On June 17, Muslims the world over welcomed the arrival of their holiest month, Ramadan. By abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, Muslims take stock of their spiritual selves, try to develop empathy with the less fortunate and devote more time to charity and worship.
We hope to find God’s mercy and forgiveness and come out the other side cleansed and improved.
For a lot of Americans, sadly, this side of Islam is less known, if known at all. In our civil discourse in this country, Islam tends to pop up only in the context of extremism, terrorism and intolerance.
On Tuesday, for example, convicted — and now admitted — Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev announced in court that since this was “the blessed month of Ramadan,” he’d “ask forgiveness of Allah and his creation.”
What followed from Tsarnaev appeared to be an apology. I didn’t find it nearly strong enough, so I understand why some victims were offended, and others have asked the value of such a statement. I can’t know if he meant what he said, of course — none of us can.
But I do know what he said Wednesday should not soon be forgotten.
Islam does not believe in forgiveness without contrition. How we show remorse depends on what we did wrong in the first place: Did we sin against God, or against his creation?
If we miss our prayers, for example, we’ve sinned against God. To make up for it, all we have to do is apologize. The individual Muslim just has to bow his or her head — the closer to the ground, the better — and truly and sincerely express contrition.
Whether God accepts, we don’t know. That’s why we’re supposed to constantly seek forgiveness: to remind ourselves we are not the center of the universe.
But there’s a second type of sin.
In Islam, we’re not supposed to drink alcohol. But what happens if we have a few too many, get into a car and, God forbid, somebody dies?
At that point, Islam says, repentance requires more than just an apology to God. It requires, (1), an apology to God (because we took a life that God created, and life is sacred), and, (2), an apology to the people we harmed, including their loved ones.
Many Muslim scholars even add: Repentance is not complete if the perpetrator is not punished, or does not confess to his crime. And the worst crime? Murder.
The Quran describes the taking of one life as equal to the murder of all humanity. Which is why Islamic extremism, as it’s called, is so repugnant to Muslims, and so contrary to Islam.
By selectively using religious texts, radical groups manipulate vulnerable people into crime, or give space for heinous people to commit and justify crime. We see in ISIS how terrible and ugly that can become.
Its dangerousness is compounded by the illusion extremists offer — that their crimes are not crimes, that for murdering people, they’ll not just go to heaven, but as martyrs!
But what do we do against such evil?
Though American Muslim mosques, schools, institutions and leaders have repeatedly and consistently condemned terrorism, let’s be honest: There’s only so much we can do. The reason ISIS kills as many Muslims as it does people of other faiths is simple: They don’t think we’re Muslim, either. In online conversations with people who try to justify extremism, I’m immediately dismissed.
I’m American. I can’t possibly be Muslim. Anything I say is compromised.
But how do you dismiss Tsarnaev?
Whether he really means what he said in court Wednesday is between him and God. Whether he should be forgiven is between him and the people whose lives he harmed or took; the latter will have their justice in the next life. In reading his statement, he appeared to have a long way to go. But then again, it doesn’t matter what I think.
Maybe what matters is that he’s used language of Islam, the vocabulary through which people of faith express themselves, and used it to reject the terrorism he himself tried to justify in Islam’s name.
Like many Muslims, I worry about how we can stop those who mean to do us harm, and turn away those who are vulnerable to their rhetoric. Like other terrorists — Anders Breivik or Dylann Storm Roof — they may live online, in communities that never challenge their ugly worldviews, where their hate turns to rage, and their rage to violence, and innocents are murdered.
I know they may not be inclined to listen to someone like me. They may however find it harder to denounce and renounce someone like them. Someone like Tsarnaev.
I certainly hope so.