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Of guns and Gods


Canadian and American imams just issued a fatwa condemning extremism as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Then they were hauled before impatient radio and television hosts to explain just which passages of the Qu'ran are being taken out of context by the suicide bombers. It's enough to make a good agnostic wince in empathy. When was the last time a Catholic cleric was asked to justify the IRA on CNN?

And yet, there's something familiar about the whole affair. It's not an analogy I take much pleasure in raising, but the parallels are too obvious. I refer to the tired old slogan of the National Rifle Association: Guns don't kill people, people kill people.

Rifles and shotguns are not inherently evil, they just make it much easier to kill by removing the need for personal contact and considered reflection. Similarly, the great monotheistic religions all preach love while offering justification for actions without appeal to the concerns of the individual or rationality.

The comparison may seem like a stretch, but from where I sit, in the western foothills of North Carolina, the constitutional right to bear arms has achieved a status not unlike a tenet of one of the major monotheistic religions. And just as those who embrace gun culture must take some degree of responsibility for the body counts that accompany the prevalence of weapons in civil society, so must the faithful address the dangers that follow dogma.

I'm not suggesting that all Muslims should apologize for last month's bombings in London or the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington. Neither should all Christians assume a share of the blame from the horrors of the Crusades and the Inquisition. What I would like to see, however, is a more skeptical approach by all peoples of faith to the role of scriptures in their lives, an approach that emphasizes the mythic and figurative value of the texts.

To be fair, the brave scholars who agreed to appear on network newscasts over the past weeks to defend Islam were among the most patient interviewees to grace the airwaves. The Globe and Mail reported that the imams who issued the fatwa and called the suicide bombers "evil" and an "enemy of Islam" were "prodded to go further," presumably by journalists. CNN and MSNBC ran simultaneous tag-team interrogations. A week later, a usually genteel National Public Radio host persistently demanded similar concessions of his Muslim guest.

All subjects went to great lengths to emphasize that the words of Muhammad explicitly condemn violence against innocents. "Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind," says the Prophet. More than once, it was pointed out that the first and most common passage in the Qu'ran is "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate."

That would seem to be quite clear. Yet every week, young Muslims are compelled by some twisted version of Islam to blow themselves and countless others to tiny pieces in the name of Allah.

The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that guarantees the right to bear arms, is no less explicit about the need to regulate that right. It begins with "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…" There it is, the introductory clause of the right to bear arms calls for serious regulation. Clear and simple. And yet, at least four million Americans object so strongly to the notion of gun control that they pay dues each year to the NRA.

The problem is that the bigger pictures are anything but clear. The Qu'ran also calls on Muslims to "make war upon such of those to whom the scriptures have been given as believe not in Allah…" The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution concludes with "the right to bear arms shall not be infringed." Members of al-Qaeda ignore the Qu'ran's call for compassion; the website of the far-right group Independent Americans ignores the historical context in which their Constitution was drafted and quotes only the second half of the second amendment.

The demonization of Islam demonstrated by the media of late is not only insulting and counterproductive, it misses the point. Arguing over the meaning of ambiguous scripture lends legitimacy to whatever interpretation appeals to the disenfranchised and ignorant.

The failure of Americans to agree on the meaning of a single sentence in a charter of rights makes it clear that the search for a common interpretation of scripture is pointless. What we should be doing instead is challenging the very idea of sacred texts and unquestioning faith. No one ever launched a jihad of doubt.

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