By Alison Lake
This essay is the second in a series about religious conversion. Click here to read Alison’s first essay about leaving Catholicism for Islam. If you’d like to submit your story of religious conversion, email email@example.com.
This is a difficult time to be a convert to Islam. We all know how 9/11 changed the political and social landscape in America, and brought Muslims to the forefront of media coverage. Unfortunately one brand of Islam has been portrayed the most: a brand that does not adhere to the religion’s true tenets. Murder, torture, suicide bombings, plane hijackings, child brides, honor killings, and subjugation of women are not Quranic teachings. They are cultural distortions of Islam. When religion and culture intertwine, they can become mutually indistinguishable and sometimes reinforce harmful practices.
As a Muslim in the West, especially a convert, one has to constantly explain that true Islam does not condone terrorism and murder. I feel depressed when I see evidence of how some ‘Muslims’ continue to misuse and misinterpret their religion in the ways just mentioned. There are too many instances around the world of governments and individuals abusing the rights of humans under the banner of religion, politics, or you name it. The actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are current examples of how ideology and a desire for power drive people to commit horrible crimes.
Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and many copycats have perpetuated the fallacy that Islam equals violence. And many believe that the Quran, Islam’s holy book, is the source of this violence. The Quran’s “Verse of the Sword” is hotly debated as to whether it encourages self-defense in a time of persecution by non-believers, or if it commands the pursuit and murder of all non-believers. Regardless of the verse’s original intent and historical context, it has unfortunately incited many so-called Muslims to violence.
We know that over the centuries the Christian (mostly Catholic) church was also guilty of violence, persecution, and prejudice, and was more recently embroiled in the twisted dysfunction of its pedophile priests. Furthermore, such practices as stoning and subjugation of women are mentioned many times in Christian and Judaic texts. There is much to be ashamed of in human history.
But Muslims today must address this very-present and tragic problem of violence, and campaign to influence governments and communities to condemn and eliminate such practices. The better we recognize the sources of violent behavior, be they economic, cultural, or historical, the better to address those problems. Governments as well as community leaders are the first source of change in many countries where traditions are difficult to break, dictators prevail, and economic distress is entrenched.
However, in Western media, the labeling of such adherents as “Islamic extremists” is inaccurate and misleading. Extremism is based on misinterpretation of Islam and the Quran, and does not occupy a legitimate space in the spectrum of Islam. Perhaps we should call these terrorists “jihadists,” as these individuals misinterpret the word jihad as an excuse to kill people, when it broadly means “struggle” rather than offensive warfare against non-believers. Each Muslim struggles every day to adhere to the pillars of the faith, and this is jihad.
There is much to admire in Islam, and Muslims should educate non-Muslims, as well as their own brothers and sisters in the faith, on the religion’s nuances. There is a rich field for debate on subjects such as the meanings of the Quran, the implications of Prophet Muhammad’s life practices today, the behavior of men and women in the public sphere, and what Islam shares in common with other religions. Islam is also in dire need of a better public relations campaign around the world, particularly in the West.
Islamic civilization was born in the Middle East but also has deep historical roots in India, Iran, central Asia, and Africa. Western textbooks and histories previously ignored Islamic civilization’s rich history, which is slowly becoming more accepted in the European/American worldview. While Europe was in the bubonic depths of the Dark Ages, Islamic civilization produced great thinkers, writers, and inventors. Baghdad and Damascus were bustling, advanced centers of learning and commerce. Arab scholars (many of them Muslim) helped to launch the Renaissance in Europe with their scientific advances and translations of ancient texts for wider consumption.
Islam also shares many points in common with the histories of Judaism and Christianity, based on scriptures and the tradition of such prophets as Abraham, Moses, and Noah. This commonality in the Abrahamic faith tradition is a helpful foundation for interfaith studies, and for pursuit of greater understanding of Islam by non-Muslims. There are too many Muslims worldwide to ignore — more than 1.5 billion. Hopefully more non-Muslims will take time to understand this religion and its people, and try to look beyond the crimes of terrorists and the stereotypes perpetuated in the media and in Western culture.
Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post and former editor of Islamic publications for a D.C.-area think tank.