The Student Life recently published an article, “On the Distortion of Islam and the Muslim World,” in which the author discourages the use of the name ISIS/ISIL since this “gang of fools is neither Islamic nor a state.” Not only does the author claim that Islam is not to blame for the atrocities committed in its name, but he goes on to state that ISIS/ISIL is not an Islamic group at all, an assertion which flies in the face of reality.
ISIS started as a splinter group of al-Qaeda, one of the most infamous Islamic extremist groups in the world. The stated goal of ISIS/ISIL is to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate. The areas it controls are ruled under strict Sharia law, and it threatens the non-Muslims in those areas with death if they do not convert to Islam. Its flag features the seal of Muhammad, underneath the words “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of God” written in Arabic. Strictly speaking, ISIS/ISIL is an Islamic group since it bases everything it does off of its interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an.
Yet, the author claims that because “hundreds of Imams, leaders in the Muslim faith, have disavowed them and pleaded that they not be linked with their religion,” ISIS/ISIL is not an Islamic group. The author fails to acknowledge, however, that there are hundreds of Imams who either support or are active members of ISIS/ISIL. But even if we ignore this fact, the author’s argument here still makes no sense. He states that we should “give the word of these Imams the respect we would give Pope Francis,” but allowing these Imams to claim ISIS/ISIL isn’t Muslim is akin to letting Pope Francis claim that Catholics didn’t instigate the Spanish Inquisition. We shouldn’t allow these Imams to disassociate Islam from its more radical factions any more than we should allow the Pope to separate Catholicism from the atrocities committed in its name in the past.
The author believes that referring to ISIS/ISIL as an Islamic group gives people a bad impression of the religion as a whole. This is a valid concern, but the way to prevent it is not to be disingenuous about the religious affiliation of the group, but rather to acknowledge it while being proactive in educating people so they know that the views of ISIS/ISIL are not representative of all of Islam.
Furthermore, the author goes on to claim that, despite the common view that Islam creates hostile environments for women, LGBTQ people, and non-Muslims, it is a more of problem of culture, rather than religion. However, the idea that you can separate Islam from the culture of many countries in the Middle East is simply absurd.
There are still 10 countries in which homosexual acts are punishable by death: Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. And there are vast cultural differences between. For example, look at the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Nigeria and Qatar. The major common thread between these nations is that they all have Muslim majorities. These are not all Arab cultures, as the author tries to claim. Admittedly, if you look at the list of countries in which homosexuality is a non-capital offense, there are a number of non-Muslim countries included, but Muslim countries are still overrepresented, as countries with a Muslim majority make up about one-fourth of the world as a whole, yet over forty percent of the countries in which homosexuality is illegal. Moreover, the fact that other cultures are intolerant of homosexuality does not preclude the idea that Islam itself contributes to homophobia. To claim that these backwards views are completely independent of Islam in countries in which Islam is the predominant cultural influence is naive at best and dishonest at worst.
The record of treatment of women in communities with Muslim majorities has not been much better, from the severe curtailing of women’s rights in Iran after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to the honor killings of the Egyptian women suspected of inappropriate relations with men. Although the men responsible were later arrested, the killing is not the only one of its kind and is indicative of a culture with a backwards and repressive view of women.
Finally, the author states that “culture, not religion, dictates these norms and gender roles, which will change, if they are meant to, at their own pace and in their own time.” This is, perhaps, the most disheartening sentence in the entire article. The phrase “if they are meant to” seems to suggest that these backwards practices don’t necessarily need to change, and that they shouldn’t be open to criticism from those outside of the cultures practicing them. The author seems unconcerned by the fact that these injustices are affecting real people and destroying real lives. I’m sure that the woman being stoned to death for riding in a car with a man who wasn’t her husband is comforted by the author’s reassurance that her country will join the 21st century in its own time. I’m sure the gay couple who is in jail for daring to kiss in public would much rather have cultural change come about organically in twenty years rather than see Islam questioned. We rightfully criticize Christianity’s contribution to homophobia in the United States, so why shouldn’t we criticize Islam for doing the same in the Middle East?
All of this is not to say that Islam can singlehandedly lead someone down the path of intolerance. The fact that most of these countries have poor, relatively uneducated populations, combined with a religion whose holy book does—to a certain extent—advocate intolerance, creates a perfect storm. Although it is not the sole contributor, Islam has played a part in creating the oppressive cultures which exist in much of the Middle East and North Africa. Islam is neither the first nor the only belief system to engender intolerance, but it is the one that is in the world’s spotlight at the moment, and it is not wrong to discuss or question it.
When the majority of Egyptians, Indonesians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, and Palestinians say that they support strict Sharia law, we need to acknowledge that Islamic fundamentalism is not only more common than we might care to admit, but it is also a significant factor in enforcing extreme social conservatism in a significant portion of the world. To suggest that we shouldn’t criticize and encourage the abandonment of these backwards and oppressive cultural practices, and instead should patiently wait for the people committing honor killings and putting gay people in jail to stop doing so in their own time, is insulting to every single person in a Muslim country who suffers as a direct result of the backwards social standards fostered by Islam.
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