Islamic extremists behead Westerners in Syria, massacre thousands of Iraqis, murder 132 Pakistani schoolchildren, kill a Canadian soldier and take cafe patrons in Australia hostage. Now, two gunmen have massacred a dozen people in the office of a Paris newspaper.
The rash of horrific attacks in the name of Islam is spurring an anguished debate among Muslims in the heart of the Islamic world about why their religion is cited so often as a cause for violence and bloodshed.
The majority of scholars and the faithful say Islam is no more inherently violent than other religions. But some Muslims — most notably the president of Egypt — argue that the contemporary understanding of their religion is infected with justifications for violence, requiring the government and its official clerics to correct the teaching of Islam.
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“It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt lamented last week in a speech to the clerics of the official religious establishment. “You need to stand sternly,” he told them, calling for no less than “a religious revolution.”
Others, though, insist the sources of the violence are alienation and resentment, not theology. They argue that the authoritarian rulers of Arab states — who have tried for decades to control Muslim teaching and the application of Islamic law — have set off a violent backlash expressed in religious ideas and language.
Promoted by groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaida, that discourse echoes through Muslim communities as far away as New York or Paris, whose influence and culture still loom over much of the Muslim world.
“Some people who feel crushed or ignored will go toward extremism, and they use religion because that is what they have at hand,” said Said Ferjani, an official of Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda, speaking about the broader phenomenon of violence in the name of Islam. “If you are attacked and you have a fork in your hand, you will fight back with a fork.”
Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian, was teaching at New York University on Sept. 11, 2001, after which U.S. sales of the Quran spiked because readers sought religious explanations for the attack on New York.
“We try to explain that they are asking the wrong question,” he said. Religion, he argued, was “just a veneer” for anger at the dysfunctional Arab states left behind by colonial powers and the “Orientalist” condescension many Arabs still feel from the West.
“The Arab states have not delivered what they are supposed to deliver, and it can only lead to a deep sense of resentment and frustration, or to revolution,” he said.
Only a very small number of Muslims pin the blame directly on the religion.
“What has ISIS done that Muhammad did not do?” an outspoken atheist, Ahmed Harqan, recently asked on a popular television-talk show in Cairo, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State to argue that the problem of violence was inherent to Islam.
Considered almost blasphemous by most Egyptian Muslims, his challenge provoked weeks of outcry from Islamic religious broadcasters and prompted much-watched follow-up shows. In subsequent debates on the same program, Salem Abdel-Gelil, a scholar from the state-sponsored Al Azhar institute and former official of the ministry overseeing mosques, fired back with Islamic verses about tolerance, peace and freedom.
But then he warned that, under Egypt’s religion-infused legal system, the public espousal of atheism might land his opponents in jail.
“When a person comes out and promotes his heresy, promotes his debauchery and justifies his apostasy on the basis that ‘Islam is not good,’ then there is the judiciary,” Sheikh Abdel-Gelil said. “The judiciary will get him.”
M. Steven Fish, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, sought to quantify the correlation between Islam and violence. In his book, “Are Muslims Distinctive?” he found that homicide rates were substantially lower in Muslim-majority countries and instances of political violence were no more frequent.
Over the 15 years ending in 2008, Islamist extremists were responsible for 60 percent of high-casualty terrorist bombings, his study found, but almost all were concentrated in a handful of Muslim-majority countries in the context of larger conflicts that were occurring, places such as Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion or Algeria after the military takeover.
“Is Islam violent? I would say absolutely not,” Fish said. “There is very little empirical evidence that Islam is violent.”
In Egypt and the Arab world, however, the debate over Islam’s connection to violence has been given new impetus in recent events: the military ouster of the Islamist elected as president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, the deadly crackdown on his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and a retaliatory campaign of attacks on security forces, and the spectacular rise of the bloodthirsty Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.
El-Sissi, a former general, led the ouster of Morsi in 2013 and the suppression of the Brotherhood on charges it was a violent “terrorist group.” (The group has denounced violence for decades and continues to do so.) El-Sissi has also presided over an effort to reassert the state’s control over the teaching and application of Islam by installing government-aligned Imams in mosques and dictating Friday sermons.
Intellectuals supporting him have applauded his efforts and called for the state to lead a sweeping, top-down overhaul of the popular understanding of Islam, attributing the problem to a lack of education or cultural advancement. “Religious thought, or religious discourse, is afflicted with backwardness,” Gaber Asfour, the minister of culture, said in a recent television interview. “We now live in an age of backwardness.”
Many pro-government intellectuals consider the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood an aspect of that backwardness and argue that all such Islamist political movements are inherently violent, even if the groups disavow violence.
“Their task is not becoming modern; it is becoming hegemonic again, making a new world in which Islam will be on top again,” said professor Sherif Younis, a historian at the Helwan University in Cairo who has led calls for an Islamic “reformation.”
“Every fundamentalist has in mind a counter-regime, even if he does not know how to use a knife,” Younis said. That includes the mainstream Islamists of the Brotherhood and the ultraconservatives known as salafis, as well as the overtly violent jihadi groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida, he said.
Others argue that the state control of the Muslim religious establishments — whether in relatively secular states such as Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, or in explicitly religious ones such as Saudi Arabia — only reinforces the problems. Such attempts at control inject politics into religious teaching, diminishing its credibility. And the state religious establishments further entangle politics and religion by seeking to confer the legitimacy of Islamic law on autocratic rulers.
Amr Ezzat, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, argued that the official clerics and the jihadis agree on one thing: Both “say that Islam is the source of the state’s authority, and that we should all be governed by Islamic law.”
Some say it is also naive to expect unaccountable governments like Egypt’s that cannot provide health care or education to do a better job leading religious reform.
“In an authoritarian society, there is no room for reasoned debate, so it is not surprising that irrational religious discourse is going to flourish in certain quarters of Egypt or the Arab world,” argued Mohammad Fadel, an Egyptian-American Islamic legal scholar at the University of Toronto. “But the answer of these governments has been to double down on repression, and that is only likely to increase the extremism.”