As if the world doesn’t have enough experience of religious violence throughout its history to recognize it when it sees it, every time a new Islamic terrorist attack takes place a new debate is raised about whether it had anything to do with Islam or not. It is particularly the West that seems uncomfortable blaming religion and looks to find any other possible excuse to avoid the necessary confrontation. Apologists for Islam have made a craft, and some a career, out of it, and here we’re going to see the most common arguments they present and try to counter them.
Suicide is not allowed in Islam; therefore “suicide attackers” are not true Muslims
A suicide attack is not exactly suicide; it is using one’s own body as a weapon to kill others. Muslims do not refer to this practice as “suicide attack”, like the West does, but as the practice of a “fedayin” or “shahid”, meaning a “martyr”. Martyrdom (“istishhad”) is very much allowed –it is actually encouraged- even though killing one’s self is not (Quran 4.29: “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you”). One of the many relevant Quran verses is 4.74: “So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory – We will bestow upon him a great reward.” (For more from the Quran, the Hadiths and the Sira, click here)
Also (fun fact), Mohamed tried to kill himself, too. He did this when he felt divine inspiration had left him. As he tried to jump from a cliff, Gabriel appeared and stopped him assuring him he was indeed Allah’s apostle in truth (Bukhari, 9.87.111); this happened several times. So, even when the Prophet himself tried to commit suicide, Gabriel did stop him but not actually by telling him suicide was wrong; only by removing the reason for his grievance that led him to the suicide attempts. Would it be ok for Mohamed to kill himself had Gabriel not appeared?
It’s not Islam, it’s “radicalism”
One cannot be merely a radical. One can be radical at something. Left-wing radicals, right-wing radicals, radical communists etc; they are all radicals in their ideology. So, we are talking about “Muslim radicals” -or “radical Islamists” if you prefer.
“Islam” means “peace”
No it doesn’t. “Islam” is the Arabic word for “submission”. This is either telling, or it isn’t. But you can’t ignore it and you shouldn’t lie about it.
Islam is the religion of peace
If the religion is peaceful, its radicals, extremists and fundamentalists would be the most peaceful people on the planet. It’s the original ideas that lead these people to a violent path. If the ideology is peaceful, the extremist will be extra peaceful; not a genocidal, suicidal, homicidal maniac. I am pretty sure it was Sam Harris who first popularized Jainism in this context. Jainism is a religion that abhors and disallows violence in any circumstance, at any cost. Gandhi borrowed this idea of non-violence and rebranded it as “pacifism”. The most extremist Jain walks with his head pointed downwards so that he doesn’t step on any insects. As Harris famously put it, “the crazier you get as a Jain, the less we have to worry about you”.
Sure. Of course not all Muslims are violent/homophobic/anti-Semitic or anything else for that matter. There is literally no one saying that (no, not even Trump is saying that). So, who are you replying to?
And now that we have agreed that it is “not all”: how many? Who are we supposed to count, anyway? Who among the Muslims do you have a problem with? Is it only the jihadists? Doesn’t it matter that homophobia among Muslim communities is a huge problem? If you care about liberal ideas and civil liberties, you should care about that. And if you worry about the rise of the far-right, then you should also worry about people growing up with the theocratic view of life. 52% of British Muslims want homosexuality to be illegal (you may want to compare this to the corresponding 10% of the general population –surprisingly high itself, I have to say). Apart from homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, aversion to freedom of speech and every other freedom you hold dear, the promotion of illiberal ideas and practices are problems that are shared among far-right wingers and the overly religious. Unfortunately, Islam in particular is far behind on these issues and is yet to be reformed, so it is mostly the Muslims among the religious who share these views.
We, the Westerners, should know very well what it means for religion to be in charge and how urgent it is for it to be removed from politics and relieved of any power to oppress individuals. We have done it before, we have to do it again. But, the mantra “not all” is counterproductive not just to this purpose, but to the very identification of the problem. It is meant to obfuscate and confuse, to imply prejudice where reasonable criticism is due, and avoids the issue at hand (in case the mantra worked again, we were talking about whether there is a particular problem with Islam).
Christianity can be as bad as ISIS, so it is not Islam that’s the problem -remember the Crusades and the Middle Ages?
The Spanish inquisition is not out to get me. Nor you. What has this got to do with anything? It is, of course, true that Christianity at its worst has produced misery and destruction to a degree that would be unimaginable if it wasn’t for ISIS to remind us of it, but I don’t see how this comparison is helping to solve any of our current problems. It could, actually, if it was taken as evidence of how quickly we have to deal with ISIS, and by extension global jihadism, since nobody, including those who are uttering this little gem of apologia, has any kind of sympathy for these terrible examples of how everything can go wrong if you take religion seriously. But, somehow, it is used as guilt-baiting and for placing blame on ourselves and not on those dedicated to our destruction. And it ties well with the next argument.
But before that, let’s notice how telling it is that these rhetorical time-travellers who jump over 9 centuries to mention the Crusades, don’t bother to go one more year further into the past and see what happened to the Eastern Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) by the Seljuq Turks who invaded its so-called “Christian lands”. If you think that they spread their ‘good news’ peacefully, check again. The Muslims have their own share of violence in their history. It might also be useful to point out the hundreds of years Muslims were ravaging vast areas of land occupied by non-believers during the period known as The Rise of Islam or (completely unironically, or, in the least, selectively) The Golden Age of The Arabs.
It’s all our fault – Modern terrorism is reciprocation against crimes of the West
Let’s ignore, for the purposes of this article, the fact that this current rise of Islam has been building up for a century, let’s forget Sayyid Qutb –the Islamist philosopher who inspired Osama bin Laden-, let’s forget about the Muslim Brotherhood or how Saudi Arabia have been disseminating Wahhabism in the Middle East for decades, let’s also ignore that it would be difficult to find how ISIS is doing anything different than what Mohamed was doing (and Muslims are expected to emulate the life of the Prophet); and let’s, for the sake of argument, agree that everything we are witnessing and experiencing today is the result of one fateful decision made by the Bush administration. But, even if we take this most cynical view and blame America for everything that’s been happening -even if the West is truly the sole to blame-, so what? Or, rather, now what? Are we to understand that it’s ok, then, to not worry about terrorism? Or that it will just go away if we apologize? There’s plenty of blame to go around but the problem still exists, and it is still most certainly religious; even if it is only religious in its expression and not its root cause; and only by knowing this can we accurately talk about it and effectively counter it. Instead, this argument, along with the rest, obfuscates and misdirects the conversation -when it’s not putting a stop to it. (Probably even this will go over some regressives’ heads, but ISIS tell us themselves why they hate us Westerners, and it’s not Bush)
The term “Islamophobia” is made to sound like “xenophobia” or “homophobia”, and with a purpose. The purpose is to invoke an accusation of prejudice or bigotry, and imply racism. But let’s be clear (for those who still haven’t figured it out), “Islam” is not a race, it’s a religion. What’s prejudicial about criticizing a religion? Would anyone use the terms “Christianophobia” or “Buddhismophobia”? Nor is “Islam” the same as “Muslims”, the people who adhere to it. To criticize Islam is to criticize ideas, not people. We cannot possibly accuse someone for criticizing ideas if he gives reasons why he thinks those ideas are wrong; this is the norm in our culture, it’s a foundation of democracy and liberalism. It’s simply a matter of freedom of speech, and secularism necessitates it.
Naturally, if you criticize an idea -like the idea of child marriage- by extension you criticize the people who accept it and, even more so, those who act on it. This is hardly prejudicial. It would only imply prejudice, or bigotry, if you accused someone without knowing anything about him except one or two inconsequential things like the color of his skin or his ethnicity. Bigotry means to attack someone for what he is, not what he does. But people are, and should be, accountable for the ideas and beliefs they hold, let alone their actions (you can’t choose your race, but you can definitely choose which ideas you agree with).
As Maajid Nawaz says, “no idea is above scrutiny, no people are beneath dignity”. And, in the same sense that we should not accuse those who do not engage in egregious behavior, we should hold accountable those who do, and look for the reasons why they do so.
If we want to speak honestly and intelligently about whether terror and other kinds of violence are religious in cause and nature or not, we need to abandon this defective form of ‘thinking by association’ which the term Islamophobia capitalizes on by conflating criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry. The term is used, other than by Islamists themselves, by those who are horrified to be accused of being an Islamophobe and rush to virtue signal by accusing others of it (“how can I be an Islamophobe”, they would say, “if I’m accusing others of being so?”). This is what Faisal Saeed al Mutar meant when he referred to “Islamophobia phobia”. The surprising part is that it still works for some people; those too easily influenced to know the difference between a system of beliefs and all those who adopt any of its variants. Gad Saad calls this inability of the West, especially those within the Left, to support the liberal ideas the pretend to hold dear as the “progressive” virus of the mind: “Better to die a cowardly death in a fetal position than to fight for free, liberal, secular societies”.
Pascal Bruckner mentions how Iranian fundamentalists invented the term in the late 70s, in order “to declare Islam inviolate”, and deems it “worthy of totalitarian propaganda”. Islamophobia is truly, as Hitchens made it known to be, “a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons”.
From another perspective, even when we try and take the word seriously, it still doesn’t make sense. Literally speaking, a phobia is an irrational fear, a kind of anxiety disorder. If you have claustrophobia, for example, you might find it difficult to enter an elevator, even if you are aware that you shouldn’t be afraid of doing so. What’s irrational about being afraid of Islam, though? Need I mention Charlie Hebdo, the Danish cartoons controversy or the Salman Rushdie affair? The list is quite longer than that. In this sense, it’s those who don’t fear Islam who are being irrational. There are very real reasons to be fearful of this particular religion.
Sharia is compatible with western values
This is blatantly false. Apologists (like Reza Aslan or Mehdi Hasan) will tell you there is no one interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), therefore one could make it work in a democracy with liberal values. Though it is true that there is disagreement among scholars on some peripheral issues about what exactly should be included in sharia, there is a number of core dogmas that cannot be altered or avoided; or allowed if we want to keep enjoying our freedoms, let alone secularism. Women’s rights, for example, are loudly ignored in the context of sharia and hostility towards non-Muslims, to varying degrees, is the norm (you can read Bill Warner’s description of what sharia is here).
The terrorist was not a real Muslim because he drank beer, visited strip clubs, hardly went to a mosque, was gay etc.
This is a baffling one. Aren’t there Christians who have sexual relations before marriage? Are they “fake Christians”? Are they “not Christian enough”? Are they going to hell? They might disagree with that.
Why would anyone assume that an extremist would be without “fault” in the context of their religion? Who decides what is faulty and what isn’t? I guess one might reserve the term fundamentalist for such an infallible follower of religious dogma (though even literalists tend to disagree on things…), but extremists or radicals can be as inconsistent (in our minds) as any religious people can get. It is considered, for example, by some that one’s sins are forgiven if they die for Allah (hadith Muslim 20.4649: “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘All the sins of a martyr are forgiven except debt’”). They do still believe absolutely in things like paradise and in that they must kill infidels to gain access to it. Even if one might feel uneasy calling them perfect believers for the above reasons, they are still perfect soldiers (borrowing the term from Terry McDermott’s book, which refers to the 9/11 hijackers and how they emulated the Prophet’s companions preparing for battle and how reading about Islam “became for some of them nearly the only thing they did”).
Sohail Ahmed was a gay radical Muslim who was “pretty much on the precipice of committing a terror attack” (as he says) before he came to his senses. The reason he ended up having such thoughts was because the only way he could find to cope with his homosexual feelings, within his religion, was to become more religious. “I actually became more radical because I was gay”, he says, “in an attempt to cure myself from homosexuality”. Call this overcompensation if you will, but this man’s story makes it evident that you can’t predict who is an Islamist terrorist by observing his not-so-pious-looking behavior, without this meaning he’s not really a Muslim.
Lastly, in Islam, there is a practice called taqiyya. Taqiyya is the practice of renouncing your faith to unbelievers. Scholars say this is only allowed when under duress; however, duress can be real or perceived, and taqiyya gives the freedom to an extremist to lie to infidels about his beliefs. It may as well be the case that drinking beer and abstaining from visiting a mosque before you go and drive a truck over innocent citizens is a facade to avoid suspicion from the authorities. Note also how taqiyya is the opposite of Jesus’ accusatory prediction that Peter will renounce him 3 times before the rooster crows, and consider the difference in dealing with someone who has been instilled with one of the two versions of piety and then the other (who said all religions are the same?).
Religious leaders condemn ISIS and jihadism
“Fundamentalist Islam is structured much like fundamentalist Christianity, which is to say there is very little real structure to it at all, little hierarchy and no absolute arbiters or authority” (borrowing from Terry McDermott again). If you are a Muslim religious leader, I’ve got news for you: extremists don’t care about you. They have their own version of piety, purity and martyrdom. Accordingly, why won’t the Westboro Baptist Church people listen to the Pope? Does this mean they are not real Christians? If the Amish suddenly started stoning adulterers because it says so in some Bible verse, would they stop being labeled ‘Christians’? Let alone that Al-Baghdadi (the leader of ISIS) has a doctorate in Islamic studies.
And are we to understand that only Islamic scholars are true Muslims? How many of the more than a billion and a half Muslims around the world are illiterate and haven’t even read the Quran, the Sira or the Hadith? Are they fake Muslims? Don’t say it to their faces.
In general, there are many versions of Islam –probably as many as there are Muslims. It’s not honest to pick the versions that do not promote violence or bigotry and label them “true Islam” while dismissing the proponents of the rest as generic crazy people. They all stem from the same place. Shouldn’t we focus on the problem?
The victims of the attack were mostly Muslims and the perpetrators destroyed Islamic religious artifacts or mosques
For some reason this is news to some people. It was always the case that the victims of Islamist terrorism were mostly Muslims, throughout Islam’s history; as it has always been the case that religious violence mainly victimizes co-religionists of a somewhat different persuasion. But, somehow, this meme started right after the attack on the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. “Muslims died there” they said, “a mosque was attacked” and, so, it had nothing to do with Islam… Perhaps, to these people, Muslims are real Muslims only if they kill non-Muslims. But Sunni and Shia Muslims are killing each other over succession ever since Mohamed died. This argument illustrates ignorance of the history of Islam (and every other religion) and its modern reality; but, mostly, shows the utter failure of critical thinking in recognizing the motives of the jihadists.
Maybe a reminder of the Iconoclasm conflicts of the 8th century in the Byzantine Empire -when Iconolaters (who used icons as items of reverence) and Iconoclasts (who thought the use of icons was a regression to idol worship or… Jewishness) killed each other- might help some confused Westerners to realize how preposterous this argument is. There is a great abundance of religious wars and conflicts to pick from to make the same redundant point.
And if you are one of the confused leftists, unable to recognize theocratic aggression when you see it, Maajid Nawaz has something to tell you.