Last week Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan took up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority and in doing so, fed the idea that Islam is a monolithic entity that’s fundamentally incompatible with western values.
Paul Sheehan said that there are "more than 100 verses in the Koran that call Muslims to violence against the Unbelievers."
Relying on the dubious website Thereligionofpeace.com Sheehan concludes that "the Koran groans under the weight of its own contradictions, with entreaties to kindness co-existing with exhortations to merciless war."
It is questionable whether such an opinion is a result of a direct insight into Islam – or based merely on an old prejudice against Islam that goes back in time: that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant of others.
Critics of Islam frequently quote out of context the more aggressive passages of the Koran, arguing that these verses could easily inspire and endorse terrorism.
They ignore the fact that the Jewish and Christian scriptures can be just as aggressive, if taken out from their historical context.
For example, the Old Testament says: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17-18).
Many violent Jewish and Christian groups have used these biblical texts to justify their actions. Crusaders used them against Muslims and Jews.
Nazis used them against Jews. Serbian Christians used them against Bosnian Muslims. Zionists are using them regularly against Palestinians.
But non-religious people have done the same in the name of one ideology of another.
In 2011, Anders Breivik massacred 77 people in cold blood. Breivik allegedly hated Muslims and Islam and subscribed to a fundamentalist, right-wing Christian ideology.
Of course, little to no mention was made by the media about Breivik's "religious" association, or that he was "devout" of any sort.
The tragedy, and hypocrisy, of Western journalism (with some exceptions) is their hunger to associate such crimes with Islam.
The display of violence and the killing of innocent people are indicative of a radical, and indeed extremist, mindset that is fundamentally opposite to the unanimous teachings of Islam.
A more objective and scholarly reading of the causes of terrorism would inform us of a host of causal factors, including: radical ideology; empathy and association with radicals; socio-economic factors; personal experiences; criminal activity; racism and Islamophobia.
All of these factors play a role, in one way or another, in the process of extremism and terrorism.
The matter is thus complex, and it is culpably simplistic to attribute it to a single cause. Tragically, like the terrorists he criticises, Sheehan takes the Koran out of context.
Take for example this partial quote cited by Sheehan, “And slay them wherever ye find them …” Sheehan fails to state that this is part of five-long verses (2:190-195), which must be read together.
When read in context the legal implication derived stipulates that fighting is permitted only under certain strict circumstances. Additionally, the same verses prohibit transgression of limits, and it does not promote killing of innocent people but allows self-defence.
It further goes on to state “if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” Clearly, when the whole context is examined the verses do not promote killing of innocent people. The same is true for all other verses (mis)quoted by Sheehan.
A fuller reading of the verses mentioned by Sheehan show that much restraint and care is emphasised. For example the Koran says: “… therefore if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (guarantees of) peace, then God has opened no way for you (to war against them)” (4:89-91).
And, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God does not love transgressors” (2:190).
Those who read the Koran should keep at a minimum the following principles in mind: The reasons for revelation or the historical context of a particular verse; familiarity with the science of abrogation; examination of the verses that deal with the same subject; a cursory knowledge of prophet Muhammad's life; and the way these verses are applied.
I dare to say that Sheehan lacks this level of scholarly knowledge, and that a simple reliance on a dubious website is problematic, to say the least.
When these texts are not read in their proper textual and historical contexts they are manipulated and distorted – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
When examined objectively, one will not fail to realise that the Koran and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad strictly condemn terrorism and the killing of innocent people, Muslim or not.
Sheehan conveniently fails to mention these verses and prophetic traditions, for example: "… take not life, which God has made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that you may learn wisdom" (Koran 6:151) "… that if anyone killed a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.
Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land" (5:32) Or the Hadith that states "Whoever kills a mu'ahid [non-combatant, innocent non-Muslims] will not smell the scent of paradise …" (Bukhari).
A contextual reading of the Koran or Hadith leads to one conclusion only: there is no justification for the killing of innocent people, whether in Baghdad or Boston.
Full stop! The ends do not justify the means in Islamic ethics! Therefore, associating murder or the killing of innocent people and bystanders to "Islam" is not only abhorrent, but goes against the clear text of Islam. A contextual reading of Islamic texts prohibits targeting innocent people such as women, children, religious people and others even during times of war.
Disbelief, in and of itself, is not an excuse to kill anyone. The koranic verses, which seem violent, were revealed at a time when the non-Muslims of Mecca attacked Muslims on a regular basis.
They are to be interpreted within a legal and historical context, and not in isolation.
No competent and credible Muslim scholar would take the verses mentioned by Sheehan as permitting terrorism and the killing of innocent people. To the contrary!
Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla is founding director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit (GIRU)