Photo: AFP – Joseph Eid
By Conor Lynch
Every once in a while we experience a brutal attack in the Western world by Islamic extremists, like last week’s assault on Charlie Hebdo for publishing provocative cartoons of Muhammad. Islamic terrorist attacks are rare in the West, especially compared to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but they always provoke a debate over whether the religion of Islam, itself, bears some responsibility for the attackers’ actions.
Many people immediately defend the religion of Islam and say that violent extremists are a very small minority of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world and that Islam is a religion of peace. “We cannot generalize and blame all Muslims or the religion itself,” they say, and, “the great majority of Muslims condemn terrorism.” While it would be wrongheaded to regard the Islamic world at large as inherently violent, it would be simply wrong to regard it as all peaceful, too.
It is true that most Muslims do condemn extremist violence, though not as small a minority as might be hoped. According to a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, a majority believes that suicide bombing is rarely/never justified. But in certain countries, disturbingly healthy minorities believe it is often/sometimes justified. For example, 39% in Afghanistan, 26% percent in Bangladesh, 29% in Egypt, 40% in Palestinian territory, 18% in Malaysia, and 13% in Pakistan feel that suicide bombings are justifiable.
To be sure, most of these countries are geopolitical hot spots, and terrorism clearly can be motivated by politics at least as much as by religion — although suicide attacks are somewhat peculiar to Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic terror organizations have been responsible for more than 85% percent of suicide bombings since the 1980s, according to the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think-tank. There is certainly a large political role at play in these attacks, especially as a radical reaction to the very real imperialism these countries have suffered, but it would be naive to say that the doctrines of Islam have had nothing to do with it.
Politics and Islam go hand in hand in some parts of the Muslim world. In much of the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia a majority of people, according to a 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, favor making Sharia (Islamic law) the official law in their country. 99% in Afghanistan, 91% in Iraq, 89% in Palestinian territories, 84% in Pakistan, and 82% percent in Bangladesh, etc. In other predominantly Muslim regions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, however, only minorities favor Sharia. For example, 12% in Albania, 27% in Tajikistan, 8% in Azerbaijan, and 15% in Bosnia. This signifies that these beliefs also have much to do with culture.
In the regions where only minorities believe in Sharia (Eastern Europe, Central Asia), few of the people who do believe in it actually condone draconian punishments that it prescribes, such as stoning an adulterer or executing an apostate. On the other hand, in many Muslim regions where the majorities believe in Sharia (Middle East, North Africa, South Asia), majorities also believe in severe corporal punishments.
For other draconian punishments it once again depends greatly on region. For example, 86% who believe in Sharia in Egypt favor the death penalty for converts, but only 8% in Albania.
So, a startlingly high percentage of people in some parts of the Muslim world hold many aspects of their religious texts literal and believe society should be governed by these doctrines. Christian and Jewish religious books have pages upon pages of barbarity (especially the Old Testament) but the overwhelming majority of Christians and Jews have stopped taking these books as the law of the land, or at least secular societies have prevented them from doing so.
Sadly, however, 28% of Americans still believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, according to a June 2014 Gallup poll. This brings me to the threat of terrorism in the homeland, good ole USA. We also have a history of vile acts committed in the name of another prophet, Jesus Christ. The Ku Klux Klan and attacks on abortion clinics and medical professionals are not ancient history. Religious terrorism is in no way just an Islamic problem, as certain right-wing conservatives might have you believe in this country.
Both Christianity and Islam have the potential to produce disgusting and violent acts through extremism. The problem is that the Islamic world seems to have more of these “extremist” type views. Some may not consider killing apostates or stoning adulterers to death “extremist,” but they should. These may not be terrorist acts, but they are barbaric and uncivilized, and many in the Muslim world believe in them. Extremists who take Islamic doctrines literally believe they are following the example of the prophet Muhammad, who waged violent wars to spread Islam.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre is only the latest example of how extremists have tried to use violence to silence or punish artists and journalists for drawings or books or films. Salman Rushdie, whose book, “The Satanic Verses,” earned him death threats and a death fatwa from the Iranian clergy for years, said: “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. … This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.”
True liberals should not avoid criticizing Muslim voices that promote modern barbarity. Not every Muslim holds extremist or Islamist beliefs, but enough do that we must criticize those that endorse violence and reactionary, fundamentalist doctrines severely. If we choose to sit back and say that Islam only has a problem with a small minority, the real reformers in these societies who risk their lives for liberty will no doubt fail. We must support liberty, even if it offends ones sacred beliefs.
Conor Lynch is a writer living in New York City. He regularly blogs on Daily Kos about politics, economics, religion and science. He can be reached and read at firstname.lastname@example.org, https://twitter.com/dilgentbureauct and http://www.dailykos.com/user/diligentbureaucrat.