I have seen some members of the Church express concern over the fact that Islam — as a religious faith — is not being recognized for the violence that it leads people to commit. There is a sentiment that Islam, as a religious system, should be treated with suspicion as a catalyst for violence. I just wanted to address this briefly.
On the Numbers
I don’t have numbers, and I don’t really know where to find them. But I do know that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. I also know that there are around 15,000 or so known members of Al Qaeda, perhaps 60,000-100,000 members of ISIS (exact numbers are in dispute). That’s just two groups, sure — so let’s be super generous, and assume that there’s about a million known members of violent groups who use their religion as the primary pretext for terrorist violence (the real number could be a lot more, and my analysis here would be largely unaffected, so exact values are not at issue). If that’s the case, perhaps .06% of the Muslim population is part of these groups — or, in other words, 1 in 10,000. Now, my numbers could be WAY off. But even if we doubled the numbers, or tripled it, I don’t feel like my analysis here is completely off-base.
However, the daily behaviors of the 10,000 never make the nightly news. Only the behaviors of the 1 do. And so it’s easy, without realizing it, to get a lopsided impression of Islam as a faith. Many, many people say that driving is safer than flying, because every plane crash is plastered on the news for weeks at a time. But in reality, when the statistics are done, mile for mile, flying is far, far safer than driving. But our impressions, our perceptions, are sometimes skewed by the media reporting. Similarly, our perceptions of Islam have been twisted by this lopsided representation of Islam in the media. Stories of violence get more viewers and sell more advertising spaces. And so we begin to associate Islam and violence in our minds, forgetting the fact that we live and work among Muslims every day and often don’t even know it, because they are — by and large — a peaceful people who condemn violence just as much as we do.
The purpose of this mathematical exercise is to talk about ratios and scale. Perhaps its true that there are more violent extremists per 10,000 Muslims than any other religious group. But I think what has happened is that we’ve let our entire impression of Islam be influenced solely by the 1, and ignore the protests and deeply seated beliefs of the 9,999. They do not want to be defined by the actions of the few among them, and condemn those actions vociferously. Some news networks in the U.S. are leading people to believe that the majority of Muslims are standing by without speaking out against violent attacks and terrorism. But this is simply not true. (Check out here, here, here, here, and here for just a few examples). These people deserve to have their voices heard. They deserve to be acknowledged — and not just acknowledged, but acknowledged as representing the vast majority of adherents to Islam. 1.6 billion people is not a small number, especially when compared to a million or even a few hundred thousand.
A Comparison: The Homophobic LDS Church
But instead of being acknowledged, they are often treated as if they cannot scream “sorry!” loud enough to our satisfaction. Can you imagine what that must feel like? Let’s use an example.
Imagine that a Mormon were to murder someone with same-sex attraction, or bomb the offices of some LGBT advocates, and claim that it was act prompted by his religious faith. Would you feel the need to apologize to the world, on behalf of your faith, for that act of violence? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even consider said person a representative of my faith (except in name only). I would condemn it vociferously, but I wouldn’t feel that myself or my faith system were in any way responsible. It was just some crazy guy who went insane and did something, delusionally thinking that the LDS religion required it.
But I also suspect that despite whatever outcries of LDS members and leaders against such violence, the media would nonetheless focus on the “homophobic” doctrines of the LDS Church that facilitated the worldview of the murderer. The media would still try to hold the LDS Church and its beliefs accountable, despite the fact that the vast, vast majority of its members (to my knowledge, all) condemn such violence. And the media narrative would be spun such that whatever condemnations we give to such violence look “meager” and “unsubstantial,” since the “homophobic” doctrines supposedly responsible are still taught and practiced.
This is not a one-to-one comparison, since there is little substantial history of Mormons murdering members of LGBT population in religious retribution, while there is a history of extremist Muslims engaging in violence. But my point remains the same: some media narratives often ignore the fact that the vast, vast majority of Muslims condemn the violence (and openly), and focus instead on the few parts of the Muslim faith that (when twisted) have been used to justify it. The narrative is that the whole of Islam is in some way responsible and accountable for these acts of violence. And the articles, speeches, statements, and protests by Muslims against such violence are often ignored by some networks, and treated as if they are non-existent. Their voices are muted, as the focus entirely on how violent extremists interpret (or misinterpret) the faith, rather than how the ordinary member interprets the faith.
Problems with Islamic Belief?
But let’s be real, it does seem more likely that a Muslim will engage in violent extremism than a Latter-day Saint. There are, indeed, strands of Islam that seem to legitimize this violence. And someone might acknowledge that 1.6 billion adherents to Islam don’t adhere to these violent strands of thought, but believe that Islam itself nonetheless legitimizes it. And to be sure, there are some elements of Muslim sacred writ that could be interpreted in just that sort of way. But who gets to say which interpretation of Islamic scripture is true? Let’s use another comparison.
There is evidence that in some FLDS communities, young girls were coerced into marrying older men, as part of their religious tradition. Most Americans rightfully condemn this, and I would say that (to my knowledge) most or all Latter-day Saints do too. We would claim, rather vociferously, that we acknowledge age of consent laws, we promote and preach the need for consent, we strongly discourage marriages of that sort, just as strongly as we (currently) discourage polygamy. We would excommunicate someone who did such things, even. We do not see it as required by our faith, or legitimized by our faith.
But outsiders might not agree. They would point to the fact that Joseph Smith married a young girl would was 14, and perhaps even used coercive language (implying that her salvation was in jeopardy if she refused). There’s interpretations of the Doctrine and Covenants that seem like it could legitimize these actions, as legitimize violating state and federal laws (and lying about it too). We would treat those interpretations of LDS scripture and history as wrong-headed and contradictory to everything that Latter-day Saints teach and practice, but fundamentalists nonetheless interpret it that way, and outsider might insist they have good reason to. It may be claimed that those sorts of crimes are built into the fabric of the faith, as much as the 15 million+ members of the LDS Church try to deny it.
Would it be fair of them to dismiss the teachings of Joseph Smith, and the scriptures of the Restoration, because of how a few bad men have interpreted them? I don’t think so. I think we would insist that we have a right to claim that Mormonism does not legitimize such actions, and that our understanding of our own faith is just as legitimate. And we would take offense at the implication that Mormonism was broadly responsible for such crimes, since Mormonism — as understood by the vast majority of its adherents — do not practice such things.
I propose we give the 1.6 billion peacefully living Muslims the ability to define their own faith, instead of defining it for them based on the actions of those that they (and us) despise.
With Whom do We Side?
So there’s this internal debate amongst Muslims. Let’s say a million Muslims (again, even much higher numbers wouldn’t change the analysis that much) believe that violent behavior is required by their faith. 1.6 billion Muslims disagree with this group, and believe that violence is *not* required by their faith. So we have this internal debate/division amongst Muslims, with a small minority believing that violence is intrinsically required by their faith, and a strong majority believing that it is not.
If we come along and tell the 1.6 billion Muslims that, “No, you are wrong — violence IS required by your faith!”, which party are we siding with? With which company does our opinion on Islam place us? Onto which side in this internal, doctrinal debate are we casting our vote? And to which side do we WANT to cast our vote? For me, I’m going to work with the vast majority of Muslims to convince the minority that violence is not actually required by the Muslim faith. To insist that Islam is an inherently violent religion does not help that cause — to do so is to side with the extremists, and to tell the 1.6 billion others that the extremists are actually right about their faith, and they (the peaceful ones) are actually wrong. That seems deeply counterproductive.
Instead of telling 1.6 billion Muslims that their religion is inherently violent and that they should leave it behind (good luck with that), I propose we help the vast majority of Muslims convince the rest that violence is actually not an intrinsic part of their faith, and in fact contradicts it in many important ways. That is, that it’s possible to be a good Muslim and to live peacefully (as the vast majority do). Why not legitimize peaceful Islam, instead of delegitimizing it?
Emulating the Church
I also propose that we emulate the way in which the LDS Church, its leaders, and its publications have talked about the Muslim faith. The Church has been thoroughly respectful, and has (to my knowledge) never said a disparaging thing about Islam. Here are two examples found in Church publications: here, and here. In the first article, we find this quote from Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who said (after reading a verse from the Qur’an:
“God is the source of light in heaven and on earth. We share the belief with you. We resist the secular world. We believe with you that life has meaning and purpose. … We revere the institution of the family. … We salute you for your concern for the institution of the family. … Mutual respect, friendship, and love are precious things in today’s world. We feel those emotions for our Islamic brothers and sisters. Love never needs a visa. It crosses over all borders and links generations and cultures.”
The author of the article goes on to say:
I was grateful to state that we belong to a church that affirms the truths taught by Muhammad and other great teachers, reformers, and religious founders. We recognize the goodness reflected in the lives of those in other religious communities. While we do not compromise revealed eternal truths of the restored gospel, we never espouse an adversarial relationship with other faiths. Rather, in accordance with modern prophetic counsel, we seek to treasure up that which is virtuous and praiseworthy in other faiths and to cultivate an attitude of “affirmative gratitude” toward them. As Latter-day Saints, we believe that it is vital to respect and benefit from the spiritual light found in other religions, while seeking humbly to share the additional measure of eternal truth provided by latter-day revelation.
Let’s emulate this generous estimation of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Let’s treat their faith with dignity and respect, even as we condemn horrible acts of violence. Let’s help them disassociate these acts from Islam, by treating the religious beliefs of violent extremists as separate and distinct from Islam as a faith system (or, at worst, a twisted version of it). Nearly a quarter of God’s children on earth are adherents of Islam. Let’s give them the space they need to condemn violence as against the foundational principles of their faith, rather than tell them that the extremists are right.
I do not advocate doing nothing about violent extremism. I believe that someone could fully agree with everything I’ve written, and still support military responses to ISIS, for example. I believe we should work as smartly, prudently, and devotedly as we can to root out and destroy those that seek to kill innocent people. This post has nothing to do with the desire to be politically correct (that is so not my style). It has everything to do with seeking out the truth, responding as Christ would respond, and following the example of the Church and its leaders.
Each and every time we disparage Islam as a faith, we are departing from the example set by the Church and its teachings, and we are in fact exacerbating the very problem we claim we are trying to solve. Instead of addressing the problem of violent extremism, we have just (in our minds) added 1.6 billion more problems to our pile. And that’s just not fair to anyone (least of all ourselves). Let’s not darken our hearts towards an entire quarter of God’s children or their religious beliefs, because of the wicked actions of a few thousand. We would, after all, ask the same of others in regards to us.
Note: I think U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that something like 15% of Muslims are “extremists” and potential threats. But I wanted to address this with a comparison: let’s say that something like the above scenario happened, where a Latter-day Saint bombed an LGBT advocacy center, or something. The FBI decided that it needed to keep tabs on Mormon extremists, in order to protect the LGBT population. Who would it monitor?
Now let’s imagine that 15% of the LDS population took a hard line stance on issues of homosexuality, and used disparaging rhetoric against homosexuals. The FBI might, in its internal memos, treat this 15% as their population of interest, because if there are dangers to the LGBT population, it is from this group that the danger will come. So it might classify the 15% as “extremists” and “potential threats,” even if the number of real threats is much less than 1%. Because this way, it knows at least where to look for them.
Anyways, just a tidbit or those who might reply with this number, to show how it may not actually mean that 15% of Muslims are prone to extremist violence. It may simply be that it is among this 15% that violent extremists are most likely to be found. Do we really think that nearly 1 in 5 Muslims (240 million people, nearly as large as the entire U.S. population) are poised at the edge of violence, ready to engage in terrorist acts against innocent people? That really IS a terrifying world to live in, and so I can fully understand it if those who have this impression treat Islam with a deep suspicion, and engage in disparaging remarks about the faith. I just think that such a perception is deeply skewed and, thankfully, untrue. Because were that the case, no army on earth (much less the U.S. military) could save us.