The Spanish Inquisition, the Thirty-Years-War, John Brown's Pottawatomie Massacre, the terrorist attacks of the Irish Republican Army, the Oklahoma City bombing — these are just a few examples of violence carried out by extremists who found inspiration in their Christian faith.
Jewish radicals have justified violence against Arabs by citing the “holy war” that God commanded Israel to wage against the Canaanites for possession of the Promised Land. As recently as 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a deeply religious Jew, murdered 29 Muslims worshipping in a mosque in Hebron.
The kamikazes of World War II were religiously motivated. And it was members of Aum Shinrikyo, an offshoot of Japanese Buddhism, who released vials of poisonous gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995.
There have been Hindu terrorists (the word “thug” originally referred to those who murdered to honor the Hindu goddess Kali); also Sikh suicide bombers.
So those who think Islam is the only religion that gives rise to extremism and carnage need to think again.
But let's be clear, Islam is not – as has been repeatedly claimed -- a “religion of peace.” Indeed, the idea is absurd, considering that Islam's founding prophet also was a warrior -- among the most successful in history, establishing an empire ranging from Spain to the South Pacific.
Nor did Osama bin Laden “hijack” Islam – any more than Hitler hijacked Germanic culture or Lenin hijacked the Russian ethos. Rather, Hitler and Lenin drew upon the ugliest threads in their nations' fabrics. So, too, has bin Laden invoked Islam's most radically xenophobic doctrines to legitimize a vicious assault against all those who refuse to accept his authority, all those he demonizes as “infidels.”
Today, the overwhelming majority of modern Christians reject such religiously based fanaticism as that represented by the Ku Klux Klan and Timothy McVeigh. Most Jews condemn religious extremists like Meir Kahane.
But while recent polls have found support for suicide bombing declining in most Muslim countries, it is still far from clear that most Muslims unequivocally reject those who murder children in the name of Islam and Islam's many grievances.
And that will not become clear as long as commentators on Arab television praise the killers of Iraqi civilians. It will not be clear as long as Muslim clerics in the holy city of Mecca continue to call for “jihad” against the West.
The West “doesn't want us even to say the words 'Allah's enemies,” the Saudi cleric Musa Al-Qarni groused recently on Saudi government television. “They don't want us to say that the Jews and the Christians are the enemies of the Muslims and the enemies of Islam.” But, he added: "This is fixed and established in the Koran...”
Hateful rhetoric and incitement to terrorism also can be heard on al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station, from Iran's ruling mullahs and even from the Palestinian Authority under “moderate” President Mahmoud Abbas. “By Allah, the day will come when we will rule the entire world again,” the PA's Sheikh Ibrahim Muayris said last month.
There are moderate, reformist voices of Islam but so far they are neither as loud nor as forceful as those of Wahabbism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam that emerged in 18th century Arabia. A bargain struck between the Wahhabis and the House of Sa'ud led to the rise, in the 20th century, of what we now call the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Wahhabis gave religious sanction to the House of Sa'ud; in exchange, Saudi princes have generously funded the Wahhabis, drawing upon enormous wealth derived from selling Arabia's oil to infidels.
To be fair, though Wahhabi proselytizing has always been noxious, it generally stopped short of calls for a full-blown holy war against the Saudis' best customers and frequent protectors, Britain and the United States. What changed that? Ideas that were blended with Wahhabism beginning early in the 20th century, ideas inspired in large measure by the Nazi, Fascist and Communist movements, ideas promoted by such radical groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and such radical theorists as Sayyid Qutb.
The point is this: As Christian behavior need not be modeled on Torquemada, as Jews needn't emulate the Zealots, as there is nothing in Shinto or Buddhism to prevent Japan from living in peace with its neighbors, so too Muslims need not embrace an interpretation of their religion that is hateful, barbaric and incompatible with freedom, democracy and human rights.
It is not inevitable that Muslims will, as bin Laden predicts, join him in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations, intended to return the world to the 7th Century as fanatics dream it must have been. There is an alternative to a Muslim war against the Free World: Muslims can join the Free World instead.
Neither Islam nor any other great religion has always been peaceful in the past. But it should not take a prophet to see the need for tolerance, pluralism and peaceful coexistence in our future.