The problem with the question : ‘Is Islam a Violent Religion’

As a young scholar, I am amazed at how easily such a question can be posed towards Islam and  Muslims, without second thought – as if it is the most normal and banal question that one can ask – indeed, many of my close friends and associates have asked me this question, in the past. But there is one simple problem with that question: It is a deeply racist, divisive and intolerant question. By asking this very question, we are putting Islam in an ‘exceptional’ category, and by extension, also putting Muslims in a special ( not elevated) but rather a demoted place, where their actions, ideas and thoughts cannot be understood by ‘normal’ processes, and somehow we need special tools to ‘figure out’ what is going on in their minds. This question also builds on deeply held Orientalist assumptions of what the ‘Muslims’ think or feel[i].

Photo credit :
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In a deeply ironic way, this question is anti-enlightenment, in that it presupposes our knowledge of others, without even investigating the phenomenon. It is just poor journalism. Here, I am specifically referring to the recent ‘debate’ started by Foreign Policy on ‘Islam is a religion of violence or peace’ and the particular stance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali starts off her article by pointing out that since 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror,” the violent strain of Islam appears to have metastasized.” She further argues that between the three categories of Muslims – will determine the future of Islam. One wonders how she came up with this categorization – is she an expert on Islam, or Shari’ah or Muslim societies? The answer to each one is no.  While she pretends to offer an analytical view, it is nothing but her own imaginary constructs that guide her, in her analysis. The fact that a publication such as Foreign Policy chooses to highlight her arguments over other critical and scholarly voices such as those of Talal Asad, Abdullahi An’naim and dozens of similar scholars and activists shows either a complete disregard for credible scholarship or a bias towards sensationalism. In any case, this debate is not framed respectfully or appropriately.

Speaking of violence and the impact of ideologies in perpetuating it, is it not true that the GWOT de-stabilized the region we know as Iraq and also upset the geopolitical configuration of the region? Why are we not asking whether American militarism is justified or not? Can we ask whether ‘democratization’ processes have been violent, because indeed the GWOT and other attempts at bringing democracy to the Middle East have been extremely violent processes that have resulted in deaths of over 1.3  million deaths. A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility points out that “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs[ii].”  These are credible numbers that actually point to the violence that has been caused in the name of spreading ‘peace’. So, can we ask whether our ‘values’ of promoting peace are violent? Can we ask whether ‘democracy’ is violent? Of course, any contrary evidence is brushed off by Ali, who seeks to look only in one direction – that which only proves her point.

What such narratives and the entire discourse of ‘Islam is violent’ creates is a ghettoization of Muslims. While I think there is virtue in debating the merits and de-merits of Shari’ah law or other related aspects, that impact values such as human rights and equal treatment of women, there is very little benefit to arguing for whether we should even consider Islam a legitimate religion – and this is the logical conclusion that Ms.Ali and others such as her reach. When she concludes by saying that we must not only focus on the violent extremism, but also the “We need to confront the nonviolent preaching of sharia and martyrdom that precedes all acts of jihad,’ she is taking her claims too far. There is real danger in this discourse, in that it marginalizes, stigmatizes Muslims and their religion and we are already seeing the negative repercussions of this – Islamophobia, hatred and bigotry.

The shooting of three Muslims in Chapel  Hill,N.C.,  the burning of the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and several others incidents point to the rising hatred and violence against Muslims and those who look like them. As Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates points out in her OpEd in Washington Post, “American Muslims experience prejudice far more than they report to authorities. When asked anonymously in a 2011 Pew poll if they had been threatened or attacked in the past year, 6 percent Muslims said they had. Given that Muslims population is about 2.6 million of the population, Pew polls responses suggest that about 156,000 Muslims were victims of hate crimes[iii].” Ms.Khera further goes on to say that Justice Department believes that many of these crimes are not reported because victims believe the police will not or cannot do anything about it. The ‘real’ problems that Muslims face in the world are violence, bigotry and hatred, from those outside their faith community and also in many cases, from within. This is the truth that many reports and scholarly analyses showcase. That is not in dispute.  To the extent that this is a matter of ‘interpretation’ of texts, Ms. Ali is right. But to somehow link this violence to the entire belief structure of Islam is a logical fallacy that even someone familiar with basic tenets of Islam would not make.

As Noam Chomsky suggests in his essay ‘The Responsibility of intellectuals’ political analysis should be about looking for motives behind actions – and this analysis should go both ways – looking at actions and words of ‘others’ as well as our own[iv]. And to somehow assume that ‘we’ are always pure, clean and on the high moral ground is to be delusional. Democracy promotion, for instance has been deeply violent process that has cost millions of innocent lives. And ‘we’ are responsible for it. He further points out that creating an ‘open society’ and a ‘free’ one seems to have become a mantra, a dogmatic assumption that is not often challenged. He suggests that “If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, than this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man.” This is the logic that Ms.Ali seems to be following.

Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s claims are nothing but screed and propaganda – aimed at provocation and incitement- but doesn’t meet the basic criterion of responsible journalism. It is peddling opinion as facts and beliefs as ‘truth.’ To call it scholarship would be an insult to those who practice it. The mark of any genuine scholarship or journalism is to look for ‘complicating evidence’ –stuff that challenges our assumptions and beliefs, and in this area, her entire argument falls flat. She is as dogmatic as the Taliban, and that is the real danger. We are dealing with a demagogue here, not an analyst.

[i]  A more detailed account of some of these ideas are in Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad.

[ii]  Body Count, Physicians for Social Responsibility. March 2015 accessible at

[iii] Khera, F. Its hard to prove any hate crime. But for Muslim victims, its especially hard. The Washington Post. Feb 17, 2015

[iv]  Chomsky, N. The responsibility of intellectuals. Accessible at

Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.

Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.