In recent days, President Obama stood before a crowd of 6,000 people in Indonesia and addressed the deterioration in relations between the Muslim world and the West. In what was seen as a follow-up to his historic address at Cairo University last year, he reaffirmed that bringing the Muslim world and the West together remained a priority. As before, he said that the key to achieving better relations was finding common ground and forging new links which enabled more people from Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries to get to know each other. “I believed then, and I believe today,” he said, “that … we can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground, and commit ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress.”
Very well, but how? I spend a lot of time in the US, and it is striking how ignorant so many people are about Islam, particularly in certain parts of the media. Pundits and columnists repeatedly get away with making claims about Muslims and Islam which fuel mistrust between Muslim countries and the West. Most of the time, these claims are not just wrong. They are embarrassingly wrong. What is so galling is that these errors are rarely called out because so few know the truth.
So, for my humble contribution to improved relations, I would like to present and debunk the top three lies which make the rounds about Muslims.
Lie One — Muslims hate the west and what it stands for.
Probably the deepest and most comprehensive survey of worldwide Muslim opinion was conducted by the Gallup polling organization between 2001 and 2007. It was based on interviews with 50,000 Muslims from thirty-five countries (covering the Middle East, South and Central Asia, etc.). And its central finding was that the conventional wisdom that Muslims worldwide feel overwhelmingly negative toward the Western world is completely false. As Gallup put it: “When Muslims were asked what they admired most about the West, only 2% in Iran, 6% in Saudi Arabia, and 10% in Egypt said ‘nothing.’” It also showed that the two aspects that Muslims most admired about the West were its technology and democracy. Only a very small minority condone acts of terrorism. And strikingly, the research found that Muslims around the world in fact admire the American values of freedom and a strong work ethic.
Lie Two — Muslim scholars support violence.
The best way to illustrate this lie is by an analogy, a little thought experiment. How would you feel if every time you opened a paper or watched the news you heard newspaper columnists, TV pundits, politicians, and even some academics telling you that Christianity is a religion of hate. And that they knew this because Pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran. “Look,” one might say, “this guy has a church, he leads a community, he is a Pastor and a Christian. He speaks for Christianity.”
Then imagine how you’d feel if you rarely heard anyone pointing out the obvious: that Terry Jones isn’t a real pastor (his qualification amounts to a degree there’s no evidence he took — it was an honorary degree — from an unaccredited theological school. And lest we forget, he has form when it comes to lying about his credentials — in 2002 a German court found him guilty of falsely claiming he was a doctor). That while he may speak for his congregation of fifty, he doesn’t speak for the other roughly 2.1 billion Christians in the world. And most of all, that his own prejudices are in no way representative of the doctrine or beliefs of a religion which has been around for the last two thousand years.
This is more or less how much media punditry in the US and often beyond makes Muslims feel.
Those firebrands who call for violence in the name of Islam are not scholars. They are invariably attention-seekers who invoke Islam to give a spurious authority to their claims.
But when the media cover the likes of Abu Humza, Omar Bakri and Anjum Chaudhry as Muslims, it gives ordinary people who know no better the impression that they represent Muslims, even though they have no Islamic qualifications, they just like to dress up in traditional clerical garb. Of course, the media buy it, and the false perception that Muslim clerics support violence gains ground.
For example, even after Omar Bakri was not permitted to return to the UK by the Home Secretary, Sky News flew an entire team of reporters to Lebanon to get his views, thus giving him a platform even when he was no longer in the country and regarded as ‘not being conducive to the public good’.
Lie Three — Muslim moderates don’t condemn violence done in the name of Islam.
Wrong. They do. There are countless examples from around the world over the last ten years at least. The Muslim Council of Great Britain has repeatedly condemned violence. Syria’s most senior Islamic leader described 9/11 as a terrorist act. Dr Tahir ul-Qadri, a very influential Muslim scholar from Pakistan, wrote a 600-page fatwa this year condemning terrorism and dismantling al-Qaeda’s violent ideology. Lest anyone doubt the seriousness of this as a challenge to al Qaeda’s ideology, he has received death threats from their supporters. He is on record as saying explicitly that “he wants to address the Muslim audience who are misguided” and tell the “western world that there is NO verse which advocates killing, brutality and terrorism.”
The full list of scholars, clerics, imams and others who have spoken out against violence in the name of Islam is much too long to reproduce here, although you can find a partial list at here.
Nobody who sees it could doubt that the vast majority of Muslim leaders around the world teach true Islam — which, to quote Dr. ul Qadri, stand for “peace, love, compassion, human dignity and mercy, [not] any kind of violence, militancy, terrorism, brutality.” Will you be able to find characters who tell you otherwise? Yes. But are they speaking for Islam? No. They are Islam’s Terry Joneses.
If President Obama’s vision is to be realized in the twenty-first century, the media need to start doing some homework, and waking up to these lies.
And we as consumers of such media need to start waking up to the media’s pro-conflict agenda. The sad reality is that violence is news, but coexistence isn’t. If some nutcase wearing the right clothes who claims to speak for Islam makes some incendiary comment, the media will report it. But if a delegation of internationally respected scholars make a combined statement rejecting violence, they won’t. As consumers of news, we need to be aware of this.
Armed with this understanding, we can begin to forge the common ground to which President Obama alluded in his speech. Knowing this, we can begin to heal this divide which sears such an ugly scar on our times.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.