People in America tend to make assumptions. Television and other forms of media easily sway them. Therefore, it is not surprising that the vast majority of people seem to think that Islam is synonymous with violence. They are astonished at the concept of a religion that advocates hatred and senseless violence. They elect politicians who bandy about words like “Islamo-fascist,” who claim to want to preserve the security of their constituents from aforementioned “Islamo-fascists” by starting wars with their leaders, yet who do not even know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim.
These opinions and actions rest on several misconceptions. The first being that Islam directly advocates violence towards non-Muslims or towards western governments. The second is categorizing violence that is perpetrated by Muslims who use their religion as justification for senseless violence. Senseless violence is defined by the people who make these uninformed clams as violence that is not political in nature, but theological (Mamdani 2004). With this paper, I intend to prove that Islam does not sanction violence perpetuated by Muslims, who may or may not use Islam as justification. I also intend to prove that Islamic violence is not theological in nature but social and political, with a historical framework to support it.
It is popular opinion in America that Islam is inherently a violent religion. The concept of jihad is used to support this, as is the high incidents of human rights abuses that can be attributed to predominately Muslim countries. Examples include the withholding of rights from women and public beheadings in places like Saudi Arabia; the morality squads in Iran, who enforced the theocracy-dictated codes of appropriate behavior in the decades after the 1973 revolution; or the tribes in Africa who continue to practice female circumcision and use Islam as justification. The most common reasoning is nothing more than stereotyping. It is assumed that because there is an established concept of holy war then the religion itself must be based on violence. This religious stereotyping is not surprising given the emphasis on a secular state in the West. Because we are surrounded by a culture that insists on separation of religion from everyday life, it is impossible for us to understand the concept of a culture that is so ingrained with a religion that even the members of the society who do not practice the religion use many of the sayings and phrases.
I would like to start with the concept of the jihad. The misconception is that Muslims are required to kill "infidels" wherever they may be found. This is untrue. There are five pillars of Islam. In summary, the practices are (In order of priority):
· The Testimony of Faith (Shahadah) - the declaration that there is none worthy of worship except Allah (Arabic: God) and that Muhammad is His last messenger.
· Ritual Prayer (Salat) - establishing of the five daily Prayers.
· Obligatory (religious) almsgiving (Zakat) - which is generally 2.5% of the total savings for a rich man working in trade or industry, and 10% or 20% of the annual produce for agriculturists. This money or produce is distributed among the poor.
· Siyam, Fasting
· The Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) - this is done during the month of Zul Hijjah, and is compulsory once in a lifetime for one who has the ability to do it. If the Muslim is in ill health or in debt, he or she is not required to perform Hajj. (Wikipedia 2006)
These are the only things required of a Muslim, and in fact, the only one that is absolutely obligatory is the Zakat. Nowhere in the structure of Islam is there a requirement for holy war. That misconception is born from the ideals of radical Muslim groups who have insisted upon taking one passage from the Qur’an, which calls for resistance to a tyrant, as a message to struggle against the Western superpowers. That requirement for holy war is an earmark of the Salafiyya movement which seeks to combine Western technological advancement with Islamic religious teachings. This combination should be remembered by anyone who advocates a “modernization” of Islam.
There are two different forms of the jihad. The first is the internal jihad, the struggle of every Muslim to lead a life that is truly Islamic in mature, trying to reconcile personal obstacles to completing the five pillars. This can be expressed vocally or through art and writing. The second is the external jihad, which may or may not require armed conflict and is only acceptable in the case of unseating an oppressive tyrant (Asani 2002). Suicide bombing, despite popular western belief, is not sanctioned within the precepts of the external jihad. Murder and suicide are both sins in Islam. Nowhere does it state that intentionally killing yourself will send you to heaven. It is stated that death in the line of fighting for Islam will earn you great esteem and glory in the afterlife. Actions such as suicide bombing are actually earmarks of a population that is at the last desperate stage of being trampled. When you have no weapons but your bodies, then what else are you supposed to do? Actions such as suicide bombings are predictable end results of an oppressed society, not the by product of an inherently violent ideology.
There is an explanation for why the ideology of the jihad is so attractive to Muslims in countries with strong Anti-American standpoints and elsewhere. Most Muslim countries were once occupied territories. Many of them were colonized by European countries from the mid 18th century until the end of the First World War. Even after the end of colonialization, the Western powers had started to industrialize and began to export their culture of consumption. The tyrant that these groups oppose is the tyrant of a rampant consumer culture that removes people from relationships with each other or their faith and attempts to replace it with relationships to objects, products, brand names and companies. (Kilbourne2000) They are fighting to prevent the homogenization of their culture into a larger global culture.
Westerners see the level and techniques of violence perpetrated by Muslims as needlessly high and, dare I say, savage. Thus misconception is spawned from two different conditions of the western lifestyle and educations systems. The first is that most majority populations in the west have not been so oppressed as to understand the feeling of having no recourse but horrendous violence. The other failing is in the educational system of the west. In the west, there is a tendency to categorize violence that is committed by those who are enemies as theological, having no historical or political motive. I believe it is an attempt to ethnocentrically paint the west as the only true good way to be. A good example would be the Nazi movement. The Nazis are automatically portrayed as evil, their actions being driven by some shapeless concept that is antithetical to all that is good. It is ignored that the ground in Germany was fertile for the fascism of the Nazi movement because of the economic condition of the country, which was a direct result pf the exclusion of Germany from the League of Nations, which led to the imposition of reparations on the already stretched thin economy of Germany post-World War One.
In the same way that the Nazis are painted as being evil for evils sake, Muslims are painted as being overly violent and reactionary. Because of the lack of historical perspective and frame work, it is ignored that the Muslim religion has been under attack since its inception. First there is the original attack against Muslims by the Meccans, then the schism between the Sunnis and the Shiites, the oppression of the Arab Muslim world by the Ottoman Turks and then the colonies imposed by Europe, and once the European colonies were gone, there were the proxy wars of the Cold War, and now that there is no obligatory enemy for the West to compare itself to in order to prove its superiority, Islam has become the new enemy.(Halliday110) The war if capitalism against communism has been won, so now it’s the war of secularism versus religiosity.
The relationship of Islam to violent action is the same as most other major religions. Christianity also has a history of violence that was rationalized using the Scripture. It must be remembered that while Christianity was and still is used as justification for violence, it was never the source of Violence. This is true of Islam as well. To Westerners, it is unfamiliar ground, a non-secular world, so it is ignored that the violent actions that occur in the Middle East are reactions to current and past social and political situations. If that was admitted, it would have to come to light that maybe, just maybe, our own political system, which we espouse as the greatest in the world, may not be as wonderful as we claim. We may have to look and truly see the effects of attempting to create a homogenized, global economy that tramples local cultures. We would need to engage in self reflection, and the mirror is a very scary place.