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How to Talk About Islam

This article is a part of The Perspective’s Open Mind Theme week. The aim of this week is to broaden perspectives and reveal new angles of subjects you may have thought were crystal clear. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of The Perspective or the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund.

Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is a religion of violence. Jihad is an internal struggle. Islam oppresses women. Sharia is misunderstood. Islam oppresses homosexuals. Islam is a feminist religion. Islam poses a threat to secularism. Would any of these slogans be made less accurate with the addition of the word ‘sometimes’? Perhaps on this issue more than any other, the debate has been cartelised by the extremes. To address the serious integration problems faced by in Europe in 2017, we need to move beyond these blanket statements and look at the nuanced internal dynamics of the world’s second largest faith. The first step? Accepting that the facts on both sides of this argument are reconcilable.

The Muslim depicted in the cover photo is Maajid Nawaz, a British politician with a remarkable biography. As a radicalised teen, Nawaz joined the UK branch of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. He progressed within the organisation and was an international figurehead by his early twenties, setting up subgroups in Pakistan and Denmark to advance the formation of a caliphate. He was arrested and interrogated in Egypt, and sentenced to five years in notorious Egyptian prison Mazrah Tora. Interacting with Muslims of different creeds as an inmate moderated Nawaz’s views dramatically – he now represents the Liberal Democrat party in the UK and works as an anti-extremism activist. As someone who has traversed the full ideological spectrum save for violent jihadism, Nawaz is uniquely placed to comment on how the both sides sound when they consider Islam. His conclusion? We are ‘blinded by our left eye’ and ‘popping a blood vessel in our right’.

This dichotomy is most apparent in how we discuss terrorism: are the perpetrators irreligious lone wolves that ‘do not represent true Islam’, or typical examples of the doctrine in practice? Both are oversimplifications. In a passage entitled ‘Why We Hate You & Why We Fight You’ from the IS magazine Dabiq, it is stated:

“Just as your disbelief is the primary reason we hate you, your disbelief is the primary reason we fight you, as we have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah – for those afforded this option – and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims.”

The ‘primary motivation’ for IS atrocities, as defined by IS themselves, is theological – ignoring this to focus on economics, US foreign policy, or some other variable is absurd given the evidence. Further, to ask whether this interpretation of the Quran is valid or truly Islamic is to contribute zero – it is demonstrably ‘valid’ for the tens of thousands of fighters committed to the cause. All of that said, it is also true that no group has suffered more from the conflict than Muslims themselves, and that IS represent a negligible fraction of a percentage of the 1.5 billion adherents. To make these irrefutable data points compatible and palatable, we must begin to ask the right questions: Where, why, and to what extent are illiberal religious beliefs prevalent?

Islam in the UAE is relatively liberal. (Source: goodfreephotos.com)

In an attempt at refocusing our attention on such enquiries, Nawaz recently co-authored a book entitled ‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance with American atheist Sam Harris. Harris calls for a ‘concentric circles’ understanding of Islam, whereby the innermost two circles represent violent jihadists and political Islamists. Outside of those two circles, there are several bands of non-proselytising conservative Muslims and liberal Muslims with increasingly progressive views (on homosexuality, for example). The outermost circle would likely concern nominal, non-practicing, or cultural Muslims with openly secular views. The same visualisation could apply to Christianity. If we begin to recognise this variety we can map activist Malala Yousafzai and Islamist Anjem Choudray in the same space, and talk meaningfully about moving between their positions. Taking an inclusive and rational approach to the exact beliefs of all practitioners, as Harris does, opens up the centre of the debate. By highlighting the more benign and more concerning idiosyncrasies of the different sects, the truth at the core of each of the opening sentences can be put into proportion.

The Pew Research Center has excellent data on how beliefs vary across majority Muslim countries, and it fully supports the need for a balanced discussion on individual cases. 92% of Azerbaijani Muslims would not favour ‘making Sharia the official law in their country’, whereas 86% of Malaysian Muslims would, as would 99% of Afghan Muslims. Only 28% of Pakistani Muslims have an ‘unfavourable’ view of IS, compared to 94% of Jordanian Muslims and 100% of Lebanese Muslims. The rates shift in Western countries, but do not become insignificant: the BBC found 27% of British Muslims felt ‘some sympathy’ for the Charlie Hebdo attackers. There is a need to identify specific challenges in specific parts of the world, and to be clear about which interpretations of the faith breach secular values. If this information can become a backdrop for future debate, there will be no need to alienate entire communities when we talk about migration and religion.

Some beliefs conflict with human rights objectives; Article 18 in this instance. (Picture: edrussia567, Wikimedia commons)

As a final point, consider the positive externalities a more complete and academic discussion about Islam could have in Europe. Firstly, distinguishing liberal Muslims from conservative Muslims from ideologues could reduce the suspicion many feel towards refugees, and may encourage a fairer asylum policy if communicated effectively (a large, tolerant, flourishing Muslim population is arguably the best immune system against extremism). Secondly, intellectual honesty can help reformist scholars: the best way to give discursive legitimacy to ideas like a moderate interpretation of Sharia is to contextualise them, and be frank about their support base.  Everything from mass human rights violations to innocuous private acts of worship can be put under the banner of ‘Sharia’, and public recognition of this variety will stop both sides talking past one another. Third, maturity on this topic can help to discredit bigoted ideas without delegitimising the valid concerns of those on the right, and that progression is needed to overcome divisiveness and weaken populist platforms. The coarse messages of SD, La Pen, Wilders and Farage will not survive contact with sunlight; all that is needed to diminish their vote is accurate engagement rather than ad hominem.

‘Integration through education’ is a maxim to replace all the slogans in the Islam debate. As a society, it is critical that we develop an understanding of the faith and the massive range of beliefs any one individual might hold. Once we have a dispassionate grasp of this complexity, we can call an armistice on the partisan politics and address specific issues. It should be commonplace to condemn the Saudi-funded spread of Salafism in Indonesia and the execution of homosexuals in Iran, while celebrating Casablancais architecture and Pakistani Qawwali music. To abhor Islamophobic hate speech while harbouring far graver concerns about reactionary violence. To recognise cultural dissimilarity without caricaturing Malmö as a hellscape. Until everyone involved in this conversation begins to unpack the religion and think critically, full cohesion will continue to evade European society. So, apologist or xenophobe?

UPDATE following events in London: The BBC report that attacker Khalid Masood ‘clearly had an interest in Jihad’. Rather than trying to obfuscate this, both sides should openly recognise the link between values, radicalisation, beliefs, and actions. Maajid Nawaz had this to say:

“If we recognise that this is indeed an ideological struggle, and on the one hand stands those who support theocratic Islamist ideals, and on the other, whether Muslim or not (…) stand all of those who are united in solidarity, in their defence of secular liberal democrat values. The values that make our civilisation so great. When understood in this way, it makes it impossible to divide us along religious lines.”

The book ‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance’ is the subject of an upcoming documentary by Australia-based initiative Think Inc. Follow its development here.

Scott Harvey

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