Five shades of Islam

One of the predictable, yet distressing, things about the Paris terror attacks is you get extreme opinions about and Muslims, from both “sides”.

One the one side, you get people saying the entire Islamic religion is to blame, and all Muslims are untrustworthy, and should be deported/not allowed in etc.

On the other side you get many try to argue that Islamic terror attacks have nothing to do with Islam, and that there are no problems with Islam.

I reject both those views.

Those who argue that the West should somehow banish all Muslims, and that all adherents of Islam are potentially a problem are wrong both ethically and practically.

Ethically it is wrong to treat individuals purely as members of a religion, rather than on the basis of everything else in their lives. You only judge someone by their group characteristic in the absence of any knowledge of them as an individual.

Practically it is nuts to think that you could try and divide the world up by banishing 1.4 billion people from certain countries.

Anyway I want to go into some detail as to why you can’t lump all Muslims together, just as you can’t lump all Christians together or even all Catholics. But I also want to explore why there is a problem with Islam beyond the jihadists.

For the purposes of the post I’m going to divide Muslims into five broad categories. They’re categories created by me, so don’t argue about whether there are four or six or seven or 852. And I’m not even going to get into Sunni vs Shia and Wahhabi etc.

Broadly speaking I personally see five broad groups of Muslims. They are:

  1. Secular Muslims
  2. Moderate Muslims
  3. Devout Muslims
  4. Extreme Muslims or Islamists
  5. Jihadist Muslims

Secular Muslims

Now wait a second you say. There is no such thing as a Secular Muslim. It is a contradiction.

Well just as Israel has Atheist Jews, you do have basically secular Muslims. They’re people who culturally identify as Muslim, but don’t really practice the religion at all. It is a cultural thing, rather than a religious thing. And yes I’m aware they’re probably not considered Muslims by some of the other groups, but it is about what they identify as.

You might ask why do they identify as Muslim, if they do not really follow the religion at all. Well basically it is family. Declaring yourself not a Muslim would get your ostracized from your family.  You would have years of  arguments and stress. Also you are proud of your family and their culture, and wish to be associated with it.

Beyond the identification as Muslim, the behaviour is generally no different from others in their country and peer group. I know Muslims girls who have numerous boyfriends, hook ups, drink alcohol etc. Possibly even eat pork. And one of them I know wasn’t even sure if their family/they are Shia or Sunni.

For many years I have not believed in God, yet I still have ticked Anglican on my census form, because I grew up Anglican, was only 99.99% sure their is no God, and still have positive feelings about the Anglican Church. So I have been a sort of secular Anglican. I also have Jewish heritage, and associate with my Jewish heritage, even though I am not religiously Jewish.

I don’t know what proportion of Muslims are basically secular, but in Western countries it is quite a few.

Moderate Muslims

This is what I call the equivalent of the Easter and Christmas Catholic. They will believe in God/Allah. They will very occasionally go to a religious service. They may not necessarily wear a head scarf without fail (if female), and their religion is not the most important aspect of their lives. It is significant, but not dominant.

Again no real estimate of numbers, but in my observations more common in Asian countries than the Middle East. Not unknown also in parts of Africa.

Devout Muslims

Arguably the largest group. Their religion is a very important part of their life. They will go out of their way to adhere to religious customs, and attend mosque regularly. They do not think their religion should be the law of the land, they just want to be able to practice it themselves.

The equivalent of weekly church goers in Christian  churches.

Islamists/Extreme Muslims

These are Muslims who basically do believe their religious beliefs should not just be practiced by themselves, but should have legal force. They may support sharia law, stoning as punishment for adultery, the death penalty for apostasy, suicide bombings as justified sometimes, have favourable views of jihadist groups, support honour killings.

This group does not include jihadists, but provides the environment where they can thrive and gain support. If you support killing adulterers and apostates, then it is not surprising that it is hard to argue that however it is wrong to kill party goers in Paris. One really wants adherents of a religion to say that killing anyone (except in self defence) is always wrong – full stop.

The number of Islamists or exteme Muslims is not insignificant. In this blog post I estimate it is around 420 million or so. A minority, but a large minority – say 25%.

Jihadist Muslims

These are the ones who actively get involved in killing people who they think have offended their religion, willing fighters for Islamic State, al-Qaeda etc. Estimated (low end) numbers are:

  • Islamic State 60,000
  • al-Qaeda 20,000
  • Taliban 60,000

There’s around 100 smaller groups also. In total talking low hundreds of thousands.  As a proportion of Islam not even 0.1%, but as raw numbers scarily high.  By comparison the IRA had around 10,000 members.

So I see no good in lumping all Muslims together. It’s unhelpful, it’s offensive to them, and it only makes things worse.

However I do believe the focus should not just be on Jihadists Muslims, but also Islamists or Extreme Muslims. I’m quite happy for countries to have immigration policies that say if you think think death is an appropriate punishment for adultery or apostasy then you’re not suitable to live here. Likewise if you think your religious beliefs should be imposed on people who don’t follow your religion, the same. And that applies to extreme adherents of other religions also.

In my mind you can’t make the case that blowing civilians up is bad, but executing someone for changing their religion is acceptable.

Islam does need a reformation. That can’t be done by non Muslims. It can only be done within Islam. The bottom line needs to be that death is never justified. The problem however is that Islam has no central authority (unlike most religions) and the status of the Koran makes a reformation very difficult. However there is no other long-term solution.

So I do reject those who say Islamic State and its terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. That is a lie. It may be an extreme minority aspect of Islam, but the teachings of Mohammed clearly are a driving force for many Islamists and Jihadists.

Douglas Murray covers this well in The Spectator:

The West’s movement towards the truth is remarkably slow. We drag ourselves towards it painfully, inch by inch, after each bloody Islamist assault.

In France, Britain, Germany, America and nearly every other country in the world it remains government policy to say that any and all attacks carried out in the name of Mohammed have ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It was said by George W. Bush after 9/11, Tony Blair after 7/7 and Tony Abbott after the Sydney attack last month. It is what David Cameron said after two British extremists cut off the head of Drummer Lee Rigby in London, when ‘Jihadi John’ cut off the head of aid worker Alan Henning in the ‘Islamic State’ and when Islamic extremists attacked a Kenyan mall, separated the Muslims from the Christians and shot the latter in the head. It was what President François Hollande said after the massacre of journalists and Jews in Paris in January. And it is all that most politicians will be able to come out with again after the latest atrocities in Paris.

All these leaders are wrong. In private, they and their senior advisers often concede that they are telling a lie. The most sympathetic explanation is that they are telling a ‘noble lie’, provoked by a fear that we — the general public — are a lynch mob in waiting.

And it has become counter productive.

‘Noble’ or not, this lie is a mistake. First, because the general public do not rely on politicians for their information and can perfectly well read articles and books about Islam for themselves. Secondly, because the lie helps no one understand the threat we face. Thirdly, because it takes any heat off Muslims to deal with the bad traditions in their own religion.

Muslims in the first three categories bear no responsibility for what Jihadists do. But there does need to be a recognition that reform is needed – that their views of Islam need to become more widespread so they represent not 75% of Muslims, but 99%.

To claim that people who punish people by killing them for blaspheming Islam while shouting ‘Allah is greatest’ has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ is madness. Because the violence of the Islamists is, truthfully, only to do with Islam: the worst version of Islam, certainly, but Islam nonetheless.

Other religions have issues also, as the author notes but:

Here we land at the centre of the problem — a centre we have spent the last decade and a half trying to avoid: Islam is not a peaceful religion. No religion is, but Islam is especially not. Nor is it, as some ill-informed people say, solely a religion of war. There are many peaceful verses in the Quran which — luckily for us — the majority of Muslims live by. But it is, by no means, only a religion of peace.

You can cherry pick verses in the Quran to argue it is a religion of peace or war. What matters is the actions by its adherents.

I say this not because I hate Islam, nor do I have any special animus against Muslims, but simply because this is the verifiable truth based on the texts. Until we accept that we will never defeat the violence, we risk encouraging whole populations to take against all of Islam and abandon all those Muslims who are trying desperately to modernise, reform and de-literalise their faith.

And they are the ones we must support. Not demonise.

The world would be an infinitely safer place if the historical Mohammed had behaved more like Buddha or Jesus. …

We may all share a wish that these traditions were not there but they are and they look set to have serious consequences for us all. We might all agree that the history of Christianity has hardly been un-bloody. But is it not worth asking whether the history of Christianity would have been more bloody or less bloody if, instead of telling his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’, Jesus had called (even once) for his disciples to ‘slay’ non–believers and chop off their heads?

A point worth considering.

This is a problem with Islam — one that Muslims are going to have to work through. They could do so by a process which forces them to take their foundational texts less literally, or by an intellectually acceptable process of cherry-picking verses. Or prominent clerics could unite to declare the extremists non-Muslim.

Again the lack of a central authority makes this difficult. However political leaders in Muslim countries could lead the way. They could remove laws around executing people for apostasy or adultery as a start.

We have spent 15 years pretending things about Islam, a complex religion with competing interpretations. It is true that most Muslims live their lives peacefully. But a sizeable portion (around 15 per cent and more in most surveys) follow a far more radical version. The remainder are sitting on a religion which is, in many of its current forms, a deeply unstable component. That has always been a problem for reformist Muslims. But the results of ongoing mass immigration to the West at the same time as a worldwide return to Islamic literalism means that this is now a problem for all of us. To stand even a chance of dealing with it, we are going to have to wake up to it and acknowledge it for what it is.

The challenge is to talk about the problems within Islam, in a way which doesn’t lead to more extremism and defensiveness.

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