By Alex Kronemer
The Fort Hood tragedy has become a renewed occasion for many self-appointed spokespersons, hostile critics, experts, pseudo-experts, pundits, and politicians to assert their theories about what Muslims really think. In the past few two weeks, I’ve heard the Qur’an quoted more times on talk radio than in a mosque. Verses are thrown around either to argue that Islam is, as we often hear, “a religion of peace” or as Pat Robertson said a few days ago, not a religion at all, but a “political system” bent on destroying all the world’s governments.
Whichever side these arguments land, they all engage in the fallacy of essentialism. That is, they all insist that something as enormous, diverse and complex as a 1,400 year old, global religion like Islam is reducible to a simple sound bite or punchy talking point that defines what all the world’s Muslims think.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is the intricate interplay of history and ideas, of different people, places, and cultures, always in flux, always evolving. Like them it has a scripture that was developed and compiled while under great persecution and threat. Its verse includes passionate entreaties for mercy and forgiveness, as well as descriptions of war and threats of hell. It mixes anachronistic situations in gender relationships from the ancient Near Eastern world with timeless ethical and spiritual principles.
And like the Bible, the Qur’an can provide ample fodder for those who seek war as well as peace. Like among Christians and Jews, there are enormous differences in thought and outlook among Muslims, similar to what existed between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960’s leader of Mississippi’s Ku Klux Klan, both of whom were devout, church going, Bible quoting Christians.
Essentialism obfuscates that in religion people define what their faith is much more than their faith defines them. Therefore, it is a mistake to look to “Islam” or the Qur’an to argue about what Muslims think. Rather, we should look at Muslims themselves, and postulate from what we learn from them before we seeking to define Islam in essentialist terms.
The Gallup Company recently conducted a major world poll on what Muslims think about a number of issues. Soon to be updated, these results were published two years ago, and have become the subject of a book, “Who Speaks for Islam” and soon a documentary film called, “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think“, which will begin broadcast on select PBS stations in February.
What the data, book and film all show is that while the Muslim world is very diverse, there are large majorities who embrace gender equality, freedom of speech, and democracy. At the same time, large numbers were found to reject extremism and terror.
For example, while 7% of the world’s Muslims said in the poll that the attacks of 911 were completely justified, 55% answered the opposite, that they were completely unjustified. Keeping in mind that the poll was undertaken against the backdrop of the U.S. fighting two wars with many civilian casualties, and events like the outrages at Abu Ghraib, this by itself is an amazing result and speaks to the fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims are defining their faith in a peaceful way.
This is bad news to those Muslims who define Islam militantly and want more of their fellow Muslims to do so as well. But it is also bad news to those such as Pat Robertson who adopt the militant interpretation of Islam and want more of their constituency to do the same.
Hopefully, what the poll and the film will show to Muslims across the world is that their opinions about these issues are very much in the mainstream, and thereby strengthen their voices in opposing militancy.
At the same time, it should also remind Americans of the same, strengthening their voices in fighting the challenges to pluralism, freedom of religion, and civil rights that are again under threat for following the criminal actions of an individual. We should remember that the cherished principles of freedom and fairness are also ideas that we define by our actions and beliefs.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” I hope the world finds some light in what a billion Muslims really think.
Alex Kronemer is the co-executive producer of the documentary, “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think“. The DC screening was hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), in cooperation with Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion.