The Muslim Face and the Image of Islam

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. One by Kenan Malik titled “Is there something about Islam?” and the other by Mehdi Hasan titled “What the Jihadists Who Bought ‘Islam For Dummies’ on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation”. Both deal with certain crucial questions that are almost always missing in current discourses on Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Terrorism. These questions are especially necessary when the world has to deal with the current crisis of the Islamic State in the Arabic world.

To what extent does Islam Influence the actions of Muslims, especially actions that are violent?

I understand that many here would have problems with me quoting Hasan, and for valid reasons, but his article is an interesting read if anybody is interested in understanding how or why the head-choppers of ISIS are behaving the way they do. He doesn’t answer them, but does present us with an approach in which non-Muslims can deal with these issues. The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists. Hasan gives us the example of two self-proclaimed Jihadists, Yususf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty of terrorism in Syria and who have also recently (after returning from Syria) reported to have bought a book titled Islam for Dummies. Hasan tries to argue that religious literacy has little to do with acts of violence by believers, in the name of their belief.

I for one, do see the point in his argument. Take for instance, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS and compare that with the historical Sunni institution of the Caliphate. The first Rashiddun Caliphate that was established after the death of Mohammed was structured according to the Islamic nation built by the prophet in Medina. This Islamic polity was based on the Constitution of Medina, a charter signed by the leaders or representatives of various warring tribes in the region which is today known as Hejaz. One of the responsibilities of the Caliph was also to extend protection of life, trade, property and personal faith of non-Muslims who pay taxes, in accordance with Islamic conjectures, and who owe their allegiance to the Caliphate as its subjects. Apart from that the first four Caliphs were also elected by a constellation of leaders (and also some elected representatives) of all tribes that follow the Muslim faith and accept the Caliphate (this primitive system of representational/oligarchic democracy is also believed to have its roots from the then defunct Roman Republic). All this is very much unlike the murderous gun-trotting butchers that call themselves the Islamic State.

Malik too raises this argument in his article regarding violence committed by Muslims, and the portrayal and treatment of such violence.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The “Buddhist fundamentalism” of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. …

Before we continue, it has to be noted that neither Hasan nor Malik (or even me for that matter) declare that the radicals or fundamentalist never justify their actions or opinions on the religion that they follow. The point here is that the assumption that everything that Muslims do wrong is primarily because of whatever is written in their scriptures is not only lop-sided but also extremely problematic. Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice. Take for instance, the practice of female genital mutilation among certain group of Muslims, and Sati that was practiced in India. In both case the proponent or the apologists argue(d) for it as a part of their religion, while neither is in any manner or interpretation prescribed in either religion. While the media has been reporting brutal murder of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis by the ISIS militants, not many are reporting the fact that it is the Sunni Muslim Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that are putting up a brave fight against the ISIS. Even the part where the same Kurdish militias created a humanitarian route for both aid and supply, and an escape to a safe region for their Yazidi counterparts was heavily under-reported by major international news media, including Al Jazeera (see here and here). Another thing that did not come up in the news was how the world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Indonesia, dealt with advocates of ISIS, by instituting an outright ban of and a threat of revocation citizenship (see here and here). Both these examples are to give a context of the perceptions and narratives.

Who is a true Muslim? And who represents Muslims?

Malik also raises the question of the what, or rather who, is representative of Islam and Muslims in general.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

“You’re not a real Muslim.” Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For many leftwing anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. For many rightwing bigots (and, indeed, for many leftwing bigots, too), there is something about Islam that makes it irredeemably violent, even evil, and that makes all Muslims potentially dangerous.

Here also, liberal so-called anti-racism becomes a vehicle for buttressing the most reactionary, conservative voices in Muslim communities and for marginalizing the progressive. It becomes a means of closing down debate, censoring criticism, and giving power and legitimacy to “community leaders’ spouting the most backward of views. “The controversy over the cartoons”, as Naser Khader observed, “was not about Muhammad. It was about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” Which is why many Muslims, ironically, often have more liberal views on free speech than many so-called liberal non-believers.


… The problem is also the attitudes of non-Muslim commentators, policymakers and activists, both liberals and bigots, as to what constitutes an authentic Muslim, the failure to see beyond the conservative or the reactionary as the true Muslim, the inability to distinguish between the faith of ordinary believers and the politicised use of faith for reactionary ends by power-grabbing, control-seeking individuals and organizations. The problem is also government policy, particularly in the West. Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.

We need to seriously deal with popular image of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Take for instance, the Shah Bano case and the Indian National Congress’s bending over backwards for reactionary and regressive Muslims. This case is very much apt to describe what Malik is trying to say. Despite the support and advocacy by several major Muslim and ex-Muslim personalities, politicians, organisations, NGOs, academics for the Supreme Court judgement, the ruling INC misused the overwhelming majority it had in the Parliament to overturn the judgement putting Muslim women at the mercy of the regressive elements within the community. Let’s also take the fact that many a times when a non-Muslim politician belonging to centrist or centre-left political party has to reach out to the Muslim electorate they would usually pay visit to some very questionable and controversial ulemas and community leaders for their campaigns, whose influence and social capital within the community itself would be very limited.

To conclude, a nuanced treatment of the subject is the need of the hour. Divorcing Islam from Islamism and Islamic terrorism is not the way to go about, but neither is looking at the phenomena of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIS purely from a anti-religious and anti-theistic stand. While fighting against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism without apology is extremely necessary, it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world. Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.


  1. anon72 says

    1. “it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world.” True but one of the people you quoted (Mehdi Hasan) is a regressive element himself despite his efforts to portray himself otherwise. He’s an Islamist (Khomeni style) and an apologist.

    2. If Hasan wants to claim that religious literacy has nothing to do with jihadi violence, he needs more examples than 2 guys buying Islam for Dummies (buying that book is not proof of ignorance of the faith, by the way). There are thousands (if not millions) of imams and scholars who preach hatred, violence and intolerance. These people are not ignorant about the faith.

    3. “The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists.” The terrorists answer that question every time they quote the Quran or the Hadith before they blow things up or chop someone’s head off.

    4. It may be true that the terrorists have a poor understanding of the historical caliphate but that understanding comes from the Islamic tradition itself (Hadith, Sira and Tafsirs), which glorifies a mythical past that is largely fiction.

    5. No one claims is not that Islam has a monopoly on violence. But the comparisons to Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar are not a comparable example. There is no global Buddhist movement equivalent to global jihad. These are isolated regional conflicts. When Buddhists from Europe start traveling to Myanmar to chop off heads, then you can start to make comparisons. Does anyone in New York, London or Paris lose any sleep at night over the prospect of a Buddhist terrorist attack in their city?

    6. “Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice.” What power struggle is afflicting British and European Muslims such that they feel the need to join ISIS and kill infidels? Same applies to the 7/7 bombers, the 9/11 hijackers and a whole host of other terrorists.

    7. “Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.”

    100% backwards. Policy makers in the West have given Muslims every benefit of the doubt. “Religion of Peace”. Every time a Western leader speaks about a terrorist attack he is quick to point out that this has nothing to do with religion (see Obama just a few days ago). Far from focusing on the most reactionary elements, Western leaders (particularly in the UK) have assumed that the vast majority of Muslims are moderates and that the extremists represent only a tiny minority. This despite 37% of British Muslims saying they favor the death penalty for apostates. Moreover, Western policy makers have confused non-violence with moderation. Many people are non-violent in practice but hold similar ideological views to violent extremists. The reality is that mainstream elements of the faith (the texts themselves) do indeed lend legitimacy to violence, hatred and intolerance. Indeed, in many cases, the texts explicitly endorse the foregoing.

  2. the eddy says

    Please refer to this :

    The fact that very few intellectuals in Muslim world accept ,that too timidly, is a problem.The abovementioned Kenan Malik ,a muslim gentleman with a Western name & Punjabi surname , really dodged many things to “push dirt under mat”

    The problem has atleast something to do with : Absence of a credible Left in Muslim countries .For eg, When Z A Bhutto , a Sindhi Rajput , Shia by faith, & the most liberal Pakistani PM by Pakistani accounts came to power he instead of abolishing Objective Resolution 1949 & making Pakistan secula , invented “Islamic Socialism”…Had he been as Indian Hindu Rajput to declare “Hindu Socialism ” would the Indian accounts see him liberal. Thus a strong drift exists between people even if they are the same..This difference is inturn exploited by Hindutvavadis ,Jamat-i-Islamis .

    In Hindu/Christian dominated countries the Left attacks & exposes the main Religion as a Human movement or more radically rubbishes it as a filth , on the contrary in Muslim countries the Left too has to wear religion in order to survive. For eg. the ANP (the only secular party in Pakistan) too has to work in religion’s shadows to survive.

  3. ApostateltsopA says

    Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.

    Damn straight.


    Quote mining the Quran does no more to indite Islam than such treatment of any other book or document. In any text with enough material something can be taken out of context to justify pretty much any behavior.

    However the Quran benefits from most early translations having deliberately used the harshest and most threatening meaning possible when rendering the Arabic to other languages.

    If you treat all Christians like David Kuresh, and all animal rights activists like PETA then you would at least be consistent, however your attitude would still be bigoted and lack the nuance that bespeaks education and empathy.

  4. the eddy says

    Looks like you do not want any critical analysis of Islam on the lines of Hinduism , Christianity & Judaism : please read the following .
    As Muslims are good & bad like anyone else , the same way Islam needs to be put under scanner now. Islam has often been shielded by the same freethinking elites who otherwise encouraged criticism of other religions . This has led to studying of theological history of Islam being equated to Ethno-cultural history of muslims & thus a widening gap , which ofcourse has contributions from anti-muslim bigots .For eg . today manusmriti is denounced atleast by educated liberal Hindus but still many liberal Muslims (like late Ali Asghar Engineer at 2013 Jaipur Lit fest) even in India struggle to justify Shariah as a divine humane system. This does make the overall Indian reform movement skewed.
    anon72 has not written any polemic that can be equated to anti-muslim bigotry . Moreover while Koran or Hadees themselves cannot be used to predict muslim thinking but it surely does influence it a lot

  5. the eddy says


    The biggest problem with Islam is not fundamentalism , which is rather ubiquitous thing across religions & ideologies but rather the unwillingness of so-called liberal Muslims to question scriptures . Throughout the modern history as Christianity in Europe & Hinduism in India began to be challenged from within , Islam has mentioned as “tranquil movement” . Thus even when Dr. Ambedkar was burning Manusmriti , a moderate Muslim Jinnah was eulogising Shariah .

    While there has been unity amongst Hindu & Muslim supremacists in their ways of thinking . The liberals from Hindu & Muslim social backgrounds despite all bonhomie they share , they stand strongly opposite on the idea of ” Questioning of Religion ” . For eg. While R S Sharma , DD Kosambi & even D N Jha wrote things to challenge the Hindu Supremacism , Mohammad Habib wrote gloriously about Turks as Benign invaders & Shariah as an egalitarian code . Today , one can attack Hinduism & Christanity polemically too , but can one indulge in mere apostasy or even a genuine & polite criticism of Islam [ you have gallows for that in majority of Muslim -majority nations , or a tag of Islamophobia in muslim-minority societies] . Today atleat no Hindu can risk favouring Manusmriti as a good scripture but on the other hand still many moderate Muslims too believe Shariah as Divine Humane law.[ Read the late Ali Asghar Engineer’s views on Shariah ]
    One needs to fight anti-Muslim bigotry but also fight the write about Islam in greys just like it is done for all societies.What anon72 wrote cannot be categorised as former but definitely has given valid points towards latter.

    While Quran or even Hadees can not be used to predict any Muslim bigotries (as other non-religious social factors also play) , but they certainly do influence them..
    Had moderate muslims not been reluctant to questioning Islam & its History ( as given by Syed-preists) like their counterparts from other religions did , indeed the problem would have been far less ,even if not absent.

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