Will the Real Islam Please Stand Up?

Boomers whose brains have not been completely fried by the mind-altering substances (and that number is small) will remember the game show To Tell the Truth.  In it three contestants were lined up, all were supposed to be a single person but (usually) only one was.  The panel, by quizzing the contestants, were supposed to figured out who was the real person and who were the impostors.

Although attacks by Islāmic groups and individuals against non-Islāmic targets get the most attention, it’s easy to forget that a larger number of victims in the war on Islamic careerism are Muslims.  It’s true that Christians, Yazidis and secular French and Americans are in the crosshairs, but, since there are more Muslims than others to kill in the Middle East, the number of Muslims that have perished has been greater.

The idea of jihad, to fight the infidel under the banner named Barack, was ostensibly meant for non-Muslims.  But it’s amazing how often “infidel” gets defined by the type of Islam that is not to one’s taste.  Once the label is applied, the fighting begins.

The largest divide is, of course, the Sunni-Shi’a divide.  Although the divide goes back to the very beginnings of the religion, Shi’a Islam didn’t really crystallise as a major part until the eighteenth century, and of course is the religion of the Islāmic Republic of Iran.  Salafis (and that includes both the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and ISIS) don’t believe that Shi’a Muslims are Muslims at all, which certainly justifies jihad.  (The Ottomans didn’t either).  Shi’a Muslims still nurture the grievance of the killing of Hosein, Muhammad’s own descendant.

Although it isn’t a big problem, Shi’a Muslims are divided between the “Twelvers” (those who believe that the 12th Imam will reappear at the end) and the Ismailis, the “Seveners” who believe there were only seven successors. On the Sunni side, we have the Salafis, the followers of Qutb, etc. On the edges we have the Druzes and Alawis who are an important part of the complexity of Syria and Lebanon, and the Yazidis who have borne a great deal of ISIS’ wrath.

Somewhere in the mix are the Sufis, who at one time or another have been on both the Shi’a and Sunni sides of the divide.  The Sufis have attempted to infuse Islam with a more personal relationship with God, which is lacking in the Islam of the imams.  The imams response to this has been mixed but has drifted to more hostility in modern times.  Sufi Islam, like many personal religions, tends to go against institutionalism, and the institutionalists don’t like it.

Then we have ethnic differences.  ISIS believes, for example, that the caliph must come from the Arabs, while the most successful caliphate was that of the Ottomans, who were Turks.  We normally think of Islam as an Arabic religion, but the various ethnic and national blocks such as the Iranians, Turks, Berbers, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Sudanese, etc. each look at things a little differently.  One of the major conflicts going on in Islam these days is between those who want to continue Islam as they have practiced it and the well-funded Saudi Salafis who insist that their strict way is the only true Islam.  Hostility towards the Arabs is not unknown among Muslims, as my Algerian lab assistant reminded me.

One could go on ad infinitum about these differences, but they create conflict.  When mixed with politics, it leads to war. And, like many conflicts, the bystanders can get hurt or killed themselves.  That is what is happening in many parts of the Middle East today.

The realities of these should put away many of the fallacious concepts that float around our culture.  For example, some tell us that ISIS is not Islāmic, when in fact a)they certainly think so and b)it depends on how one defines one’s Islam.  Others speak of “moderate” and “extreme” Muslims, but both characterisations must be placed in the context of the kind of Islam you’re talking about.  People ask me whether Shi’a or Sunni Islam is more extreme, but there are moderates and extremists in both.  And some very hard-core Muslims have decided that the violence that stalks the planet isn’t the best way to live or propagate Islam.

And so, if we were to impanel representatives of the various groups within Islam and have them on a To Tell The Truth format, at the end they would all stand up, and probably fight.

What we need to do is to make clear what behaviour is acceptable in our countries and what is not and to enforce it, instead of engaging in online parlour games about “moderates” and “extremists.”  To do that would need a lot stronger leadership in the West than we have now, one which actually believes in the civilisation we have.  Until then we will engage in the futile pursuit of asking the real Islam to please stand up.

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