“Because we do most things relying only on our own sagacity we become self-interested, turn our backs on reason, and things do not turn out well. We learn about the sayings and deeds of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness. When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap.”
— Yamamoto Tsunetomo from Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai
This ancient saying is from a time without mass media created to manipulate public opinion, or the internet where there is as much misinformation as information. The great Samurai, however, even dismisses a person’s own sagacity as inadequate. Now we live in age when information has become a weapon. Not only do we not entrust ourselves to the wisdom of the men of old, not only do we not confer with others and try to throw off our own bias, we habitually do not even try to use our own sagacity. We are simply passive recipients of information being fed to us from various sources. Our actions are therefore flawed and ‘things do not turn out well’.
We do not read, we do not think, we read memes and watch vines and we manage to become hypnotized by a variety of impressions. A few well-chosen images are all that is required to create an opinion. This state of things has led to an excessive amount of ignorance. The added problem is that this not the ignorance which is humbly aware of its existence, but is quite arrogantly delusional that it is in fact knowledge.
The fear of Islam (Islamophobia) arises precisely out of this process of opinion formation, based on this most dangerous kind of ignorance. The result is the obvious fallacy of judging millions of Muslims based on the actions of a few terrorist organizations.
The other aspect of Islamophobia is related not to media sensationalism but quite deliberate efforts by individuals, who are presumed to be well informed and educated about the issue, but who persist in their agenda of presenting Islam as a violent and militant religion, incompatible with the modern world, and of convincing people that a ‘clash of civilizations’ exists and cannot be resolved.
Needless to say that the works of such historians or academics completely ignore the huge amount of evidence that points to a very different reality. Islam and the West have not met exclusively on the battlefield, but also throughout the centuries from the East Indies to Constantinople to Andalusia, in peaceful trade and the fusion of cuisine, music, literature and the arts. A case in point is Spain: although the Spanish now learn that the Arabs forcefully conquered and vanquished their land, a handful of Spanish historians still have the courage to speak openly about the fact that the Arabs traded peacefully with several Spanish cities, and only later did trade rivalry lead to battles. During these, local Spanish populations requested Arab support. In the case of the Indian subcontinent, the earliest representatives of the East India Company absorbed the local culture of Muslims as well as Hindus to the extent that many entirely forgot their native language. This alarmed the English to the extent that they started sending out aggressive Christian missionaries to put a stop to the process.
On the other hand, it would be completely ridiculous to state that during the expansion of Islam there never were instances of forced conversions. It would suffice in general to say that genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced conversions have been part of the expansion and conquests of any nation. The only fallacy relevant here is the overwhelming belief that “Islam was spread by the sword,” a claim which does not stand the test of an honest scrutiny of history.
A popular view of the history of Islam and the West combined with modern media hype has created a situation where despite all the slogans of political correctness, such as tolerance, peace and human rights, Muslims and their beliefs are generally viewed as primitive, violent and unacceptable. The overwhelming perception in the West is that there is a massive hoard of brutal Muslims somewhere out there who are firmly entrenched in their hatred of the freedom of the West and will not be content until they destroy all that opposes or offends their fanatic beliefs.
This is ignorance.
At this point, it would be useful to quote His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, Imam of the Ismaili Shia Muslims, who says that we are now witnessing not a ‘clash of civilizations’ but a ‘clash of ignorance.’
This brings us to the other side of ignorance. This is the ignorance prevalent in the Muslim world.
Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS claim to act upon an ideology that is linked to Wahhabism, a self-proclaimed puritanical school of thought, created to cleanse Islam of un-Islamic practices. It is said that the British encouraged and supported Wahhabism, closely connected with the House of Saud, , at a time when they desperately needed the Arabs to turn their backs upon the Turks. Regardless, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of the orthodox body of Muslim scholars and clerics worldwide have denounced this ideology and its tenets as alien to Islam. Wahhabism is a doctrine based on ignorance. This is a fact that is very easily ignored, while the media focuses only on madrassas that are directly funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where only Wahhabi beliefs are taught and practiced.
The other fact conveniently ignored in the West is that terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda or ISIS also openly claim to be enemies of not only the West but other Muslims, who do not agree with their interpretation of the faith. In fact it is shocking, and almost criminal, that the media do not report that these terrorist organizations are operating within the Muslim world, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Syria and in Pakistan, they are engaged in conflicts and wars of varying intensity against other Muslims. In Pakistan alone, terrorist activities have claimed over 40,000 lives since the US invasion of Afghanistan. It is Muslims who are the primary victims of ‘Muslim terrorism.’ Compared to this, the isolated terrorist attacks in the West are a very tiny percentage of overall terrorist activities.
There is a Sunni-Shia war going on in the Middle East. Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar have funded Wahhabist terrorism for a long time, and their ultimate aim is to undermine the influence of Iran wherever they can, and ultimately to see the destruction of Iran, via an attack by Israel or the US. Recent testimony to this was a request by Saudi Arabia to the Pakistan Armed Forces to send officers and troops, but only Sunnis, to join the battle in Yemen. It was a request that was denied in its totality. Although the Pakistan Army relies heavily on Saudi funding, it is also aware that the largest Shia community outside Iran lives in Pakistan.
The important point here is that there are processes and upheavals going on within the Islamic world that have produced terrorist groups such as ISIS. If the Arab Spring was a sign that the Arabs were beginning to wake up from their long slumber under totalitarian rule, then the emergence of ISIS was an immediate response by Saudi Arabia. During the early days of the Arab Spring, the bloody crackdown on protests within Saudi Arabia and Bahrain against Shias were efficiently ignored and buried away.
It is clear that these processes are political and not ideological, just as the origins of the Sunni-Shia split within Islam was not ideological but tribal and political.
Here it would be useful to talk about the ‘perceived enemy’. The perceived enemy in the West at present is Islam. For Muslims the perceived enemy is the West. The continuation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military operation in Libya, and the daily drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan constantly reinforce the idea among Muslims that the West is the sworn enemy of Islam and Muslims. The religious aspect of these primarily trade wars is thus exaggerated and completely blown out of proportion. Conspiracy theories abound in the Muslim world that reduce most issues to a global Zionist/Christian conspiracy to destroy Islam and wipe out Muslims.
Despite the fact that Muslims are the main targets of ISIS, the propagation of the Wahhabi doctrine, which comes together with generous funding, is radicalizing more and more young Muslims. The direct reason for this is not so much the doctrine itself, but the sense of helplessness and frustration over the preemptive wars of aggression against Muslim countries. This mindset, combined with poverty and the attraction of financial benefits which come from joining an organization such as ISIS, is enough to create the required number of recruits. It also prevents communities in Muslim countries from effectively rooting out intolerant elements, since the West always appears to be the bigger enemy.
However, the undeniable reality is that even though grievances against the West are many and widespread among Muslims everywhere, the majority of Muslims are simply normal, average people, just as anywhere else. They are neither violent nor extremist. They are as critical of terrorism as any average person in the West, and in most cases far more victimized by it than any Western population.
One of the main objections frequently raised against Muslims is that they are very intolerant of anyone criticizing their religion or their Prophet. This is seen as backward and primitive behavior. It is accurate that Muslims are deeply offended and hurt if Islam or the Prophet are ridiculed. An essential point here is that there is a difference between a discussion, a debate or criticism and ridicule. Reasonable discourse and ridicule have very different goals.
Another point is that although it might seem illogical, unreasonable and unjustifiable to the average Western person that Muslims can and do have a very deep, personal and emotional bond with a man who lived more than 1400 years ago, whom they believe to be the Prophet, it simply is so. The majority of Muslims will feel hurt and anger when the Prophet is ridiculed. The majority of Christians will feel that same if Jesus of Nazareth or a Christian saint were to be ridiculed. This is a fact. It is also a fact that the majority of Muslims will not become violent as a result. Both these facts must be considered together.
Another objection raised against Muslims is that as immigrants or citizens of Western countries they do not try to adapt to their environment but persist in maintaining a lifestyle formed according to their Islamic belief and identity. It might be useful to remember here that pressuring a community or an individual to conform to specific social norms goes fundamentally against the very concept of freedom which the Western world claims to uphold. The German and French bans on the veil are glaring examples of this duplicity.
It is also necessary to remember that Muslims remember Caliphates, under which their identity was not national but religious. Pan Islamism might be dead as a political reality, but as an abstract concept that continues to live within people’s hearts, it is very much there. However, this does not make Muslims unable to live peacefully in secular Western communities. The majority of Muslims in Europe, for instance, immigrants as well as indigenous, are peaceful and law abiding citizens.
The third main objection against Muslims is that they look down upon all other religions and consider them all false. This is in fact true of the followers of any belief, who persist in arrogance and ignorance. It is an element of any extremist interpretation of any faith.
The question then is this, is there any reasonable ground to be afraid of Islam? Certainly there is no reason to be afraid of Islam, but there are plenty of reasons to be afraid of distortions of Islam, just as there are plenty of reasons to be afraid of the distortion of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or any other faith, ideology or system. Distortions arise out of self interest, and inevitably they lead to extremism and violence. It does not take much to see that extremism in all matters is prevalent. Even some in the Buddhist community, the most peaceful and non-violent of communities, are now carrying out a most deplorable genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
Certainly, any normal average person who believes in any religion, in whose name criminal acts of violence are carried out, will distance themselves from the violence and state that their faith does not preach or support such acts.
All this might seem to be very commonplace, yet it is vital. It is vital to separate extremism of any kind from faith, to see all extremist violent attitudes as one and the same destructive element, regardless to which faith or ideology they might profess to belong. We must acknowledge and remember that there have been and there still are places where people of very different faiths live side by side, and they manage to live in peace because they are mindful of not hurting others, different from them, through word or deed.
Certainly there is nothing to fear from Islam, as its holy book, the Koran, makes clear:
“For, verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians – all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds – no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” 5.69 The Koran
Commentary by Mohammad Asad: “The above passage – which recurs in the Qur’an several times – lays down a fundamentaldoctrine of Islam. With a breadth of vision unparalleled in any other religious faith, the idea of “salvation” is here made conditional upon three elements only: belief in God, belief in the Day of Judgment, and righteous action in life.”
“There shall be no coercion in matters of faith.” 2.256 The Koran
Commentary by Mohammad Asad: “On the strength of the above categorical prohibition of coercion (ikrah) in anything that pertains to faith or religion, all Islamic jurists (fuqaha), without any exception, hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void, and that any attempt at coercing a non-believer to accept the faith of Islam is a grievous sin: a verdict which disposes of the widespread fallacy that Islam places before the unbelievers the alternative of ‘conversion or the sword’.”