It is, perhaps, remarkable how frequently people overlook the blindingly obvious. One certain truth is that the perspective from the inside looking out is always different from that of the outside looking in. Yet in the narratives that Westerners and Muslims tell about each other this simple fact is often never considered. (Westerners is not a good word for what I mean but I can’t think of a better one.) What might be called popular Western discourse on the subject goes something like this- ‘The founder of Islam was ambitious, violent, sensuous and anti-Semitic and the Quran is full of apologetics for violence, intolerance, polygamy and persecution and contains special pleading on behalf of Muhammad.’ Following from this it concludes that since Muslims revere their prophet and love the Quran then they, the Muslims, must be thoroughly wicked people whom the West does well to mistrust.
If it were true that Muslims understood their prophet and their holy book in the precisely the same way that Westerners do then the foregoing would be a reasonable conclusion. Needless to say they have no such understanding. Muslims see their prophet as having been an honest, trustworthy, gentle, peaceable, patient man and their scripture as laying out a way of devotion and tolerance. In a sense it doesn’t really matter whether this narrative is objectively true or not. What is decisive in forming the way Muslims behave is the fact that they believe it to be true. This belief tells us about the values which they hold and these clearly are not those which the popular Western discourse attributes to them.
I am old enough to remember when the Western narrative about Islam was significantly different to the current one. Then it was contrasted favourably with Christianity, the contribution that Muslims had made to science, medicine and mathematics was mentioned, the tolerance of religious minorities in Muslim lands while the Inquisition was at work in Christian ones was mentioned, the austere simplicity of the Islamic view of God instead of the convoluted formulae of the Trinitarian disputes about homoousios and homoiousios was highlighted and so on and so forth. Again it doesn’t really matter whether this account of Islam was objectively accurate or not what is important was that it could be articulated and widely believed. The change in the Western view over the past four decades or so has been brought about I think by two things: the appearance of large Muslim minorities in Western lands and the upsurge in brutal, inhuman Islamist violence.
What hasn’t changed is the fundamental nature of Islam, it is as it was. That the same phenomenon can project such widely different images of itself over the course of a single lifetime suggests at the least that it is a much more complicated thing than any single narrative (or short blog) can grasp. In seeking to understand Islam and Muslims Westerners really need to see what the adherents of the religion say about themselves apart from the moments of day to day controversy. By that I mean that if the founder of Islam and the Quran are central to the phenomenon which is the Islamic religion then we cannot understand their effect on Muslims if we only listen to our own accounts of these two things. Nor, for that matter can we understand them if we only listen to the accounts that apologists produce with the narrow intention of relating these things to the actions of Islamist extremists. We need to see what Muslims tell their children about the life of their prophet and his personal qualities, we need to see what they tell each other are the essential life changing contents of the Quran which they should pay most heed to.
These things are important because they speak to the values that Muslims seek to uphold and transmit. If, rightly or wrongly, they speak about their founder as a humble and gentle man then it means that Muslims value humility and gentleness. That Westerners and professional historians find it difficult to accept that this is an accurate characterisation of Muhammad doesn’t alter the fact that it is precisely this characterisation that informs Muslim attitudes and enables them to use the much ridiculed description of Islam as the religion of peace. Outsiders don’t need to accept the truth of Muslim beliefs but they should know what these beliefs are and accept that they are sincerely held and act as powerful motivators for the way Muslims behave as neighbours and colleagues.
Of course the one objection to all this is that Islamist violence of the most atrocious kind does exist and does attract support and sympathy from significant numbers of Muslims. The argument from the West is that Islamists are the most consistent of Muslims and that their actions and beliefs are precisely the kinds of things you would expect from the followers of Muhammad and adherents of the Quran, those Muslims who argue differently are either dissembling or are not true Muslims. As long as jihadi groups continue to exist and to gain international recruits from followers of Islam who live in Western lands then we can expect this narrative to continue to have traction. I think it is false but I also think that it is not primarily my responsibility to challenge it.
The people most responsible for the image of Islam are Muslims. Too often it is said that the responsibility for jihadism lies at the door of Western imperialism or Zionism or racism or some other factor external to the Muslim community. No it doesn’t. Injustice is something that many Muslims experience but the form in which they respond to it is not pre-determined. Again, I am old enough to remember when social and political movements in Muslim lands were dominated by ideologies other than Islamism. Muslims have a range of options to choose from in struggling against the wrongs they suffer from and it is not the fault of the West if so many opt for the one thing which brings discredit upon the entire religion of Islam. That the average Muslim holds moral values derived from their religion which are on the whole admirable and of positive benefit to the societies in which they live I have no doubt. That they have allowed the narrative about their own community to slip out of their hands and into those on the one hand of murderous extremists and on the other of haters of Islam I also do not doubt. The time has long since come for them to reclaim their religion and I hope that they can do so swiftly and completely.
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