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Religions, moderation and civil society

Reader comment on item: On Islam and Islamism
in response to reader comment: Voices of moderate Islam

Submitted by Bryan Poulin (Canada), Mar 25, 2008 at 17:07

Daniel Pipes' views on Islam and Islamism are grounded in an interpretation of facts that is in rare context. Most have too little grasped on the history, including that of Islam and the situation it faces, to offer useful or insightful suggestions. The result is but a reinforcement of one bias or another. Unfortunately this bias includes, this contentious statement, "The history of human race demonstrates that the only valid path to knowledge of reality is science...." This reader's solution is to throw out "all religion" and replace religion with science. Leaving out the fact that such faith in science is itself a limited form of religious thinking --- narrow and shallow --- I contend that any approach, whether it is science or religion, needs to be judged on its merit in the circumstances at hand. This leads to three reasonable tests of science and religion.

First, is science or the business of science on a trajectory of madness? It would appear "yes" if judged in terms of toxic waste, pollution of waterways and air, desertification, contamination of food supply, threat of nuclear proliferation and war and so on. On the other hand, thankfully, science and business are also in the very early stages of reinvention on a more sustainable basis.

Secondly, are people of religion prone to become unhinged, not just Islam? The answer here also appears '"yes", if we go beyond singular perspective and look to history. For example, in periods of history, instead of promoting the notion of "free will" that was to have been core to Christianity, as it is in Judaism, Christian clerics promoted "either or" propositions, with terrible consequences: pogroms, inquisitions, burning at the stake, ethnic cleansing, and mass expulsions. It took much needless bloodshed to move such a notion from the mainstream to the fringes , finally replacing what today we would call radicalism with more acceptable interpretations and reforms.

Thirdly, is there hope for the future of science and religion? Surprisingly, the answer here is also "yes" and this hope is borne out of a combination of both: moral principles of religion, including Christianity and Judaism, and potentially Islam, combined with discoveries of both physical and social science. Then we might expect more resepct, more equality before just laws, more responsibility for one's neighbor, more sustainable stewardship of resources and greater civility. Such results, I contend, are most likely only with valid science and valid religion. Together the best of each can play its part. However, the great danger is any extremism which dictates beyond fair terms for others, whatever the source. It matters little whether this is done by dictators of science or dictatorial clerics.

Leaving the question of tyranny in sciece aside, here reamins the outstanding question: Can Islam be interpreted in such ways as to be a positive and not a negative force in societies where it operates? The question can be addressed by serious challenge from each society and government, which must ask clerics of Islam whether it is to become a religion tolerant of other views and religions, or not. If not, then Islam must be forced by governments to interpret texts and educational material so these reflect repect for and do not reflect hate and prejudice of others, or be banned.

Of course, it is preferable that reasonable reinterpretation of the most trouble-some Islamic tracts is by strong voices within Islam, rather than outright ban of Islam. The prime example of clerical leadership is the past Catholic pope who, when confronted with a seemingly hate-inspiring tract against Jewish people in the Christian text, courageously stated the words were not to be taken literally and that a literal interpretation was in error. He went further, stating that the Jewish people were "elder brothers" to Christians, implying that Jewish rabbis had a say in how the Christian texts are to be interpreted. Wouldn't it be refreshing for top Muslim clerics to similarly acknowledge Jewish people as "elder brothers", and invite interpretation of difficult tracts by modern Jewish, Christian, Islamic clerics, and others including leading scientists, all of whom may also have much to say about the societies we must create, to peaceably co-exist?

Bryan Poulin


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