It's a problem that surfaces again and again, headline after headline, as those who interpret Islam as requiring violence act out their interpretation. Villagers are butchered in West Africa. Bombs explode in crowded markets. Authors and cartoonists and filmmakers are murdered. It's ugly, and it's horrific.
Having read the entirety of the Quran, and read the Hadiths, and familiarized myself with the core of Muslim faith in my own secular study of religion, I see no reason Islam must be violent. It is not, as its most radicalized opponents assert, an inherently violent religion. That does not mean that I believe Mohammed, peace be unto him, was a pacifist. He was perfectly willing to pick up the sword, and did on a variety of occasions. In that, he was less like Jesus or the Buddha, and more like, well, the dude whose picture graces this blog. If the Quran is to be taken seriously as an authentic exposition of his life and teachings, he was a warrior prophet. Arguing otherwise is absurd.
But though he was a warrior, the faith that rests on his prophetic critique does not require war. The framework of the Muslim life is the practice of the five pillars. Faith in God, regular prayer, pilgrimage, charity, and the discipline of fasting? Do those things, and you're a Muslim.
Those are gracious, good, positive things. It's why so many millions of Muslims have no difficulty coexisting with their neighbors. There's nothing, nothing at all, in the deep and authentic practice of their faith that stirs them to violence.
So why this seemingly relentless drumroll of horror, which is doubly...no... exponentially more horrible to those whose practice of Islam leads them to live charitable, gracious lives?
The reasons are many. It's...complicated. Islam exists in a region of the world that is economically troubled, and that in the next century will become even more troubled. When the oil dries up, developed economies will transition to other sources of energy, ending the temporary growth that has made prosperity possible in that region. That, coupled with political oppression, the dark residue of colonialism, endemic unemployment, and climatic resource depletion? Things are going to be...messy.
But perhaps the greatest challenge Islam faces is a challenge that badly burned my own faith: the fusion of religion and the power of the state. For a millennia and a half, Christendom--the dominion of Christianity--was enforced at the edge of the sword. Faith and the state were one. The demands of faith are enmeshed with the laws of the state.
Whenever this is the case, religion becomes inherently violent, because the power of the state ultimately rests on the power to coerce compliance with a set of laws or social norms. It is why so many were butchered in the name of Jesus, to "protect the faith" from impurity. It was a horror, and one that Christianity must never forget.
If an individual can be imprisoned or physically punished for blasphemy or hewing to another faith, then they are living in a violent faith system. I think folks like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins are fools, and radically misrepresent faith. But if a "Christian" government threatened them with imprisonment or sanction to protect my sensibilities, then my faith would be violent.
Therein lies the challenge for a faith tradition that exists in an area of the world where religion and the state remain dangerously entangled.