Empathy and Islam


Empathy is a quality that can help steer you away from drawing incorrect conclusions based on stereotypes that exist around you. When someone or something seems weird, it’s easy to dismiss it as such without putting much effort into trying to understand what’s actually going on. And when there is a motive behind the stereotypes, the goal obviously is not an honest representation but rather a strawman.

The vast majority of Muslims say that their religion is a religion of peace. I hear many non-Muslims, including many Christians, claim just the opposite, citing a few quotes from the Quran to prove their claims. On top of that, they have the convenience of Islamic extremist terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda to provide more evidence. This view of Islam is what drives many Christian Americans to support the seemingly unending War on Terror, which has caused tremendous death and destruction to innocent people who live in the Middle East.

“How can Islam be peaceful if Muslims are blowing up buildings and publicly beheading people in the name of Allah?”

“What about the verses in the Quran that say ‘kill the infidel’?”

I’m no Muslim nor am I an Islamic scholar, but it does not take too much effort to spend a bit of time to think about these questions or even to look up the actual verses in the Quran. My intention is not to refute every misconception about Islam here; I’d rather provide the framework that helps create ideas of empathy and the means to reject certain types of arguments—mostly strawman—about the religion.

Do Islamic extremist groups exist in the world and are they incredibly violent and brutal? Yes, they do without a doubt. There is a religious aspect to ISIS, for example, as their goal is to create an Islamic state. They are evil, evil people. But an Islamic state is not a new idea and ISIS would certainly not be the first. Saudi Arabia’s government is classified as a “unitary Islamic absolute monarchy” and the motto of the country is “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” But is the Saudi Arabian government a bad entity? The US government and the typical American conservative who is terrified of Islamic extremism would say no since Saudi Arabia is a close ally to the United States. But even a cursory examination would show otherwise.

Although it has seen some improvements over recent years, Saudi Arabia is not friendly to women’s rights. Women have only recently been granted permission to vote in elections. They are required to have a male guardian and are not allowed to drive. It is extremely dangerous to be a homosexual or other member of the LGBT community in Saudi Arabia, as execution can be the penalty if caught participating in homosexual activity.

I wish that capital punishment would be prima facie rejected by people all around the world, but it is still an acceptable practice in much of the western world. Saudi Arabia and other countries with similar governments, however, extend the practice to a much wider range of crimes than their western counterparts. A number of these are victimless and should not be considered crimes in the first place. You can be executed for adultery, atheism, blasphemy, burglary, fornication, drug smuggling, idolatry, sexual misconduct, political crimes, witchcraft, and more. What makes it even more horrific is the brutality by which they execute people: stoning and beheading (including public) are regular choices. There were at least 157 executions in 2015 in Saudi Arabia.

As bad as ISIS is, their goal seems to be like Saudi Arabia, a country with twice as many beheadings as ISIS in 2015. It’s interesting that we normally do not hear about Saudi Arabia when people talk about the problems of Islamic extremism. The country represents the problems that arise when you intimately mix the state with religion. Christianity has had its history of problems when it becomes hijacked by the state; it is not a problem unique to Islam.

I used the term “hijacked” on purpose. These Islamic extremist groups are bastardizing the religion and morphing it to fit their own agenda. It’s not fair to lump in peaceful Muslims, who have never hurt another person in their lives, with those groups. It is not necessary for Muslims the world over to reject any given terrorist attack perpetrated by some extremist group. That makes as much sense as Christians being expected to decry a murder rampage at an abortion clinic.

With many terrorists being produced in the Middle East where the United States has been mired in war, it makes it easier for westerners to stomach bombings that level entire communities. Couple that with the media showing videos of Arabs burning American flags and chanting their disgust with the United States, the lines blur between “terrorist” and “average citizen.” People associate Arab with Muslim and then Muslim with terrorist. Americans become upset that the non-terrorists aren’t doing enough to stop the actual terrorists, so the destruction of their homes and their deaths become more palatable.

Americans don’t see the War on Terror as a Christian war; it is a political war. To them it’s the Muslims, of course, that are fighting the religious war. But the Muslims are not upset that Americans aren’t Muslim, they’re upset because the United States military is brutalizing them.

People need to take a step back and look at the situation from the other side. For all of the “Death to America!” videos we see, the United States features “we should turn that place into a parking lot” as an acceptable comment concerning what to do about the Middle East. They are moral equivalents. When a random guy who gets a microphone put in front of his face says he wants to blow Afghanistan to bits, does it mean that he’s on the next plane to Kabul carrying an M16? And yes, terrorists have jumped across the oceans to attack the United States, killing almost 3000 civilians on September 11, 2001, but the United States has been bombing the Middle East for decades and has killed a conservative estimate of over 1.3 million civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks.

If you’re wondering who should be more concerned about how violent rhetoric will affect their life and you’re an American, it’s not you.

So of course Arabs are going to be suspicious and even hate what they might consider the “Christian America” that has caused so much harm to them over the years. But is it fair for them to say that since the United States is predominantly Christian, with mottos such as “In God we trust,” that Christianity is the cause?

The Quran is the oft-cited source for the accused violence of Islam. While most Americans have probably never read the Quran—let alone even hold one—many of them have been able to come to the conclusion that violence is at the core of the religion. “And kill them whenever you find them,” Quran 2:191, is one of the more famous verses used to justify suspicion against Muslims. Taken in context, the verse seems a lot less frightening. It’s not an aggressive prescription for violence, but rather a more defensive one. Two verses later is: “But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.” Although I personally do not believe that violence in the face of oppression is the best solution, certainly no person advocating for defensive wars (i.e. the American “patriot”) could hold that someone else could not also support fighting in self-defense.

Christians, of all people, should be sympathetic to people who have to deal with explaining misunderstandings of their faith. As a Catholic myself, it’s frustrating when I have to convince others that I don’t worship statues, I don’t hate gay people, etc. These questions are a nuisance, but at least people don’t assume that I agree with slavery because the Bible has direct references about owning slaves. There are plenty of other verses in the Bible that refer to executions, aggressive wars, and suppression of women. Some of these could be chalked up to context or awkward translations, but there is no further context or explanation needed for others. We can say, “Well, that’s because it was the culture of the time,” but why can’t Muslims say that about the Quran? Both the Bible and the Quran talk about conquering the lands of and killing non-believers: why do Christians only have to say that they don’t believe in that part of their holy book but that’s not enough for Muslims?

At the end of the day, if we take a minute to step back and try to see things through empathetic eyes, we can see that the people we distrust, hate, and even want to kill are just like us.

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Great article. Very inofrmative and level-headed.