To the credit of the good people of the United States, the public consensus after 9/11 was that Islam is not our enemy and that Muslims are part of the worldwide community of faith, with Christians, Jews, and whoever else. This embrace of fellowship with Islam came from both political and religious leaders, and it's what the country (and the world) needed. The outspoken acceptance of Islam was so widespread that the conservative Christian backlash was not against Islam but against the people who accepted Islam as a valid expression of faith. A Lutheran [Missouri Synod] minister who took part in a public program with Muslim clerics, for example, is in hot water with his church leaders. We often heard or read people saying that Islam is a religion of peace.
To which I say Yadda yadda yadda.
By which I mean, yes, that's the right thing to say. That's what we needed to say and to hear after 9/11. But let's not allow our need to head off religious bigotry make us believe that "a religion of peace" is a useful description of Islam, not today and not historically.
Religion of Peace?
If you look at Islam in the modern day, you see peacemakers, but you also see warmongers, terrorists, and dictators. Women who've been raped are sentenced to death in Islamic courts for extramarital sex. Cat Stevens calls for the death of Salman Rushdie. Saudi dictators, claiming divine right, rule an oppressive kingdom. Palestinians slaughter Jewish civilians as a means for political gain. Egyptian uncles slice off their nieces' clitorises. Saudi enforcers of religious rules barricade girls in a burning building, killing them, rather than allowing them to escape while not properly dressed. So-called martyrs fly airliners into skyscrapers. If Islam is a religion of peace, it is also a religion of brutality.
Historically, it's true that the Arab Muslims established the rule of law across Arabia, northern Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula for hundreds of years. Their contributions to science, medicine, law, and culture made modern European culture possible. Imagine Newton trying to invent calculus using Roman numerals. But Islam spread by conquest, not through peace. Mohammed himself led soldiers into battle, which doesn't look too peaceful compared to Jesus, who was executed by soldiers.
The Koran has some promising verses.
Here's what Muslims are instructed to say to Christians and Jews:
God is your Lord and our Lord: we have our works and you have your works: between us and you let there be no strife: God will make us all one: and to Him shall we return.
The Koran also says:
Verily, they who believe (Muslims), and they who follow the Jewish religion, and the Christians, and the Sabeites whoever of these believes in God and the last day, and does that which is right, shall have their reward with their Lord: fear shall not come upon them, neither shall they be grieved.
The Koran says not to strike the first blow. But that's no great shakes compared to Jesus telling his followers not to strike the second. While the Koran exhorts Muslims to make peace with Christians and Muslims, of pagans it says, "Kill them wherever you find them."
Religion of Violence?
On the other hand, a "religion of violence" is likewise not a useful description of Islam. If someone characterized Islam that way, I'd say Yadda yadda yadda to that, too. Religions can't be summed up that simply.
Take Judaism, which stipulates that even animals are to be accorded compassion (slaughtered painlessly, etc.). On the other hand, Judaism portrays God inciting his faithful to genocide (the conquest of Canaan), treats terrorists as heroes, and even has God Himself conducting a little genocide on the part of the Hebrews (see Passover).
Take Christianity, worship of a man who gave us the Golden Rule. He called on followers to turn the other cheek. In his name countless hospitals, schools, and charities have been founded. Christianity laid the foundation for the culture of equality we enjoy today. Christianity, however, has its own history of persecution, genocide, conquest, and cruelty: the Inquisition, the destruction of native cultures by Christian missionaries, the slaughter of pagans in the New World, the enslavement of Africans, etc.
Judaism is not a religion of peace. Christianity is not a religion of peace. Islam is not a religion of peace. Religion is one of the grandest creations of the human mind and of human communities. As such it expresses our hatred and greed as well as our compassion and wisdom. Yes, Islam is a noble religion, a peer of Christianity and Judaism, but that doesn't make it a religion of peace.
Muslims March for Peace