The ‘Real’ Islam doesn’t Exist
Every time a Muslim commits a disgusting act of violence, the same discussion plays out on social media. The senseless question of what the ‘real’ Islam is and how a ‘real’ Muslim should behave. It is a fallacious debate that prevents the very thing these discussions are supposed to achieve: finding allies in defending individual rights against ideologies that seek to destroy them.
The two sides in the debate on the ‘true’ identity of Islam are as follows:
1) Perpetrator X is not a real Muslim, because it says in the Qur’an that killing innocents is forbidden. The victims of attack Y were innocent, therefore perpetrator X is not a real Muslim.
2) Perpetrator X is exemplary of the true nature of Islam. It says in the Qur’an that infidels must be destroyed, the victims of perpetrator X were infidels, therefore perpetrator X is a real Muslim. Muslims who are not in favor of terror attacks are not real Muslims.
Argument 1 is often used by muslims and what we, for lack of a better term, will call here ‘the moderates’. Argument 2 is usually held by terrorist organisations like IS and their sympathizers and, ironically, by the ‘right’. We’ll call those who adhere to argument 2 ‘the extremists’.
More than enough has been written about how conclusions like 2 are exactly what terrorists want, and though I share the analysis, it alone is not enough to solve the action-reaction scheme that drives people to the fringes of the ‘Muslim question’.
both arguments demonstrate an utter lack of understanding about the nature and workings of language
Without claiming any knowledge of Islam or the Qur’an, I can say with certainty that both arguments 1 and 2 are nonsensical. This is because both arguments demonstrate an utter lack of understanding about the nature and workings of language.
Take for example the word ‘innocent’ that recurs in both arguments. What the word ‘innocent’ means to someone who blows up children, ploughs into pedestrians or randomly stabs couples on a Saturday night out, differs wildly from what it means to members of the general, non-psychopathic population. This makes simply saying ‘the victims were innocent, therefore perpetrator X is/isn’t a Muslim’ rather meaningless.
Though both arguments ignore that morally charged terms mean different things within the context of different ideologies, the 2nd argument has an interesting ace up its sleeve. Not only do the extremists ignore context, they also suffer from a very specific bias towards the gruesome. The criterium for ‘realness’ in religion is to find the most gruesome bits of any text and claim to have unearthed the ‘true’ nature of, in this case, Islam.
This extremist interpretation and selective blindness for all non-gruesome texts is often packaged – in another ironic twist – as a criticism of the selective blindness moderates have for the horrible passages in Holy texts. Someone who reads the Bible or Qur’an as something other than an instruction manual on how to slit infidel throats is ‘cherry picking’ – in ordinary lingo this is usually called ‘interpretation’. That extremists are doing the same, only in reverse – I’d like to coin the term ‘shit picking’ to describe this practice – is glossed over. After all, what is gruesome must be more real than what is not.
This tactic of traumatizing the audience with ‘the truth’ about their beliefs is of course not new. New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens have done it for decades. And it was all good fun when it was still banter within the context of semi-serious intellectual discussions. Now that the political reality in Europe and America has darkened, and media like InfoWars push the same arguments to a giant audience without any relativization, we’re dealing with a very different and dangerous situation.
Extremists are ‘shit picking’ religious texts, moderates are ‘cherry picking’.
To understand why it is a fallacy to look for the ‘real’ religion, you only have to look at the history of religion. How many denominations are there within the ‘single’ christian tradition? All originating with people reading the same texts and coming to very different conclusions. With every subsequent sect that branches off from the one before, the claim that your interpretation is the true interpretation becomes increasingly absurd.
This is extra obvious in a religious text, that is usually written over a longer period of time, by multiple authors, in different contexts and in strange languages. The resulting text will not only contain all the ambiguity and context dependency inherent in natural language, but also passages that will seem completely contradictory. The same Bible that contains genocide, rape and casual slavery also tells us not to kill and commands us to love our neighbors and enemies. How can you make sense of a book that is both extremist and moderate, depending on the part you happen to read?
The reader of such a text will have to come up with a hierarchy to understand it. This hierarchy is the actual point of battle between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in the discussion over the true identity of Islam. It is exceedingly simple to ridicule someone else’s’ hierarchy of values and pretend you are ridiculing the faith itself. For example, plastering the text ‘religion of peace’ above the mangled remains of the victims of a terror attack is a popular alt-right meme.
Although this amounts to no more than two strawmen battling each other for a cheap sense of superiority and likes, it is no wonder the extremists are winning the meme wars. Impact-wise a gruesome picture is worth a thousand peace-loving words. The problem is that this vapid self-indulgence will not actually help us find out who our allies are and who our enemies. What matters is not who or what is a real Muslim, but whose interpretation of Islam is compatible with individual rights and liberties and whose isn’t. The same principle goes for every ideology, religious or secular.
What someone means when they say ‘the victims were innocent, therefore perpetrator X is/isn’t a Muslim’ is ‘my interpretation of Islam or morality considers children and civilians innocents, therefore the perpetrator does not share my interpretation of Islam or morality’. Instead of attacking Muslims who say this by calling them liars or fake Muslims, we should recognize that we are dealing with allies and treat them as such.
Those whose goal is to actually defend liberty and not just to cause more distrust and confusion in order to grow their political ideology or cash flow now have the chance to do so. I guess by their fruits we shall know them.
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