In the last several months, we have seen a large rise in anti-Muslim sentiments expressed especially among commentators and the news media. Since 9/11, Islam has become a forefront issue for many in the West, especially in the US. With this constant attention to Islam and Muslims, many in the West have come to view the beliefs held by “those over there” as alien to “us” and the Judeo-Christian belief we hold to. This bias, which is subconsciously implanted by the media, has more to do with myths than facts. It is true there are differences between our society and Middle Eastern societies, but these differences did not sprout overnight. Western democracy, liberties, and freedoms have evolved not over decades but almost a millennium since the signing of the Magna Carta.
These myths help further create a wedge between “us” (the West) and “them” (Islamic world). The “them”, which constitutes 1.6 billion of the population, are not homogeneous by any stretch of the mind, yet the myths that are spewed as facts helps blob “them” together as one unitary and barbaric block. To help us better understand “them”, I set out here to dispel 5 myths I have heard spouted by both the left and right on the media. These myths are propagated as being part of Islamic and Quranic doctrine instead of being discerned to being cultural or specific to a region.
Female Genital Mutilation
This horrendous act is the removal of the female genitalia in order to control female sexuality. This act is rooted in patriarchal cultures of controlling the female population. There isn’t anything stated in the Quran or mentioned in the Hadiths. Such acts were eliminated under Muhammad and his early followers. Yet Fox News and other media outlets always perpetuate this action as part of Islam. In reality, according to UNICEF, 29 countries practice FGM. Out of these 29 nations, 27 are in Africa and some of those nations are Christian majority. The other two are in the Middle East, Iraq and Yemen. In Iraq, the Kurds practice FGM not due to Islam but due to their culture, which preceded Islam. In Yemen, similar reasons are attributed to its practice. This is a differentiation that needs to be made. So to paraphrase Reza Aslan, FGM is an African problem not an Islamic problem. FGM was practiced not too long ago in the West including Britain and the US around the early part of the 20th century.
Jihad has become synonymous with Islam and terrorism. Thanks to the extremists like Al Qaeda and ISIS, this term has come to be portrayed as the means to the Islamic utopia of a global caliphate. The media has taken the definition of the terrorists, which represent a minute aspect of Muslims and disseminate it as if it was a Quranic definition. Jihad means struggle. Jihad in Islam has two aspects to it, the greater Jihad and the lesser one. The former refers to the struggle within oneself to be righteous and pure. An upstanding role model for the society one dwells in. The latter refers to the struggle within warfare. This latter definition becoming more popular is a recent phenomenon that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan even though Islamic Jurisprudence has discussed the greater Jihad concept for centuries. This concept of Jihad is misinterpreted and exploited by the terrorists’ organizations to fit their agenda of power and control.
The lesser Jihad is equivalent to the Christian doctrine of Just War. Unlike Christianity, which struggled to balance war and peace until Thomas Aquinas developed it, Islam created this political concept of self-defense as an inherent right of an individual and state against aggression. But that is the key point of the lesser Jihad that is always ignored; it is only applicable when an individual or state is oppressed and enduring aggression. As soon as the aggression has been stopped, the battle must stop. This concept of Jihad as self-defense is what every nation believes and practices.
Yet there are has been recorded events of nations in history that believed and practiced the premise that aggression in the name of peace and justice is acceptable. We have seen this many times whether it was the Soviet Union, Christian and Colonial Europe, and of course with us as well. Hitler believed that he was doing the lord’s work by killing more than 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. The belt buckle of Nazi soldiers carried the term “Gott Mins Uns” or God with us. Now this does not mean all Christians or Germans condoned the killing of Jews but it demonstrates how a fringe group may be able to wield enough power sometimes to give a nation or religion a bad name.
Let us not forget recent history, the Bush administration was a great advocate for pursing wars in order to bring democracy and liberty to those who were denied it. This belief echoes very similar to the extremists who claim they are carrying out God’s work in promulgating Islam. These actions, whether in good intent or not, has yielded a great number of deaths all over and has led to the formation of extremists such as ISIS. Yet we know the majority of Americans did not and would not believe in warfare to advance liberty and democracy just like the majority of Islam does not believe in warfare to advance Islam.
Stoning of adulterers is seen as a barbaric act that only exists in the Islamic world. The news media is quick to point out that the act of adultery is condemned within Islam therefore stoning is what the Quran dictates. Bill Maher and others are quick to point this out as well. They are not wrong in the sense that when they hear about a stoning it’s in Muslim nations and hence it must be part of their religion. The issue is instead taking what a few say or do as proof a religion is inherently evil or advocates ignorance and violence, they should research it instead. All Muslim countries do not practice stoning today, only a handful of these nations. Actually the punishment of stoning of adulterers is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran. Instead Islamic jurisprudence decided to look at what the people of the book (Christian and Jews) did since Islam holds both texts and faiths in high esteem. Both the Torah and the Bible prescribe this type of punishment. The Old Testament in Leviticus discusses putting the adulterer to death and stoning was used as a method of execution. Whereas in Islam, the actual punishment is not described in the Quran, it does condemn it but does not prescribe death unlike the Bible and Torah.
Before commentators jump on Islam, it is the two preceding Abrahamic faiths that have advanced the punishment of death whereas Islam just condemns it similar to our current society. I would say it’s fair to assume that the preponderance of society would say committing adultery (cheating on one’s partner) is a bad act, definitely not worth death but we as a society would condemn it just like Islam has. Now it is up to current Islamic scholars to evaluate and dictate punishments. Islamic jurisprudence should dictate punishments through the context of society, time, and exegesis of the Quran. The majority of non-secular Islamic nations do not prescribe stoning as a form of punishment for adultery.
Nothing is more synonymous as an act of Islamic terrorism than suicide bombing. Suicide bombing came to us in recent history during the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The actions of the bombers were more so for national aspirations not religious purposes. Yet it has always been claimed that Islam condones these acts of terrorism and the Palestinians exhibited it. The media and commentator do a great job of portraying it as a weapon of choice amongst Muslims. It did not help when the Taliban implemented it in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Al Qaeda carrying it out in Iraq. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Fatwas (religious decree) have been given by many scholars decreeing it illegal and un-Islamic. One of the more popular fatwas was published in England directly refuting the Al Qaeda and Taliban ideology. It was endorsed by Al Azhar, the oldest Islamic University in the world and widely respected Sunni institution of Islamic Jurisprudence. The Quran similar to Christianity and Judaism prohibits suicide. The killing of innocent people is highly condemned by the Quran and Islamic traditions. Thus the combination of the two in the form of suicide bombing is in no way justified by Islam or any Islamic traditions.
Again it is the agenda of these extremist organizations to justify their yearning for power by the umbrella of religion. Robert Pape in his book, Dying to Win, draws on an extensive body of research to dispel this myth that suicide terrorism and Islam are related. He demonstrates that the majority of these cases were nationalistic driven not religiously. Instead these acts were local insurgents or terrorists attempting to drive out occupiers from their territories. Such acts have been carried out by Christians, Jews, and Hindus (Tamil Tigers). The very first use of suicide attacks as a tactic of war or politics were by the Christian and Jewish armies in the earlier history of man. In 1983, a Jewish zealot strapped himself with bombs and walking into the US Capitol with the intent of blowing himself up. But we do not go around saying either of those two religions endorses suicide terrorism because such rhetoric is nonsense. Yet today we have somehow convoluted Islam and suicide bombings as one of the same. It is true, most suicide attacks are perpetuated today by those claiming to be Muslims but a larger look at history shows us otherwise. The point being here is that just because a fringe segments of the population carryout such attacks; it is not a belief of a majority of adherents to Islam as the media makes it out to be.
Islam and Science
One thing I am sadly witnessing today is this belief that Islam contributes nothing to the world but hate, war, terrorism, and havoc. This notion that Islam is antiquated and barbaric with nothing to share but only destroys. Nothing could be further from the truth. Religion to many is a medium of hope and faith in something that allows them to lead lives of purpose. It is the basis of their moral compass. Today, the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims are not violent and extreme. Of course there are criminal and violent believers amongst Muslims but that number is very minute compared to what is sometimes arbitrarily attributed by the media.
We forget that Islam is one of the few religions that have been on the forefront of science, technology, and advancement. It was Islam that preserved the works of the Greeks and Romans when Europe descended into the Dark Ages. It was the Muslims who built upon that knowledge and gave us advancements in mathematics such as the concept of “0”, algebra, algorithm, advances in chemistry and medicine, which are still used to this day, optics, astronomy, etc. The Arabs prior to Islam were a nomadic set of people with minimal interest in such things; it was Islam that fostered the environment for growth in such ideas. The Quran gave the concept of the Earth not being flat but oval shaped like an egg to the Muslims. Female gestation periods were described and other advancements that took Europe several centuries to find out.
Whether this was divine knowledge or whatever one may believe, it was verses like that allowed Muslims to foster a culture of science, education, and advancement. The first university in the world was created by a Muslim and a female Muslim on top of that. One of the most popular Hadiths (Islamic tradition) is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad as saying the ink of a scholar is worth more to God than the blood of a martyr. That sentiment alone captures how much Islam believes in education over warfare. Education and especially science has a special place within Islam.
Sam Harris, the famous atheist who is against Islamic doctrine, points this fact about Islam and its special relation to science unlike Christianity and Judaism. He points out the fact that stem cell research is not prohibited in Islam because of the belief of when conception and life take place. In addition, Muslims don’t believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago like many Christian believers do. Instead some scholars argue that Islam believes in such theories as the Big Bang and evolution within an Islamic context of course. Now many commentators and liberals would be surprised to hear such a thing because to them what they know of Islam is what they have heard a few anti-Muslim demagogues who lack proper knowledge into the doctrines and history of the religion spout.
By the media continuing to perpetuate these myths, the wedge of difference between “us” and “them” continue to grow. We begin to view “them” as a homogenous group of extremists who are misogynists, racists, cruel, and barbaric. What makes it worse is we attribute this to a religion that holds 1.6 billion adherents who are all ethnically, racially, nationally, and culturally as diverse as possible. As humans, anything different is subconsciously considered inferior and even threatening. If we continue to allow the fourth estate to perpetuate myths instead of facts, its raison d’être as a check on government and medium of information is no longer existent. The media needs to do its job by checking claims and substantiating arguments instead of just allowing it to be continuously perpetuate even when it is a myth.
This article is not here to say Islam and Muslims live in a utopia by any means. Today, many Muslims live in a horrible state with repressive governments that create the environment for ignorance and extremism to be cultivated. With the lack of education, the leader of these extremist groups use that as a tool to recruit their mindless pawns into a war that gains the leaders many tangible worldly benefits such as power, fame, and wealth, even though they veil it in a shroud of religious liberation and pride. Many of these groups such as the Taliban and others lack proper knowledge in Islam themselves.
The Islamic world can be argued to be in its dark ages as Christianity was and perhaps on the cusp of its Renaissance, similar to that which allowed Europe to escape the abyss it was falling into. One way we in the West can help is to learn about Islam and that region’s history, its beliefs, and doctrines and know for ourselves what Islam and Muslims are about.
A quote that captures the current state of Muslims was mentioned by Muhammad Abduh, a Muslim scholar who lived in the 19th century, in his travels to Europe he made the following remark about the advancements of the Enlightenment: “Everywhere I look I see Islam but no Muslims and when I return home I see Muslims but no Islam”.
- J. Barker-Benfield, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America, New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 113.
- Streusand, Douglas E. (September 1997). “What Does Jihad Mean?”. Middle East Quarterly iv (3): 9–17. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
- Tāhirulqādrī, Muḥammad. Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings. London: Minhaj-ul-Quran International, 2010. Print.
- Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism Robert Anthony Pape – Random House Trade Paperbacks – 2006. Print.
- The Qur’an, Sura 23:13-14.