If headlines and book titles are to be believed, Islam is Daesh, Al Quaeda, radical terrorism, and the end of civilization. To be a Muslim is to be a suspect, a potential threat, a person set on destroying the West either by force or by a less violent (but no less sinister) immigration strategy. But is this the real Islam, the one that exists outside the parameters drawn by a nostalgic Hollywood, a partisan media, and popular understanding? With 1.5 billion adherents (according to PEW Research), the Muslim religion is the second largest religion in the world (Christianity is the largest). If it is a religion of violence, as many claim, why is violence and war on a steady global decline?
This notion of brotherhood and coexistence is common in Islam. Several years ago I was test driving a car being sold by an elderly Indian Muslim. As we put the car through its paces, we talked, and somehow religion came up. He shook his head in sadness as he observed, "Jews, Christians, Muslims... we are all children of God." On another occasion, an African-American Muslim coworker echoed these thoughts. We were loading a catering truck after a twelve hour Saturday shift in Indianapolis. Catering is backbreaking work, but the long hours build solidarity and trust. He shared how important it is for us to live clean lives before God, and how challenging it is to resist temptation. These are personal anecdotes, but most scholars agree that these views are widespread among Muslims.
In many Muslim-majority countries, Christians historically have been granted protected status as dhimma, or "people of the Book." The current persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by ISIS is proof of this; Syria is a predominantly Muslim country where Christians and Muslims have peacefully coexisted for millennia, even serving in the military together. The radical extremists bent on "purifying" the culture feel the need to do so in part, because religious minorities have been allowed to exist.
Let's look at some basic statistics. As already mentioned, Islam is the world's second largest religion, with some 1.5 billion adherents. Although Islam is often identified with Arabs, only 20% of the world's Muslims are Arab. Of the rest, 60% are Asian, and much of the remaining 20% are African. Upon reflection, this shouldn't be surprising for westerners. Although Christianity was founded in the Middle East by a Jew, it has long been strongly identified with Europe and North America, and now finds the majority of its adherents in Asia, Africa, and the global south. While it is terror groups like ISIS that regularly make the news, the vast majority of Muslims denounce them as radical, fringe organizations, not representative of what the Q'ran actually teaches. You can test this yourself by visiting a local mosque, seeking out a Muslim coworker, or checking out some Muslim books from your local library. Fact checking isn't difficult for those who really want to understand Islam. There are plenty of thoughtful resources available that give a balanced, fair perspective, some of which are listed below. Once we move past stereotypes and generalizations to real human encounters, we'll see that there is no reason to be afraid of Islam. By getting to know the Muslims in your community, you'll see that blaming Islam for the terrorism perpetuated by radical groups like ISIS is like blaming Christianity for the terrorism perpetuated by The Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.
In part 3 of this series on Islam and the West, we'll unpack what Dr. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan has to say on the complexity of Islam. Part 1 can be found here. Feel free to leave a comment or question below.
Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed.
Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop, edited by Miriam Cooke and Bruce Lawrence.
Islam and the West podcast on iTunesU.