An article written by Nathaniel Spain and Rianna Price in response to Matthew Page’s ‘Islamofacsism’ post.
Fanatical violence should never be minimised. However, the tendency these actions have for damaging the reputation of those of overlapping nationality, race or faith requires careful deconstruction. Modern-day terrorism is a media act designed to breed hatred and escalate violence, and public assessments need to understand the logical traps they may fall into, as well as consumers of this media. Here are five examples.
Faulty generalisation is often found in trying to understand Muslim behaviour with one blanket statement. Summarising a 1.6 billion strong population [Pew] comprised of numerous nationalities and religious subgroups will always be heavily reductive. The Charlie Hebdo shootings demonstrated this abundantly, public figures such as Rotterdam Mayor Aboutaleb sparing no words in condemning extremism in its wake, as well as the ‘Je Suis Ahmed’ movement mourning Muslim police officer Merabet killed during the shootings when he intercepted the terrorists. Like all religions, Islam can be interpreted in multifarious ways; it cannot be said with any certainty that there is a Muslim archetype true to all denominations.
To suggest that fundamentalist violence is inevitable in Islam due to the extremity of all religious beliefs (because the idea that belief in an all-powerful deity is presumptuous – well observed) is inherently flawed. From whatever perspective, whether historical, sociological or psychological, it cannot be empirically verified that religion leads to violence. While religion has been considered the cause of many wars, it is not the only one. The only identity common to all conflicts is the presence of human beings. Religion is used as one of many excuses for violent individuals to commit violent acts. Media examples from Islam are apparent, but no one would state that the Ku Klux Klan and its various racist and neo-Nazi offshoots were figureheads of religion. They are skinheads, white supremacists and racists, but never reducibly Christian. To join the Klan, one was required to be a WASP – a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – and their identity is therefore as based in religion as it is in race. The historicity of these examples may seem removed from today’s society, but the violent propensities of individuals are only framed religiously when it comes to Muslims in the media. Other violent religious extremists are presented as using faith as an excuse, rather than religion leading all people down the path to fundamentalism.
Another claim is that violence is inevitable in Islam because of its violent origins. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is credited with being ruthless, violent and a paedophile by modern standards. The latter is based upon his marriage to Abu Bakr’s daughter Aisha. The couple were betrothed when Aisha was six or seven, and consummated when she was around nine or ten – there is some debate as to dates. While this practice is abhorrent in the 21st Century, it has to be contextualised. It is easy to condemn the marriage practice of a 7th Century religious figure while forgetting Britain’s long history of child marriage. The age of sexual consent in Britain was framed at thirteen in 1875. Before this, sexual practice and marriage was associated with puberty, which could occur from the ages of ten through to thirteen. The Prophet’s actions must be seen within their historical context.
The idea that Muhammad was a ruthless and violent warrior who beheaded Jews has historical grounding but is warped selectively. The Constitution of Medina was set by Muhammad to protect the ‘People of the Book’ (Jews, Christians and Muslims) and their religious practices. This agreement underlines the treatment of all non-Muslims for the first four centuries of the Islamic Empire. When the Jews in Medina broke the political contract in the constitution, Muhammad punished them using violence. Again historical context must be added; Muhammad was attempting to create a nation state in which to strengthen his new religion and disseminate it, while not upsetting those who already had an established faith. He did not kill them due to anti-Semitism, but for rejecting the law which enabled them to practise their faith.
During the Islamic expansion, after Muhammad’s death, the treatment of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians was much more favourable than the treatment of Jews, Zoroastrians and Muslims under Christian Byzantine rule. In the Muslim empire those practising a different faith had to pay a slightly higher rate of tax. Under Christian Byzantine rule they were violently persecuted and forced to convert. While comparing two past empires does not disprove violence in modern Muslim individuals, the historical evidence shows that Islam is not inherently and pervasively violent. There can be no denial that under the early Islamic Empire that there was bloodshed and the repression of pagans, but this is a characteristic of all empires irrespective of religion.
One argument against Islam is that its idea of the sacred, particularly in not reproducing the likeness of Muhammad, infringes on Western freedom of expression. It’s safe to say most of us are not regularly inclined to draw the prophet when going about our day-to-day business, so there isn’t much lost in not doing so. There is no problem with being respectful if the respect causes you no actual harm. Freedom of expression does not justify, say, spraying graffiti on war memorials or urinating on graves. It’s a needless, deliberate provocation. It might be countered that a religion which responds so violently to infringements upon its concept of the sacred does not deserve respect. Certainly extremists should not be respected. However, insulting Islam due to the actions of certain members makes no logical sense, not only because of the reductivism of being disrespectful to those who haven’t perpetuated the crime, but also in its unproductivity – an approximate parallel to burning bibles when protesting the Westboro Baptist Church.
The lack of productive intention is perhaps the greatest flaw when trying to establish Islam as a ‘problem’ religion. In a hypothetical situation wherein Islam is somehow proven as inherently violent, what happens next? If the aim is social and legislative prejudice the religion will be marginalised, therefore giving more cause for extremism. Fanatical terrorists are not going to read a criticism of their religion and suddenly realise the errors of their ways. Rather than creating a negative environment for Muslims in our own country, social acceptance and integration is a necessity for reducing extremism. In terms of dealing with countries with Islam as their state religion, they should be treated on a case-by-case basis, fostering good relations with progressive nations while reducing support to those using faith as an excuse for human rights transgressions, such as Saudi Arabia whose monarchy is arguably propped up by our economic involvement. Islam is not the problem with the latter’s existence. No religion has a monopoly on violence; it’s a problem with humanity.
Nathaniel Spain and Rianna Price
[Image Credit: sammsky]