If Islam is the driving force behind global terrorism, the argument goes, why not just wipe it out?
If this question is being asked honestly and openly, then it deserves an honest answer.
Islam is an idea, and ideas don’t have special protections. Failure to answer this question properly, instead resorting to childish accusations of bigotry, has led to increased mistrust, confusion and, ironically, bigotry against Muslims.
Moreover, people who ask this question honestly and fail to get an answer — but are merely accused of racism — are not likely to change their minds. On the contrary, their belief that Islam should be wiped out will likely be reinforced.
So let’s break down why attempting to destroy the religion of Islam is not the solution to global Islamic terrorism.
Freedom of Conscience is the Bedrock of a Free Society
“I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.” — Queen Elizabeth I of England.
The number of prophets, mystics, sages and visionaries who have proclaimed their creeds to the world runs into at least the tens of thousands. Clearly not all of them can be correct. Yet most naturally think their philosophy is the right one.
Therefore, if we are to have a functioning and integrated society, we cannot forcibly impose one vision of metaphysics onto everyone else. We have to find a way to get along so that people can practice hugely different lifestyles and belief systems without murdering each other.
The only way this works is by a base level commitment to freedom of conscience for all.
This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating. It is for this reason that the founding fathers of the United States implemented the First Amendment, mandating the fledgling nation “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
One of the reasons to be opposed to Islamic extremism in the first place is because it is an ideology that seeks to impose its understanding of Islam onto everyone else.
However, any expression of Islam which is non-coercive must receive the same protections as any other faith in order to maintain the underlying social contract of free societies – my right to swing my fist ends where the next man’s face begins.
(Of course, non-coercion must also apply within the group — in this case, the Islamic community itself — for example, the absence of forced veiling of women, being subjected to inhumane hudud punishments, etc.)
Islam Is Diverse and Changing
Some argue that Islam is not worthy of the protections given to other religions, since it is not a religion but a totalitarian political ideology masquerading as a religion.
This is a red herring. Islam has not been united since the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, was assassinated, plunging the rising empire into the “First Fitna War.”
The sect of Islam driving most global terrorism today is the Salafi-jihadi movement. This sect joined the austere puritanical vision of Islam (popularized by the 18th century Saudi scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) with the political idea of Islamism, a movement to set up a state governed by religious law and the willingness to use violence to bring that about.
(Twelver Shiite Islam, the official state religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, also fuels terrorism, but that’s mostly carried out in the interests of the Iranian state.)
These factions are minority sects within Islam. Many Muslims around the world wholeheartedly reject these concepts. Outside of these sects, there is a very large amount of disagreement about belief and practice.
It’s true that many of the tenets of Islam, most notably the hudud punishments of the sharia are deeply illiberal. “There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic Orthodoxy,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, the head of the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama, which has some 50 million members.
Until the American and French revolutions of the late 18th Century, there was no such thing as separation of religion and state. Even in America, students salute “one nation under God” during the pledge of allegiance every morning, while the UK retains a hereditary monarch as head of the church and “defender of the faith.”
Napoleon’s invasions first brought the ideas of secular government into the Middle East in 1791 and those ideas spread gradually throughout the Islamic world. The Ottoman Caliphate created a constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience as early as 1876.
Islam is evolving in response to the fresh challenges of the 21st Century. Islamism can be seen in this context as a utopian revivalist attempt to turn the clock back to the way things were before the Enlightenment, in much the same way as Italian fascism sought to recreate an imagined version of the glory of Rome.
Targeting that movement — a distinct and legitimate struggle — is not the same as taking on Islam itself.
Muslims are wrestling with and responding to these elements within their tradition in their own way and at their own pace. They should be left alone to do so. At the same time, attempts to impose Islamism on the general public should be countered.
Religious Conflict Can Be Devastating
Europe’s wars of religion saw 20 percent of Germany’s population wiped out during the Thirty Years War alone. And that was just a war between rival sects of one faith within one continent.
People do not give up their deeply held beliefs easily and certainly don’t give them up in response to aggressive and hectoring tactics. The more anti-Muslim rhetoric there is, the more likely it is that there will be inter-religious violence.
Moreover, there is every reason to assume that if forced to choose between giving up key aspects of their religion like halal meat, male circumcision and the Quran, many Muslims would choose to fight, as would Christians, Jews or members of any other faith if put in a similar position.
Religions are not simply a set of beliefs, but form an integral part of a person’s identity and community. Fighting to protect your community and identity is embedded into human nature.
Large scale religious conflict is clearly undesirable. It is not reasonable to ask Muslims to give up their faith and trying to do so will end in disaster.
Yet, opposing and ultimately eradicating political Islam is something that can and must be done.