It is at times like this that social media shows itself at both its best and its worst. The outpourings of support and the torrents of bigotry in the aftermath of the horrendous events in Paris, have been heartening and sickening in equal measure. Many people have put political point-scoring aside to unite in an affecting show of humanity. On Twitter however, particularly from accounts emitting the stale whiff of American conservatism, the tidal wave of Islamophobic abuse has been just as undignified and abhorrent as one might have feared. I await with bated breath the inevitable suggestion from some far-right Neanderthal that we need to #InvadeIran.
I am particularly horrified by the efforts of some right-wing European commentators to leave the blame at the door of Syrian refugees. Dan Holloway put it far better than I ever could when he tweeted: ‘do you not realise these are the people the refugees are trying to run away from?’ To try and pin the actions of these murderous few on the most vulnerable and oppressed of society is close to unforgivable.
In an effort to oppose this Islamophobia, there is one phrase that keeps on popping up: ‘Islam is a religion of peace’. Well, no it isn’t. Nor, I hasten to add, is it a religion of violence. It is, as with all religions, a matter of interpretation.
Whether it be the Qur’an, Torah or Bible, the vast majority of religious scripture is a) vague, b) archaic, and c) notoriously self-contradictory. As such, it is open to interpretation in a number of ways: first, one decides what the text actually means; second, one decides what it means in the context of today; and third, one decides which bits of the text one chooses to follow. Indeed, every argument over the nature of Islam degenerates in exactly the same way: passages of scripture are flung back and forth across the debating table with increasing force, until finally somebody ragequits. The basic formula is one that every wannabe theologian has used at some point: Muhammad said this, the hadith said that, so I am right and you are wrong. This is an exceedingly pointless exercise: the Qur’an contains the line ‘and Allah likes not the transgressors…kill them wherever you may find them’ whilst also asserting that ‘he who kills a man, it is as if he killed all of mankind’. There are literally thousands of examples, and if a jihadist desires to justify his wanton slaughter it is undeniable that the tools are there for him to do so. He just has to use the right ones.
And so, as with the vast majority of religions, it is impossible to claim that Islam ‘is’ any one thing. Peaceful, violent, feminist, misogynist, racist, all-inclusive, homophobic, tolerant; all these qualities rest in the eye of beholder, and it is difficult to say that any given interpretation is objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Sadly, the phrase ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ is no more than a comforting label, a reactive platitude trotted out again and again on social media to virtue signal our inclusivity. It’s well-intentioned but fundamentally it doesn’t mean anything.
So, does this really matter? I could spend hours of my day commenting on every well-meaning status I could find, pointing out that religion is a ‘relative concept’ and annoying and offending everybody by focussing on semantics at a time of very real trauma. It may not matter today, when the important thing is to stand together in the face of terrorist atrocity, but when the dust settles this issue will have to be addressed.
If we completely refuse to properly examine Islamic extremism though a religious lens, then we lose any understanding of what could drive people to commit such horrific atrocities in the first place. Socio-economic factors, cultural marginalisation and Western political interventions have all played important roles in the recent rise in radicalisation, but they can only be fully understood within the framework of a religious context that goes back decades. When Sayyid Qutb wrote his inflammatory treatise Milestones – ‘the fire that set alight the hearts of a thousand Islamists’ – he did so using scriptural quotations and deeply complex religious theory. Equally, when Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ before opening fire on British tourists in Tunisia, it is fair assume that he meant what he said. In both word and deed there is a strong theological element in the Islamist narrative which plays a crucial role in its recruitment strategies. To fight the slowly encroaching pestilence of radicalisation we must understand its motivations, so to treat jihadists simply as lunatics and monsters who operate outside the logical parameters of religious theory is counter-productive. We can tell the young radicals of IS that their behaviour is irreligious, but they will simply disagree with us and keep shooting.
I am not trying to single out Islam by saying that some elements need reform: there are Orthodox Jews in West London who forbid women from driving; there are fundamentalist Christians in America who believe homosexuality is a sin; there are Hindu nationalists in India who demonise Muslims and reinforce the caste system. And it is futile to argue that these flaws have nothing to do with religious belief. When the Crusades sent 60,000 soldiers sweeping across Europe to wage bloody war in the ‘Holy Land’, at the express orders of the Pope, it probably had something to do with Christianity. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go round to the house of my Catholic neighbour, shoot him with a crossbow, and say ‘that was for Jerusalem’.
Does Islam have a problem? Obviously. Is Islam a problem? Obviously not. But until we are brave enough to draw a distinction between these two statements, the ideological battle against militant Islamism will be lost. Ill-informed generalisations such as ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘terrorism has no religion’ are principled and well-intended, but counter-productive.