(CCU Faculty) In a speech on Nov. 7 during his recent trip India, President Obama stated: “The phrase jihad has a lot of meaning within Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations, but I will say that first Islam is one of the world's great religions. More than a billion people practice Islam and an overwhelming majority view their obligations to a religion that reaffirms peace, fairness, tolerance. I think all of us recognize that this great religion, in the hands of a few extremists, has been distorted by violence.”
President Obama’s assertion that Islam is a great religion demands further consideration. Most importantly, what makes a religion “great”? Before turning to that specific question, two caveats: first, President Obama delivered his speech just a few days before moving on to Indonesia, a Muslim nation. In the political context, he may very well have simply been making an overture to the next stop on his Asia trip. Second, this is not meant as a partisan questioning of Obama. In a speech on September 17, 2001, President Bush stated: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” A few days later, in a meeting with American Muslim leaders, Bush stated that “the teachings of Islam are the teachings of peace and good."
Let’s return to our central question: what are the qualities of a “great” religion? There are two approaches to this question: one from a Christian perspective and the other from a political one.
First, consider the Christian approach to this. Christian faith teaches that there is only one way to salvation and eternal connection to God: a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Any religion that teaches otherwise is false. Can a Christian recognize another religion as “great”? If the followers of other religions are destined to eternity in hell and permanent separation from God, then the answer is obviously no.
The second, geo-political, approach to considering whether Islam is great is a bit more complicated. It is estimated that there are over between ¾ and 1 ½ billion Muslims in the world. If we were to measure greatness based solely on numbers, then with approximately 20% of the world’s population, Islam would be considered a “great” religion. However, if we are simply using popularity as our standard, then we can agree that “popular” does not always coincide with “right” or “great”.
If we look at the countries who have Islam as the official religion and those that are governed by Islamic rulers, there are approximately 25 countries. When we add to that number those countries where Islam is the predominant religion, the number rises to 47. Again, this suggests that Islam is indeed popular and influential in many countries. But does popularity and influence translate into right and great?
Does size and influence equate with greatness? While it certainly does make the religion impactful, we obviously need to measure the impact to determine greatness. No American can deny that racism was a widely held belief in American history, and that the racism that existed was significantly impactful on American culture. However, we would certainly not describe it as “great”.
Finally, we must consider what some of the political mandates of Islam and Sharia are so that we can better judge the impact. The list of Muslim political mandates is often quite disturbing, including: the second class citizenship of non-believers, women and homosexuals; a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie and of cartoonists who dare to draw Mohammad; the harboring, encouraging and sanctioning of violent terrorist attacks against innocent civilians; etc. A study done by the Pew Research Center in 2005 of Muslims around the world found widespread support for terrorism and of Osama bin Laden. For instance, Muslims in Jordan, Indonesia and Pakistan supported suicide bombings and violence against civilians at a rate of 57%, 15% and 25%, respectively. For the same countries, confidence in bin Laden was 61%, 36% and 52%. Does this behavior translate to a “great” religion?
Not only is Islam associated with great wrongs, but the accomplishments of the faith also need to be questioned. James 1:27 states: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Are the deeds of Islam “great”? When horrible natural disasters occur around the world, is Islam the first to respond? When terror reigns, do they condemn? When women are oppressed, do they step in and stop? When people of other faiths dare to worship their God, do they fight for this right?
President Obama owes the public an explanation of exactly what it is that makes Islam “great”.