Who Represents True Islam? Moderates or Extremists?
There’s a fight brewing among the cultural left. These people usually agree with each other, especially on important issues. But they’re fighting over Islam. Maybe you heard Bill Maher and Sam Harris duking it out with Ben Affleck a few months ago. More recently, Maher mixed it up with Howard Dean over the same issue. And just what is that issue?
In short, Islam has a big problem. It seems to reproduce the worst kinds of radicals and extremists. It appears more prone to this than any other major world religion. Wherever you find a predominance of Muslims, the seed of dangerous extremism is usually taking root.
A typical day in the news includes reports of murderous Muslims killing civilians in cruel ways. This happens with ghastly consistency. We’re pummeled by the unbroken media coverage of this apparently global disease. Many have the unfair but understandable impression that Islam is a religion of death. To one degree or another they see all Muslims as wild-eyed barbarians.
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The Two Sides of the Islam Debate
This is what has liberals bickering with each other. Some “leftists” don’t like any religious people of any sort. They see this violence as another reason we should all be secular. For them, the problem is Islam itself. A greater number on the left want to maintain the politically correct stance. President Obama appears to be in this second group. They seek to separate extremists from Islam entirely. For them, Islam is a religion of peace and love with no connection to the ongoing violence. They say that it’s crazy extremists, falsely claiming to be Muslims, who are responsible.
Who’s Right: Bill Maher or Howard Dean?
So who has the right view of this situation? Maher blames Islam proper for the thousands of murders in the past few years. Is he fair to do so? Is cruelty and terror a latent feature of the religion itself? Howard Dean disagrees completely. He asserts that none of the terrorist organizations or individuals are actually Muslim. He says we shouldn’t even use that word to describe them. This seems to be a script that those in the current White House seem to be following. Are they right?
Since I generally regard the views of those on the far left as misguided, it should come as no surprise that I think both sides are wrong. But they’re wrong in different ways. Making sense of the crisis of rampant extremism means understanding some background on Islam.
A Brief History Lesson
Military conquest has been in the Islamic DNA from the start. The birthplace of Muhammad largely rejected his message in the beginning. Muhammad relocated to a city that later would be known as Medina (in his honor). He eventually turned the tide and won Mecca over. How did he persuade those who had spurned him at first? He conquered the city of his birth with a massive army. Islam’s remarkable and rapid spread after the prophet’s death was by sheer military prowess.
Islam, as a religion, followed close on the heels of Islamic military conquests. The newly unified and highly motivated Arab armies won an impressive string of victories. No major religion has ever spread by such strictly military means.
The campaign to establish an Islamic world empire began in Syria. It spread to Persia, Palestine, then to Egypt and other parts of North Africa. Muslims crossed into Europe and captured most of Spain. They conquered almost all the Mediterranean islands from the Italians and Byzantines. They had committed soldiers, a dexterous cavalry, and a secret weapon: the camel. They were a world power to be reckoned with.
The Muslim Identity Crisis
Fast-forward to today. Corrupt and dishonest Islamic cyber-recruiters distort history to sign up ignorant and impressionable youths.
First, they instill a sense of pride in the military prowess of early Muslims. They glory in the early empires these Muslim conquerors built. The Middle East, India, North Africa, and Spain were all under their control. They reminisce about an Islamic golden age when the arts, science, and culture flourished.
Second, the radical clerics paint a vivid picture of how this golden age ended. Naturally, the “infidels” are to blame. These early infidels were Christians, especially European crusaders.
Today the crusades have been vilified. In fact, the crusades were merely a response to Muslim aggression. The aim was to help Byzantine Christians in the east take back the Holy Land. This was some of the land the Muslim armies had acquired by violence. Still, the Crusades feature largely in the propagandistic message of radicals. Osama Bin Laden brought this to everyone’s awareness in his interview with Al-Jazeera. As the Iraq war began he said, “This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders.”
This account of history, if it can be called history, is grossly distorted hype. It’s designed to recruit and motivate brainwashed brigades of killers. Medieval Muslim armies were the initiators of conflict with:
- Byzantine Christians
Muslims drew first blood through invasion. Is it shocking that a civilization would respond militarily to hordes of foreign invaders? Can anyone miss the irony? Radical Islamists denounce the European imperialism. At the same time though they praise Muslim imperialism of the High Middle Ages?
It should be added that warfare between Muslims began early a well. History tells a brutal story of infighting going back to the death of Muhammad.
The Sunni and Shia factions originated in the debate about who should succeed Muhammad. When Sunnis and Shias bomb each other we’re seeing an ancient blood feud in action. It’s sadly ironic that radical Muslims are the world’s leading Muslim-killers.
The militarism of modern Islamic extremists is due to a sense of connectedness with an Islamic past they see as glorious. This history is one permeated by fighting. They fought as conquers in order to spread Islam. They fought the “infidels” who opposed or responded to their aggression. They also fought each other for power and control over their growing kingdom.
Who are the “True” Muslims?
If you traveled to an Islamic country you could expect to have a great experience. Just don’t visit one that’s being torn apart by war or strongly affected by radicalism. A couple of weeks in Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, or Indonesia, would be worth your time and money. You’d find regular people going about their business. They are kind and hospitable. Most of them work hard, enjoy a good meal, like to sit in cafes or other places having coffee, smoke a hookah, laugh, and carry on. It’s all very normal. You’d also find certain devoutness among most of them. The men go to nearby mosques to pray daily. Their religious lives are not compartmentalized like we see in American culture. Religion permeates all of life for them.
Islam’s grip is fairly tight, then, even in these more moderate places. You’d likely notice some things you’d disapprove of:
- The rights of women would fall below the standard of American acceptance.
- Attempting to convert Muslims would get you arrested.
- There are still blasphemy laws in many places.
- There are occasional ‘honor killings.’
All that being said, in these more moderate Muslim countries, you probably would not feel threatened at all. Unless, of course, you happened to be in Cairo during the ‘Arab Spring’ protests.
You would probably like the people you met in these places. You might even return home with a positive vibe about Muslims as people. This is not to say that you wouldn’t perceive their society as problematic. Specifically, their concepts of rights and freedoms are very different from those in the west.
My homemade, authentic, Arab-style hummus will testify that I’ve had such an experience. I visited the Palestinian territories years ago. This place isn’t usually on any tourist brochures, but I must say that I developed a certain fondness for many of the people I met. So many of them just seemed like nice and normal families who happen to live in a context of political tension. When I think about these ‘nice’ and ‘normal’ Muslim people, I really want them to be the torchbearers for genuine Islam.
Having meet those people I want to take the politically correct view and declare, with Obama & Dean, that the throat-cutters are not true Muslims. There’s a little wishful thinking involved, to be sure. Wouldn’t we all breathe easier if we knew that the peaceful majority represents true Islam?
Unfortunately there are some problems staring back at me when I attempt to justify this in my own mind.
Liking Something Doesn’t Make It True
As much as we might want to, we’re not in any position to make a ruling on what ‘true Islam’ is. All we can say is, “This is the Islam that I prefer.” Judging what is authentic Islam is notoriously difficult. The Qur’an is not an easily interpreted text. It is ancient, poetic/lyrical, short, and locked into a centuries-old form of Arabic. Thus it is open to vastly divergent interpretations.
The large body of Hadith literature that came later is supposed to clarify Quranic teaching. Sadly this literature is itself a confusing mess and much debated between Islamic factions. Want to find passages to justify peace, love, and justice? You can do that. Want to find passages to justify war, persecution, subjugation, and cruelty? You can do that as well.
Thus it is for moderate Muslims to fight the intellectual battle for the definition of Islam. Non-Muslims have little hope of success. Even the best efforts of knowledgeable Muslims are unlikely to persuade the wild-eyed extremists. But at least a credible case would have been made.
What Should Our Perspective Be?
Non-Muslims have no spiritual stake in the internal Muslim debate on:
- Differing traditions of interpretation of the Qur’an
- Different collections of authoritative Hadith teachings
- Allegiances to different Islamic leaders in the world today
Christians believe that all interpretations of Islam are wrong with regard to spiritual and doctrinal issues. Secularists either agree, or they give it no thought at all. For Christians there is no “true Islam” in the strict sense. Presumably there’s a historically accurate understanding of Islam. An accurate view would be based to Islam’s origins and authoritative sources. However, Accuracy does not equal truth. Accuracy doesn’t move the spiritual “needle” any more than inaccuracy.
That being said, other concerns exist for those outside Islam. The most pressing is the heinous brutality and violence that certain participants in the wider Islamic debate justify. They fund, teach and oversee it without remorse. This part of the battle for historic Islam is important to all of us.
Consider a religious comparison. Almost nobody outside of India is concerned with the philosophical or religious debates between different Hindu schools of thought. Few people bother to know about the interpretational differences between Reformed and Orthodox Jews. I doubt most Westerners would care whether a Buddhist coworker was of the Tibetan, Japanese Zen, or Theravada variety. For that matter, few Americans could probably tell you the differences between Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans. And they generally don’t care.
Even in society of religious ignorance and apathy, we have a very important reason to understand the different factions within Islam. Simply put, one of the factions is a psychotic death-cult bent on world domination. Those within this faction savagely execute their enemies. Those under their rule live a cruel, repressive, existence. Proponents of the “Islamic State” or “Caliphate” portray themselves as righteous servants of God. They’re certainly not debauched like the Christian and secular west. Or so they claim.
Their depravity runs far deeper than even the worst excesses in the west. They are child molesters, sex traffickers, ritual rapists, thieves, cold-blooded barbaric murderers of women, children, and the elderly, and butchers of hordes of civilians, including scores of Muslims. They’ve constructed a deity who sanctions all their demented and twisted immorality. They have slick, oily lawyers and politicians who defend them with the most ridiculous and dishonest kind of sophistry. In their minds it’s America’s fault for occupying their land. It’s all so just much blah, blah, blah (or in the Arabic, bla’ah, bla’ah, bla’ah).
Let’s not beat around the bush. Moderate Muslims have to be more frank and vocal in addressing the cancer of violent extremism in their own body. Western media has to muster up enough spinal fluid to lay these issues bare and talk honestly about them. It isn’t “Islamophobia” to address the obvious truth about what is happening every day. A healthy sense of “Radical Islamophobia” is appropriate. It’s rational to be afraid given that young brainwashed sociopaths believe that Allah has given them a license to kill. When the thread is this real, a healthy dose of caution is in order.
- The world of Islam has a huge problem. Even if the extremist murderers don’t represent “true” Islam, the problem is still uniquely Islamic. Islam is the religion they claim to represent. It’s Islam’s broad theological categories from which they claim to take their views. It’s Islam’s prophet they revere. It’s Islam’s scriptures on their lips and in their writings. And it’s Islam’s deity they hail as “Akbar” while they burn a Muslim civilian alive in a cage.
- Secularists and atheists use Islamic extremists as a bludgeon against the other 1.5–2 billion Muslims. They then lump other religions in with the dangerous extremists just for good measure. This is an exercise in grossly biased opportunistic stupidity. Bill Maher is capable of making a good point here and there, but his worldview is bankrupt and thus incapable of delivering a healthy and rational critique.
- Respectable and well-known Muslim leaders have to make the argument boldly, loudly, and persuasively that extremist nut-jobs are deviant heretics who do not represent Islam. If that’s how the world should see this situation, then the world needs to hear it from strident Muslim voices. Muslims are the only ones who can make this case in a credible and knowledgeable way.
- Non-Muslims can then support and spread the counter-message of the moderate Muslim leaders. This can help counteract the recruitment and propaganda of the crazies, and justify the military suppression of extremism. This could all be accomplished without people foolishly thinking that such actions are a war against Islam itself.
- Christians have to be honest in maintaining that, to us, no form of Islam accurately represents God, man, history, the Bible, or salvation. Christians believe that both moderate and extreme Muslims are false. However, not all false beliefs are created equal. Christian opposition to radical Islam is not due merely to its false theology; radical Islam is criminal, savage, dangerous, a menace to society, a destroyer of the peace and public good, and has an ocean of blood on its hands. Its leaders are fueled by what seems like a demonic disease of the mind. They must be stopped, and with force, which leads me to my final point.
- Governments should make it a top priority to zealously annihilate radical Islam. Every organization responsible for planning terrorist acts should be wiped out with extreme prejudice. One of the chief purposes of political leaders and ministers of justice is to protect peaceful civilians. This means, at least, punishing the worst perpetrators of evil by all necessary means.
Here’s hoping that every radical Islamic leader, hands soaking with so many gallons of innocent blood, will soon depart this world and discover, to their eternal shock and utter horror, that indeed, “God is great.”
- RealTime “Real Time with Bill Maher: Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Bill Maher Debate Radical Islam (HBO)” YouTube video, 10:05. October 6, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vln9D81eO60 ↩
- timedjumpoff “Bill Maher Confronts Howard Dean for ‘About as Muslim as I Am’ Comment” YouTube video, 3:22. January 25, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTIHG60qWeQ ↩
- Stark, Rodney. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 10. ↩
- Stark, God’s Battalions, 8. ↩
- Laden, Osama Bin. “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October Interview.” Interview by Tayseer Alouni. Transcript. CNN. February 5, 2002. ↩
- Stark, God’s Battalions, 11–34. ↩
- Stark, God’s Battalions, 20–21. ↩
- “Anjem Choudary.” Wikipedia. August 15, 2004. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anjem_Choudary. ↩
- Chulov, Martin, and Shiv Malik. “Isis Video Shows Jordanian Hostage Being Burned to Death.” The Guardian. February 3, 2015. Accessed March 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/03/isis-video-jordanian-hostage-burdning-death-muadh-al-kasabeh. ↩