The Hydra Head of Islam

Over at HuffPo Religion, Cynthia Boaz has written an earnest piece that implores Americans to think harder about Islam and not simply demonize it.  I agree with much of what she says but the unfortunate fact is that her plea will fall on few or deaf ears.  Not many religious or political extremists are reading The Huffington Post.

Regardless, Boaz astutely notes the connection between religious and political extremism, both of which are based in fear:

Both religious and political extremists operate from the same modus operandi: they find those issues around which people hold deep core beliefs — beliefs that, generally speaking, cannot be articulated nor defended through logic — and they exploit them. It’s a terribly simplistic strategy — tell people that “those people” are out to get them, that their own cause is righteous, and that without a militant — even violent — defense of one’s core beliefs, their livelihood and lives are threatened. Then the manipulators — ambitious political tacticians and unprincipled sycophants — stoke the flames of hysteria until they’ve engulfed rational thought entirely.

Boaz then attempts to correct three “misconceptions” that many Americans have regarding Islam:

  • Misconception 1: Islam is a religion of violence.
  • Misconception 2: Islam calls for the oppression of women.
  • Misconception 3: Moderate Muslims enable radicals by tolerating their behavior.

While I appreciate Boaz’s efforts, it is complicated — and ultimately undone — by the fact that there is no single Islam.  Boaz and her compatriots in Boulder may interpret Islam in a particular way, but this particular interpretation cannot lay claim to truth or authenticity.  There are multiplicities of Islam and in certain strands of the Muslim faith, these “misconceptions” are truths.  I do not particularly enjoy pointing this out — primarily because it can be used by the ignorant for their generalizing and stereotyping — but it is a fact.

As Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have correctly noted, there are parts of the Koran and other Islamic texts that are quite explicit about violence and conquest.  There are other parts that are quite explicit about women and oppression.  What a person chooses to background and foreground is a complex matter of history, location, and exegesis.  All this aside, language is slippery and interpretation is messy.  Authorial intent and reader response are two different issues; the disconnect between them can often be immense.

Whenever and wherever you have religion grounded in books — all written by different authors at different times, and compiled over decades or even hundreds of years, you are going to have contradictions and ambiguities which leave ample room for different interpretations.  As Stanley Fish would say, some communities of readers will interpret the writings one way and other communities of readers will interpret them another way.  There are many thousands of communities that read Islamic texts; consequently, there are many thousands of interpretations of Islam.

Boaz’s preferred interpretation is therefore just one of many.  If Boaz were to live for a year in Saudi Arabia or spend a year teaching at a madrassa in rural Pakistan, her interpretation of “Islam” (which does not exist in the singular) would most likely undergo radical change.  But Boaz does not need to visit these places to understand that Islam has many heads; she merely needs to do some reading.  The Economist recently reviewed John Calvert’s new book, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, and had this to say:

[Professor] Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.

But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.

As should be apparent, once Qutb committed himself to writing — his famous manifesto is titled Milestones, his words got away from him.  Authors can never be sure how their words or ideas will be interpreted or used.

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2 thoughts on “The Hydra Head of Islam

  1. Fluff

    I need to inform you of some errors. I value your piece as it is well written and I wish that it was accurate. I am one of those who you would think frivolously fearful yet I have been trying to find somebody who really understand Islam as I do who can calm these fears. Sadly I have not. The people who claim that all is well are not informed.
    Remember that while there may be many xenophobes who just plain don’t want to see any religion but Christianity, lumping us all together in such a heap would be just as unfair as saying that all Muslims are violent Jihadists. They are not all violent but any practicing Muslim IS a jihadist.

    You talk about a “religion grounded in books — all written by different authors at different times, and compiled over decades or even hundreds of years, you are going to have contradictions and ambiguities which leave ample room for different interpretations.” I assume you believe this to be true of Islam. It is not. While the Hadith may have many stories about the prophet and his life from many authors, the Qu’ran is written by just one man. The prophet wrote the Qu’ran himself and designed it to make himself the leader and the perfect human being. (I’d say that gets things off to a rocky start to begin with eh?) While the religion began like any other, it was not catching on. He spent 13 years trying to get people to buy into his new religion with very little success. With only about 150 followers, he decided to leave Mecca and goto Medina. Along the way he was short on resources and decided to start raiding and robbing other travelers. Then he had a brain storm! He made this part of the religion! He began to get people to follow him to share in the spoils. Once the religion involved profit from piracy and murder and robbing, it began to get quite profitable and popular. ¾ of the Qu’ran had been written and it was fairly peaceful But once the Prophet became a blood thirsty warrior, the texts took a huge turn and became violent. Mohamed understood that there was a conflict with that so he made it clear that the later verses abrogated all the earlier ones. So every single thing that was written that favored non muslims was replaced by texts which condemned them. Two thirds of the Qu’ran is devoted to non believers. That is political not religious. There is nothing good said about non believers and no tolerance is encouraged not in the later texts. But it is hard to see that because the earlier texts were mixed with the old. The Qu’ran was later bound to have the longest chapter be the first and second longest the second and so on. This makes it incredibly confusing and I suppose that was the intention. Once established in Medina he made Sharia law very clear that people were to be converted or killed. The Muslim calendar does not begin with the Prophet’s birth or the beginning revelations of Islam, it begins with him establishing an army. From the get go Islam has been a political force. It is still the duty of every Muslim to work tward enforcing Sharia on the entire world. The world is divided into tw parts, Dar Islam and Dar al harb. House of Islam and House of War. House of Islam includes all Islamic countries and those who have been subjugated and acknowledge Islamic Supremacy and those who do not and Islam is therefor at war with. Islam is at war with the West. And no matter how many times our leaders tell us that we are not at war with Islam, Islam is at war with us.
    I’m sorry but there is plenty of reason to be afraid. Not so much of Islam but of what our “leaders” are refusing to do to protect our freedoms. This is what you should look at. Islam does not have many heads. It is very clear. It has many different degrees of followers but the goal is the same for all: Islamic domination. Some achieve this with violence, some with words, some are lazy but they all have the same goal – a goal we should be concerned about.

  2. admin Post author

    Interesting comment, with a small kernel of historical and exegetical truth tossed in — just enough to make it appear reasoned and not paranoid. I encourage you to take a course in Middle Eastern our Southeast Asian ethnography, in addition you may wish to re-read the plethora of books written by western scholars about the origins of Islam, its early history, and the manner in which its texts were compiled. I think if you did all these things, you would discover that 95% of what you have written is, quite simply, wrong. In the alternative, you could visit Indonesia.

    To demonstrate the error of your position, we need look no further than the Sunni/Shiite split within Islam, and we can go further and show schisms within Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. Islam is not unified and there is no essentialized or idealized Islam. The Muslim world reflects the many different ways Islam is understood, interpreted, lived, and practiced.

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