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In a recent post on The Atlantic, Caner Dagli argues at length that fundamentalist Islam isn’t real Islam. And in fact, it is dangerous to non-fundamentalist Muslims to put them in this position:

[T]he notion that a faithful Muslim could be critiquing ISIS in a moral and rational fashion is discarded [by recent articles like this one]. He can only be a sympathizer, a hypocrite, or a dupe who is ignorant of the requirements of his own faith. … All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims “speak out.” But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us.

But is this really true?

The writers on both sides have perfectly good credentials: Dagli is a professor of religious studies, citing other professors who have dissenting opinions. (We here at J & C read the news are honest: we have no such authority, just a healthy dose of skepticism).

Let’s take another look at what Dagli actually says. As I see it, the argument falls into three parts:

  1. Islamic fundamentalists cannot be “literally” interpreting Islam, because such literalism leads to absurdity.
  2. Similarly, their adherence to beliefs that we non-fundamentalists find abhorrent is not backed up by centuries of more liberal Islamic history.
  3. Therefore, it is both wrong and dangerous to criticize Islamic fundamentalism by calling them ‘literalists’; this is cruel to moderate Muslims, and justifies fundamentalist violence by attributing it to religion.

So I ask again: is this really true? What if we substitute a different religion for “Islam”?

Christian fundamentalists have blown up and set fire to abortion clinics. And not just in one country, but around the world: in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, Italy… The attacks in Norway and the war in Northern Ireland were religiously motivated. And these are relatively recent events: we don’t need to go back to the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch trials, or pogroms.

Jews also are not exempt. Fundamentalist Jews in Israel are an issue of increasing concern to moderates. They attack Israeli Muslims when praying. They bulldoze Palestinian settlements. They have been implicated in the delay of the peace process — by fellow Israelis. Nor is such violence limited to the Middle East — abuse has been alleged in New York and Canada, and a few years ago sectarian strife broke out in Brooklyn over the holidays.

These are incidents for the two other major religions in North America; I’m sure that if one looked for incidents of Hindu extremism, Shinto extremism, Buddhist extremism, or extremism in other religions, one could find them. So if we admit that fundamentalist beliefs in any religion can lead to violence, misinterpretation of scripture, and extremism, why should we doubt that the same is true for Islam?

Dagli’s opinion requires Muslims to be different from anyone else in the world. I sympathize with the overall idea — certainly Muslims and Islamic beliefs are demonized in some quarters. But we are not doing anyone any favors by putting our heads in the sand, either. Some Muslims are terrorists and they use religion as their excuse. Most Muslims aren’t. Let’s blame the perpetrators, not the religion.

 

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