February 21, 2012

What is Islam? I Don't Know, But I'm Pretty Sure I've Got it Wrong

I've been writing about this for some time to the chagrin of some of you readers. It is not up to me or you or Ayman al Zawahiri (or Robert Spencer) to say what exactly Islam is. Because the fact is that no such thing as an official Islam exists. There is no single Islam, there are only Islams.

Just as the radicals don't get to speak for Islam, neither do the moderates or liberal reformers. Because, just like Christianity, no one can speak for all of the religion. There is no Muslim Pope, and even if there was our own Catholic Pope certainly doesn't speak for all of Christianity. Only a part of it. And not me.

Us declaring what Islam is or isn't would be a lot like Muslims declaring Catholicism "true Christianity" and Protestantism a "deviation", simply because they liked the Pope's encyclical against the war in Iraq (had such a thing been delivered).

Which is why it has always bothered me when I hear liberal non-Muslims say that Islamists or other radicals have deviated from true Islam. No such thing exists. And, if it does, it is not for we outsiders to decide what that is.

I've had to correct more than one student on this and, unfortunately, other professors who continue to believe the malarkey that Islam is a religion of peace and radicals are deviants from it.

But it's equally malarkey to think that Islam is a religion of violence and that reformers, moderates, and liberals have also deviated from true Islam.

I'm not trying to take some ill thought out middle ground here, either. It's just the simple truth that there is no such a thing as an Islam that can be boxed into what any one of its sects believe.

Nor is this to say that there isn't a traditional Sunni Islam, or an orthodox Sunni Islam, or a mainstream Sunni Islam. Neither should we illusion ourselves that the history and political teachings of early Islam are radically different than early Christianity. Sean Stone's insanity aside, Muhammad was no follower of the teaching of the Biblical or Jesus.

That's why this NY Times Op-Ed is so important. I'm not sure I agree with the rather thin Constitutional argument (how is a government official simply saying he likes one version of Islam better than another anything like a violation of the establishment clause?), but I do agree with the sentiments about where reform within the Islamic world needs to come from. Here's a hint: it's not from us:

From a national security point of view, challenging ideas that underpin radical Islam makes sense. Counterterrorism is ultimately about ideas; why shouldn’t officials try to marginalize the theological teachings cited by violent terrorists?

The problem is that when American officials intervene in Islamic teachings — interpreting them to believers in a national-security context and saying which are or are not acceptable — they create tensions, both legal and strategic.

The strategic problem is easier to see: Is the government a credible authority on Islamic interpretation? Based on the results of comparable efforts in Britain, the answer is a resounding no. Simply put, young Muslim men in the thrall of radical teachings will not embrace a more pacific theology because the F.B.I. tells them to, any more than Catholic bishops would have yielded to Mr. Obama’s plan to mandate coverage of contraceptives at Catholic hospitals if he had invoked canon law to defend his position.

When we discuss Islam, we need to be careful about just what it is we are talking about. Let's make sure we don't fall into the trap of thinking that there is anything like an official Islam.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 05:05 PM | Comments |