The threat of Islamic terrorism in the West and the current violent events in the Middle East have put Muslims and their religion at the forefront of global politics and therefore the media’s focus.
We are bombarded by images and opinions relating to Muslims and Islam on regular basis. New Zealand’s most popular blog site, Whaleoil, spews out Islamophobic views on regular basis. Other journalists, some senior, also express anti-Islamic views.
Much of the arguments put forward about Islam and Muslims are pseudo-logical; they are neither based on facts nor supported by the lived-experience of Muslims.
So what are the most popular myths about Muslims and Islam and what are the facts that we rarely hear about?
Islam is a monolithic force hostile to the West
British-American historian Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington popularized the above idea in the early 1990s and coined it as “the clash of civilizations”.
They argued that Muslims suffer from a wounded pride and Islam was a threat to the West because it was an expansionist religion prone to violence.
Notable scholars such as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said discredited the theory right from the start. Edward said famously re-named it as “The Clash of Ignorance”.
But the most concrete evidence for the dismissal of this theory is the current events in the Middle East and the infighting amongst the Sunnis and Shi’ites.
It is important to understand that religious identity is cultural-based and Islam, like other religions, is far from a monolithic force.
The Islam’s powerhouse in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is a loyal friend of the West with clearly no ambitions beyond self-preservation.
There is also absolutely no evidence of ISIS’ expansionist ambition beyond its limited regional borders.
Islamic laws of blasphemy, apostasy and stoning make Islam a uniquely barbaric religion
Although it is true that blasphemy laws are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, a 2012 Pew study by Angelina Theodorou shows that such laws can also be found in Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (31%).
Death penalties for apostasy and blasphemy are extremely rare (limited to a handful of cases world wide) and charges are often motivated by personal vendettas and political motives. It is worth noting that the Qu’ran does not explicitly prescribe the death penalty for apostasy, or promote the practice of stoning. The origin of stoning to death can be found in ancient Greece and is mentioned as acceptable punishments in both the Torah and the Old Testament of the Bible.
It is also worth remembering that in Pakistan, one of the most extreme Islamist countries, it was the British colonizers that first introduced penalties for blasphemy for political reasons; much the same way that Americans encouraged the creation of Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of contemporary Jihadism in Afghanistan in order to combat the Soviet’s influence in the late 1970s.
In Muslim majority countries, the greatest danger is dissent from religious orthodoxies
Look at how many women in Iran, in complete defiance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, are posting their photos, without the compulsory hijab, on the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom”.
That is dissent from religious orthodoxies but the oppressive Iranian regime, although deeply annoyed, has not prosecuted the offenders because it is the political, not religious, dissent that threatens the Iranian regime the most.
In fact, reinforcement of religious rules, which occur in some, not all Muslim majority countries, are generally not motivated by theology but by the need for political control and preservation of power.
Dr. John Wall, a Kiwi Associate Professor of English Literature at the American University of Afghanistan with extensive experience of working and living in the Middle East says: “ So much of the Western media goes to great lengths to totally obscure the political dimension of what is going on in the Middle East, preferring to focus on “rage”, “insane violence”, “religion” and so on rather than the internal politics of individual countries and their fight against regional dictatorships and international imperialism”
Surveys show that Muslims in the West hold fundamentalist views
There seems to be an increasing demand for surveying Muslims in Western Europe, especially in Britain after the London bombings of 2005.
British Columnist Rod Liddle ,in an article for The Spectator, reminds his readers that “68 per cent of our Islamic community believe that blasphemers should be punished somehow”
In 2012, a comprehensive study of such surveys was published in the Journal of Muslims in Europe by B. Johansen and R. Spielhaus. The article was titled “Counting Deviance: Revisiting a Decade’s Production of Surveys among Muslims in Western Europe”.
The study shows a clear problem with the sampling methodology in Europe which tends to make certain types of Muslims statistically invisible.
Such Muslims inlcude those without immigration backgrounds, or national backgrounds other than Muslim majority countries.
Crucially, Johansen and Spielhaus’ study do not mention the exclusion of those who increasingly choose not to self-identify as Muslims because they fear discrimination arising from preconcieved ideas. I know many Iranian Muslims who fall into this category.
So if you excluded members of a group that are least likely to be extremists and surveyed the rest, would it be surprising to find that a “disturbing proportion” of them hold extremists views?
There is no denying that Muslim extremists exist everywhere but so do Jewish and Christian extremists whose views on bombing of abortion clinics, for instance, will be equally as shocking as views of Muslim extremists on apostasy.
To find out more about “us and them” surveys of Muslims, read Suzanne Moore’s comment published in the Guardian “Why are we questioning the loyalty of British Muslims? We never ask anyone else”
Muslims are failing to speak out against extremism
The reason that Muslims are the majority victims of extremism is because they are the ones that are most involved with fighting it. Muslims, not only lose their lives fighting extremism within their own societies, they are also victims of Western military extremism. Many Westerners accept this as collateral damage, a euphemism for mass murder.
Islam needs reformation
Reza Aslan, a Harvard educated scholar of religious studies and an eminent American Muslim, argues that reformation of Islam has been happening for 100 years and the emergence of ISIS and Alqaeda is part of that reformation which is ultimately about gaining authority to define Islam.
“Reformation is not good or bad, positive or negative; it just is. So the individual who is going to the Quran on his or her own and coming up with these innovative interpretations that promote peace and feminism and tolerance and democracy is a reformer. But so is the individual who goes to the same source and comes up with an individual interpretation that promotes violence, bigotry and terror. They are both reformers because they are both seizing for themselves the authority that has been vested in the hands of the ulema for fourteen centuries to define Islam”.
It maybe the case that the reformist voices of Al’Qaeda and ISIS are the loudest but the lived experiences of the majority of 1.6 billion Muslims proves that peaceful reformists are the majority.
Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab are more likely to hold extremist views
This is a bigoted attitude that breeds intolerance and provokes attacks.
I can, from my own unpleasant personal experiences in Iran, attest that there are many hijab-wearing Muslim women that hold extremist views but the assumption that hijab and extremism are inevitably inter-linked is based on prejudice, not facts.
A selection of opinions shared by hijab-wearing Muslims was reported in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. Reading through the comments, it is clear that Muslim women choose to wear the hijab for a variety of reasons ranging from ‘being part of the Muslim identity” to “ a beautiful religious fashion statement”
Many Muslim women, including this author, chose not to wear the hijab but fully respect the choice of others to wear it.