I know of a particular corner in a particular building where mats are kept for the purpose of allowing the practitioners of Islam to kneel upon them and say their daily prayers. The mats are situated between a pole and a wall; upon the pole is inscribed the following: Islam = Peace. I am certain that many people who do not practice Islam will find this observation highly ironic, given the constant information they receive from various news sources that suggest that the exact opposite is true. In Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and seemingly countless other countries it seems that war and violence are just part of the culture--perhaps an unfair characterization of the vast majority of Muslims, but the actions of the "few" speak louder, and bloodier, than such sentiments.
Now comes news that Islamic extremists in Nigeria have kidnapped nearly 300 teenage school girls, some of whom have escaped and assert that they were raped. Abubakar Shekau—the fanatical leader of the insurgent group Boko Haram, and who apparently has more lives than a cat—has referred to the girls as “slaves” and claims it is his intention to sell them into bondage or marry them off to his fighters. The girls were allegedly abducted because the extremists oppose their “Western” education, and believe that their own actions are supported by Islamic law (i.e. putting girls in their “proper place”).
Civil war in Nigeria, which is ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse, is nothing particularly new. As far back as the early 19th century Islamic elements in northern Nigeria conducted frequent jihads and eventually formed their own autonomous state. It wasn’t until 1903 when British colonial forces defeated the natives that it was incorporated into today’s Nigeria. In 1967 the mostly Christian Igbo ethnic group—following the massacre of thousands of their people by Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria—formed the state of Biafra in eastern Nigeria, but were eventually defeated by 1970 in the ensuing civil war; it is estimated that as many as 2 million Igbo died from famine during the war.
Thus perhaps people in the West may be forgiven for casting doubt on the claim that Islam is an ideology of peace. They may say that socially and politically Islam has advanced little since Medieval times, and that the only concession that Islam has made to the modern world is in war-making and—at least for the oil sheiks—surrounding themselves with the trappings of wealth. But the vast majority of common people in Islamic countries still seem to live in a time warp, between the reactionary strictures of their religion—and envy of the material world in the West. If they cannot have what they see that other countries have, they seek to destroy it.
Of course, from the point of view of Islamic countries, the West seems to be a bullying presence, seeking to impose its will on recalcitrants’ who have struck the “right” note of paranoia on our own populations. Plenty of people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are beyond comprehension how an army of infidels were allowed to come crashing into their chaotic party, having the nerve to tell them how to run their lives and society when the Koran has all the answers.
Obviously the Koran doesn’t have all the answers, and the ones it does have seem to be leave adherents in some confusion. What we would call civil rights are frowned upon. Muslims are not allowed to exercise free will; all of their actions on Earth are subsumed to their obligations to God. This subsumation of “rights” and “free will” was clearly evident in the Nigerian kidnapping episode, as well as in the fatwa declared on Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after his allegedly “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses was published; a reward was offered for anyone who would kill him. The concept of jihad, meanwhile, can apply to fighting inner demons and amending one’s behavior. But jihad has become synonymous with violent action, not just against Westerners but Muslims viewed as enemies of extreme Islamic “principles.”
One of the ironies of the Koran is that it commands believers to accept Judaic and Christian texts as legitimate revelations to the respective adherents of those religions; only the Arabs were apparently blessed with the latest “word”—although the Mormons might have a different opinion in regard to that. Another irony is that Islamic apologists who claim that the Koran teaches “peace” with other peoples who are non-Muslims seem at a loss to explain why extremists “reinterpret” the sacred scriptures as advocating violent action—not only that, but even promise that the killing of even innocent children is “rewarded” by an eventual trip to “paradise.”
Nevertheless, I can understand why Muslim immigrants living in the United States can appreciate the utility of practicing “peace.” They are a small minority in this country, and fanatical imams who might preach violence against the “infidels” do not have the support of the state or the law. Muslims also have the right to live as they wish in this country; this society frowns upon such punishments as cutting off hands or heads, or being blown to bits for religious transgressions. Their practice of religion is between themselves, their conscious and their God, as it should be.