Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Are we sure that Islam is “a religion of peace”?

The return of a Canadian from a Libyan jail last weekend raises this question in my mind

Twin-Towers-night-lights-memorial Have you noticed one missing fact from all the debate and discussion going on about the building of a mosque at Ground Zero in New York City? No one seems to mention the fact that it is to very difficult to build a Christian church in most Islamic countries and probably impossible to ever build a church near the site of some national tragedy or any site of national significance. I’m not arguing for “fair play,” just perspective. We believe in religious pluralism and multiculturalism, so, of course, mosques can be built in the U.S. and Canada. Historically, Christians have argued not for the freedom to practice Christianity, but for the freedom of all religions. This, in fact, lies behind the multiculturalism we see in the U.S. and Canada. But don’t we go wrong when we start to believe that all religions or cultures are equal though they are different? Are we really so sure that some are not better than others? And, yes, I mean morally better. President Bush told us that “Islam is a religion of peace,” but can this really be substantiated? I’d like to ask Don Symes about this common way of thinking about our world. Symes just returned home to Nova Scotia this weekend after spending 56 days in a Libyan jail accused of a crime he did not commit.
(And so far as this author, Ken Symes, knows, Don Symes is not a relative.)

tripoli-jailWhen I heard Don Symes’s description in the CBC News interview (click here to see it) of what he endured over those eight weeks, well he never said it, but it sounds to me like he was tortured under conditions most of us cannot really fathom. Hungry and sick, he lost 24 lbs; he was crammed into confined spaces with large numbers of prisoners, many of whom smoked excessively and he witnessed repeated acts of cruelty and assault toward other prisoners. Don Symes says he feared for his life constantly and I believe him. In the video, Don describes the horrible experience of being transported in the “smokehouse,” the vehicle used to transport prisoners from the El Jadida jail to the court once every week.

Sunni Islam is the state religion of Libya and shapes law and order in the country. No form of Christian witness to Libyan citizens is permitted, indeed given the work of the secret police, it is considered dangerous. Even the churches of expatriates in the country are strictly monitored. Only about 2% of the indigenous population is Christian, definitely a persecuted minority—for example, even importing Arabic Bibles is illegal. (For more information on Libya, see the Operation World profile and click on the jail pic above.) We fail to realize how different some countries in the world are compared to our own. It is quite likely that when the Pakistani worker accused Symes and two other men of assaulting him, his word was taken over that of Don Symes and his co-accused since they were non-Muslim, even though their alibi was solid. According to sharia law, the testimony of a Muslim far outweighs anything said by a kafir.

KCA-Deutag-T202-oil-rig-LibyaWhat should surprise us is not what happened to Don Symes in Libya but that it is not happening more often to Canadians working abroad in Islamic countries. Perhaps it is. Curiously, the story of Symes’ return to Canada from the Libyan jail has not received much media coverage at all—nothing beyond the Halifax newspaper and two Nova Scotian TV stations. I think it is a story we need to hear. [The day after posting this I discovered that CBC News Network ran a more in depth interview, so I upgraded the above video.] Canadians arrested abroad may not be treated with the same standards of justice we adhere to and they cannot count on the Canadian Embassy to help them even when being tortured or held without just cause in a foreign prison.

I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to figure this out, but cultural relativism is wrong—not all cultures, and certainly not all religions, are equal. C.S. Lewis explained, “If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring... Christian morality to Nazi morality.” I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we give up on love, tolerance and respect for adherents of other world religions, but the idea that all religions and their resultant moralities are equally true and beneficial is misguided. To be clear, personally I respect Muslims and support their freedom to practice their religion. I do not advocate hatred or intolerance of Muslims. I believe that the campaign of resistance to the so-called Ground Zero mosque is fueled by misinformation, intolerance and, perhaps, hatred (see The great “Ground Zero mosque” hoax in The Washington Post). In a land which guarantees religious freedom, why can’t they build a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero? At the same time, respect for Muslims does not mean that I have to agree with everything their religion teaches. Specifically, I do question if George Bush was misguided when he proclaimed that Islam is a "religion of peace."

Updated with clarifications: September 1, 2010 by Ken Symes


  1. Regarding the location of the mosque close to ground zero, I think it shows insensitivity on the part of the Muslim community of New York to seek to build there. I realize they had nothing to do with what happens, but it would have showed better character to recognize the hurt that many people in New York felt about 9/11 and built somewhere else.

  2. Regarding the amount of time this fellow spent in prison - you'd think that with the size of government this country has, more could have been done quickly to get him out.

  3. Thanks for the comments Orlando. Personally, I think the state of NY did the right thing in offering them money and support for a different site. They're playing fairly and not abusing state power while still trying to get what they feel is a more desirable outcome than what the city of New York has approved.



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