Islam and violence: how not to answer a question

Islam and Muslims are not just one thing. It is high time to make some distinctions.
Zac Alstin | 30 January 2015
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Sydney Muslims pray at the site of an individual extremist attack last December.

 

Creating analogies to demonstrate the stupidity of a popular opinion is hard work; pretending to be stupid is quite unlike actually being stupid.

When it comes to Islam, many of us in the West are not pretending to be stupid, we’ve simply embraced stupidity as the path of least resistance.

It would be a little bit stupid, for example, if a Briton and an Australian decided to go to a football match together without realising that “football” means two (or more) different things to the two different nations.

It would be very stupid if, having encountered the misunderstanding, they nonetheless refused to use terminology that might distinguish between the different sports.   

Yet this is the very stupid situation we find ourselves in when it comes to the public understanding of Islam in the West, and in particular the relationship between Islam and terrorism. It is as though the community was divided on the question of whether or not it was within the rules to pick up the ball during a game of football, oblivious to the fact that the different sports called “football” each have different rules and different positions on holding the ball.

The recent siege in Sydney has only added to the continuing debate over Islam and terrorism, with some people seemingly convinced that Islam is Arabic for “violence”, while others evidently believe that any correlation of Islam and violence is strictly in the eye of the beholder.

Even people who understand in theory the pitfalls of generalisations seem in practice unable to get past the apparent homogeneity of the words Islam and Muslim. We all have access to the same facts: firstly, the existence of violent Islamic terrorist and military organisations, and acts of violence committed by groups and individuals in the name of Islam; secondly, the pacificity and sheer normalcy of the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world.

Due to our own ignorance and linguistic limitations we are all but forced to resolve these conflicting facts one way or the other: emphasising either the violence or the peace at the expense of the full story. It is not enough to say that some Muslims are violent while others are peaceful, because those who are violent overtly implicate Islam in their violence, while those who are peaceful predominantly defend it as such. Either way, it is not merely a question of prevalence but of principle. We can say that some people are fat and some people are thin, but we cannot say in principle whether people generally are fat or thin absolutely.

We can say some Muslims are violent and most are not; but of Islam itself we cannot say convincingly and absolutely one way or the other. Those who say Islam is inherently violent are left with the unconvincing claim that the overwhelming majority of Muslims must be practicing their faith incorrectly.  

Those who claim that Islam is inherently peaceful are left in the equally difficult position of having to explain the strong correlation between terrorism and Islam, if not the inverse. More important than the correlation is the in-principle association made by terrorists themselves; an association that is difficult for non-Muslim Westerners to refute.

So the public debate remains discomforting, with the community pulled back and forth between the two extremes: a religion of peace, or a terrorist ideology. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and family where it is clear that the general unease over Islam demands resolution one way or the other. Yet, like the question over picking up the ball in a game of football, such a resolution would be false.

The reality is that we do not need any such resolution. If only we took the time and the effort to get past our basic ignorance, we would find that the term ‘Islam’ does not refer to a single homogenous thing. ‘Islam’ refers to more than one thing, and our consternation and confusion arises from continuing to debate the matter without settling on a true definition.

A true definition requires that the thing defined and the definition offered are extensionally equivalent:

X =df ABC only if every instance of X has characteristics ABC, and everything that has characteristics ABC is an instance of X.

In effect, we are trying to decide whether to add “intrinsically violent” to our complete definition of “Islam”, and the problem we run into is that not every instance of Islam has the characteristics of violence.

This ought to be enough to get us thinking about how to distinguish between these apparent sub-categories of Islam: violent and non-violent. Yet for some reason as a community we have failed to proceed in this direction despite having had more than 13 years of Islamic terrorism as a prominent feature on the Western geo-political landscape.

General ignorance is partly to blame, but perhaps it is just easier for us in countries like Australia to group this strange and difficult religious minority together under a single banner and treat them as a homogenous mass? It’s as though we simply can’t be bothered learning more about a group that raises such difficulties for us. We’d prefer to grapple inadequately with a false dichotomy than to learn enough to distinguish between different sub-categories of Islam.

It is, in fact, surprisingly easy to determine that the majority of Islamic terrorism appears to be associated with a branch of Islam known as “Salafi Jihadism”, where Salafism is a large literalist and traditionalist movement within Sunni Islam, and Jihadism a further, violent permutation. It was initially surprising to hear, for example, that the perpetrator of the Sydney siege was Iranian, since Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shia. However, it has since emerged that the perpetrator “converted” to Sunni Islam shortly before the siege and pledged allegiance to the head of the Salafi Jihadist Islamic State. I gather that’s a little like a Roman Catholic ‘converting’ to a break-away Adventist group and calling the Pope the Antichrist. Yet as bizarre as the conversion (and the perpetrator himself) may be, the logic of his last-minute realignment with the Salafi Jihadist movement reaffirms the need to make distinctions within Islam.

Once we inject some informed distinctions into the debate, the bitter and fractious wrangling over Islam all but disappears. Instead of asking eternal empty questions about Islam and violence, we can ask informed questions with actual answers. Is Salafi Jihadism inherently violent? Yes. Are all Muslims Salafi Jihadists? No. Is it possible for a non-Salafi Jihadist Muslim or a non-Muslim to convert to Salafi Jihadism? Yes. Once we understand that Salafi Jihadism is a distinct, coherent violent religious and political ideology, we can dispense with the tired game of trying to reconcile terrorism with Islam in toto.

To address the question of Islam and violence without even attempting to understand these important distinctions between branches and sub-categories of Islam is pointless and ignorant. Yet this ignorance is continually strengthened by both sides of the Islam and violence debate, with even the well-intentioned “religion of peace” assertion failing to resolve the conflict. Like the old loaded question “have you stopped beating your wife: yes or no?”, continuing to focus on the relationship between violence and Islam without closer scrutiny will get us nowhere. The more we buy into this false dichotomy of Islam as either a religion of peace or a religion of violence, the more embittered and dissonant the debate will become.

Zac Alstin if a freelance writer living in Adelaide, Australia.

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