It is an unmitigated horror. There is no excuse and no way of justifying the dreadful kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria. The terror, pain, suffering of those poor young women is beyond comprehension. We must continue to pray for them, support whatever actions are available to rescue them and bring the perpetrators of such a barbaric act to justice.

Yet it is not the only dreadful crime being committed in the name of Islam. The same group that kidnapped these students has also raided and destroyed villages killing the residents. Bombs are being detonated around the world by Islamic terrorists. Violent political unrest has been waged across North Africa and South-West Asia bringing civil war to Syria, a reign of terror in Egypt and Pakistan, and international intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To what extent is this violence due to Islam? Does religion cause wars or do only extremists cause these troubles? Is it only Islam, or do all religions, cause wars? Or has it got nothing to do with religion, other than identifying which side people are on? Are the real fights about property, or money, or some other worldly concern?

There are simple one-line, sound-bite answers to some of these simplistic questions. “Twentieth century wars were secular.” “Communist wars promote atheism.” Nevertheless, the questions are more important than debating points. Sadly, there have been wars fought for religious motivation – sadder still some have been fought in the name of Jesus.

In seeking some answer to these questions it is valuable to untangle complicating issues such as: nominalism, diversity, communalism and nationalism.

Each of the world religions has a large number of nominal members. They simply have a tribal commitment or loyalty to their religion. When attacked they spring to its defence but they are not really motivated by it. The fight can be over land or political representation, but lazy journalism uses religious names to identify opposing groups in a conflict that may have little to do with religion.

These world religions also have diversity within them. So Christianity has Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant wings. This diversity in religion also makes identifying the religious element of the war difficult for outsiders to evaluate. Is the difference between Sunni and Shiite the reason for the conflict? Is a particular view: Islamic or only Sunni; Christian or only Protestant? Furthermore, there is the difficulty of establishing whether something is really part of the religion or of the culture, e.g. the practice of female genital mutilation is not necessarily Islamic but more likely North African culture. Some anthropologists and multi-culturalists oppose its eradication as cultural imperialism.

Most wars involve communalism. Rarely can the individual wage anything more than a metaphorical ‘war’. Communities are linked together by many things more than religion: family ties, constitutional powers, business activity, land ownership, cultural history, charismatic leadership. It is threatened families which often persecute members who wish to change religion. It is communities which feel threatened, or wish to expand, that are dangerous.

The communities that are most oppressive are the ones who are armed. Nations have armies and police to use force-of-arms to impose their will and culture on the foreigners and citizens. (In Africa it may not be nations but tribes that wield such power.) Nationalism is therefore the most dangerous of ‘religions’. The more a religion is established by law, the greater the potential to be used by the State, or to use the State, to create religious war (NB: the two beasts of Revelation 13).

Islam has a PR problem at the moment. For a “religion of peace”, as it promotes itself, there are more wars, violence and terrorism in Islamic countries than anywhere else in the world. But is Islam at fault? The terrorists are Muslims. Yet, what Muslims do is not necessarily what Islam is. Islam should affect their actions, but in a more than a thousand year old worldwide religion – there are many adherents who act in ways contrary to their religion. For example, neither the establishment nor the maintenance of the Inquisition was ever consistent with Christianity. The only thing Christian about the Inquisition was its dismantling. It was a terrible abuse of communal power that could be and was rightly critiqued by Christianity.

Islam has to come clean about its use of force. The Qur’an says “There shall be no compulsion in religion”, but the Hadith speak of spilling Muslim blood in three instances “a life for a life, a married person who commits adultery; and one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community”.

There are different Muslim voices around the world explaining these texts differently.  Can a Muslim freely change their religion, or do they have to remain a Muslim by the ‘compulsion’ of punishment? This is not a simple difference of opinion; it is a matter of life and death.

This month in Sudan, Meriam Yehya Ibraham has been sentenced to 100 lashes for her adultery and execution for her apostasy. The court considers her a Muslim because her father was a Muslim. Her Christian mother raised her as a Christian. However, her marriage to a Christian man (unlike her father’s marriage to a Christian woman) is deemed adulterous, and because she unrepentantly declares herself a Christian, she is viewed as an apostate. The sentence is to be delayed for two years because she is eight months pregnant with her second child.

How is this, in any way, consistent with “no compulsion in religion”?  There are only twenty nations that have laws against changing religion. They are all Islamic countries. The sentences imposed on those who renounce Islam vary from nation to nation but many still have capital punishment on the list.

Christianity and Islam are very different. Christians suffer persecution to persuade us to give up our religion but Muslims suffer persecution after they give up their religion. Mohammed took control of Mecca at the head of an army of thousands. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey in order to be crucified.

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