This post might end up becoming a bit of rant but here goes.
Lately, there’s been a lot of articles calling for “moderate” Muslims to denounce their extermist counterparts and to side with the “forces of freedom”. This presupposes a couple of things that really get under my skin.

First of all, there’s the assumption that Islam is something like alcohol. Taken in moderation, it’s okay. But take too much of it, it’s harmful. ie. It’s intrinisically a bad thing but if taken in small amounts, it’s acceptable. I don’t think any serious Muslim subscribes to this view. They profess and practice the religion becuase they believe in it’s tenets and believe it to be a path to salvation. The peddling of moderate Islam as some kind of socially and culturally acceptable variant of the faith these days is mistaken. Although I don’t have poll results to back my assertions, I have seen on forums people calling Muslims who abstain from alcohol and who pray five times a day both of which are part and parcel of the faith extreme. This would mean that if you give up some parts of your faith and go along with the crowd, you’re okay - a moderate. But if you follow the religion completely, you’re an extermist who’s predisposed to blowing himself up.

That brings me to my second point. A lot of blogs and “intellectuals” (the one that I’m most familiar with is Sam Harris) out there like to pretend that they know Islam inside out. Then they go on to discuss how “hatred of the infidel” and “violent Jihad” are at the core of the religion. They even quote Islamic scripture to support their claims. This is untrue on a number of levels. The facts are wrong but what is more annoying is how many of these people assume that a cursory reading of a translation of the Quran and some hadith makes them completely aware of the deepest and innermost aspects of the second largest faith in the world. The “I’ve read the Quran and it extolls terrorism” variety of speakers don’t have any idea how Islamic law is formulated, they have no idea how and where Muslims study religion and they have no clue of actual Islamic law. They’re as deluded as the misguided people out there who think that killing innocent non-combatants and suicide bombing are okay. Both of them are embarassinly ignorant of the facts - one chooses to act on their understanding and the other to criticise their understanding.
Orthodox Islamic scholars spend years studying the religion and it transforms them. These are not “moderates” who “cherry pick” (another favourite phrase) scripture but learned people who act on what they’ve learnt. I’ve met many such people personally and their maturity and large heartedness is the reason I got out of the agnostic rut I was wallowing in a couple of years ago.

The next point is not a core problem but it’s prevalent anyway. It’s the idea that Islam in a vaccum isolated from all external factors can and almost surely will radicalise an otherwise sane human being into becoming a rabid fanatic calling for the death of the non believer. This is sadly out of touch with reality and theres even emperical data to support this. Economic strangulation, social oppression and years of being trodden on have turned a lot of people to mindless violence to achieve their aims. I saw a couple of videos of Sam Harris debating Reza Aslan. He quotes polls to show how even educated Muslims worldwide support suicide bombing and then goes on to say how this is because of the tenets of the religion. A Gallup Poll says the opposite. Some of the interesting points are noted below

  1. After analyzing survey data representing more than 90% of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority saw the 9/11 attacks as morally justified.
  2. Muslims do not hold a monopoly on extremist views. While 6% of Americans think attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified,” in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s 4%. In Europe, Muslims in Paris and London were no more likely than were their counterparts in the general public to believe attacks on civilians are ever justified and at least as likely to reject violence, even for a “noble cause.”
  3. On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condoned the attacks of 9/11 cited the Quran for justification. Instead, this group’s responses were markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent said, “The U.S. government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing.”

Fourthly, there’s this assumption that several western ideas like nation states, democracy etc. are all by definion “good” and that the Muslim world hasn’t come to grips with the beauty of these ideas making them somehow backward. There’s an interview with Syed Hossein Nasr in which he talks about this idea. Societies are different, people are different. What might be a good idea in one society might not be the best thing for another. I’m not saying that all these things are bad outright. I’m just saying that they need not be assumed as good just because they’re coming from the west.

The breeding ground for terrorism is the situation that many western countries have created in these parts (eg. Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine etc.). Unless, these things stop, violence is going to go on even if the whole of Islam - lock, stock and barrell were magically spirited away.

All this being said, Muslims themselves have a lot of fixing to do. J. Random Muslim these days doesn’t really pray, he doesn’t really come to the mosque on Friday, he doesn’t dress, speak or behave as Islam prescribes. He doesn’t fast in Ramadhan and he doesn’t spend any time or energy on studying his religion properly and practising it. Unless this is fixed, Muslims are going to have a hard time.


  1. Anonymous Coward 01.05.10 / 10am

    When I was in Kuwait, speakers at mosques would regularly speak of the rest of the world as “infidels” and “rascals”.

    Nowadays in Kerala, women who formerly would walk around like any other Malayalee, are now somehow being forced to wear the veil and scarf.

    Neither of these problems can be attributed to people being bad Muslims or central tenets of Islam being bad. It has more to do with the political force and abuse of political power in the hands of communalists, in order to create vote banks and centers of power. Muslim community is not alone in this, but more and more it seems the Muslim community is taking an isolationist stance.

    Also, I disagree that anyone should follow all the tenets of Islam (or any other religion). Just like any other archaic philosophical systems and ideologies, good things should be kept and the rest discarded.

    In history, one can identify many social reformations that have occurred in other religious communities. Islamic communities also need to address this and adopt reforms where needed. Note: I’m not prescribing any specific reforms.

  2. Noufal 01.05.10 / 12pm

    Nowadays in Kerala, women who formerly would walk around like any other Malayalee, are now somehow being forced to wear the veil and scarf.

    Post 9/11, there has been a bit of a revival of Islam in traditional Muslim societies as well as non-Muslim ones. A faith which they followed came under fire. Some people buckled and “moderated” (i.e. watered down) themselves so that they’d be more acceptable to the general junta. Others studied their religion in order to defend it and because of this, were reconnected to their spiritual and religious roots (one of the outward manifestations of which is the women wearing scarves and the men growing beards).

    It is true that in some families/societies, women are being forced to wear the veil (just like in some societies like France, they’re being forced not to). However, to generalise and say that most women who would walk around “like any other Malayalee” are being “forced to wear the veil and scarf” is in accurate. Not all of them are being forced and my personal experience is that most of them do so because of the above reason (the recent upsurge i.e.).

    Just like any other archaic philosophical systems and ideologies, good things should be kept and the rest discarded.

    Everyone’s free to do that. However, once you do, you’re following something other than Islam while you might have you reasons, you’ve distanced yourself from the community.

    Also, Muslims don’t view their religion as either archaic, nor a philosophical system nor (just an) ideology. It’s their way of life a part of themselves. Introspection is a good thing but ditching parts of a set of rules so that one confirms to an external criterion is a wishy washy way of accepting the aforesaid external criterion as the set of rules. Moral systems/religions are supposed to guide and when they do, there’s going to be clashes. If one ditches the parts one finds hard, one’s not going experience any of the gains of the system.

  3. Noufal 01.05.10 / 12pm

    In history, one can identify many social reformations that have occurred in other religious communities. Islamic communities also need to address this and adopt reforms where needed.

    The history of Ottoman Turkey is an example of social reformations that happened within Islam. There’s no embargo against that. What’s problematic is “religious” reforms in the core of the religion and Islam is not very amenable to that.

  4. Noufal 01.05.10 / 12pm

    When I was in Kuwait, speakers at mosques would regularly speak of the rest of the world as “infidels” and “rascals”.

    I’m sure there are several preachers who do but I’m sure that’s not the majority position (unless you fished out the particularly controversial mosques). I’ve missed maybe 3 or 4 Friday prayers in the last 15 years and have been to mosques in the middle east (grew up there), various places in India and a couple in the US. I’ve never once heard the Imams referring to the rest of the world as either infidels or rascals. They do refer to them (ie. non-muslims) as disbelievers/non-muslims which is a statement of fact rather than a judgement.

  5. Anonymous Coward 03.05.10 / 2am

    Regarding scarves and beards, I suppose flying the Saudi flag is one of those things that happens due to religious fervour (there are several flying at many places in my city). Also, discarding the standard Indian salutation of “Shri” in favor of “Janab”. How about a “fatwa” against practice of Yoga, which is an indian contribution to Health and Fitness … among many other visible manifestations.

    In regard to “way of life”, Islam is just like any other religion. Every religion has a holy book, prescribes a routine, and offers means to salvation. Over history, these religions have adapted to changes in society and adopted civil reforms. Islam you seem to say, is immune to this. Well, actually it’s not: a case in point is India itself with a democratic way of life, with an independent judiciary and most important - freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion. You wrote at length about Islam - try being a Hindu or a Jew and do the same in any of the Arab or Islamic countries.

    Turkey is very different politically and socially. It has adopted a lot of social reforms and as a result, eroded many of the religious requirements as well. Being a Cafeteria Catholic or a Cafeteria Muslim is not such a bad thing at all, if it brings along with a sensitivity to modern ideals and, democratic and civil behaviour. It seems Turkey is well along that path.

    You, yourself, may be a progressive Muslim - belief in all the right things in your religion and being a good and productive member of society (I do know that, atleast from your contributions to FLOSS). But many of the leaders of your community are not, and even though there are some who have spoken against it, it will probably be some more time until the majority of your community revolts against isolationist and non-democratic ideologies created in the guise of “laws of Islam”.

  6. Noufal 03.05.10 / 1pm

    Regarding scarves and beards, I suppose flying the Saudi flag is one of those things that happens due to religious fervour (there are several flying at many places in my city).

    Unfortunately, the Saudi government is one of the few in the world that actually spend state resources to spread their variant of Islam. Flying the Saudi flag is an unhealthy political allegiance. Not a religious one.

    Also, discarding the standard Indian salutation of “Shri” in favor of “Janab”. How about a “fatwa” against practice of Yoga, which is an indian contribution to Health and Fitness … among many other visible manifestations.

    Insisting on Shri doesn’t work for many people. It’s not commonly used in South India and was never commonly used in Muslim societies. I fail to see why it’s an issue. Muslims have usedAssalamu alalikum as their greeting no matter where they’re from. If you ask them to use something else since this is not “Indian” enough, it’s not going to work. Why the need to “enforce” Indianness anyway? Unless these people are out to harm the country, what’s the problem if they don’t like the “traditional Indian” way of doing things? If “Indianness” is that important, wouldn’t it be a good move to ban names like “Abdullah” and insist on using “Indian” ones? I think this is a strawman argument.

    As for Yoga, I don’t agree with the ban but I knew some physical education teachers who would insist that we (i.e. Muslim students) do specific chants like Om which are taken from Hinduism. If it’s a health thing, it should be completely a health thing and all religious components should be excised from it. If not, then they should be frank about it. A blind ban of the whole thing saying that it’s unislamic is not a good thing in my opinion and I disagree with such fatwas.

    In regard to “way of life”, Islam is just like any other religion.

    Not to a Muslim and my article was written from a Muslim standpoint.

    try being a Hindu or a Jew and do the same in any of the Arab or Islamic countries.

    A couple of points. Arab and Muslim are two different things. The last few decades unfortunately has seen an increase in intolerance and isolationism which is hard to combat since the people who are supported financially are the intolerant groups (e.g. Saudi Arabia). However, this is not the classical form of Islam. Jewish people in Ottoman Turkey invited their co-religionists from other parts of Europe where they were actively being discriminated against. Also, countries ruled by the Muslims still have their old churches and other such buildings. There is an issue in some countries these days and that’s not solved by reforming Islam and making it something else. It’s resolved by going back to how Islam was.

    India is a great place to live in but it’s not exactly a heaven for Muslims. There are plenty of activities in the country that are discriminatory. Not all open and not all public but there certainly are. Godhra was an example of something that was a little more public. Neither are places like France with it’s compulsory scarf/veil ban, Switzerland with it’s minarent ban etc. Your characterisation of only the Arab Muslim countries as being discriminatory is inaccurate. Discrimination is a problem and it exists everywhere. A Catholic will never have the religious environment he gets in Italy if he goes to a Muslim country but we should draw a line between demographics dictating customs and practices and actual discrimination.

    Being a Cafeteria Catholic or a Cafeteria Muslim is not such a bad thing at all, if it brings along with a sensitivity to modern ideals and, democratic and civil behaviour.

    For some perhaps. I don’t think you’ll get any self respecting Muslim (or Christian or Jew or Hindu for that matter) to agree with you when you tell them that they have to ditch parts of their faith to fit in with modern society. They will resist.

    If modern behaviour is against what they believe in, they’re going to resist it. This is what a system to beliefs should do. Try to effect change in the society. Not just change according to where society is heading.

    It seems Turkey is well along that path.

    I’m not sure really but as far as I know, Turkey is in a situation where the ruling elite is pretty much a military dictatorship that worships Ataturk and enforces secularism (which is about as far away from religious freedom as you can get) and the general junta years for their old Ottoman Islamic identity. I had some polls that validated this but can’t find them right now.

    You, yourself, may be a progressive Muslim - belief in all the right things in your religion and being a good and productive member of society (I do know that, atleast from your contributions to FLOSS).

    I believe that my religion is entirely right. I follow it because I sincerely believe in it - lock, stock and barrel. I don’t cut out parts of it because they’re “inconvenient” or because they don’t “fit in”. If I don’t do something that it asks me to, I view it as a failure on my part and try to fix it rather than just “legalise” it. I don’t believe in the distorted interpretation that the suicide bombers have. None of them even have basic Islamic education in a traditional setting (I can refer you to Scott Atrans presentation at the last 2 beyond belief conferences to validate this as he’s been involved personally with a lot of self styled mujahideen and has spoken to hundreds of them). I also don’t subscribe to the cafeteria Muslims view that it’s just an ideology that he can cherry pick from and ignore at will. My FLOSS thing is orthogonal to my faith and I don’t think of it as a big social contribution. It’s just something that I do for fun.

    I think the differences between your outlook and mine are because you’re cultural Christian (I’m guessing your religion from your name) with a secular outlook whereas I’m an orthodox Muslim with a religious outlook. I don’t think the views can be reconciled on an ideological level so we’ll have to agree to disagree on this point.

    But many of the leaders of your community are not, and even though there are some who have spoken against it, it will probably be some more time until the majority of your community revolts against isolationist and non-democratic ideologies created in the guise of “laws of Islam”.

    I know that there are plenty of problems that Muslims (not Islam but Muslims) need to fix in their societies (I mentioned that in the last paragraph of my post). They however need to look inwards to fix themselves.

    The majority of the community (refer poll numbers above) however, don’t want and don’t agree with the terrorists who perpetrate atrocities in their name. However, the media coverage goes to the latter party. You need sensationalism to sell. A good example is the issue of A common word. This was a letter signed by Muslim leaders all across the globe. Regardless of your school of thought/sect, you’d have atleast one person in the list of signatories that you respected and it was sent to the pope. It was pretty much unprecedented historically. However, at this time, some rabble rousers decided to burn an effigy of the pope in response to his comments about Muhammad (peace be upon him). No prizes for guessing which event the media focussed on. I read an article on this with statistics in the Islamic magazine (I have a printed copy).

    As for isolationism and democracy, generally speaking, Muslims countries are allowed democracy as long as they vote for the right people. If not, they’re punished (a recent example is Hamas in Palestine). Take a dictatorial country (e.g. Saudi Arabia) - who do you think is propping up the government? Take the Shah Pahelvi of Iran who was toppled by an Islamic revolution in Iran. Who do you think was keeping him on the throne? Take Iraq - who inflicted freedom and democracy onto an innocent population? Where are the leaders rising up against these things? I’m not saying it excuses the Muslims from cleaning up their act. It does however reek of hypocrisy to not acknowledge these and yet to demand that Muslims speak against ills in their society. I think Tony Benn said it well - “What is a moderate Muslim? Is it a man who doesn’t mind that we’ve invaded his country and killed his family?”

  7. Anonymous Coward 03.05.10 / 7pm

    Some of the arguments you make are good. However many are misguided. First a “disclaimer” - I am an atheist, probably a militant one.

    You talk about France banning the veil. Turkey has banned veil in schools, universities, government offices, etc for quite some time.

    You talk about systems and how it is essential to follow various rules in order to gain the benefits of such systems. You also object to the use of “Om” that is used for timing and breathing in Yoga, even though it is totally non-religious. Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. Also, I’m afraid, you will no longer be able to use a wide variety of words in Malayalam, Hindi, etc simply due to their supposedly “religious” origin. Finally, you seem to indicate there is some pristine set of rules and regulations that constitute “Islam”, but history and current knowledge speaks volumes against this assumption.

    As for other religions adopting reforms as society changed, this is a feature of pretty much all religions, including Christianity and Islam, in various parts of the world. Of course, you will just respond by saying ‘Oh! Thats not Islam’ or some other meaningless reaction. It’s quite obvious that the Islam of Taliban is not quite the Islam of nibrahim and is not quite the Islam of Madani, but which Islam is the “right” one? IMHO, all are “Islam”; just that all have adopted their own ideological stances, for political and social reasons. This situation is not so different in Christianity either.

    PS: It’s very difficult to respond to your arguments, because I cannot quote them directly in my response.

  8. Noufal 03.05.10 / 10pm

    Some of the arguments you make are good. However
    many are misguided. First a “disclaimer” - I am an atheist,
    probably a militant one.

    Fair enough. Takes all kinds of people to make a world.

    You talk about France banning the veil. Turkey has banned veil in
    schools, universities, government offices, etc for quite some
    time.

    Like I said, there’s a rift between the hyper secular
    government. Turkey as far as I can tell is almost stalinist in
    it’s secular principles with Ataturk as their prophet (you can’t
    use his name for anyone else in the country and can’t ‘disagree’
    with him). Ironically, the freedom of religion is a lot less than
    when it was ruled by the caliphate.

    Also, I’m afraid, you will no longer be able to use
    a wide variety of words in Malayalam, Hindi, etc simply due to
    their supposedly “religious” origin.

    You’ll have to leave that to individual people unless there’s
    something you’re trying to preserve just like Muslims are trying
    to preserve their faith. Generally speaking though, Islam is
    flexible regarding cultural changes. You only have to look at
    mosques and Islamic liturgies around the world and contrast them
    to Catholic Churches which all look like they were air
    dropped from the Vatican. I’m from Kerala myself and there are
    plenty of Muslim hymns, songs, books and other things which are
    quite unique to Kerala. It’s blended with the local culture to
    create something unique. This is however a situation that is
    changing quickly thanks to the Saudi sponsored propaganda
    building and it’s something many Muslims are fighting
    against. One of Islam’s strengths has been the ability to
    accomodate to the local without changing itself but that’s being
    hurt by the cash flows from the Saudi government. It’s something
    I deplore.

    Finally, you seem to indicate there is some pristine
    set of rules and regulations that constitute “Islam”, but history
    and current knowledge speaks volumes against this assumption.

    As for other religions adopting reforms as society changed, this
    is a feature of pretty much all religions, including Christianity
    and Islam, in various parts of the world. Of course, you will
    just respond by saying ‘Oh! Thats not Islam’ or some other
    meaningless reaction. It’s quite obvious that the Islam of
    Taliban is not quite the Islam of nibrahim and is not quite the
    Islam of Madani,

    Yup. Islam is a prophetic religion. It was revealed to a single
    man. Therefore, it has a starting
    date
    and a date when it was declared
    complete
    . However, I’m not so dense as to claim that it’s
    absolutely unmutable. The religion has built into it exceptions,
    rules for change and alteration, methodologies for making new
    rules etc. These however restrict how it can be modified so so as
    to not mutate into something else.

    There’s a core “first principles” (e.g. The Prophet did receive a
    revelation) which you won’t find any Muslims disagreeing
    with. Then there are parts that are derived from these which are
    not as black and white as the original but the differences are
    minor. Then there are juridical pronouncements by various jurists
    over the years which have varying degrees of
    acceptance (e.g. there’s a pretty unanimous fatwa about the
    illegality of spirits although the Quran mentions only wine).

    The key issue which I’m emphasising is that there are certain
    parts that don’t change. Being a cafeteria Muslim might bring
    those into the realm of mutability but that doesn’t really get
    any widespread acceptance and it’s just a matter of time before
    they finally move out of the faith as a whole. I personally don’t
    like such people. Either they say that Islam is true and accept
    it or they say that it’s false and deny it. The wishy washy is
    not cool.

    Also, to make the picture more realistic, there have always been
    sects and splinter groups (some of which are still within the
    fold of Islam and some which have openly stated that they’re a
    separate religion). These will happen over time but there’s still
    a huge majority that are pretty much the same as when they
    started off.

    I’ll have to make an assumption here and say that your knowledge
    of what constitutes the “Taliban’s Islam” and “Madani’s Islam” is
    very limited and cursory. The Taliban is not known for it’s
    Islamic scholarship. It’s known for it’s firebrand politics and
    government of Afghanistan. Madani likewise is known for his
    firebrand speeches rather than for his qualifications as an
    Islamic scholar. These are people amplified by the media.

    The common word I alluded to above exemplifies this. How many
    non-muslims have heard of it? It’s pretty much unprecedented in
    the history of all religions that practically every sect in such
    a huge faith agree on all points of such a huge letter. That’s
    unanimity for you. The Taliban and Madani, while present, are
    details and not a large factor.

    but which Islam is the “right” one? IMHO, all are “Islam”;

    Well, I don’t know what you’re looking for with these
    people. They do get the blood boiling but if you’re seeking
    traditional Islamic knowledge, it’s best you go to a teacher with
    an Ijaza (a
    certificate of authorisation to teach a specific
    discipline). That’s how Islamic knowledge has been transmitted
    and the whole “I’ve read the Quran and I know what it says”
    school (which people like Harris and Dawkins seem to subscribe
    to) is completely alien to the practice of Islam.

    just that all have adopted their own ideological
    stances, for political and social reasons. This situation is not
    so different in Christianity either.

    Oh, that’ll always be there. People looking for power and
    influence will use whatever they have regardless of the
    consequences. I don’t know what Madani and the Talian intend with
    their approach but I agree with you here. The point is that
    they’re not the ones people go to for their religious education
    and they shouldn’t be.

    PS: It’s very difficult to respond to your
    arguments, because I cannot quote them directly in my response.

    I think it’s getting rambling as well. You’re welcome to mail me
    at noufal at gmail dot com if you want to continue the
    discussion. I think I’ll stop discussing it on the blog.

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