Why the Way We Approach Islam Needs Reform

Conversations about Islam are everywhere. Although many have their virtues, a lot of these discussions are also glaringly problematic. Reasons for this include the way most discussions on Islam paint Muslims as a monolith. Perhaps ironically, this monolith differs depending on the purposes of the speaker and depending on which Muslim group is deemed worthy of the most attention at any particular time. Nowadays, the group that most often dominates conversations about Muslims and Islam is ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the monolithic presentations of Islam often vary between 1) all Muslims are violent and barbaric like ISIS, or 2) no real Muslim condones ISIS’ practices.

One of the loudest voices behind the first campaign is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who maintains that practicing Muslims are either looking to violently implement the same order Muhammad (PBUH) implemented over a millennium ago or that they are willfully ignorant of the inherently violent nature of Islam. These Muslims are labelled by Hirsi Ali as “Medina Muslims” and “Mecca Muslims,” depending on which phase of the Prophet’s life she thinks they are looking to emulate. For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, this difference is the factor that determined whether a Muslim will attempt to violently implement Islamic rulings, with “Medina Muslims” being the group more inclined towards violence. Further details on the basis of this classification can be found in the article linked above.

Hirsi Ali’s idea about how the only difference between Muslims is how far they are willing to implement the teachings of Islam relies on the existence of a(n inherently violent) universal form of Islam that is agreed upon by all Muslims, with the only difference being the extent to which each Muslim is willing to practice it. This is not the case. As well as the more obvious differences between Muslims who adhere to differing schools of thought, there are subtle differences in each individual Muslim’s religious views and no two individual Muslims will have exactly the same experience of Islam. Therefore, any thesis that relies on the existence of a universally accepted form of Islam has no basis in reality. Differences between Muslims include differences in ideology, a fact Hirsi Ali either intentionally omitted or is simply unaware of.

As someone who is in a position where their identity as an ex-Muslim allows them to garner more attention for their views on Islam than those who are Muslim, Hirsi Ali has certain responsibilities. In my view, these responsibilities include being educated on the history she tries to use to demonize 1.5 billion people – a responsibility she has failed to fulfill. For instance, the tenuous link Hirsi Ali makes between her (somewhat oversimplified) categorization of Muslims and the life of the Prophet betrays a fundamental lack of knowledge of Islamic history. I would suggest that anyone who is looking to publish diatribes against Prophet Muhammad do their research, lest their ignorance become immortalized in the Wall Street Journal for eternity. Despite the fact that the careers of activists such Ayaan Hirsi Ali rely on the spreading of inaccurate ideas that are directly harmful to Muslims, I hope they will take the steps necessary to challenge their own misconceptions about Islam and Islamic history and that they will at least attempt to do their chosen topics of discussion justice.

The likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali are not the only ones guilty of treating Islam like a homogenous and unchanging entity. However, whereas such characters use a monolithic presentation of Islam to vilify its adherents, others employ a similar line of thinking in order to defend Islam. Muslims, for example, when forced into a defensive position, can often be seen insisting that ISIS’ actions have no basis in Islam whatsoever.

I do not in any way intend to paint those defending Islam in the same light as those attacking Islam, and neither do I claim that the implications of their actions are the same. In fact, one is, to an extent, a response to the other as Muslims today are often put in a position where we are forced to defend our views and there is a temptation to do this by distancing ourselves from groups such as ISIS by insisting they are not Muslim at all.

However, as with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s thesis, this idea is removed from reality. The reality is that Islamic scholarship that justifies the actions of ISIS exists, and we have to stop limiting our understanding of Islam to what fits our personal beliefs as this is an unfair representation of Islam.

Not only this, but in refusing to be acknowledge beliefs and practices that differ from our own, we disregard other people’s values. In ISIS’ case, discounting their values isn’t a massive issue in itself for me personally, but, sadly, this does not stop at discussions of ISIS’ Islam.

Often, the harmless practices of a group, practices that have nothing to do with anyone outside that group, evoke backlash where it’s entirely unwarranted and these practices are declared unislamic by self-appointed Shariah police. But to declare something un-Islamic simply because it does not fit your idea of what Islam is or isn’t is to impose your values on someone else. I see this kind of imposition relatively often, especially when the person responsible for a perceived transgression is a woman.

We saw this very recently, when a Muslim woman married a non-Muslim man in an Islamic ceremony and was met with outcry by people who failed to realize that, not only is this none of their concern, but Islamic law allows for differences in opinion in jurisprudential matters. We should really do the same, rather than jumping to condemn the actions of someone we don’t even know beyond an article we happened to cross on Facebook.

Discussion of Islam must also acknowledge of the fact that not everyone’s experience of Islam is positive. We must extend our compassion to those who have had negative experiences with Islam and offer them support, not dismiss their experiences as un-Islamic and therefore none of our concern. In order to understand their experiences, we must look at the climate that allowed for them to be hurt in the name of Islam and we must also be honest about how Islam is sometimes used to further questionable agendas. This is, in part, a question of understanding how each Muslim community’s practices are influenced by its circumstances.

Limiting our discussion to whether or not those who practice Islam in a way that hurts others are Muslim or not is often a self-serving exercise that doesn’t do much outside of pandering to the sensibilities of the liberals who nod approvingly at Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s calls for reform of Islam through a coalition between ex-Muslim “dissidents” and the West, while posturing as our allies against Islamophobia and racism. Declaring them to be non-Muslims isn’t an answer to anything.

Misconceptions about Islam are not the root cause of the continued marginalization faced by Muslims today. However, re-education for both Muslims and non-Muslims is necessary if we sincerely want to discuss Islam fairly and if we want a thorough understanding of this religion. Just as we are willing to look at how, say, liberal feminist ideology formed in order to understand why it exists in the form it does today, we must analyze how varying Islamic ideologies developed if we are to understand the people who adhere to them. We must stop treating Islam as a cocooned, unstirred entity and acknowledge that it exists in many forms – none of which are free from the influences of our own experiences and biases. We must also take responsibility for our words and approach such discussions sincerely aiming for honesty and transparency as it is hard to have an honest discussion when Muslim narratives are so easily co-opted by those who have a vested interest in portraying Islam negatively.

Written By Mahnoor Javed 

Image from The Feminist Wire