"ISLAM IS EVIL." That's the message a U.S. Secret Service agent illicitly left on an Islamic prayer calendar on July 18 as he was raiding a suspected al Qaeda operative in Dearborn, Mich. His crude graffito sums up a point of view increasingly heard

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"ISLAM IS EVIL." That's the message a U.S. Secret Service agent illicitly left on an Islamic prayer calendar on July 18 as he was raiding a suspected al Qaeda operative in Dearborn, Mich.

His crude graffito sums up a point of view increasingly heard since 9/11 in the United States. It's also one that is troubling and wrong.

Here is the rub: It is a mistake to blame Islam (a religion 14 centuries old) for the evil that should be ascribed to militant Islam (a totalitarian ideology less than a century old). The terrorism of al Qaeda, Hamas, the Iranian government and other Islamists results from the ideas of such contemporary radicals as Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini, not from the Koran.

To which you might respond: But bin Laden and Khomeini get their ideas from the Koran. And they are only continuing a pattern of Muslim aggression that is centuries old.

Not exactly. Let's look closer at both points:

  • Aggressive Islam: The Koran and other authoritative Islamic scriptures do contain incitements against non-Muslims. The eminent historian Paul Johnson, for example, cites two Koranic verses: "Strongest among men in enmity to the Believers will you find the Jews and Pagans" (Sura 5, verse 85) and "Then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them. And seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them." (9:5).
  • Aggressive Muslims: Fourteen centuries of Islam have witnessed a long history of Muslims engaged in jihad (holy war) to expand the area under Islamic rule, from the early conquests of the caliphs to what Samuel Huntington terms Islam's "bloody borders" today.

Yes, these points are accurate. But they are one side of the story.

  • Mild Islam: Like other sacred writings, the Koran can be mined for quotes to support opposing arguments. In this case, Karen Armstrong, a bestselling apologist for Islam, quotes two gentler passages from the Koran: "There must be no coercion in matters of faith!" (2:256) and "O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another." (49:13).
  • Mild Muslims: There have been occasions of Muslim moderation and tolerance, such as those in long-ago Sicily and Spain. And in one telling example, Mark R. Cohen notes that "The Jews of Islam, especially during the formative and classical centuries (up to the 13th century), experienced much less persecution than did the Jews of Christendom."

In other words, Islam's scriptures and history show variation.

At present, admittedly, it is hard to recall the positive side, at a moment when backwardness, resentment, extremism and violence prevail in so much of the Muslim world. But the present is not typical of Islam's long history; indeed, it may be the worst era in that entire history.

Things can get better. But it will not be easy. That requires that Muslims tackle the huge challenge of adapting their faith to the realities of modern life.

What does that mean in practical terms? Here are some examples:

Five hundred years ago, Jews, Christians and Muslims agreed that owning slaves was acceptable but paying interest on money was not. After bitter, protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds. Today, no Jewish or Christian body endorses slavery or has religious qualms about paying reasonable interest.

Muslims, in contrast, still think the old way. Slavery still exists in a host of majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Mauritania, also Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and it is a taboo subject. To enable pious Muslims to avoid interest, an Islamic financial industry worth an estimated $150 billion has developed.

The challenge ahead is clear: Muslims must emulate their fellow monotheists by modernizing their religion with regard to slavery, interest and much else. No more fighting jihad to impose Muslim rule. No more endorsement of suicide terrorism. No more second-class citizenship for non-Muslims. No more death penalty for adultery or "honor" killings of women. No more death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy.

Rather than rail on about Islam's alleged "evil," it behooves everyone - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - to help modernize this civilization. That is the ultimate message of 9/11. It is much deeper and more ambitious than Western governments presently seem to realize.

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Aug. 13, 2002 update: For a sequel to this article, that builds on reactions to it, see "Islam's Future."

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