If we are to suggest that Islam is an intrinsically violent and intolerant religion and, as Sam Harris recently commented on the Bill Maher show, that it “…is the mother lode of bad ideas” then it would make sense that since Islam has been around for over 14 centuries, there have been 1400 years of the violence we are seeing today. But, there hasn’t. Whilst some commentators can rightly reference many decades of war, the fact of the matter is that there have also been many centuries of peace. Zachary Karabell author of Peace be upon you; 14 centuries of Muslim, Christian & Jewish conflict and co-operation, explains that until the mid 20th century, there were over 1 million Jews living peacefully in the Arab world, almost a quarter of whom were living in Iraq. From this we could conclude that because there have been periods were Muslim states were open, tolerant and even peaceful, then the problems we see today are not inherent to Islam, and as such, if we are able to address why radical Islam has grown in recent years we can see a return to the way they were before.
Is Islam any different to the rest?
Bill Maher and Sam Harris’ comments were not only offensive and intolerant towards Islam; they were misinformed and deeply biased. Bill Maher is a well known Atheist. His zeal quite often matches that of the so called ‘fanatics’ he denounces each week; such is the fervor of his beliefs, and anyone who disagrees with his opinion is wrong, period. If you are Muslim, according to Maher, you believe and stand for everything he abhors; without exception.
Using this logic, we can assume then that if you’re Jewish you believe that all nail clippings should be carefully disposed of, lest a pregnant lady step on them and miscarry or other abstract things in the Torah that make even the most devout wince. Do some Orthodox Jews and even the Christian Right often employ bewildering passages from the Torah and Bible to get their points across? Yes. Does this mean all Christians are lining up to be the new recruits of the Westboro Baptist Church? Of course not. Maher was right when he referenced the PEW survey that showed more than 70% of Muslims in Afghanistan and Egypt favour the death penalty for apostasy, however he neglected to mention that the same survey also tells us that only 2% of Muslims in Kazakhstan and Albania share that same view. Generalising a body of people by their faith is dangerously similar to racial profiling, only based solely on religious values and is detrimental for all parties involved.
Extremism does exist in every religion, and history shows us it even exists in political ideologies. During the Spanish inquisitions, many thousands of Jews and Muslims were forced to either convert to Christianity or be killed. The spread of Communism in Europe during the latter half of the 20th century saw the rise of the Red Army Faction and other groups terrorising the public, and Islam as both a religion and political force is no different. In his address to the United Nations GA in September, President Obama himself stated that “…All religions have been attacked by extremists from within at some point in history.”
We find ourselves in trouble when we conflate religion with societal problems that seem to exist in predominantly Muslim countries. The problem begins when we fail to differentiate between national circumstances, political ideologies and religion. Islam, like any religion has contradictory teachings, which have been interpreted differently by different people at different times and places throughout history. We need to stop speaking about the Muslim or Islamic world as if it is a single entity. Muslim states around the world are as different and varied as they are similar. Whilst women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, Bangladesh has had a continuous succession of female Prime Ministers for almost 25 years. It makes no sense for us to liken Italy to Brazil simply because they’re both predominantly Catholic countries, so why does this logic go out of the window when discussing the Middle East Muslim states?
Many commentators conflate the issue of religion and how people interpret and practice their religion. Islam is not just a set of rules its followers adhere to, it presents a way of life for people to interpret and apply to their lives. Whilst some of the fundamental principles do not change, some practices that are associated with Islam are confounded with societal traditions, which even many Muslims themselves mistake for religious requirements. How a person in the UK or US interprets a teaching can be entirely different to how someone in Pakistan or Yemen interprets it. Everyone has their own bias, and this is where the old nature vs nurture argument comes in; the circumstances around us and the information we have access to shapes how we interpret even the most basic of principles. The verses employed by the likes of IS to back up their ideology are a gross misinterpretation and do not represent their religion at all and are not accepted and applied the same way by the great majority of Muslims around the world.
This is not to say that radical Islam does not exist, it does, the likes of IS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram are proof of this, but it is important that we discuss and examine why we are seeing a rise in its occurrence in recent history. What has changed that has caused this seismic shift whereby the extremist few have come to represent the moderate many? The people in the Middle East are exhausted from continuous war and fighting over the last 60-70 years. They more than anyone want to see an end to the violence that plagues the region and we should not tar all Muslims worldwide, Muslims who make up the majority of the 1.6 billion followers of the religion with the extremist brush.
We are right to denounce IS, Boko Haram and the like for their intolerance and brutality. However, we are doing ourselves no favours and presenting a major injustice to the moderate Muslim communities worldwide by conflating extremist ideology with the religion and societies as a whole and speaking about them and their religion with authority whilst neglecting to include them in open dialogue.