How to Talk About Islam

There is no doubt that Islam is by far the most powerful religion in the world today. With a presence on almost every continent inhabited by man, a powerful theocratic political influence in countries dominated by its adherents, a rapidly increasing immigrant population in post-Christian European countries, an ever-strengthening missionary influence, and a global following of more than a billion people, it has come to influence much of the modern world. In 2008, the Vatican revealed that Muslims have overtaken Catholics as far as the number of members is concerned.

As such, it is no longer possible for people to simply ignore the Islamic phenomenon, no matter what their opinion of it might be. The reason is that Islam is quite unavoidable. There is hardly a place on earth when the adhan cannot be heard. There is a hardly a skyline which does not have a minaret reaching up to the heavens. No matter where you go, Islam is there.

As a convert from Hinduism to orthodox Catholicism, there is much in Islam that I admire, despite the deeply troubled history that my Church has shared with the followers of Muhammad. I deeply admire, for instance, Islam’s teachings on modesty. I am appreciative of many of the values which Islam inculcates in its adherents – the devotion to one’s parents and the respect for elders. Catholicism and Islam both profess to be monotheistic and eschew the joining of partners with Almighty God, although our views about the nature of Almighty God are radically different. And it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, hatred, and bigotry towards Muslims on the basis of their religious affiliation as unethical, immoral and – above all – un-Christian.

However, there are also elements in Islam that I find deeply troubling. Now, notice that I use the word “elements in Islam”, rather than simply “Islam”. After all, there are many different groups that profess to be Muslim and which have different interpretations of Islam. For instance, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is entirely pacifistic in nature and condemns any and all forms of religious terrorism. There are also many Sufis, Salafis, and mainstream Sunnis who have condemned violence against non-Muslims and advocate a more apolitical form of Islam.

I acknowledge and respect the fact that the texts which seem to call for violence – in the Quran and the Hadith – are open to interpretation. As such, it is not my intention to paint all Muslims with a broad brush, or to pretend that Islam is monolithic. Just as it would be disingenuous for someone to paint my faith or any other faith with gross overgeneralizations, so would be to do the same with Islam. However, there are certainly some trends in the modern media that are problematic and need to be addressed.

There is a tendency (among many secularists, liberals and the left-leaning) to classify all critics of Islam as part of the far-right. This is not only inaccurate, but also extremely dangerous, and contrary to the principle of the freedom of expression. The act of criticising a particular ideology/proposition/belief system is not the same as advocating violence, hatred, discrimination or bigotry against proponents of that ideology/proposition/belief system

Yes, it is true that all those who advocate violence against proponents of a particular ideology/proposition/belief system also happen to be critics of that particular ideology/proposition/belief system. But not all who criticise the ideology/proposition/belief system are calling for violence against proponents of that ideology/proposition/belief system.

To give an example from everyday life: all oranges are fruits, but not all fruits are oranges.

Oranges might be bad, and all oranges might be fruits, but the fact that all oranges are bad does not imply that all fruits are bad, even though all oranges are fruits. This is because of the very simple fact that there are some fruits which are not oranges. In other words, all anti-Muslim bigots are critics of Islam, but not all critics of Islam are anti-Muslim bigots.

Consider, for example, the case of David Wood, a convert from atheism to Christianity. Wood is a fairly prominent critic of Islam. He has criticised the teachings of Islam as inherently violent, the founder of Islam as an immoral man, and the claims of Islam as intellectually deficient. However, I am yet to come across a single video in which he has called for hatred against Muslims. On the contrary, I follow him regularly and can testify that, as far as I can see, he has nothing in his heart but love for Muslims, whom he believes to be in error. This he has demonstrated on numerous occasions in many ways. One of the best examples I can give is when he actually attempted to meet with someone who had threatened to kill him. He recorded the occasion on camera when he visited the agreed-upon venue and found that his would-be assassin hadn’t turned up.

As a professed Christian evangelist, Wood’s goal is not to spread bigotry against Muslims, but to show Muslims (what he considers to be) the defects in Islam, and to invite them to (what he believes to be) a better way: Christianity.

But what has been the response to his criticism? Intelligent, counter-critiques from Muslims? On occasion, yes, as we see in the case of the Islamic scholar (and gentleman) Shabir Ally who has debated him on numerous occasions and who has always treated him with dignity, respect, and goodwill. However, much of the backlash against his work has been neither intelligent, nor reasoned, nor humane. Much of the responses to his criticism include death threats and the mockery of his disabled children.

Of course, not every Muslim has responded in this manner. Of course, there are many Muslims who would consider such barbaric behaviour to be un-Islamic. Of course, such aforementioned peaceful Muslims may (and probably do) have peaceful interpretations of Islam. But what we must realise is that there is a powerful party within the religion of Islam which is violent, intolerant of criticism, aggressively imperialist and which bases their beliefs not on political convictions but on religiously motivated interpretations of Quranic and Hadithic texts. And it is these hyper-fundamentalists who are making use of the atmosphere of ‘tolerance’ and political correctness to advance an agenda that is diabolical and toxic. Attempts to suppress peaceful, intelligent critics of Islam is not ‘tolerance’. It is intolerance. And such attempts play right into the hands of the Islamists.

The interesting thing that we see in the case of Wood is that a number of these internet jihadis have started false-flagging his content. The shocking result has been that Facebook has notified him that some of his posts “go against” their community guidelines. These include posts in which Wood simply informed his audiences of the most recent threats he had gotten from jihadis! Not a single one of them included a call to violence, but only an appeal to keep-up the criticism and satire.

It seems, at times, that the people running Facebook have an extremely warped idea of what hate speech is. Criticising an ideology as intellectually and morally deficient is not hate speech, but threatening someone for making those criticisms certainly is. Indeed, as I have been at pains to emphasise: we have to love our Muslim friends, condemn acts of violence against Muslims and fight anti-Muslim discrimination. But that doesn’t mean we must be naïve and pretend that Islam is a wholly pacifistic religion and that all the IS terrorists are merely politically-motivated people using religion as a cover to gain support for their cause. Such an analysis is not only painfully ignorant of the facts, but is also dangerous since it encourages complacency against what is clearly a rising tide of religiously-motivated Islamic fundamentalism in the world today.

Should we similarly pretend that the founder of Islam was a feminist and a pacifist? No. If the historical evidence does not indicate that he was such, we should not pretend that he was such. We should portray him in as historically accurate a manner as possible – even if that portrayal is deemed offensive and blasphemous by violent cyber-jihadists who have only one goal: the violent promulgation of a religious system and the suppression of all criticism of it.

There are many peaceful, kind, gentlemanly and dignified people in the Muslim community who would consider themselves orthodox and who would, in fact, agree with what I am saying today. Yet, that still begs the question: how should we talk about Islam? We should seek to honestly evaluate the religion itself. But how should we judge what the religion is? There are peaceful Muslims and violent Muslims, just as there are peaceful Christians and violent Christians. Which are the true followers, and which are more influenced by other ideologies rather than the doctrine itself?

In my experience (having extensively and intensively studied religion for around ten years now), we should always judge a religion on the basis of its Sources and its Heroes.

What do I mean by this?

The Sources of a religion are essentially its authorities and/or sources of doctrine. In Protestant Christianity, the Source is Scripture alone, and its plain perspicuous teaching. In Catholic Christianity, the source is Scripture and Apostolic Tradition as received and interpreted by the Magisterium (i.e., the Church itself).

The Heroes of a religion are those figures which have been deemed by the Sources/Authorities as having followed the religion well (though not necessarily perfectly, and there are different grades of heroes in every religion). The ultimate Hero of all Christianity is Jesus Himself, who is believed to be the perfect man. In Catholicism, the heroes are (to a certain degree) the saints. Although it is generally agreed that the canonisation process only grants us certainty that the deceased is in heaven, not that the person always lived an exemplary life. This gives room for the believing Catholic to criticise even the acts of saints, as many traditionalists have done with St. Mother Teresa, to give an example.

In Islam, the greatest hero is Muhammad himself, who is considered to be the perfect example for all mankind. In Sunni Islam, Muhammad is closely followed by the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, whereas in Shia Islam, Muhammad is but one of Fourteen Infallibles, which include – besides the founder himself – Fatima and the Twelve Imams.

So, when we judge Islam, we should first distinguish between the various schools of Islam. Sunni Islam is not the same as Shia Islam or Ibadi Islam or Ahmadi Islam. There are, so to speak, quite a few ‘Islams’, just as there are different interpretations of Marxism, democracy, libertarianism, capitalism, feminism and just about everything else. In other words, the next time you see some act of violence perpetrated by fundamentalists of any religion or sect, ask yourself the question: is this act of violence commanded by the Sources of the faith in question? Is there any precedent for this sort of terror in the behaviour of its heroes?

You should ask the same question when it comes to the good actions of peaceful adherents. When you see followers of a religion endorsing pacifism or separation of religion and state, are they acting faithfully according to their Sources and Heroes? Or are there more influenced by other ideologies, in light of which they interpret their religion?

I end this article with a comparison between the Christian Crusades and the Islamic Mujahideen. The Crusades were an administrative decision, in part made by the Pope. Catholicism does not require its adherents to consider Papal administrative decisions as infallible – the only infallible things coming out of the Pope are his ratifications of ecumenical councils and ex-cathedra statements; that is to say, matters which solely concern doctrine and dogma.

Administrative decisions, as per Catholic ecclesiology, are entirely fallible. As a matter of fact, it is the conservatives in the Church who are very loud in criticising the administrative decisions of recent Popes, such as the decision of Pope Paul VI to allow the priest to celebrate the Mass facing the congregation (versus populum) rather than the East (ad orientem) as has traditionally been practised. So, largely, the Crusades are not part of Catholic doctrine, if at all.

I do not say this in order to “wash my hands clean” of the Crusades, so to speak. Personally, I think the Crusades had a noble intent in theory (i.e., that of defending Christendom), but I lament the fact that in practice many of the Crusaders became too extreme. Rather than simply defeating enemy military forces, they committed unspeakable atrocities upon civilians which are horrendous, lamentable and condemnable. As a traditional and orthodox Catholic, I am ashamed of the misdeeds that were perpetrated in the name of the Crusades.

But here’s the thing: my religion gives me the liberty to say this. My faith does not compel me to believe that the Crusaders were “inspired by God”.

But when you study the early Muslim invasions of neighbouring civilisations, ask yourself the question: can we say the same about Islam? Who led these invasions? Were these figures deemed by Islam to be inspired by God in their acts and to be, in some sense, infallible? Do the chief sources command its adherents to consider their acts of war as virtuous on the part of a ruler? Our judgment of Islam should be based on these facts. I will leave you to make up your own mind. It may turn out that, in fact, Islam is an extremely peaceful and humane religion. Or it may turn out another way.

I only ask you to use sound judgment in your study and to not be afraid of the truth, however hard it may turn out to be. However, in all our critique or appraisal, we must remember that our analysis of a doctrine should not seep into a generalisation of the moral character of the adherents of that doctrine. This attitude allows me to be extremely kind and respectful to my Muslim friends while, at the same time, giving me total liberty to analyse and evaluate the religion as my conscience commands me. And that is how we should talk about Islam today, condemning it where we see condemnation due, fighting for and respecting its adherents when they so require, and accepting or rejecting it for what it is when truth so demands.

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.