How not to reply?
A rather popular claim that does the rounds in response to the various rather brutal atrocities is an assertion that “they” are not “true” Muslims, or perhaps an assertion that what happened is nothing to do with “peaceful” Islam.
This line of thought is fatally flawed, because it is not only not factually correct, such denial is also in some ways part of the problem itself.
What exactly is “True” Islam?
There is no such thing as “true” Islam, and that is because the word “Islam” is a very generic term that describes a vast diversity of conflicting beliefs, and so it is a word that describes many fragmented sects. For those inside a specific strand of belief, their variation will of course be deemed to be the “true” one, and all others will be regarded as heretics or false. This is a very common and almost universal religious pattern, for example in Christianity, Catholics regard themselves as members of the one and only “true” church, and evangelicals would in turn view Catholics as “not true” Christians.
So no, there is no one “true” variation is Islam, but instead rather a lot of diversity, and some of it is extremely intolerance and openly promotes violence that is justified by a literal interpretation of the Qur’an along with other associated Islamic texts such as the various Hadiths (to verify that thought regarding diversity, there are of course also the Quranists who reject all of the Hadiths, the Sunnah, and Sharia law).
So how should we respond to violence?
It might indeed be to tempting to not only declare “them” to not be “true” Muslims, to pronounce that “they” have nothing to do with Islam, and additionally to perhaps also put in place tighter security, and greater surveillance so that we may then detect what might come next, and then do nothing further. All of that however only crafts an illusion of action, but it simply does not in any way tackle the problem at all.
The core issue is that the specific variations of Islam that read and interpret things violently need to be directly and robustly challenged and engaged with, not with force, but rather with better more rational arguments. For too long far too many have bowed to the thought that religious claims are beyond criticism and should never be challenged because doing so causes offence, but to embrace that idea is to also embrace a general acceptance of all the variations that manifest, and that includes the intolerant and violence that results when bad ideas are permitted a criticism-free pathway.
This is where the term “Islamophobia” comes into play, and is a word that is often deployed to gag any and all criticism of Islamic ideas by attempting to suggest that such criticism is perhaps on par with racism. That of course is what makes it utterly absurd, because Islam is simply a collection of ideas and nothing more. No idea, no matter how highly esteemed it might be, should ever be beyond criticism. Now please do not misunderstand this, there are indeed people who discriminate against individuals for simply being Muslim, (or Jewish, or Asian, or Atheist, etc…) and that quite frankly is not acceptable and would be against the very basic principles of freedom-of-thought and freedom-of-expression, but such discrimination is not on par with criticism of ideas or beliefs.
If on the one hand “they” are not true Muslims, and yet at the same time the Qur’an is embraced uncritically without thought as infallible and final, and any criticism is declared to be “Islamophobia”, then I suggest that this places those doing this in the rather embarrassing position of providing a safe haven for the violence and intolerance that enables it to flourish and thrive.
The Bible and Torah both contain some rather obnoxious directives, and if for example you read some of the laws in the Old Testament, you would find what is essentially a manual that is almost directly followed by ISIS. There are many today who are both Christian or Jewish, and yet despite having such words within their religious texts, there are no longer Christian or Jewish variations of ISIS, so you should perhaps ask yourself why that is, what is it that they have done within their beliefs that Islam needs to do to be able to pluck out such works, toss them to one side and quite rightly universally recognise them as complete abhorrent and immoral?
Try this …
“Muslims are the vilest of animals“
Is that acceptable?
Seriously, if your answer is “Yes”, then you need to look inside yourself and question your grip on reality, because the vast majority of humans on the planet today who have a Muslim cultural heritage are decent honourable people who wish no harm to anybody, and so if this is your stance, then they are not the problem, you are.
So where is that quote from?
Ah well now, this is where it becomes interesting, because that is a quote lifted directly from the Qur’an, I simply replaced the word “unbeliever” with the word “Muslim”. The original reads …
Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve. – 8:55
If, as a Muslim, your immediate go-to thought is, “no wait, you are taking that out of context, it really means …” or something similar, then congratulations, you are not interpreting it literally and so there is a good probability that you are not a violent thug. If on the other hand you are thinking, “Yep, of course, that is true”, then you are indeed part of the problem. If so, then ask yourself this, when the word “Muslim” replaced the word “unbeliever” it was hate speech, and yet now that it is seen to be a quote from the Qur’an it suddenly becomes divine, why is that? (And so the thought process of criticising the text begins)
OK, so the point here was to illustrate in a small way the concept of openly challenging religious ideas that are bad ideas (and this example was one of the more tame ones).
What should the agenda really be?
The very idea of a threat is what appears to drive the current agenda, and so we also need to step away from the immediate knee-jerk reaction to that and instead take control of the agenda and drive it in a new direction, one that is not simply a response to the possible and actual acts of violence, but rather is one that directly attacks and undermines the pervasively bad ideas that fuel and inspire those that seek to dominate and destroy us because they have been gripped and psychologically ensnared by a destructive web of delusion.
Responding to an immediate threat can potentially take us in a direction that feeds a frenzy of generic hatred that inspires a rising tide of far-right extremism (bonjour President Le Pen) because the genuine fear and terror generated and felt by so many is potentially leveraged as a tool to grab power, but to walk down that road would be a disaster, a lesson we learned in the 20th century and so should not be one we forget in the 21st. A more recent example is perhaps a bit of recent Egyptian history where we witnessed the uprising against a military dictatorship being hijacked by a theocratic religious dictatorship, and that was then promptly replaced a year later by yet another military dictatorship. None of them offer any real freedom, and both oppress and nurture intolerance of everything that is not them.
No we should not go there, instead we need to deploy the only truly effective weapon we have, our freedom of expression to openly and robustly criticise and expose the bad ideas, and revel them for what they really are – the path to moral, financial and social disaster for all that embrace them as truth – and win over hearts and minds.
To illustrate the problem we face, when Maajid Nawaz, a reformer and moderate Muslim who is an ex-radical, tweeted a cartoon of a Jesus saying ‘Hi’ to Mohammed last January, and declared “This is not offensive & I’m sure Allah is greater than to feel threatened by it.“, the mainstream Muslim community turned on him in a rather vile way, he received numerous death threats and was even denounced by George Galloway, the Respect MP (who was simply pandering and after votes). There was even a petition raised with 20,000 signatures to Nick Clegg, apparently organised by the Liberal Democrat activist Mohammed Shafiq, demanding that Nawaz should be removed as the party’s parliamentary candidate. That response was not from the extremists, it was the response from many “moderate” variations of “peaceful” Islam, and there lies the problem, the idea that specific ideas are beyond debate, must not be challenged, and any that step out of line are squashed. While that stance persists, both the violence and intolerance will continue to thrive, and so it is there where change must take place.
All revolutions start out as rebellions. Islam itself started this way. Openly challenging problematic ideas isn’t bigotry, and it isn’t blasphemy. – Ali A. Rizvi
- Neutralizing Radical Islamism – Maajid Nawaz in the Wall Street Journal (Maajid is himself an ex radical)
- How Terrorism Won – Ali A. Rizvi
- An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims – Ali A. Rizvi