Middle East studies in the News
Raising Questions Within Islam After France Shooting [incl. Khaled Fahmy, M. Steven Fish]
by David D. Kirkpatrick
Islamist extremists behead Western journalists in Syria, massacre thousands of Iraqis, murder 132 Pakistani schoolchildren, kill a Canadian soldier and take hostage cafe patrons in Australia. Now, two gunmen have massacred a dozen people in the office of a Paris newspaper.
The rash of horrific attacks in the name of Islam is spurring an anguished debate among Muslims here in the heart of the Islamic world about why their religion appears cited so often as a cause for violence and bloodshed.
The majority of scholars and the faithful say Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions. But some Muslims — most notably the president of Egypt — argue that the contemporary understanding of their religion is infected with justifications for violence, requiring the government and its official clerics to correct the teaching of Islam.
"It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world," President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt lamented last week in a speech to the clerics of the official religious establishment. "You need to stand sternly," he told them, calling for no less than "a religious revolution."
Others, though, insist that the sources of the violence are alienation and resentment, not theology. They argue that the authoritarian rulers of Arab states — who have tried for decades to control Muslim teaching and the application of Islamic law — have set off a violent backlash expressed in religious ideas and language. Promoted by groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, that discourse echoes through Muslim communities as far away as New York or Paris, whose influence and culture still loom over much of the Muslim world.
"Some people who feel crushed or ignored will go toward extremism, and they use religion because that is what they have at hand," said Said Ferjani, an official of Tunisia's mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda, speaking about the broader phenomenon of violence in the name of Islam. "If you are attacked and you have a fork in your hand, you will fight back with a fork."
Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian, was teaching at New York University on Sept. 11, 2001, after which American sales of the Quran spiked because readers sought religious explanations for the attack on New York.
"We try to explain that they are asking the wrong question," he said. Religion, he argued, was "just a veneer" for anger at the dysfunctional Arab states left behind by colonial powers and the "Orientalist" condescension many Arabs still feel from the West.
"The Arab states have not delivered what they are supposed to deliver and it can only lead to a deep sense of resentment and frustration, or to revolution," he said. "It is the nonviolence that needs to be explained, not the violence."
Only a very small number of Muslims pin the blame directly on the religion itself.
"What has ISIS done that Muhammad did not do?" an outspoken atheist, Ahmed Harqan, recently asked on a popular television talk show here, using common shorthand for the Islamic State to argue that the problem of violence is inherent to Islam.
Considered almost blasphemous by most Egyptian Muslims, his challenge provoked weeks of outcry from Islamic religious broadcasters and prompted much-watched follow-up shows. In subsequent debates on the same program, Salem Abdel-Gelil, a scholar from the state-sponsored Al Azhar institute and former official of the ministry overseeing mosques, fired back with Islamic verses about tolerance, peace and freedom.
But then he warned that, under Egypt's religion-infused legal system, the public espousal of atheism might land his opponents in jail.
"When a person comes out and promotes his heresy, promotes his debauchery, and justifies his apostasy on the basis that 'Islam is not good,' then there is the judiciary," Sheikh Abdel-Gelil said. "The judiciary will get him."
M. Steven Fish, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, sought to quantify the correlation between Islam and violence. In his book, "Are Muslims Distinctive?," he found that murder rates were substantially lower in Muslim-majority countries and instances of political violence were no more frequent.
Over a 15-year period ending in 2008, Islamist militants were responsible for 60 percent of high-casualty terrorist bombings, his study found, but almost all were concentrated in just a handful of Muslim-majority countries in the context of larger conflicts that were occurring — places like Afghanistan after the American invasion or Algeria after the military takeover.
"Is Islam violent? I would say absolutely not," Mr. Fish said in an interview. "There is very little empirical evidence that Islam is violent."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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