It’s easy to be angry in the aftermath of such a senseless attack on humanity. A handful of extremists perpetrated the wholesale slaughter of so many innocent people. That should make you angry. But who, specifically, are you angry with? Is it possible that emotion overtakes you and as it spills over, you have to find a place and direction for those feelings? Maybe. But the seeds have long been planted. For most of us, it was 9/11. If you’re a bit older, perhaps it started with Beirut in 1983 or with the Iran hostage crisis. Could we even place the beginnings of western views and mistrust with Islam as far back as the Ottomans or the Crusades? Sure. But I want to make an argument for Islam and how it might not have as much to do with ISIS or the attacks in Paris as one may think.
First, let me say that I have known many Muslim Americans at this point. Most of them were students. I’ve known some of their parents. I’ve known others more casually through work or acquaintance. And if I’m being honest, other than the fact that their faith comprises a tiny minority of the overall American aggregate, all of them were quite like anyone else. But Americans unfortunately have a different mental image of Muslims. When most of our citizens conjure images of Muslims, we think of people within a Middle Eastern setting. We think of dust and hollowed-out buildings. We think of a city-wide call to prayer from the nearest mosque and men selling fruits in the market. We think of veiled women herding around their children with their heads hung in subjugation. This might not totally be incorrect in a lot of places in the Middle East. But it’s also not totally accurate. It all depends on where we’re talking about. Yet, we default to the description I just gave because that’s how we always see it in the movies or in TV shows. And those shows are almost always about bad-ass US troops kicking some jihadist ass. Right off the bat, Americans are force-fed a set of images that further push the common, average Muslim into a category that is somehow lesser than ourselves. That they all come from backwardness where evil always seems to loom around the corner. This is despite the fact that your neighbor or coworker who is Muslim isn’t anything close to that. They just go to work, provide for their families, go to school, and live their lives like anyone else. And yet you lump them in with terrorists.
There is a distinct difference between the American Muslim and perhaps the Muslim who lives in somewhere like Yemen or Saudi Arabia. While some of this has to do with religion, I think the think we often overlook is the influence of culture. Western culture is overwhelmingly Christian. If you really want to compare the holy books of Christians and Muslims, you’re going to get a lot of similarities. They come from the same basic region and over the span of history, aren’t really separated by much time. They each reflect popular culture of ancient times, along with punishments for breaking social norms. You can find that stoning someone to death is okay according to both the Qu’ran and the Bible. But we don’t stone people in the west. We have disregarded that ideology while clinging to the more positive core beliefs of our religions. Of course, I’m mostly talking about Christianity. But if you look closely, you’ll find this also in most Muslim Americans. I especially see it among my students who were born here. A lot of the girls aren’t even required to wear the hijab (head scarf) by their parents and are allowed to go to school where they congregate with boys. Their parents know that this is the cultural standard here. In this, American culture has shaped the practice of their religion without diluting the positive aspects of it. I’ve never had a student have to step out of class to pray in the middle of the day. They do it when they get home. Again, our culture shapes the way they practice. We have to understand that the Middle East is different. They have had very limited exposure to western culture before a few decades ago, and it’s largely limited even today. Slowly, western standards have seeped in, and this is part of why groups like al-Qaeda have a problem with Westerners. But even within the Middle East, you’ll find different cultural standards that regard women, marriage, etc., depending on what country or what region you visit. The fact that Jordanian women have far more freedoms than Saudi women tells me that this isn’t so much about Islam as it is about cultural standards.
You see, every religion in the world has, at some point in time, been used to control others. Slavery in the southern US was a cultural and economic standard. Yet, to justify the obvious evil in owning another human being, many southern Christians turned to the Bible. They twisted and contorted what the scripture actually said to fit their needs, justify their actions, and keep their slaves subservient. Spanish Catholics during the Renaissance were intolerant of Jews. The justification for torturing or expelling them was religion. Medieval Christians wanted to regain control over the Palestine. Religion became the excuse and catalyst to attack in that region. People go to war to control a territory and its resources. They go to war for selfish reasons. They just need an excuse.
And this brings us to ISIS. Leadership in ISIS wants to consolidate all Muslims in the world under one caliphate. This isn’t dissimilar from Nazi ideology in consolidating all Germanic territories and people. They want to establish an “Islamic State”. This is political in nature. Islam ends up being an excuse to do so and a method of recruitment. Reports from people who have defected or escaped from ISIS overwhelmingly testify that ISIS leadership is highly hypocritical. They don’t at all practice what they preach. They are bent on domination and territorial gain. But they recruit on a basis of jihadism. They prey upon a young, impressionable Muslim man—one who may have lost family in a drone strike; who may be upset with Americans. And all the recruiter has to tell that kid is that this is the kind of attack on his faith and way of life that the Qu’ran speaks of, and that it’s his duty to defend it (even though most Muslims know better than this). And just like that, you have a radicalized ISIS fighter. What you’re left with is an ISIS leadership with a political goal and a fighting force who believe they are fighting a holy war. Sounds a lot like the Crusdades, actually. You want to take over a territory, and all the Pope has to do is tell the peasants that they can go directly to Heaven if they die for God, and you have a religiously-charged army fighting for a self-serving political entity.
But in the end, it has little to do with Islam. Islam isn’t the problem. Islam is the excuse. It’s a manipulation tool. People can be bad. Be upset with the people. Be upset with ISIS. Be upset with terrorists and their tactics. But this does not provide free license to hate everyone who practices the religion. That’s wrong. And do not tolerate it.