Let’s Be Honest, Islam Has a Problem Right Now

RELIGION, 13 Oct 2014

Fareed Zakaria – The Washington Post

When television host Bill Maher declares on his weekly show that “the Muslim world . . . has too much in common with ISIS ” and guest Sam Harris says that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,” I understand why people are upset. Maher and Harris, an author, made crude simplifications and exaggerations. And yet, they were also talking about something real.

I know the arguments against speaking of Islam as violent and reactionary. It has a following of 1.6 billion people. Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?

The caveat, “Islam today,” is important. The central problem with Maher’s and Harris’s analyses are that they take a reality — extremism in Islam — and describe it in ways that suggest it is inherent in Islam. Maher says Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will [expletive] kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” He’s right about the viciousness but wrong to link it to “Islam” — instead of “some Muslims.”

Harris prides himself on being highly analytical — with a PhD, no less. I learned in graduate school that you can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause. So, if you are asserting that Islam is inherently violent and intolerant — “the mother lode of bad ideas” — then, since Islam has been around for 14 centuries, we should have seen 14 centuries of this behavior.

Harris should read Zachary Karabell’s book “Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation.” What he would discover is that there have been wars but also many centuries of peace. Islam has at times been at the cutting edge of modernity, but like today, it has also been the great laggard. As Karabell explained to me, “If you exclude the last 70 years or so, in general the Islamic world was more tolerant of minorities than the Christian world. That’s why there were more than a million Jews living in the Arab world until the early 1950s — nearly 200,000 in Iraq alone.”

If there were periods when the Islamic world was open, modern, tolerant and peaceful, this suggests that the problem is not in the religion’s essence and that things can change once more. So why is Maher making these comments? I understand that as a public intellectual he feels the need to speak what he sees as the unvarnished truth (though his “truth” is simplified and exaggerated). But surely there is another task for public intellectuals as well — to try to change the world for good.

Does he really think that comparing Islam to the Mafia will do this? Harris says that he wants to encourage “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” to reform the religion. So, the strategy to reform Islam is to tell 1.6 billion Muslims, most of whom are pious and devout, that their religion is evil and they should stop taking it seriously?

That is not how Christianity moved from its centuries-long embrace of violence, crusades, inquisitions, witch-burning and intolerance to its modern state. On the contrary, intellectuals and theologians celebrated the elements of the religion that were tolerant, liberal and modern, and emphasized them, while giving devout Christians reasons to take pride in their faith. A similar approach — reform coupled with respect — will work with Islam over time.

The stakes are high in this debate. You can try to make news or you can make a difference. I hope Maher starts doing the latter.


Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large of Time magazine.

Go to Original – washingtonpost.com


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One Response to “Let’s Be Honest, Islam Has a Problem Right Now”

  1. and I do agree on certain points, but it is better to say that world has a problem to understand Islam instead of saying “Islam has a problem today”
    Such a beautiful religious doctrine based on simple living, with least myths and confusions, is utterly misunderstood by the world. What is problem with Islam, if it say Alcohol is bad, gay marriage is unnatural, corruption is illegal, charity is noble act, girl child is more respectful than male child, percentage of females in Muslim nations is much better than other countries, No or less old age trend is there, and there are laws for conservation of environment, children and women rights, and a honest and God fearing life of individual in society is the ultimate goal.
    The Author writes, 10 terrorists attacks, majority are Muslims, firstly I say “No body in the world is terrorist, they are just misunderstood, less understood or wrongly understood party to the conflict” and beneath these attacks, though I never support, are cries, crisis, injustices, tyrannies due to numerous unaddressed issues. Israel is mother of all the modern day conflicts, tell me, where were Muslims involved in German holocaust, and was Hitler a Muslim, if not, then why we blame Islam.
    Had there been a no deliberate settlement of Israel in strange land, the scenario of world would have been different. When Muslims ask to resolve the conflict they were labelled as terrorist, tell me does saying somebody a terrorist is solution of a problem, no…

    And why US want the world to go in its way, who have given them licence to be responsible nations and Muslims as irresponsible. Who have given them right to have military bases around the globe. Why they attacked Iraq, when it invaded Kuwait, and why safeguarding Israel when it invaded Palestine.

    Imagine, to take revenge of 3000 people killed in 9/11, they killed another one million, the number of causalities was added to 3000, so they brought humanity at cross roads. And why 9/11 occurred, they never took the world there….!!!

    There is no mention of atrocities committed by Israel on neighbouring nations, and when same is done by ISIS, it is attributed to Islam, why not as revenge so far human nature is concerned.
    Secondly, Saddam was killed on Eid festival, regular army of a nation was brutally destroyed, in post Saddam era, the opponents were so brutally killed, but they all were covered in the coffin of terrorism, and this led to another angry group called ISIS, and again they (US) are repeating the same mistake – they are killing them without understanding their point of view, so not understanding their opponents is their problem, Islam has nothing to do with this.
    It is collective failure of world society to understand the very existence of this section of society.
    Muslims are humiliated in all the ways, when they need extra care, and moral boost to come out of this stigma.

    The Anchors and author must realise the underlying issues without jumping to conclusions. They must not see the things as they are, but see the things as the things are…!!!

    Peace Education for both world to know one another with a humane heart, is the need, otherwise, making Muslims to go American way is just like, if we try to write Arabic from left to right or English from right to left….!!!
    So not understanding the problem is the real problem….!!!