Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Compulsion in Islam

One of the most destructive myths about Islam is that it is uniformly hostile, misogynist, backwards-looking, and authoritarian -- or at least that it is all these things to a greater extent than other religions such as Christianity.

In fact, Islam is capable of just as many nuanced beliefs as Christianity, and while it hasn't quite proliferated sects to the same extent as Christianity (due, I believe, to the linking of Church and State in so many place), it is a mistake to lump all Muslims' beliefs together -- or even to just divide them up into merely Shiite, Sunni and the now uncommon Kharijite branches.

Jehanzeb Hasan states that "Osamaists [follows of Osama bin Laden] and Islamophobes ignore the dynamic nature of the religion and deny the diversity of belief within Islam. Instead of constantly being pondered and contemplated for meanings, Islam is dumbed down by those who seek to essentialize it for the purpose of augmenting their own sociopolitical agendas."

An example of the nuances of Islamic belief, and the way the Western media choose to ignore it in favour of scare-stories about the worst of them, comes from Juan Cole, who reports that Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo and (arguably) the closest equivalent the Sunni have to the Pope, has issued a statement that jihad is never to be used as a threat or a form of aggression against the innocent.

He also quoted from the Quran, "There is no compulsion in religion", emphasising that practices which contradict the principle of freedom of belief is a departure from "true Islam". Indeed, one of the oldest myths about Islam is that it spread across the globe by forced conversions. (I don't doubt that there were some forced conversions, but Christians can't throw the first stone on that score.)

It is, of course, true that there are many people who disagree with Tantawi's concept of "true Islam". The Wahabi sect is a prime example. But we shouldn't make the mistake of judging all of Islam on the behaviour of extremists like Osama bin Laden. That would be like judging all Jews by the behaviour of Samuel Byck, or all Christians by the behaviour of Timothy McVeigh.

One reader commented on Cole's blog to say:

[A]s a Muslim I can tell you the Saudi government is hypocritical and un-Islamic. There's a reason their rulings are given no weight by the worldwide Muslim community, and if it wasn't for Mecca and Medina in its borders, the country would be nothing more than another Yemen.

Another comment quoted from Abdal Hakim Murad's "Islam's Heart of Darkness":

Wahhabism was generally loathed in the Islamic world when it made its first appearance in the eighteenth century. The collapse of Ottoman power during the First World War allowed it to assert itself and, amid scenes of shocking massacre, the Holy Cities were annexed. In the late twentieth century, the explosion of oil wealth allowed Saudi Arabia to export this same puritanism to the outside world.

It is not true that "there is no such thing as a good Muslim". If the West is to win the war for civilization against the reactionary, backwards-looking, fundamentalist Muslims, without becoming in turn reactionary, backwards-looking, fundamentalist Christian ourselves, we need to ally ourselves with modern, moderate forward-looking Muslims, and not tar them with the same brush as the fundamentalists. After all, fundamentalism is the enemy of all modernists, not just secular and Christian modernists.

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