The never-ending argument over what is “real Islam”

Good piece and advice from The Economist:

IN THE commentariat, the world of higher learning (religious and otherwise) and the corridors of political power, the long-running, hot-tempered debate about the real nature of Islam shows no sign of reaching a conclusion. The temperature rises every time some ghastly act of violence is perpetrated by people who say they are inspired by their Muslim beliefs. Broadly it pits those who think that killers who practise violence in Islam’s name are traducing the faith and perhaps mis-stating their own motives, up against those who insist that Islam’s core beliefs (and not just some idosyncratic version of them) can easily prompt people to take up the sword.

Sam Harris, an atheist public intellectual, is among the best-known advocates of the second view. Despite the change of guard at the White House, and the apparent conversion of Donald Trump to a slightly more emollient view of Islam, Mr Harris is still pouring scorn on Barack Obama for insisting that Islam was at heart a religion of peace. Another person whose views Mr Harris excoriates is Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim thinker who combines leftist political ideas with fairly traditional religious ones. Mr Ramadan incurs the American writer’s contempt when he argues that political, economic or geopolitical grievance, rather than any Muslim beliefs, motivate the terrorist group known as Islamic State (IS).

In a new twist of the argument, Mr Harris has published a podcast, lasting nearly two hours, in which he discusses these matters with Graeme Wood, an author and reporter who has travelled the world interviewing prominent members or supporters of IS and probing their motives and intentions. Both broadly agree that some widely held Muslim beliefs, especially those connected with the world’s end times and the battles portending that era, are important drivers of violent behaviour. But this emphasis has been dismissed as “deeply wrong” by Phil Torres, author of a book entitled “The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse”. His book argues that apocalyptic ideas could easily become self-fulfilling. But he also observes that bloodshed (and other dramatic events) in the here-and-now are the real reasons why people suddenly start to think about the final acts in history.

All participants in this discussion merit a hearing. Mr Harris and Mr Wood do a decent job of demolishing some of the more simplistic arguments used to support the views they dislike. For example, the point is often made that many of the people who become jihadis, whether they are converts or Muslim by birth, lack theological sophistication. Indeed, at least one was found to be studying a book with the self-explanatory title, “Islam for dummies”. So, the argument goes, being extremely Muslim and being extremely violent do not seem to go together.

The point about non-sophistication may be true as far it goes, but as both Mr Harris and Mr Wood agree, a person can be very passionate about a belief system without fully understanding its details. And there is no guarantee that even if those details were fully mastered, they would prompt the learner to behave in more peaceful ways. To put it bluntly, jihadis may indeed be theologically ignorant, but that does not prove that a sound theological education would make them more peaceful. (That said, there may be plenty of other reasons for encouraging nuanced theological awareness.)

Mr Wood’s research has reinforced his view that IS is much more apocalyptic in its mentality than earlier jihadi movements such as al-Qaeda. IS propagandists take seriously the notion that Dabiq, a location in northern Syria, will witness a titanic battle between Islamic forces and those of “Rome”—which might mean anything from NATO to the Christian world to the constitutionally secular republic of Turkey. Also widespread is the expectation that an Antichrist figure known as Dajjal will emerge (possibly from an island in the Red Sea) and kill Muslim fighters until Jesus returns to earth and leads the faithful to victory. (Jesus is the second-most-revered prophet in Islam after Muhammad.)

Mr Torres agrees that these beliefs are widely held and significant, but also asks why this is now the case. It was the 2003 assault by America and Britain on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which turned many Sunni Muslims to end-time thinking, he notes: “prior to the US invasion, Sunni Muslims were uninterested in apocalypticism.” He points out that apocalyptic thinking is most widespread in the two countries where American-led armies have entered in force, Iraq and Afghanistan. As Mr Torres sees things, apocalyptic obsessions can be both a result and a cause of real-world violence.

So how can the “true nature” of Islam, or any other religion, be determined? It might be helpful to divide statements about this into two categories. First, there are value judgments, usually made from inside the boundaries of one’s belief system. This includes statements from religious authority figures such as: “Having studied and reflected on the matter, I believe the real message of our religion’s founder(s) is…” Such messages can have moral force even if they run completely counter to the way in which most followers of a religion have, in practice, acted.

In the second basket are historical or sociological statements, which can be made by any fair-minded observer. These are on the long lines of: “Whatever the prophets and scriptures of this religion may teach, it’s an observable fact that hundreds of millions of followers of this faith behave in certain ways, and that they root this stance in their religious world view.” You might call it a behaviourist approach. In the case of modern Islam, one would have to concede that a not-insignificant number of Muslims are, in some cases, prepared to condone religious violence. But they are far outnumbered by the hundreds of millions of Muslims who live peaceful, law-abiding lives and hope that others will do the same. These are statements which can be debated, investigated, affirmed or falsified in a way that religious statements cannot.

For figures of secular authority, be they American presidents, counter-terrorism officials or even opinion-makers, it is often best to stick to the second kind of statement. The “real” nature of a religion, if such a concept has any meaning at all, is hard for an outsider to determine, and certainly well beyond the remit of a more-or-less secular state.

Source: The never-ending argument over what is “real Islam”

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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