What is to be made of the claim that Islam is a religion of peace? On the one hand, a large number of atrocities are carried out in the name of Islam. On the other hand, most Muslims in the world do not support terrorist attacks.
These facts are widely known of course. Yet the supporters and opponents of Islam deal with them in different ways.
I have recently dealt with those who see Islam as inherently bigoted, with a particular emphasis on its take on anti-Semitism. In their view the flaws of Islam are deeply embedded in Islamic texts and history.
In the same article I outlined an alternative view that I share with some experts on Islamism. That is that Islamism – as opposed to Islam as a religion– is best seen as a religionised form of politics. To put it another way it represents the Islamisation of radicalism rather than the radicalisation of Islam.
But this still leaves a third view. That is the claim that Islam is inherently a religion of peace. That is the mainstream view among western politicians and defenders of Islam. For that reason it is important to examine it in more detail.
Muslim public opinion
Before looking at how the facts on Muslim views are interpreted it is necessary to outline what they are. Naturally the usual caveat applies. The world’s Muslims constitute about two billion people or roughly a quarter of the world’s population of about eight billion. It is hugely diverse across different countries, religious sub-groups and social classes.
Gauging support for Islamism also involves a significant methodological problem. There is no direct way of measuring support for Islamism if it is taken as a particular political outlook. That is having particular tenets such as support for a global Islamic order as an ultimate goal. It can only be measured indirectly, for example, by looking at support for terrorist violence. But that is imperfect because, although Islamists do typically support terrorism, not everyone who supports violence is an Islamist. Others could, for example, be radical nationalists.
Nevertheless it is usually accepted – both by those who see Islam as a religion of peace and those who see it as intrinsically flawed – that only a relatively small minority of Muslims support terrorism. For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center published in 2015 found that in countries with significant Muslim populations there was much disdain for Islamic State / ISIS. In no country surveyed did more than 15% of the population show favourable attitudes towards Islamic State.
This 15% is often taken as an upper limit. That is a maximum of 15% of Muslims support Islamist terrorism – with the figure far lower in many countries – with a corresponding minimum of 85% hostile to it.
While these findings are noteworthy they should be treated with caution. A 2010 survey by Pew found far higher levels of support for Hezbollah, Hamas and even al-Qaeda in several Muslim nations. By this metric Muslims, at least in the selected countries, it is substantially higher than the advocates of Islam as a religion of peace often allow. For example, it found that in Jordan, with a majority Palestinian population, 55% supported Hezbollah, 60% Hamas and 34% al-Qaeda. It does not necessarily follow that all those who support violence have an Islamist conception of politics but these are nevertheless striking figures.
It is also notable that levels of anti-Semitism seem particularly high in the Arab countries of the Middle East. A survey by the ADL found that the average index score for Muslim majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa was 74% (the score was calculated by the proportion of respondents who agreed with 11 anti-Semitic statements). However, the ADL was anxious to note that some non-Muslim countries had particularly high scores including Greece (69%) and Armenia (58%).
In any event it seems clear that only a minority support Islamist terrorism – at least in the form of ISIS – whereas backward attitudes towards Jews are substantially more prevalent.
The religion of peace argument
Although the debate about the nature of Islam predates 9/11 – the Islamist terrorist attacks on America on the 11 September 2001 – that was in important respects a watershed. It was at that time that the nature of Islamism became a central discussion in western political life.
George W Bush, the then American president, set the tone. Shortly after the attack he noted in an address that: “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” He therefore made an unequivocal separation between the al-Qaeda terrorists and the nature of Islam. It was a theme he returned to several times.
Most western leaders have taken this view. They include presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in America and David Cameron, a former British prime minister. Others, most notably Donald Trump, have sometimes expressed conflicting views.
However, perhaps the most lucid political view on this question comes Tony Blair, a former British prime minister. I say this not because I agree with his take or endorse his general political views – on the contrary I do neither – but he does clearly spell out his key assumptions on the topic.
For example, in a speech in 2016 he described Islam as “a religion of peace and honour”. To better understand his view it is necessary to spell the quote out more fully. In a discussion on violent extremism he argued that:
“(T)here is no solution founded on denial of the essential nature of the problem. At its heart is a struggle about and within Islam, a violent struggle played out with profound implications for our security, our cohesion and the future of a religion followed by over 1.6 bn people, a religion of peace and honour which is under attack from an enemy within.”
So for Blair true Islam is good but the Muslim community includes an extremist element based on an interpretation that is “an abuse of religion” and “a perversion of faith”. He therefore sees no contradiction between lauding the religion itself but taking a hard line against Islamist terrorism.
In addition, to politicians there are also commentators, who pursue a similar line. These include Majid Nawaz (a former Islamist who founded a counter-extremism think tank) and Tariq Ramadan (a Swiss Muslim academic and the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood ). Peter Oborne, a conservative British journalist, has also written a full length book in defence of Islam against what he sees as pervasive misunderstandings in the West.
But for our purposes here Mehdi Hasan, a British-American journalist, is particularly interesting. He is both a practising Muslim and the author of a 2012 New Statesman article acknowledging that many British Muslims are anti-Semitic.
However, he strongly argues that bigotry and anti-Semitism are not intrinsic to Islam. On the contrary, they are in his view the result of imported ideas and a failure to follow the true tenets of Islam. For instance, in relation to Islamism as a political force he argues, with considerable justification, that its core ideas were imported from the West.
Hasan is also a notable exponent of condemning those who criticise Islam as Islamophobic. He does not hesitate to condemn those who criticise Islam as a religion as bigots. In his view it is “America’s favourite kind of racism”. His targets do not just include right wingers but also new atheist thinkers such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
Assessment of the argument
Despite the obvious differences there is considerable overlap between those who argue Islam is intrinsically good and those who argue it is inherently bad. Both accept that most Muslims do not support an extremist minority within the community that is prone to at least supporting violence. The main difference is over whether the essence of the religion, its holy texts and history, should be seen as positive or negative.
Those who see Islam as a religion of peace are particularly prone to condemning its critics as Islamophobic. Often this is done in extremely vociferous terms. Hostility to Muslims is condemned (as it should be) but so is anything that smacks of criticism of the religion. The worst excesses of Islamist terrorism are generally condemned but sometimes atrocities are downplayed or quickly forgotten. This is particularly common when Israelis or Jews in general are the victims.
In broad terms though the weakness of the Islam as a religion of peace school is the same as that of the Islam as a religion of war school. Both see what is essentially a political movement, albeit one that uses a religious language, in religious terms.
Neither recognises that contemporary political imperatives drive Islamists to interpret religious texts in a particular way. The importance of foreign influences on Islamist thought is also generally ignored or at least downplayed (although Hasan arguably swings too far in the opposite direction, towards denying culpability to Muslims for adopting backward ideas).
If they looked more closely they would see that Islamism shares many central features of the most backward and common ideas in the West. These include an aversion to modernity, a nihilist approach to life, an intolerance to criticism and an obsession with identity. These are as much central elements of woke ideology as they are of Islamism. Anti-Semitism is also often an important part of the package.
To understand Islamism properly it is necessary to examine it in primarily political terms. Despite appearances Islamism is not Islam. Not because one is evil and the other is good but because one belongs in the domain of religion and the other in the domain of politics.