Donald Trump is certain that “Islam hates us,” as he said in an interview with CNN host Anderson Cooper and repeated in Miami’s debate. “There’s tremendous hatred.” President Obama is certain that “Islam is a religion that preaches peace.”
Both men are equally wrong. Islam neither hates nor preaches — its followers do. Islam is what people make of it, and they have made it many different things.
McCants goes on to provide a number of examples of where the Qur'an says certain things (some violent and intolerant), followed by examples of Muslims both affirming and contradicting those teachings. He concludes from this that if we define Islam nebulously as simply whatever individual Muslims want it to be, then all will be well.
But his argument is severely flawed. Firstly, it is simply illogical to say that, for example, when Muslims behave tolerantly towards non-Muslims despite the Qur'an's admonition to “Kill the polytheists wherever you find them” (9:5), they are just practicing Islam "in their own way". Rather, the correct way to understand this behaviour is that they are not practising Islam, and they are ignoring the commandment of the Qur'an. It makes no sense to say that this tolerant behaviour is a form of Islam that politicians should be talking about (which is what McCants suggests in the piece), when actually it is not Islam at all, but simply human beings behaving in a certain way.
Secondly, and building on the first point, the insistence on defining Islam not by its foundational texts and written teachings, but by how Muslims might behave in any given time and place, means that we cannot realistically work to solve problems that lead to misery and suffering in the world. If, for example, we follow Will McCants' line of thinking and decide that the Qur'an's command to "kill the polytheists wherever you find them" doesn't really matter, because some Muslims might not obey it, then we cannot possibly develop a strategy to change the minds of the Muslims who do want to obey it.
The Muslims who commit savage acts of barbarity every single day regularly quote and cite specific verses of the Qur'an, specific behaviours and teachings of Muhammad, and specific tenets of Islamic law to justify their behaviour (see a few examples here, here, here, here and here). On the other hand, Muslims who behave tolerantly or otherwise "normally" rarely invoke specific Islamic teachings to justify their behaviour - they can't, because such teachings don't really exist. Their "niceness" is due to an absence of Islam, not the presence of a coherent version of it. As a society, we need to understand why the violent and intolerant teachings of Islam continue to have such widespread appeal, and how this can be countered. Will McCants' ideas do not, and cannot, do that.
He also uses odd logic when he says that Obama's Islam-is-a-Religion-of-Peace schtick is still preferable to Donald Trump's view, because "America stands more to gain by denying the jihadist propaganda of its adversaries than by ratifying it." Really? America stands more to gain by ignoring the ideological basis of its adversaries' hatred than by assessing it honestly, and understanding it to a sufficient level in order to combat it more effectively? That is nonsense.
There is also this:
When we attribute human beliefs and behaviors to ancient, immutable scripture, we can’t explain change over time...
The Arabian Peninsula was once home to mystics and music; today it is governed by an austere form of Islam that frowns on religious rapture and playing instruments. Turning to scripture to explain these reversals won’t get you very far.
Actually scripture is the only way to explain the reversals. It is not as if the prohibition on music and playing instruments arose only recently. Reliance of the Traveller, a mainstream manual of Islamic law that was written in the fourteenth century, says that there is “explicit and compelling textual evidence that musical instruments of all types are unlawful” in Islam. It quotes hadith with Muhammad saying things like the following:
“Allah Mighty and Majestic sent me as a guidance and mercy to believers and commanded me to do away with musical instruments, flutes, strings, crucifixes, and the affair of the pre-Islamic period of ignorance.”
“On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will pour molten lead into the ears of whoever sits listening to a songstress.”
“Song makes hypocrisy grow in the heart as water does herbage.”
“'This Community will experience the swallowing up of some people by the earth, metamorphosis of some into animals, and being rained upon with stones.' Someone asked, 'When will this be, O messenger of Allah?' and he said, 'When songstresses and musical instruments appear and wine is held to be lawful.”
The manual repeats: “It is unlawful to use musical instruments – such as those which drinkers are known for, like the mandolin, lute, cymbals and flute – or to listen to them.” The only exception is that the tambourine may be played at weddings and circumcisions.
These are the actual foundational teachings of the religion of Islam. Simply put, they fell into abeyance in some parts of the world for a time due to non-adherence to Islam. Now religious purists are calling for Muslims to return to these foundational principles. That call could not and would not happen without the ancient scriptures to point to; therefore it is quite apt to use them to explain the resurgence of an "austere form of Islam" in many parts of the world.
I can see what Will McCants is trying to do here. He's trying to take the "reasonable" middle ground in a complex debate that is full of heightened emotions and touchy subjects. But his take on all of this has no practical value and just adds confusion to a topic that really doesn't need it. Most importantly, it prevents us from being able to take positive steps to improve the current situation, and consequently plays into the hands of groups like ISIS - who will continue to use the Qur'an to justify their violence, even as Will McCants continues to tell us that it doesn't matter.