From a discussion of so-called Koranic “belligerancy” in the Medinan chapters
In general, theological explanations by themselves do little to explain foreign policy, while foreign policy debates tend to distort the meaning and history of theology. In Islam, the difference between the Medina chapters of the Koran (c. 622-632 A.D.) and the Meccan chapters of the Koran (610-622 A.D.) can be explained with proper reference to historical context. The two sections are not different because the former are “tolerant” and the latter are “belligerent”, but because the political situation had changed.
The pagan Meccan leadership in Mecca deeply disliked Islam and Muhammad from the time (c. 613?) he started denouncing polytheism. They harassed the Muslims, punished the weak among them, boycotted them, even chased away some to Ethiopia, for being monotheists. But the Meccans did not take really drastic action in the teens. In response, the Koran instructs Muhammad that he is only a ‘warner’ and has no sovereignty or political power.
Around 621-622 the Meccan leadership became so threatened by the continued spread of Islam in the city that they decided to assassinate Muhammad and to try to wipe Islam out. He knew that the city was becoming dangerous for him and when the notables of nearby Medina came to him seeking a “sheriff” figure to put their own town in order, he decided to leave his hometown. He escaped with a companion to Medina in 622, avoiding assassination, and was joined there by the Muslims.
The Meccan elite found the idea of Muhammad in charge of a rival city-state to be unacceptable, and it was clear there would be hostilities between the two. Muhammad’s forces fought three wars and several bedouin-style “raids” with the Meccan pagans, who wanted to wipe them out and kill their prophet. By 629 Muhammad and the Muslims had prevailed. Had the war gone the other way, they would have been slaughtered or enslaved by the Meccans. As it was, Muhammad announced a general amnesty and showed impressive generosity to his defeated foes, some of whom later emerged as leaders of Islam.
Even at the time that the Muslims were defending themselves from Meccan aggression, the Koran urges that peace be made if it can be, and forbids naked aggression. It is the Medinan chapters that assure pious Jews and Christians that they have nothing to fear in the afterlife and which praise the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and the New Testament (Injil) as full of “guidance and light.”
The odd sectarian enterprise of Mahmud Muhammad Taha (d. 1985) of Sudan, which aimed at discarding the Medinan chapters and creating a Meccan reading of the Koran, is not likely ever to be more than a minor heresy in Islam. It is in any case perfectly possible to construct a moderate Islamic modernism that eschews aggression on the basis of the entire Koran, and this has been done over and over again in the modern Middle East by scholars from Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) to Abdul Karim Soroush and Muhammad Sa`id `Ashmawi in the present. Indeed, violent radical Muslims can only make their case by neglecting to quote key Koranic verses (Bin Laden typically quotes only half a verse, completely skewing its meaning).
Where serious pacifist activists have arisen among the Palestinians, as with Mubarak Awad, they have been summarily expelled from the Occupied Territories by the Israeli authorities. See Mubarak’s profile at: http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/awad.htm
Ultimately, theology is not much related to foreign policy. Theology does little to explain the foreign policy of Christians and Jews, who have behaved with enormous aggressiveness toward the Muslim world in the past two centuries, invading, colonizing, displacing, and invading again. Episodes such as the French tenure in Algeria (1830-1962), the British in the Suez (1882-1956), or the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza (1967-present) are not in any way related to the Bible. After all, the Bible contains both rather bloodthirsty works like the Book of Joshua as well as more irenic passages. As for Muslims, the most aggressive and expansionist power in the Middle East, the Baath Party of Iraq, is a secular nationalist organization that has little to do with Islam.