This is a re-post of my guest column from Faithline Protestants, a web forum that explores the intersection between Protestant Christianity and interfaith work.
It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately. Even going on Facebook has been difficult. Every time I go online I hear of more disturbing stories emerging from Iraq and Syria as the militant group ISIS continues to oppress minorities, rape women, and violently execute innocent men, women, and children. But what has made these horrific acts even more difficult to watch is the conversation swirling around them. Over and over again I have watched friends, colleagues, media personalities, and news outlets call ISIS the face of Islam. More and more people have begun to say things like, “This is what Islam is really about. They are finally showing their true colors to the world.” And as I have seen this picture of Islam painted over and over again I have actually begun to wonder, “Are they right? Is this truly what Islam is all about?”
What terrifies me about that thought is just how pervasive it is. For someone who spent his undergraduate studies focusing on Islam to suddenly start to wonder if this faith tradition is truly, at its core, a religion of violence says something about the power of this narrative. It is one that has begun to make me question even my own understanding of Islam.
And so, it has taken a conscious effort on my part to remember my past. I remember the late night conversations in the dining hall with my classmate Umar as we talked about the shared emphasis on social justice within both Christianity and Islam. I remember my Malaysian roommate, Adzwan, and how he would play religious music from his home country while I would share worship songs from my own faith tradition. I remember all the years of visiting the local mosque during Ramadan, only to be greeted with warm hugs, delicious food, and long conversations about the need to promote peace and advance humanitarian causes around the dinner table. I remember reading beautiful Sufi poetry, learning about Muslim leaders in nonviolence, and reading books by pioneering activists like Farid Escak, Eboo Patel, and Feisal Abdul Rauf.
And then I am confronted with ISIS, and my question suddenly becomes, “How do I respond to this, in light of all I know and all I have experienced?” The answer comes when I slow down and think carefully about what I am seeing. ISIS is an abbreviation of the name “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. More recently, this group has shortened its name to “The Islamic State.” And suddenly it becomes clear what the real agenda of this organization is. They are seeking to define Islam for the world. They want their extremist brand of religion to be the face of Islam to people the world over. They want to steal the heritage of this faith tradition and narrowly define it for their own violent and bloodthirsty ends. And, sadly….I think they are winning.
They are winning every time a Western news media outlet calls these fanatics “Muslims.” They are winning every time a person thinks, “This is the truth about Islam.” ISIS wants us to see them as the authoritative voice of how Muslims think, act, and behave in the modern world. And every time we charge them with being the true face of Islam, we give power to their voice while silencing the countless Muslims around the world who work for peace, nonviolence, and social justice.
So how do we change this trend? I would argue that the first thing we can do is call these people what they are: psychopaths, murderers, and rapists. They are not Muslims. They are not religious fanatics. They are genocidal maniacs. Pure and simple. We need to stop equating them and their violence with a faith tradition that is far more diverse and beautiful than the horror they would export. We need to rob them of their voice and their attempts to usurp the name “Islam” from the countless men and women who honorably and peacefully bear the name of “Muslim”.
Second, we can learn from, support, and work alongside the countless Muslim leaders who oppose groups like ISIS. I think of leaders like Feisal Abdul Rauf, Eboo Patel, Farid Esack, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, who are all leaders in the Muslim community and who have advanced the cause of peace both in the West and abroad. In doing so we can advance the cause of peace and work for greater understanding between people of all faith communities.
Thirdly, we need to get to know our Muslim neighbors. As one of the largest religious communities in the United States, it is likely that every one of us has at least one Muslim neighbor, coworker, or friend. I think it might be worth asking them about their faith and how it informs their life. Take some time to stop and listen to their stories and allow them to give you a broader perspective on what it means to be a follower of Islam. I think that this will not only strengthen your friendship, but will help redefine how we think about one another in a world where extremists are seeking to steal the mic.
My hope is that ISIS will not win the war against Islam. But that will only happen when we begin to interact with each other and work together to combat their propaganda campaign. May we truly stand united against the threats from terrorists everywhere.