22) This is the New Testament, featuring the new, improved, lovey-dovey post-Jesus "Lord," and he's still looking lustily forward to the wanton murder of children.)
Mr. Hamze, my point is not that your religion is superior to that of Allen West, nor vice versa. My point is that if either of you is as kind, decent, or tolerant as you appear to be, you are kind, decent, and tolerant not because of but in spite of the "holy" books in which you put your faith.
Yes, most Christians are good people, by any common definition of the word good. Most Jews are good. Most Muslims are good. But they are "good" precisely because they don't take their "holy" texts so seriously. They look within, see words that plainly contradict what they know to be true about the universe, and they write it off -- as an error of translation, as an anachronism, as a metaphor, whatever. I am grateful for these writeoffs -- I am grateful that Christians do not kill sorceresses, fornicators, blasphemers, disbelievers, idolaters, the rich, the disobedient, the Sabbath-missers, the adulterers, and the false prophets, as they are instructed to do in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Romans, and Kings. I am grateful that you do not kill unbelievers, as you are instructed to in the Surat an-Nisa'. Thank you.
Yet my thanks would be multiplied if you could be honest about why you do not kill unbelievers. It is not because the Allah of the Qur'an doesn't want you to. It's because you don't want to, and you have chosen to put your faith in interpretations of the Qur'an that do not call for killing. I suspect that somewhere, in some corner of your mind, you know that the Qur'an is not a perfect transmission of divine wisdom from deity to prophet to believer. Just as your Christian and Jewish critics must know, deep down, that they have chosen to elide certain unpleasant aspects of their own "holy" books.
Conversations like the one you initiated with Allen West would be greatly improved if believers could admit this. They could move beyond the bellowing about which religion is right or wrong, good or bad, and begin to address things of more historical import -- why, for example, religious extremism is so much more prevalent in Muslim countries than in Western ones and how that condition may be changed. Just admit that your "holy" book is imperfect -- not bad, not wrong; just imperfect -- and the real discussion may commence.
I thank you for reading.
- Brandon K. Thorp
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