The tragedy in Orlando, where a Muslim man professing allegiance to the Islamic State terror group gunned down 49 people and wounded 53 in a gay nightclub, has reignited the familiar debate about Islam, terrorism, and Islamophobia. The anti-Islam camp, mainly on the Right, insists Islam is uniquely, intrinsically violent and that distinctions between radical Islamism and Islam only obscure the problem. The anti-Islamophobia camp, mainly on the Left, insists that terrorism is a distortion of Islam, any religion can be perverted into violent extremism, and that blanket hostility to Islam will both victimize and radicalize ordinary Muslims.
This round of polemics has been particularly rancorous. Donald Trump has stepped into the fray, calling for surveillance of Muslims and curbs on Muslim immigration while assailing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for their failure to denounce “radical Islam.” Others, notably journalist/provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, have gone farther to argue that the problem is all Islam—and mainstream Muslims. Meanwhile, Obama has decried Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and Clinton has pointedly refused to “declare war on an entire religion” (although stating her willingness to name “radical Islamism” as the enemy). Writing in Foreign Policy, Julia Ioffe insisted Islam is no more and no less a “religion of violence” than Christianity or Judaism.
Who’s right? Actually, “Islam is the problem” and “Islam is not the problem” are equally true and equally false statements—and equally unhelpful for addressing the issues. As long as the debate remains polarized between these two crude extremes, it can only impede the search for real solutions.
Only One Major Religion Has a Major Terrorism Problem
For instance: Ioffe is entirely correct when she asserts “no religion is inherently peaceful or violent, nor is it inherently anything other than what its followers make it out to be.” Yet the fact remains that only one religion today has a non-negligible number of followers who are involved in international terrorism. There is no Christian, Hindu, or Jewish counterpart to ISIS, which has an ideology explicitly rooted in Koranic texts.
Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists; a very small minority say they sympathize with ISIS, which has been condemned by numerous Muslim clerics and organizations. But Islam also has a larger extremism problem currently unmatched by any other major religion. A significant number of ostensibly mainstream Muslims who reject ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terror groups nonetheless embrace fanatical and intolerant beliefs.
Just a few months ago, tens of thousands of Pakistanis publicly mourned former policeman Mumtaz Qadri, executed for the 2011 murder of a liberal governor who had advocated reforming the country’s draconian blasphemy laws. The assassin was lionized as a defender of Islam by politicians, lawyers, and clerics—including two popular British imams.
A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that majorities of Muslims in many countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Jordan endorse the death penalty for religious and moral offenses. In Egypt, three out of four Muslims believe sharia should be the law of the land; among those, more than 80 percent—or 60 percent of the total—favor execution for adultery and for leaving Islam. In Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of Muslims back sharia law; 76 percent of those support the death penalty for apostates and 89 percent for adulterers. While some invoke research showing that Christians are no less inclined to mix religion with politics and law, religion-infused laws may mean different things: To oppose same-sex marriage or abortion is not the same as to support hanging gays or stoning unchaste women.
Do other religions also have a violent history, from Judaism’s Roman-era zealots to the Christian Crusades? They clearly do. (While some argue that the Crusades were primarily a defense against Islamic expansion, they indisputably featured some horrific brutality—sometimes against Christian heretics such as the Cathars in thirteenth-century France.) But just as clearly, these religions have adapted to liberal values. The last execution for blasphemy in Europe happened in 1766—and even then, it was an anomalous case widely regarded as barbaric.
Yes, violence and intolerance in the name of Christianity and Judaism still exist. Ioffe mentions a Sacramento preacher who put up a sick video praising the Orlando attack and an ultra-Orthodox Jew who stabbed six marchers in last year’s gay pride parade in Jerusalem. There’s also Colorado-based pastor Kevin Swanson, who advocates executing homosexuals (and who made news last fall when he got then-Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Bobby Jindal to appear at his “National Religious Liberties Conference” in Des Moines, Iowa). One could also point to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where Christian vigilantes have vandalized “sacrilegious” art and assaulted gays with impunity.
But those things are hardly comparable to a Saudi court’s sentence of 20 floggings and ten years in prison for a liberal blogger convicted of insulting Islam, or to sharia-based laws that make homosexuality a capital crime in nine majority-Muslim countries. Swanson is a fringe figure in the American evangelical community, despite some prominent Republicans’ willingness to participate in his sideshow. Meanwhile, one of today’s top Islamic scholars, Egyptian-born Yusuf Al-Qaradawi—who has been often praised as a moderate and heads a Qatar-based Center for Islamic Moderation and Renewal—not only endorses suicide bombings but justifies death for apostasy and homosexuality, vilifies Jews, and defends “light” beatings of disobedient wives.
Islamist Extremism and Anti-Muslim Bigotry Are Both Real
The good news is that the Islamic tradition is anything but monolithic, even in the treatment of issues like blasphemy and homosexuality. Historically, Islam incorporates a vast variety of sects, schools of theology, and cultures. Today, too, a great deal of diversity remains: thus, the 2013 Pew poll found very little support for sharia law, let alone capital punishment for moral and religious offenses, among Muslims in Lebanon, Turkey, Central Asia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.
The bad news is that the past century has been marked by the ascendancy of radical Islamic fundamentalism and of political Islamism—fueled in recent decades by the oil-rich Saudi regime’s investment in international promotion of ultra-orthodox Wahhabi Islam around the world. Even Turkey, once the model of Muslim modernization, has been backsliding toward religious authoritarianism under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
What about American Muslims? As a group, they are much better-integrated than in most of Europe and hold notably moderate views. (After the Orlando shooting, some have pointed out that Muslims in the United States favor same-sex marriage more than evangelical Protestants do, at 42 percent to 28 percent—though these numbers reflect Muslims’ higher levels of college education.) Still, the American Muslim community is obviously not insulated from the global influence of radical Islamism—particularly since, as a 2006 Freedom House study found, American mosques routinely carry Saudi-funded Wahhabi propaganda.
Liberal Muslim activists such as Arizona physician Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, have long warned of the danger of extremism within mainstream Muslim organizations. Jasser’s detractors call him a shill for Islamophobes; yet he points to indisputable troubling facts, including the career of imam Anwar Al-Awlaki (killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011), who served a large congregation in Northern Virginia and preached at other mosques before going to Yemen in 2004 to fight for al-Qaeda.
There are other, less dramatic examples. In 2011, people were rightly appalled by a video that showed some protesters in Yorba Linda, California, shouting abuse at guests arriving for a charity event held by the local chapter of the Islamic Society of North America. What got far less attention was that the featured speakers at the fundraiser were two radical imams—one a preacher of anti-Semitic hate, the other an advocate of Islamist rule in America.
The Yorba Linda incident is a reminder that Islamist extremism and anti-Muslim bigotry are both real issues. Yes, charges of “Islamophobia” and “hate” often get hurled at critics of extremism, including reformist Muslims such as Jasser or lesbian feminist Irshad Manji. Yet critiques of Islam can and do cross the line into blanket Muslim-bashing—and not just in random Internet comments referring to Muslims as “scum” and “animals.”
“It’s time for America to choose,” Yiannopoulos tweeted after the Orlando massacre. “You can have female emancipation and gay rights, or you can have Muslims.” While he is a professional troll, a number of entirely serious “anti-jihadist” bloggers and activists routinely demonize Muslims as a group.
Robert Spencer’s site, Jihad Watch, has suggested that peaceful, non-violent, even secularized Muslims are a danger to the West as long as they have not renounced Islam because they or their children may revert to its more militant forms. Spencer and his ally Pamela Geller (Atlas Shrugs) have repeatedly attacked reformist, anti-Islamist Muslims such as Jasser, Manji, and Muslim convert Stephen Schwartz; Geller has also defended Serb perpetrators of Bosnian genocide as leaders of anti-jihadist resistance.
Some Indications Islam May Reform
These “anti-jihadists” not only offer a skewed, one-sided take on Islamic history and beliefs but relentlessly hype the “Muslim peril.” Any violent crime by someone of Muslim background can be spun as lone-wolf terrorism, right down to a meth addict’s violent rampage in a Wal-Mart; even car accidents get enlisted into “vehicular jihad.” When there is no Muslim connection, one can be fantasized: Geller has obsessively pursued the theory that 2007 Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean national and a Christian, was a secret jihadi because of his enigmatic “Ismail Ax” arm tattoo.
The anti-Islam polemicists see Islam as fundamentally unreformable, with violent fanaticism and supremacism encoded in its scriptures and embedded in its history. Some mainstream conservatives agree. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre last year, Vanderbilt University political science professor Carol Swain published a column arguing that Islam itself—not just “radical Islam”—is not a part of the brotherhood of respectable religions but “a dangerous set of beliefs totally incompatible with Western beliefs” about liberty.
Is this simply grim realism? Serious scholars such as Princeton University’s Michael Cook have argued that Islam does have inherent traits, doctrinal and historical, that make it more predisposed to militarized fundamentalism than Christianity or Hinduism. Islamist radicalism cannot be disconnected from Islam itself.
But this does not mean Islam is impervious to reformation and enlightenment. Numerous Muslim scholars and thinkers, in the past and today, have advocated revising Islamic orthodoxy on everything from women’s rights to religious freedom, used Koranic text to argue against blasphemy laws, and challenged the traditional doctrine of the “abrogation” of the Koran’s earlier, more peaceful and tolerant verses by later militant ones.
Some of Islam’s harshest critics have come around to support Islamic reformation—among them Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her 2015 book “Heretic” and Sam Harris in his dialogue with liberal Muslim Maajid Nawaz, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance.” Ali agrees that most believing Muslims follow the “religion of peace” Mohammed preached in Mecca, not the warlike, coercively imposed Islam of his later Medina years. She also argues that “Mecca Muslims” need religious reform to give their de facto rejection of “Medina Islam” a more solid foundation.
Other critics of political Islamism, such as historian and pundit Daniel Pipes, have always argued that reformed moderate Islam was the answer to radical Islam. Pipes, who has weathered his share of accusations of “Islamophobia,” warned in a 2013 article, “Those who make all Islam their enemy not only succumb to a simplistic and essentialist illusion but they lack any mechanism to defeat it.”
Indeed, it’s not clear what solutions the hardcore anti-Islam contingent proposes. A total ban on Muslim immigration to the United States and Europe? That would not affect the Muslims already here, except to radicalize some of them. It is worth noting that surveys of American Muslims show radicalism to be most common among converts, particularly African-Americans; converts to Islam are also dramatically overrepresented among jihadi recruits in the U.S. and Europe. The perception that the West is waging war on Muslims and Islam is part of what makes Islamic radicalism a magnet for alienated, disaffected people of all backgrounds; policies that seem to justify such perceptions can only increase that appeal.
The Vicious Cycle of Denial and Panic
This is not a call for “political correctness.” Concerns about large enclaves of minimally assimilated immigrants in Europe, or about the effects of a massive influx of migrants, are not bigoted. It is not bigoted to ask whether cultural accommodations for immigrants from countries with deeply patriarchal social norms and strong prohibitions on homosexuality can undermine women’s equality and gay rights in the West. It is certainly not bigoted to look into the connection between extremist beliefs and terrorism.
In a way, Islamism denial and the Islamic panic form a vicious cycle. The more public officials and the media downplay facts related to Islamist radicalism (as in the Obama administration’s bumbling response to the Orlando shooting), the more some people will be open to conspiracy theories about jihadist attacks being swept under the rug. The more tensions between Islamic and Western norms are papered over, the more some will see “creeping sharia” in innocuous accommodations as ritual foot baths on college campuses, or fall for canards about British water parks requiring “Islamically appropriate” modest attire.
But it works the other way, too. The more “anti-jihadists” conflate Islamism with all Islam and bash ordinary Muslims, the more they boost fears of “Islamophobia”—giving an excuse to those who would soft-pedal criticism of radical Islam.
The conversation on Islamic reformation is happening—enough to make a skeptic like Ali sound hopeful in our interview last year. Supposed progressives who whitewash or make excuses for radical Islam stand in the way of this conversation. So do supposed anti-Islamists who insist violent militancy is the only real Islam.