Robert Wright and the Koran: Grappling with the Wrong Religion

I appreciate Mr. Wright’s attempt in the New York Times yesterday to highlight the balance that characterizes the Koran. For example, he writes: “though the Koran does call the Jews God’s chosen people, and sings the praises of Moses, and says that Jews and Muslims worship the same God, it also has anti-Jewish, and for that matter anti-Christian, passages.”

But I cannot help regretting that such well-intentioned efforts always suffer from a crippling flaw. When liberals counter neoconservative attacks on Islam, they often couch their remarks within the context of Christianity and Judaism—but they rarely acknowledge the one overriding religion in America: nationalism.

The right’s focus on Islam is not about Islam; it is about America. It is about blurring out the role that American-Israeli violence plays in spawning Islamist violence by blaming Islam itself for the latter. So it is not necessarily fruitful to respond to this Islam-gazing with more Islam-gazing.

Parsing the Koran will not produce answers about the roots of terror any more than staring at a cup will enlighten onlookers about the source of water. Any human being—even those at the Pentagon—can explain that occupation, invasion, sanctions, and military assaults produce anger and blowback among any people.

When the discussion is about the evils of “Islam” (conservatives) or “radical Islam” (liberals), it is an implicitly nationalist, denial-based game that vanishes the massive violence our own country exports to all corners of the globe.

Let us look at the obverse side of the dynamic.

When three planes hurtled into national icons, did anger and hatred rise in American hearts only after consultation of Biblical verses? Was that required? Or was the anger instinctive and reflexive, with some turning to religious animosity after the sudden surge of emotion?

This same festering hatred enabled Americans to dupe themselves into believing Iraq was connected to 9/11. Liberals then were puzzled by the widespread aversion to the facts—but the facts didn’t matter. It was all about getting back at Them.

Why pretend the process is different with Muslims abroad?

As Shakespeare wrote, placing his words in the mouth of Shylock, “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Revenge is a human impulse, not a religious one. And this impulse does not “alter when it alteration finds”—it is constant no matter which tribe of humans has been wronged. The denial of this basic truth lies at the heart of nationalism.

Wright suggests that people of good will in all three faiths choose to “ignore or downplay” the “darker side” of their scriptures.

Within the uniformly dangerous religion of nationalism, all adherents must “ignore or downplay” the atrocities committed by their side and in their name. And it is that commandment—not what the Koran says or does not say—that strains our relations with the Muslim world.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at his website, Crossing the Crescent.