On long bus rides and flights (of which there have been many during the last 18 months of traveling through Asia and Africa, for a combined total of at least 200 bus-hours), I listen to podcasts. It is a way of depositing knowledge into my brain while still admiring the scenery. The one I listen to the most is an NPR podcast called “Intelligence Squared.” It is described as “Oxford-style debating on America’s shores.” It is both intellectually-stimulating and fits well with my strict “Buy American” policy.
Most recently, I made a 13-hour bus ride from Accra, the capital city of Ghana, which lies on the coast of West Africa, to Tamale, the capital city of the Northern Region. In West Africa, the percentage of Muslims increases as you get closer to North Africa. So, in order to stimulate the brain waves and get mentally prepared for being in a predominantly Muslim area, I listened to an episode of Intelligence Squared in which teams of two debated the following motion: “Islam is a religion of peace.” The debaters ranged from a former jihadist turn peace activist who realized, after going through a period of anger, that his interpretation of Islam as providing a mandate for militancy was all wrong. On the other side of the debate, a Somali immigrant who had lived under the terrible influence of Al Shabab stressed the point that many passages in the Koran advocate violence and any interpretation of the religion must take this salient point into account. It was an interesting debate.
My personal opinion has always been that Islam is a religion of peace. To pull particularly violent passages from the Koran and use them as evidence of Islam’s fundamental commitment to violence is fair, I suppose. But applying the same rubric to the Old Testament of the New Testament leads to the obvious conclusion that Judaism and Christianity are also not religions of peace. And looking at Christianity’s long history of violence, like the Crusades, leads to the same conclusion. Another argument presented as evidence against the motion is that a religion is judged by the actions of its followers. Even if most of the Muslims in the world are moderate in ideology and peaceful in nature, the actions of Jihadists and fundamentalist Muslims speak for the religion as a whole. Again, looking at Sinn Fein in Ireland and the violence between Protestants and Catholics, or at the Jewish Defense League, which is effectively a terrorist organization, leads to the same inevitable conclusion. So, in short, the arguments may be salient, but the ultimate conclusion is that no religion is one of peace. (Actually, the bible has twice as many violent passages of the Koran, but, on a percentage basis, the Koran actually wins).
These are theoretical arguments based on interpretations of holy scripture. But the best indicator is what is happening on the ground. In my time here, I have developed a deep respect for Islam and for the discipline of Muslims, who diligently pray five times each day, waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning to perform the daily prayers.
And, in the North, there are Christians as well. I have sat in meetings over the last week that have opened and closed with a prayer. Sometimes the prayer is non-denominational, asking God for guidance in making sure the discussions of the meeting are fruitful. But the most interesting ones are those that open with a prayer to the Lord Jesus and close with one to Allah, spoken in Arabic. The Christians and the Muslims in the room bow their heads and respectfully listen to the other’s prayers. It is synergistic harmony of religions with not a sign of conflict in site.
I have spent time in religiously-diverse countries over the last few years. I traveled through Israel and Turkey, which is where I got my first taste of the surreal sound of the Muslim call to prayer. I have been to the Philippines, which isn’t exactly a great example of religious harmony, but still has its share of tolerant Muslims and Christians. And now I am here in Ghana, a peaceful nation abounding with mutual respect between devout followers of two religions that, according to conservative pundits, are in direct conflict with one another. After all, the Global War on Terror is often unfortunately mistaken for a War on Islam – a trend that has unfortunately exacerbated with the rightward movement of the vocal conservative minority in the United States and Europe.
So, to the haters on Islam, please understand that a religion should be judged by the actions of the majority of its adherents. Every religion, or ideology for that matter, has its extremist elements. But to condemn a religion as one of violence because of the actions of a few opens the door to condemning religion in general as violent.
Ghana is a model of religious harmony built on mutual respect, where Islam is decidedly a religion of peace.