Islam is the Same Everywhere. Or Not.

An African muslim once told me that islam* is the same everywhere. Not sure how our relatively genial conversation ended up there, but I was suggesting that there are probably different practices and interpretations of the faith from Madagascar to Indonesia. Not so much, he said. Islam is the same everywhere.

That work site had dozens, maybe hundreds of muslims on it. Someone suggested the human resources lady was posting about jobs at her mosque. In my time working there, I met muslims from America, Fiji, Serbia, Turkey, Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, and probably a few other African countries I didn’t gather the names of. Plus an agnostic Yazidi and another agnostic from Iraq, who were friends with the Iraqi muslims.

Some of them were very serious about praying at certain times, some only used the issue to try and get more cigarettes in, some never bothered with prayer during a work day at all. Of the women few wore hijab every day, most only did so occasionally. Some drank beer, some abstained, some were semi-functional alcoholics, some were crazy on drugs, clubbing, and hooking up. Some were in favor of gay and trans rights, at least one crappy fucker one expressed disdain for gay people ranging from mockery to extremely violent talk.

One young lady believed antisemitic conspiracy theories, another said she was being ridiculous. Some said any religion is good (meaning only abrahamic), as long as you were into god. The guy I mentioned at the top told me christianity and islam are our different culture’s versions of the same thing, something like practicing the religion of your birth was about respecting your culture. As an atheist, I was a space alien to any except the Iraqis – because their nation’s government used to be officially secular – and the Americans.

I heard one young lady saying, “Islam means doing what god tells you to do,” advocating the kind of grody dogmatism we tend to imagine is true of all muslims. I’ve heard it said the word means “submission” and maybe that’s true? Certainly consistent with the first paragraph of the wikipedia page. But unless all these wild tatted and pierced muslim youths were expecting to be able to atone before the booze did them in, I imagine their interpretation of “doing what you’re told” / islam was slightly different from hers. And I’ve heard the exact same sentiment from a banal moderate christian in my life, that anyone who she disagrees with isn’t doing what the bible says. The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is a common refrain from her, combined with an insistence that her ugly pentecostal church is all about doing what the bible says.

Some of the muslims studied religious literature during slow times at the job, some were more interested in watching cheesy internet videos or kung fu movies on their phones. I suspect all were sunni, but don’t know for sure. And one was from an obscure Indian sect of islam I’d never heard of and can no longer recall. Something about perfection and a number? I feel like it originated in the 19th century. Whatever.

The point is, islam wasn’t even the same everywhere in the neighborhood of that job, which suggests to me it might not be the same everywhere in the world as a whole. Muslims there ranged from devout, peaceful conservatives (who were no doubt shitty on many issues) to easy-going citizens of the world. The hulking violent asswipe was an outlier, and no worse culturally than the whitebread ex-marines in the same work place. They were probably more homophobic and conservative on average than the rest of us, but the worst people of any extraction were equally horrible. The only time I recall hearing something explicitly transphobic at the place was from a southern baptist.

I was working in Seattle. The muslims here – immigrant and otherwise – may be more liberal than in Europe and elsewhere. I can’t speak to that. But given my experience with them, the rampant violence against them in my country, and the way our mainstream media overrepresents islamophobic viewpoints in the interest of “balance,” and given the tone of our atheist community which led to one of ours proudly murdering innocent muslim people in their home, I think it would be really fucked up to not treat muslims with at least the same humanity I accord christians. Given the words of the most visible people in white Western atheism, I’d be morally delinquent to not rise to the defense of muslims in this very islamophobic nation.

They’re wrong, but they’re not all the same, they’re not all believing the same things in the same way, and in the USA you have much much more to fear from christians. You’d have to be ignorant, an outrageous liar, or a bigot to say otherwise.

As a culturally christian white man(-like person) in the USA, I really shouldn’t be trusted with saying anything critical of muslims here, unless they’re actively being a shit like the aforementioned homophobe. For that I refer you to the incomparable Heina DadabhoyEli Heina of The Orbit.

*Reminder: I’m refusing to capitalize religions on this blog.



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … they’re not all the same…

    At least one current FtBlogger seems in urgent need of this reminder.

  2. Robert,+not+Bob says

    I’m sure “Islam is the same everywhere” assumes the reality of the supernatural effects: i.e. he really meant “Allah is the same everywhere”. This is, I think, the basis for all “true Christian” and “true Muslim” claims.

  3. Menyambal says

    I lived and worked in a Muslim area once, even shared a house and job with a few. (My moniker is a souvenir.) Islam wasn’t the same even among the women in that house.

    But it should be, in a meta sense. If the religion has a book, everybody should be on the same page, so to speak. If there is an overseeing god with which they are in communication, they should speak with one voice. Sure, there may be a casual god that shrugs it off, but if everybody is saying that there is a strict god, and that they alone are obeying exactly, there is something wrong.

    The most likely thing is that they are all wrong about there being a god at all.

  4. Great American Satan says

    pierce @1- If that’s who I’m thinking, I feel like there are at least a few good reasons (just aside from in-site acrimony) for me to avoid taking that up – to the point I’ve personally avoided reading their blog. But even with that avoidance, I have seen hints of those thoughts around, and this is an oblique reaction to them. I’m content to just lay out the progressive case to make sure it’s represented somewhere on the network, and let it stand at that.

    marcus @2- My sarcastometer is ineffective on intertubes and my knowledge of the subject only slightly better than the average USian (not great), so for all I know that statement could be true to varying degrees over some parts of the world, or you’re just cracking wise because it really is as acrimonious as we’ve all heard. As to the guy I was speaking with, we can safely assume if he hates shia, he doesn’t even think of them as muslim.

    robnobob @3- That might be the case. We had a wee bit of a language barrier, but I feel like at that moment the subject was about beliefs and practices rather than metaphysics. The times I heard other people spouting interfaith “one love”-styled rhetoric, that was probably more about metaphysics.

  5. Vivec says

    I always found that characterization a little silly. I have a fair amount of friends – and family – that identify as cultural Muslims.

    Like, they celebrate the holidays, but don’t pray or stick to most of the various religious prescriptions (exemplified perfectly by two of my best friends at our LGBT center, who are a pork-eating, alcohol-drinking lesbian couple). They like a lot of the historical/cultural parts, but not the actual religious prescriptions or claims.

  6. Great American Satan says

    Vivec @7- That’s the kind of thing people need to read, the kind of thing I need to read, to counter the effect of living in a culture that is overwhelmingly pushing us toward islamophobia. Good stuff.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    G.A.S. @ # 5 – I avoided name-naming for the same reasons you cite. So far…

    Vivec @ # 7 – During the early days of Bush War II, I helped organize a teach-in which included a local imam. We knocked ourselves out to make sure he had a private place for prayer – but his primary concern was that we keep on schedule so that he could pick up his kids after soccer practice.

  8. R Mayhew says

    Actually I have heard this “islam is the same everywhere” several times in West-Africa (where I happen to live…). The problem is that many have / had no idea about the different schools / movements in islam and the history as the faith has been imported quite some centuries ago, Timbuktu is a testament to that. If you grow up in that culture without learning about the differences you just assume that every moslem is the same as you, as evidenced if you look around you (and as one poster mentioned, the book is the same…). This poses some problem as Saudi Arabia has the cash and will to finance madrasas, mosques (+Imam!) etc. to spread their version of salafist / wahabist islam. If you want your child to learn at least some of the texts of the quran you’ll send it off to the nearest madrasa and boom you got a salafist in the house. It’s like catholics sending their child to a baptist sermon because “all christians are the same everywhere”. I see more and more women completely veiled and little girls with hijabs, etc. which I was told was not a custom even 20-30 years ago (neither veil nor hijab).
    What’s more, as SA is the country that harbors Mecca many may think that it has the “original” version of islam and thus some authority / knowledge about how to be really a good moslem.

  9. Great American Satan says

    pierce @9- good luck, hopefully acrimony can stay low-key.

    mayhew @10- The guy I spoke with was East African, but I can easily imagine it’s the same situation there. That suuuuucks. Fucking Saudi Arabia.

  10. lorn says

    IMHO, based on a limited exposure to Muslims, the degree of moderation is inversely related to how seriously the person, community, society, takes the Koran, and how closely they follow the text.

    I’ve seem much the same thing with other books.

    I knew a small community of white supremacists. Some of them were decent people biding their time until a better offer was made. The violent, flaming, dickheads (literal in one case as he had a flame tattoo on the head of his penis. All I could say was OUUUCH!) were always the ones who spent a lot of time reading their core literature, Mein kampf” and “The Turner Diaries”.

    Libertarians play the same game with Ayn Rand books. The more they immersed themselves the more fanatical they became. For spectacle and farce there is little that can beat someone passionately reciting from memory Roark’s endless screeds.

    The Christian fundamentalists were the same way. The ones that spent the majority of their waking hours studying the Bible and taking it seriously as the ‘word of God’ tended to lose touch with the rest of humanity and started judging everything according to ‘God’s word’. Which is another way of saying they became narrow minded dicks.

    So to me the point here is that books that are deep enough to offer a self-contained reality unto themselves are all potentially dangerous. The really dangerous books teach acolytes to judge humanity by inhuman standards of, most often, racial or religious purity. Those are the most common but there are any number of inhuman standards.

    If you immerse yourself in the alternate reality offered, take it seriously, judge yourself and others according to it, you have effectively detached yourself from humanity.

    The Koran establishes the state-of-the-art social and cultural development of the seventh century as the ideal, and God’s final word. In its day it was , in parts, quite advanced. Under Islam the Caliphate was a very advanced and prosperous society. Unfortunately the fundamentalists took over, stifled progress and essentially trapped the Islamic world in both time and a cycle of perpetual backwardness and dysfunction.

  11. Great American Satan says

    The Lord of the Rings and Eron Gjoni’s writings have to be on that list somewhere.

    I’d be tempted to agree with you across the board on this (except fuck any degree of nazi), but even atheists who aren’t Randite trash have shown themselves fully capable of cutting themselves off from humanity and judging people by inhuman standards without need of books. It kinda undercuts your thesis.

    Back when I took the name G-A-S, I was a loooot more anti-religious and believed atheism was a truth that could save our asses if people could see. Sadly, by the time I started blogging on A+, atheists have proven this truth is utterly inadequate as a shield against bad reasoning and bad morals.

  12. lorn says

    The harm caused by judging others, and ourselves, by inhuman standards is more central to my point than the books. Everyone has met someone who is a egomaniac or a narcissist using their own idiosyncratic inhuman judgment system. Such systems can be entirely unsullied by external influences such as religious doctrine or any book.

    That said, a whole lot of it is associated with books. I suspect that this has to do with writing forcing the writer to explain their doctrine more clearly and the tendency for books to be owned, reread, and to become touchstones within a confusing world. Powerful books are ideas well packaged. With a book you can drag it under the covers and find your answers within its narrow conceptual framework, even as better answers, more complete and humane answers, are often waiting just outside your door. Unfortunately those better answers don’t come well organized, edited, formated, with cover art.

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