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Inspired by a recent dust-up at the Huffington Post over some remarks by Sam Harris, as well as the furor provoked by the Pope’s recent verbal attack on Islam quoting the Byzantine emperor Manuel Paleologos II, I’ve decided to offer some thoughts on whether Islam is an intrinsically violent or evil religion.

First off, the obvious: Like every religion on this planet, Islam exists only in the collective actions of the people who follow it, and people can act in ways that are either generally good or generally bad, depending on the circumstances of their upbringing and their culture. It would be extremely naive, not to mention wrong, to assert that Islam’s teachings are so pernicious that anyone who joins will automatically become a violent fanatic. To say otherwise would be to deny human free will and vastly exaggerate the power of religion to direct and shape its adherents’ thoughts. Regardless of what the Qur’an says, people are not fated to become terrorists or fanatics just because they become Muslims.

On the other hand, it is not unfair to point out that most of the violence being committed in the world today in the name of religion is being committed by Muslims: the September 11 terror attacks on America, the 7/7 transit bombings in the U.K., the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2005 Bali bombings, the rocket attacks launched by Hezbollah against Israel, the ongoing civil war and genocide in Darfur, violent Muslim separatist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah throughout Southeast Asia who seek to create a theocratic Islamic super-state through bombings, kidnappings and murder, and last but not least, the ongoing civil war in Iraq and the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda and the reconstituted Taliban in Afghanistan. Many other examples could be added to this list as well. Fundamentalist Christians and other religious extremists unquestionably constitute a force for evil that must be fought against, but in terms of which world religion currently poses the greatest threat to civilization as a whole, the answer must unquestionably be Islam.

This is where the first article, R.J. Eskow’s piece in the Huffington Post, goes astray. He asserts that “less than one Muslim in 43,000 has ever participated” in a violent act, but this is a red herring. The most crime-ridden nation in the world (whichever one that is) certainly has not acquired that status because most of its citizens are criminals, but rather because more crime happens there per capita than anywhere else. The fact of the matter is that fundamentalists, especially the extreme fundamentalists willing to resort to violence against their fellow human beings, need not be especially numerous to pose great danger to others. The issue is not whether moderate Muslims condemn these attacks, because all the condemnation in the world will not undo the harm they have wreaked; the issue is whether they can stop them, and in this respect moderate Muslims seem impotent to restrain their radical brethren.

Secondly, Eskow asserts that “the enemy isn’t Islam… it’s fundamentalism, those rigid believers who over-identify with a ‘religion’ and authoritarianism”. This is both right and wrong. It is true that fundamentalists who value their religious beliefs over the lives and happiness of others are a great threat, no matter their religion. But although there are fundamentalist Christians (as well as fundamentalist Jews and Hindus and fundamentalists of many other religions) whose teachings threaten liberty and democracy in the countries where they live, relatively few of them go so far as to openly advocate violence and terrorism against those who oppose them. By contrast, calls for violence and actual violence against outsiders are very common in fundamentalist Islam. Similarly, there are many Islamic states that regularly engage in horrific violations of the rights of others; for example, Saudi Arabia’s policies forbidding women to appear in public without a male relative to escort them, or its laws mandating death by beheading for people who convert away from Islam. There is nothing the equivalent of this from any other religion in any country in the world today. (Christian Reconstructionists and other theocrats do exist, but do not exercise the same level of influence and have so far failed to achieve most of their goals.) Again, although I do not deny that the evil beliefs of fundamentalist Christians and others must be opposed and defeated, they do not pose the same kind of direct and immediate threat posed by violent Muslim terrorists.

In this respect, Harris is absolutely right, and Eskow wrong, when it comes to the claim that “Islam is an especially evil religion”. At this time in history, it is – its most fervent adherents are willing to commit acts of horrendous evil to achieve their goals, to a degree unparalleled by the fundamentalists of any other religion. Islam is not the only religion whose followers have committed atrocities in its name, of course, but it is the one in which violence is most frequent and most widespread.

This brings us to the remarks of Pope Benedict. Ordinarily I would not concern myself with the chief advocate of one superstition attacking a slightly different superstition; but the violence provoked by the Pope’s comments – firebombings of churches in the West Bank, the murder of a nun who worked at a hospital in Somalia – and his subsequent half-hearted apology are evidence of an unsettling trend that began with the violent response to the Muhammad caricatures published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. This trend consists of Muslim fanatics rioting and threatening violence in response to any criticism of Islam, and getting their way – usually aided and abetted by religious moderates of various denominations who piously intone that we must “respect” any and all religious beliefs. In reality, it is society’s refusal to criticize any religious beliefs that has brought us to this dangerous juncture in the first place. The proper response of a free society, when religious fanatics threaten violence on anyone who criticizes their religion, is for every member of that society to join in denouncing such beliefs. This shows the zealots that people of courage and principle will not be cowed by their evil demands, and just as importantly, protects everyone who does speak out by giving the fanatics no single target. If we are not to encourage Muslim radicals to adopt these tactics even more frequently in the future, we must speak out against them loudly and plainly, to make it absolutely clear that they cannot silence dissenting voices with the threat of violence, and that any attempt to do so will only bring further opposition to their evil tactics.

The question remains, however, of whether Islam is an intrinsically violent religion, and on this one count alone I will find it not guilty. Islam is undoubtedly a violent religion, but I do not believe it is intrinsically so, any more than Christianity or Judaism is. Rather, Islam’s violent nature is incidental, and is caused by the circumstances in which it currently exists. These circumstances include the widespread poverty and lack of political influence of Muslims, situations which often give rise to radicalism; an aggressive and bellicose foreign policy on the part of the United States which makes the image of a clash of civilizations tempting to extremists on both sides; and a flourishing cult of martyrdom and violence that was first incited by a few influential Muslim leaders and has now grown into a self-sustaining meme complex.

The violent verses in the Qur’an further support this juggernaut, but they are not its sole cause. I have read the scriptures of several major religions, and if anything, I think the Bible is significantly more violent and bloodier than the Qur’an. Yet Christians, on the whole, do not endorse terrorism and theocracy to the degree Muslims do. This is not because Christianity is an intrinsically more peaceful religion – history bears record to the many atrocities which Christian armies, witch hunters and inquisitors have committed. Rather, a different set of historical circumstances led the Christian world to pass through an Enlightenment when concepts such as rational debate, scientific investigation and legal separation of church and state became established, effectively housebreaking the more extreme elements of that religion. Islam has yet to experience a similar renaissance, and unfortunately, the fiercely dogmatic strain of anti-intellectualism which has now taken root in that religion seems to make such a reformation less likely than ever. It is an open question whether this dangerous trend can be reversed, or whether the gap will continue to widen and the secular sentinels of the West will from now on be forced to be continually on guard against Islamic violence and terrorism.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...