Is Islam a religion of peace?
Let me answer that question from the beginning in a rather unorthodox way: there is no such thing as “Islam.”
My point is simple. What is accessible to us, as observers of the religious scene or as participants in it, is not an abstract “Islam” but a series of interpretations and practices. These interpretations and practices (and not “Islam” in the abstract) have constituted an important element in the lives of varied communities around the world for many centuries. This point is valid both from a theological point of view and through a sociological lens.
At the theological level, i.e. from the Islamic perspective, only God is viewed as perfect; the perfectness of God does not transfer to people who read and interpret the Qur’an or the Sunna of the Prophet (his exemplary and normative practice). Equating God with human beings is termed shirk and is considered the greatest sin. And since seeking to understand the Qur’an and Sunna is unquestionably an exercise done by human beings, who are often dealing with texts open to various meanings and with others that are seemingly contradictory, the resulting interpretations cannot simply be equated with “Islam” if by Islam is meant what is in the mind of God.
At the sociological level, when we analyze the realities of communities that define themselves as “Muslim,” it is clear that their religious practices and beliefs are diverse and are deeply connected to local socio-economic realities, political settings, and cultural frames of reference. This is the case historically as well as today. Muslim life in 10th-century Baghdad was different from Muslim life in the mountains of 15th-century South Asia; Contemporary Muslim life in Nigeria is different from contemporary Muslim life in Indonesia; etc…
If we take this discussion to the topic of violence, we must note that whether one ends up with pluralistic and generally peaceful interpretations of Islam or with confrontational and violent ones has little to do with God and everything to do with the contextually bound humans who speak in his name. Those human beings are the product of particular settings and they make choices as to which sacred textual units to favor. The truth is that for every Qur’anic verse or Sunnaic report that seems to promote peace, one can find others that appear to glorify conflict. It is thus necessary to remember that the “Islam” of God is inaccessible and that religious doctrines, laws, and beliefs are the result of negotiation between complex historical human beings and multi-vocal sacred texts and discourses. Not only did this cause sectarian divisions (Sunni, Twelver Shiite, Ismaili Shiite, Ibadi, etc…), it also created all kinds of schools of thought within such fields as law, theology, mysticism, and philosophy.
“It is easy and tempting for many to view these violent groups as irrational. It is simple for others to blame this abstract thing called “Islam” for the tragedies that we have recently witnessed. It is also appealing for Muslims to claim that these groups are not Islamic. However, a more sober look tells us that these groups are rational social actors with political agendas who also happen to be part of the religious market providing a religious interpretation for consumption.”
Refocusing our gaze on social actors (i.e. members of society) and what they do with their religious heritage is crucial for our understanding of the dynamics at play. This is not to downplay the role of religion. This role remains very important. Religion supplies social actors with an emotional component that affects one’s demeanor and actions in significant ways. It also provides a frame for social and political action. Today, in a world where all certainties have been shaken and all ideologies have seemingly failed, religious language and rituals give seekers a sense of identity and belonging. Therefore, we ought to take religion seriously in any analysis, but religion is never divorced from the realities of social actors as I argued above. There resides the challenge for all who are disgusted by the actions of terrorist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.
It is easy and tempting for many to view these violent groups as irrational. It is simple for others to blame this abstract thing called “Islam” for the tragedies that we have recently witnessed. It is also appealing for Muslims to claim that these groups are not Islamic. However, a more sober look tells us that these groups are rational social actors with political agendas who also happen to be part of the religious market providing a religious interpretation for consumption. Unfortunately, there are takers who find that interpretation appealing. They are certainly a small minority but even such a relatively small number is enough to wreak havoc on the world, bringing it to the brink of a perhaps unprecedented disaster. Urgent action is necessary, but what kind of action?
Western Muslims are right to politically distance themselves from all these violent groups. They are also right to repeat everywhere that it is ludicrous to blame all Muslims for the actions of a small number of people. The potential backlash against Muslim individuals and communities could take a very ugly turn, especially given the highly problematic and irresponsible rhetoric of right-wing politicians in recent weeks. However, Muslims are wrong to keep denying any connection between Islam and the violence that we are witnessing everywhere. While individual Muslims are certainly not responsible for the actions of extremist groups, the Muslim community as a whole has serious responsibilities on at least two fronts.
Firstly, Muslims as a group have a duty to protect the present and future of their religious tradition from its deteriorating reputation in large parts of the world. This cannot be done by simply repeating that Islam is peace and that the terrorists have hijacked it. The events unfolding in front of our own eyes undermine these empty slogans. Nor will it be done by getting into shouting matches about whose victims were mourned harder on Facebook and Twitter. What is truly required is a healthy dose of self-criticism. As carriers of an ethical message and a long tradition of spiritual teachings that have provided countless human beings throughout the ages with hope and love, Muslims cannot settle today for reactionary stances. Tough questions must be asked about the directions of Islamic thought in the contemporary world and about the failure of religious leaders to rise up to the challenges of our times.
“Although the majority of religious scholars condemn the actions and agendas of groups like ISIS, they perpetuate the myths that sustain the appeal of these extremist groups to the minds of average Muslims”
Secondly, Muslims as a community have a responsibility towards the young Muslims who are falling prey every day to the recruiting effort and propaganda of ISIS. It is easy to vilify these young men and women, who are in search of identity and purpose in life, after they join violent groups and commit atrocious acts. What is needed is to ask the difficult questions as to why no adequate alternatives were provided to them before such transitions occurred and as to how the bleeding can be contained before the whole body succumbs to the wounds inflicted upon it. This is not simply a matter of reaching out to vulnerable members of the community, there is a real problem with the message of the religious scholars and the educational curricula in most so-called Muslim countries. For the sake of brevity, it suffices to highlight one point of interest.
Although the majority of religious scholars condemn the actions and agendas of groups like ISIS, they perpetuate the myths that sustain the appeal of these extremist groups to the minds of average Muslims from a young age. The religious scholars often preach about topics like the importance of jihad in Islam, the necessity of the institution of the Caliphate, the obligation of implementing “God’s Law,” and many others. These scholars do not necessarily perceive these issues in the same light as the jihadist organizations but they nevertheless skip any critical analysis of the historical character of these concepts and institutions and instead sustain a mytho-history in the minds of Muslim audiences. The problem gets more complicated when one adds that most of these scholars are either connected to or are at least in friendly terms with political regimes that, in fact, do not apply any of these “Islamic” notions. Guess who is claiming that they do establish jihad, the caliphate, and “God’s Law.” That’s right; it is ISIS, Boko Haram, etc… For idealist and socially or economically frustrated youth, the appeal of such movements and organizations is real.
“…the policies of Western powers play a vital part in the current intellectual crisis of what we routinely call Islam.”
A very healthy dose of self-criticism must also be at the top of the agenda of Western governments for their policies both at home and abroad. One must stress that the conditions that Western policies have created and continue to create are a big part of the context in which members of society interpret their religious texts. As I explained above, religious interpretations can only be contextual. Accordingly, I would argue that the policies of Western powers play a vital part in the current intellectual crisis of what we routinely call Islam. Within Western borders, failure to effectively deal with exclusion, racism, and lack of economic opportunity has shaped in many countries a large number of disillusioned young people that are increasingly becoming targets of terrorist recruiters. Internationally, at least two major elements must hold our attention. The policies of Western-dominated economic organizations have pushed a neo-liberal agenda down the throat of struggling countries. The agenda benefits large multinational corporations at the expense of impoverished populations in many parts of the world and participates in breeding anger and despair.
Furthermore, direct and indirect political and military interventions of Western powers in the so-called Muslim world has for long engendered chaotic situations. Some of this goes all the way back to the era of European colonialism and the massacres that colonizing armies perpetrated on local populations. They were followed by the drawing of artificial and inadequate borders for many post-colonial nation-states with little respect for the ethnic and religious divisions of the local populations, thus planting seeds for later conflicts. The list continues with the Palestinian tragedy, the support for authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere, the coup in Iran against a democratically elected nationalist government that would ultimately lead to the Islamist Revolution, the encouragement and funding of Islamist militants in Afghanistan that would later give birth to al-Qaeda, and recently the chaos created in Iraq that generated a fertile ground for the rise of ISIS.
This is the same ISIS that is now a threat to the whole world and from which thousands of destitute Syrian refugees are running away, having already found the authoritarian and oppressive Syrian regime of Al-Assad even bloodier. Many of these refugees have risked their existence, crossing borders with their children on their backs and loosing precious lives along the way. Having been rejected by other Arab countries, including the rich Gulf states, the refugees are seeking safety in the Western world. With the multiplication of terrorist attacks on Western soil, they are now facing denial of entry because of fear from the terrorism of ISIS. Please note the irony!
And the search for peace continues…