Who defines Islam?

In the aftermath of the atrocities in Lebanon and France, the West has experienced renewed interest in ISIS, the cancerous would-be caliphate holding unlawful territory between Syria and Iraq. Although the group has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the past, the recent slaughter of Parisian citizens caused the Western world to stop once more and contemplate how to confront such a monstrosity. But while heads of state bicker about how many civilian casualties in airstrikes are acceptable, their populations are engaged in a much wider debate: What is a Muslim’s role in a non-Muslim country? Is there a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the secular world and the Islamic world? Can we truly live alongside followers of Islam?

The debate has seen the best of humanity, and the worst, pitch in with its two cents. The far-right has been predictably hostile to the idea of multiculturalism, preferring instead a Judeo-Christian interpretation of statehood whereby Muslims are viewed with suspicion and treated like the common cold: Something that probably can’t be eradicated, but must be contained where possible. Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Ben Carson – all have chimed in with their overgeneralizations, their scapegoating attacks, and their calls for a police state that applies to non-white citizens. People outside of politics engaged in the debate are also never far from fascism and conspiracy theory, soaking up bandwidth on message boards with discussions of Muslim rape epidemics, ISIS sleeper agents, and bank-robbing Burqa wearers. There is no shortage of nonsense.

By comparison, progressive discussions may seem like a blessing, but these too have their pitfalls. For one thing, many liberal thinkers seem unable to divorce discussions of Islam from discussions of Wahhabism and caliphatism, and cannot reconcile their love of tolerance with their love of free societies. Bill Maher is one such example, and a crude one at that, who claims that his distrust of Islam comes from his progressive values of respect for women, respect for LGBT people, and respect for secularism. Maher, like many other commentators, falls into the trap of using a severe, harsh, and uncompromising interpretation of the religion as his starting point, building an argument from there which leads him to treat Muslims little better than vermin under the pretence of being a progressive. New Atheists have been uncompromisingly hostile to Islam too, and while they pretend they are hostile to the beliefs and not the believer, this is hardly convincing.

All this has been to the benefit of the far-right ideologues, who similarly become deeply supportive of feminism and gay rights whenever a Muslim walks into the room. Maher, like other liberals and atheists, changes the premise of his argument to suit the conclusion he came to first.

That tells us that the central question of Muslims’ role in the West relies on deciding what Islam is, what it means and what it asks of its followers. Here too you will find the far-right, ready to pounce with its argument that “real” Muslims are ones who take up arms against infidels. By that logic, a vast majority of the world’s Muslims aren’t “real” Muslims after all, and are just pretenders. It’s another case of skewing the premise to suit the conclusion. Ironically, groups like ISIS use similar arguments, justifying their slaughter of Muslims under the guise of cleansing secret non-believers or betrayers of Allah. When defining what constitutes a real Muslim, ISIS and American conservatives seem to agree.

Of course, the simplest way to find out what constitutes Islam is to ask a Muslim. But there are about 1.5 billion of them, all with different experiences and different interpretations of their faith. So which one do you ask? If you’re Bill Maher or Nigel Farage, you’ll probably ask a member of ISIS or a Saudi minister, and the conclusions you will draw will be predictably in line with your preconceptions. If you’re a tolerant liberal you might ask a family of four living in Kent, and the conclusions you draw will be similarly predictable and in line with your ideology. If you’ve got any sense about you, you’ll know that Islam, just like Christianity and any other religion, is not an easily defined belief system or moral system universally shared by its adherents. It is simply too large a topic to know with any claim of universality. Not every Muslim prays to the East five times a day. Not every Muslim abstains from pre-marital sex. Not every Muslim even regularly visits a mosque. So how do you define what it means to be a Muslim?

The short answer is, you don’t. If you’re not a Muslim, it’s not your job, and even if you are one, your definition won’t work for everybody. I’m not a Muslim, so I don’t get to make sweeping statements about what the faith demands or the necessary behaviours it compels a believer to make. I don’t get to raise ISIS and Iranian Mullahs as the standard-bearers of a faith shared by over a billion people. I similarly don’t get to raise gay Muslims or feminist Muslims as the representative example either. All I can do, without falling into unscientific and prejudicial traps, is judge each Muslim as I find them, on the quality of their character and the quality of their actions, not on the faith they subscribe to or on the actions of people half a world away.

If you don’t subscribe to this pluralist view of Islam, you will necessarily trip yourself up. Consider: If all Muslims bear responsibility or a portion of the blame for the actions of ISIS, then all Muslims must similarly be praised for the actions of those within the faith who run homeless shelters or campaign on behalf of womens’ rights. If the actions of violent Muslims are representative of the entire faith, why aren’t the actions of decent Muslims? Muslims are either responsible for each other’s actions or they’re not – they can’t be responsible for the bad actions and independent of the good ones. It’s fine if you want to view Muslims as having a hive mind, just be sure to praise ISIS next time you hear about a Muslim homeless shelter.

But what about the central teachings of Islam, the Qu’ran and Hadith? Don’t these unify Muslims around central goals and expected behaviours?

That’s Orientalism, a philosophy from the colonial era that, in part, thought the best way to understand foreign cultures and belief systems was to read the texts they left behind, as these would be more trustworthy than actually talking to people who follow the cultures and belief systems. This Orientalist way of thinking is especially prevalent in online discussions of Islam’s role in the West, and of the demands it puts upon believers. It’s why so many discussions are little more than quote wars between those against Islam and those for it, the “against” camp using quotes that justify violence against innocents, the “for” camp using quotes that condemn violence against innocents.

In fact, this quote-mining tactic in debates is not limited to Islam. In the preceding years to the abolition of slavery in the U.S., both slave owners and abolitionists turned to the Bible to justify their causes. Slave owners used the more messianic passages of conquest and natural order to prove that non-whites were inferior, whilst abolitionists often turned to the humanizing messages of Jesus and his disciples. Most interestingly of all, in some cases abolitionists and slave owners used exactly the same passages. So who decides where American Christianity stands on slavery, let alone global Christianity?

Not me, that’s who, and not you either. Islam, like all religions, is actually morally neutral on all issues – it is up to the believers to interpret whether A or B is the right course of action. It is up to each individual Muslim to decide whether attacking innocents is permitted, and evidence suggests that the vast majority do not.

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