Five Things I Learned From Talking to Muslims

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Over the last two years I’ve been reaching out to speak with Muslims about Islamism and about how they see their faith. Now I’ve organized an online conference for Muslims and non-Muslims to talk to each other about the issues. Here’s what I’ve learned:

We can start by agreeing that our ancestors made a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole situation, but people from different places and different cultures have different ancestors. This means that…

We are all haunted by the ghosts of different pasts

We are much more dependent on our cultures than we think. Each country is populated not only by its citizens but also by ghosts from the past, phantasms from imaginary futures, or saints from lands outside time” Robert Conquest

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, sent the last Ottoman caliph, Abdulmecid II into exile, and abolished the office, it sent shockwaves through the entire Muslim world.

The caliphate had been variously a political, spiritual and symbolic center of Islam, an office which had existed (in different forms and different levels of importance) since the reign of Abu Bakr, successor to Mohammed, the founder and prophet of Islam. All Islamist movements are ultimately seeking to re-establish it. They ground this longing for a mythical past in an anti-colonial rejection of the West, a sense of humiliation and shame that the unbelieving Europeans conquered the world and humbled the former Muslims.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Hussein Haqqani described “political Islam,” also terming Islamism, as “a response or reaction to the breakdown of the traditional Islamic order under the pressures of modernity.”

Add to this the tyranny imposed by much of post-colonial Muslim leadership and the difficulties faced by Muslim minorities in the West.

These different ghosts impact the way in which people handle the issue of Islamism. Europeans and Americans see an oppressed minority and are reminded of their own appalling past, while Muslims have either seen colonial oppressors or seen Western countries as safe havens of wealth, opportunity and equality where the law guarantees rights not offered in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Pakistan.

Different groups may not even be aware of how the past is shaping their present consciousness. A lot of these messages are passed on through myth, half-remembered facts, exaggerations and subtle reinforcement cues. These get beaten into our subconscious as primal impressions – things like “enemies are seeking to infiltrate and overthrow the state” or “Europeans are racist” or “Islam is in a state of humiliation.”

Many of these impressions may be accurate or semi-accurate, but they can lead to very problematic outcomes – such as seeing conspiracy where there is none, or reacting to perceived insults where none were intended.

To make progress we will need to figure out what historical traumas our neighbors are dealing with and how and why they impact the decisions they are making now. 

This will be hard to do however, because…


We’re all talking past each other

History isn’t just the story of bad people doing bad things. It’s quite as much a story of people trying to do good things. But somehow, something goes wrong.”

C.S. Lewis

Atheists often think that religion itself is the problem. Bill Maher and Sam Harris excoriate Islam in much the same way they would Christianity or Hinduism or any other faith. They share a set of assumptions with their audience about the way the world works and a set of assumptions about the limits of acceptable discourse within a society. Within that world, their views are logical, reasoned and even laudable.

Many Muslims I’ve spoken to do not like Sam Harris at all. They don’t like the way he is dismissive of Islam in general and feel insulted by his statements. But it’s not simply that they disagree – they have a completely different frame of reference to Harris.

There are many examples of this frame of reference disconnect. People normally do not even know what they don’t know. Participants on the Muslim Leadership Initiative, where American Muslim leaders came to Israel to learn about Judaism and Zionism were shocked to find out that Zionism has little to do with the Holocaust, despite many of them having done interfaith work for years. In a far more immediately dangerous case, police in Germany told a Muslim girl’s parents she had been caught shoplifting condoms, leading her family to discover she was having sex and murder her to protect their “honor.”

Many Muslims do not like use of the term  “Islamism” for this reason: it has the word “Islam” in it thus sullying Islam’s reputation. Yet when they voice this view (loudly and often) to Westerners, their defences have the opposite of the intended effect.

When heard by non-Muslims raised in a different culture far less concerned with the image of Islam, statements like “Islamism is an offensive term because Islam has nothing to do with terrorism” don’t necessarily come across as cogent explanations, they can come across as obfuscation and denial.

We need to be able to understand that a person we’re talking might with have a very different worldview to us and work to understand where and why that might be in a compassionate way.

But this seems unlikely to happen because…


Fear is the order of the day

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” – Yoda

Almost all of the Muslims I have spoken to over the last two years have expressed fear of the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West. They fear in terms of job security, harassment, socially, but, most importantly, they fear for their physical safety, not just from their neighbors, but from the government. I have flown frequently to various countries and have almost never been searched. A friend, a Muslim-American with a Muslim sounding name, is searched regularly.

Many Muslims I reached out to were skeptical, if not outwardly hostile to my efforts, fearing that I simply sought a “tame Muslim” to parrot out a pre-approved line that I was not able to say since I am not a Muslim. I was not offended by these rejections, I completely understand what they were afraid of.

No-one wants to be used, especially not to belittle their in-group by a member of an out-group.

Many non-Muslims I know are afraid too. Jews are attacked worldwide by Islamist terrorists and many Jews feel afraid of this. They do not know how to stop the violence and are painfully conscious of the differential in numbers (roughly 14 million Jews to 1.6 billion Muslims). Americans are afraid of home-grown extremists and afraid they cannot tell the difference between an Islamist and an ordinary Muslim. Women in parts of Europe are afraid to walk the streets following mass sexual assaults in Germany.

Fear can lead to people closing ranks and halting critical thinking. It is no wonder hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, just as it is no wonder the Muslim community is feeling the temptation to close ranks and say “we’re through with apologizing for terrorist acts we did not commit. Now we’re going to oppose you and your racist policies.”

In order to eliminate the violence, suspicion and anger we have to learn more about what is causing the fear and address those issues at the root.

This is going to be difficult because…


‘The West’ (on the whole) Does not Respect Islam

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say”Bryant McGill

Respect here means that Christians and atheists and other groups in the West typically do not think of Islam and Islamic civilization as equal to the West and to Christianity.

I’ve seen two main reactions. Among the left there is a tendency to a sort of “oriental romanticism”, to see Islam as a native non-Western force that successfully resisted and is resisting Western imperialism and which is charming, exotic, mystical and either benign or, where it is not benign, harmless. They see Hamas and al-Qaeda as  marginalized groups of fanatics who will eventually see sense once their other “real” grievances (imperialism) have been addressed.

This viewpoint strips Muslims of agency, denying that Islamic civilization is its own thing with its own currents, motivations, trends and history. Muslims are just as capable as Westerners of being fascist reactionary murderers and religion is not a quaint cultural practice but a living breathing entity just as capable of inspiring extreme acts of violence now as it was when Martin Luther kicked off the reformation leading to a brutal series of wars.

On the other side right wingers can be incapable of seeing Islam as good. They see Muslims and Islam as a fanatical force bent on conquering the world either by force or through demographics. They see it as dangerous, violent and patriarchal.

This strips Muslims of their humanity, denying the many positive contributions of Islamic civilization to the world, from the poetry of Rumi and Omar Khayyam to the thought of Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina. They deny that most Muslims are ordinary people who want a good life for themselves, their family and their friends and that their religion frames and supports that goal.

Both approaches fail because they treat Islam monolithically. It’s true that there are many problems in the Islamic world that need to be addressed, not least of which is the theocratic movement of Islamism which seeks to impose one set of religious laws on everyone, to the detriment of women’s rights and human rights. But this does not mean that Islam is the enemy of global peace. After all (for example), marital rape was legal in parts of America until 1993 when North Carolina became the last state to ban it.

Muslims know Islam is not respected and this is part of the reason both behind the lack of understanding and the grievances against the West. Westerners must learn to treat Islam in the same way they treat Christianity – not as something that is either “good” or “bad” but as a complex multifaceted entity with a hugely diverse population. Then we can challenge the elements that are bad and support the elements that are good as equals.  

Importantly this means internalizing that it’s not a spectrum from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. People who are very “liberal” in one area can be very “radical” in other area and vice versa. People are notoriously irrational and hypocritical. That’s ok, everyone is.

For example, a person might drink beer, sleep around, but support Hamas because he thinks Muslims are better than non-Muslims. Another person might go to mosque regularly, pray 5 times a day except on days when his college plays football but be willing to date non-Muslims, but not marry them. A third person might go through phases of intense religiosity and wear hijab or even niqab, followed by secular drinking and drugs blowouts followed by periods of self-loathing and guilt. A fourth might be anti-Assad and that’s the only time they go to mosque, but be homophobic.

When we can treat Muslims the same way we treat Christianity and the West, praising the good trends, calling out the dangerous ideological trends and recognizing the diversity in it we will be well on our way to challenging the conversation.

This is starting to happen because…


The Good Guys are Winning

“I know you’re tired but come, this is the way.Rumi

I have been blessed to speak with dozens of fascinating, brave, incredible Muslims who are working tirelessly for a better world and a better Islamic community. Arab youth organizations and women’s rights organizations are fighting for positive change in their own countries. Muslim feminists in Europe and America are challenging honor violence, FGM and the abuses of sharia courts in their communities. Theologians are speaking out against the use of Islamic texts to support political projects and are building counter-narratives to support a more pluralistic, open and tolerant Islam.

I have seen a huge change in public perception of the issue over the past two years. The rise of the Islamic State, the migrant crisis in Europe and the tireless work of campaigners have entered these issues into the public consciousness and have resulted in people addressing the issue directly. British Prime Minister David Cameron has now specifically named the ideology of Islamism as the issue. The Muslim Reform Movement has been launched in America, bringing together a diverse set of Muslim leaders who oppose theocracy and support the separation of religion and politics and are fighting for that goal.

More and more Muslims are coming forward to fight against their theocratic co-religionists and to secure peaceful relations with their non-Muslim neighbours.

The issues discussed here are being addressed. With your help we can tackle them further and defeat the ideology of Islamism.

In order to do so we have brought together three panels of speakers to discuss the issues in our Encounter and Counter online conference and work work towards a solution together.

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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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