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10 Uncomfortable Truths About Radical Islam

Child with knife
Palestinian propaganda (Photo: social media)

Why has the radical Islam debate dragged on for almost 20 years with seeming no end in sight? Maybe it’s because so many people (especially politicians) are ignoring these 30 truths.

Let’s start.

  1. Radical Islam or Islamism, the political ideology which seeks to impose itself onto others and implement sharia (Islamic law) as state law, is directly inspired by specific interpretations of the religion of Islam. This is agreed upon by some of the world’s leading Islamic scholars including Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of Nadhlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization with an estimated 50 million members.
  2. Those interpretations of Islam are not fringe or recent, but based on an authoritative body of commentary dating back hundreds of years. Historically these have mandated and implemented the death penalty for apostates, gay people, blasphemers and adulterers and the systemic subjugation and humiliation of non-Muslim groups in multiple legal systems based on traditional sharia as state law.
  3. Although exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, polls indicate that millions of Muslims around the world support these ideas and political organizations that work to see them implemented. In a PEW research an average of 53% of the Muslim populations in the countries surveyed (not including Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and China that were not part of the survey) supported implementing sharia as the law of the land, equating to roughly 469 million people.
  4. Sharia does not mean the same thing to all people. It literally means a “path to water” and refers to the perfect Islamic way of life, divine law. What is normally called sharia is not this idealized form, but sharia as it has been interpreted by scholars over the centuries. This interpretation is called fiqh. Therefore, many Muslims may say they support sharia but do not in fact want theocratic government.
  5. Most aspects of sharia deal with normative aspects of religious practice such as prayer times, correct ritual, dietary restrictions and other other such things. The brutal punishments we normally associate with sharia governance are only a small part of sharia as a whole.
  6. Traditionally in Islamic political thought, sharia is intended as a bulwark against tyrannical rule because it limits the ability of the ruler to govern according to his personal whims, Columbia expert on Islam Professor Richard Bulliet argues. The fact that most secular governments in the Muslim world have reinforced this framing of sharia in the eyes of the public by being so tyrannical has enabled Islamic movements to claim the mantle of resistance.
  7. Many Muslim scholars hold that sharia is a personal code of ethics and should not be enforced by the government. Scholar Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim sets out the arguments for this position very cogently in Islam and Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia.
  8. Progressive and reformist Muslims have their own interpretations of sharia that are considerably more open than traditional stances. This includes organizations like the Mecca Institute, run by openly gay Imam Daiyee Abdullah, and Muslims for Progressive Values, an American grassroots organization.
  9. Many if not most of the things that Muslim conservatives want are very similar to things fundamentalists from other faiths (in particular the very closely-related religions want).
  10. Pretty much all governments until very recently were extremely brutal and tyrannical. Social and cultural attitudes were strict and intolerant. Compared to contemporary societies, Islamic countries were often, although by no means always, more tolerant and open than their peers.

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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