We must understand that all religions speak with multiple voices — some of those voices come from the shadows. 

Islam's Shadow

'm getting tired of hearing "That's not Islam" in response to the mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his associates masterminded and carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, killing upwards of 5,000 people and destroying property worth billions of dollars. We do know that several of the hijackers trained at Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps in Afghanistan. It appears that the hijackers were Muslim. And as best I can tell, committing such atrocity emerged from their understanding of their religion — Islam.

Islam means peace. Islam is a tolerant religion. So we are told. What I don't hear being told is that no religion, not even Islam, speaks with one voice. Certainly there is a theology that unites all Muslims. But when that theology gets played out in day-to-day living, Islam takes on a variety of appearances.

All religions have a variety of expressions. However, many Muslims seem compelled to come across to the non-Muslim world as united — speaking with one voice. But there's more to this "oneness" than a unified voice. Where I am living, in Saudi Arabia, I have heard the reticence expressed that any Muslim could have colored outside theological lines. The thinking goes like this:

Islam is a religion of peace. Islam forbids terrorism, the killing of innocents. Therefore, no Muslim could have been guilty of this heinous act. Hence, all evidence that points to Muslims as guilty of terrorism must be fabricated.

These folks are deadly serious.

How do we know what any religion "really is" or "really is not" other than how we see that religion expressed by those who claim it as their own? It works on the same principle James Baldwin used when he wrote his essay, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" Many blacks in America express themselves through what has become known as "Black English." We know it's a language because folks speak it. We know that some folks commit acts of terror, using the language of Islam. A segment of Muslim believers carries out terrorist acts as an expression of their faith.

Christianity, the religion most identified with the West, also speaks with a variety of voices. Even though Christians gather around a theology (Jesus as central), no one voice speaks for all — even though some voices do their best to dominate. In America's recent history, some Christians, carrying out the task they believed God demanded, bombed abortion clinics, terrorizing and killing its clientele and employees. These folks saw themselves as God's soldiers, rooting out the forces of evil in a sullied land. "Onward Christian soldiers!" This terrorism emerged from their understanding of their religion — Christianity. The thinking goes like this:

Christianity is a religion of action. Christianity forbids murder. Abortion is murder. Therefore, Christians must kill in order to prevent murder.

These folks are deadly serious.

What's going on here? Does Allah demand that Muslims undertake suicide missions in order to carry out His will? Does God demand that Christians bomb abortion clinics? Reasonable and rational Muslim and Christian people answer with a resounding NO. Does that mean that folks who fly planes into buildings are not Muslim? Does it mean that those who bomb abortion clinics are not Christian? No, of course not. They are Muslims and they are Christians who carry out what they believe to be the tenets of Islam and Christianity. Reasonable and rational people of all religious persuasions (and even those without religious ties) disagree vehemently, resisting the notion that those recent barbaric acts on New York and Washington and bombing abortion clinics have Divine sanction.

Brilliant light (our sacred texts) casts a dark shadow. We ignore that shadow at our own peril.

There is little doubt that Muslim people carried out the deadly mission on Sept. 11. And even though these suicide missions are an expression of Islam that many Muslims abhor, they are an expression of Islam. Ignoring the shadow will not make it go away. There is no doubt that Christian people bombed abortion clinics, giving expression to a faction of Christianity that most Christians abhor. By and large, this shadowy Christian expression of faith was strongly denounced by a majority of Christians.

We must understand that all religions speak with multiple voices —some of those voices come from the shadows. It is up to all of us, no matter what our faith, to acknowledge those shadowy voices — not pretend they don't exist.

One question keeps nagging at me in the midst of this fray. Do we not misuse our sacred texts when we rely on them as how-to manuals, expecting them to map out step-by-step directions on "The Religious Life"? Let's see. Should I fly this jumbo jet filled with passengers into a crowded building? Should I bomb my neighborhood abortion clinic? We've learned how to cite passages from our holy books in order to "prove" that our behavior was, indeed, right. Something has gone terribly askew when we map a terrorist path with the light of sacred texts.

Seems to me that we need to think about our sacred texts differently in order to break free from the prison of fundamentalist extremism. We cannot assume that a religious construct (theology) that gives license to kill and destroy in the name of Allah or God has divine origins. But we must acknowledge that such religious constructs are part of religious systems. To ignore this shadowy, dark side of religion plays right into the terrorists' hands, deflecting our vision from the horror of their despicable acts.

Esther Nelson taught religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University where she was a member of the adjunct faculty. She currently lives in Saudi Arabia.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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