Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with approximately 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, about 23 percent of the world’s population.
Roughly 60 percent of Muslims live in Asia and around 20 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population.
Two percent of Americans are Muslim, 76 percent of whom are worried about growing international Islamic extremism.
There are approximately 2,000 mosques in the United States, about a third of which have been built in the past decade. The Pew Research Center has documented 35 cases of controversies over the construction of mosques in the past year alone and according to Reuters, the Justice Department is currently monitoring 11 cases of possible land-use discrimination against Muslims.
Jihad literally means “to struggle,” and while one definition outlines fighting with weapons, there are three other specific uses for the word. Many experts agree that the most important definition of Jihad refers to the struggle within one’s own self as opposed to conflict in the external world.
The word “Islam” derives from the Arabic word Salema, which means peace, purity, obedience, and submission. The religious meaning of Islam is submission to the will of God.
Muslims believe that the Angel Gabriel gave his message to the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad dictated these words, which comprise the 114 chapters of the Quran. Importantly, Muslims believe the Quran to be the exact word of God.
The central tenets of Islam are the five pillars, which focus on purifying the soul:
1) The Declaration of Faith: “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”
2) The performance of prayers five times every day.
3) Charitable giving.
4) Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn until nightfall for the entirety of the month.
5) The pilgrimage to Mecca, located in present day Saudi Arabia.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life of the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of approximately 1,000 Americans in August 2010, and found that 30 percent of the public have a favorable few of Islam in comparison to 41 percent in 2005. YouGov, a research and consulting organization based in the UK, completed a 2010 poll that found 58 percent of the British public associate Islam with extremism. However, 60 percent of those surveyed admitted that they do not know much about Islam. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2009, Europe was similarly split on their views of Islam.
These statistics point to the view that “extremist” or “radical” Islam is the dominant international representation of the religion. However, the 1.5 billion believers scattered across six continents encompass as much diversity in their practice of Islam as the countries on those continents. Furthermore, the labels of “extremist,” “fundamentalist” and “radical” are all mainly Western labels placed on groups of Muslims, whereas most Muslims do not label themselves in those terms.
How do the labels placed on Islam misrepresent the diversity of beliefs within the religion? How does Islam vary in different countries? Finally, how can the nuances of Islam be more widely understood, particularly in regions where Muslims are the minority?
Difficulty of labels
Forms of Islam that do not approve of Western ideals are described using many overlapping terms such as “extremist,” “fundamentalist,” “radical,” and the lesser-known “neo-fundamentalist.” However, many of these terms do not have agreed upon definitions, making it even more difficult to apply them to the pertinent groups, which can lead to misunderstandings about Islam in general. As defined by Ira M. Lapidus, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California Berkeley, “extremist” or “militant” Islam refers to Muslims who use violence to attain their goals. While many experts agree on the general meaning of extremism, there is greater discord about the meaning of “fundamentalist Islam” despite its common usage. In 1988, the University of Chicago’s Fundamentalism Project defined “fundamentalism” in the five major world religions as an “approach … by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group … by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past.” However, Bernard Lewis, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, asserts that “fundamentalist” is an inherent Christian term stemming from the comparison between the literal interpretation of the Bible versus more liberal and modern interpretations of the scriptures. Mr. Lewis writes:
“Among Muslim theologians there is as yet no such liberal or modernist approach to the Qur’an, and all Muslims, in their attitude to the text of the Qur’an, are in principle at least fundamentalists. Where the so-called Muslim fundamentalists differ from other Muslims and indeed from Christian fundamentalists is in their scholasticism and their legalism. They base themselves not only on the Qur’an, but also on the Traditions of the Prophet, and on the corpus of transmitted theological and legal learning.”
Scholars continue to debate the political implications of using the adjective “fundamentalist.” Eli Berman, professor of economics at the University of California San Diego, argues that “radical” Islam is a better label for many violent movements of the 20th century and beyond such as the Palestinian group Hamas and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Mr. Berman writes that groups like these “belong to a family of radical sects whose religious behavior represents a clear break from traditional practice. They augment the prohibitions of mainstream Islamic practice, such as dress codes and shaving. They tend to segregate themselves from other Muslims and to be extremely intolerant of deviation, in contrast to the historical tolerance of Islam.”
Mr. Berman explains that these groups are often called “fundamentalist,” but in reality “these groups actually practice norms unprecedented in their extremism.” In their 2005 paper for the Brookings Institute, Between the Global and the Local: Islamism, the Middle East, and Indonesia, Anthony Bubalo and Greg Fealy point out that al-Qaeda differs importantly from its historical counterparts in that it battles against the West, an enemy that is geographically distant, whereas historically radical Muslims have focused on closer enemies such as leaders of Muslim states they deem to be immoral. “Islamism,” on the other hand, is an explicitly political term used to label Muslim political parties or Muslim groups with the political agenda of creating a Muslim state. Neither “Islamism” nor “fundamentalism” implies violence or militancy in their applications. Therefore, Hamas and the Taliban would both generally be described as radical Islamic groups.
In 1994, French scholar Olivier Roy coined the term “neo-fundamentalist” to describe active Muslim groups, but whose goal does not include creating an Islamic state. Neo-fundamentalists are solely focused on bringing Islam back to its purist form and reject all forms of Western influence. Often people who are drawn to neo-fundamentalist movements are isolated from their homeland. Thus, while Mr. Roy admits that Islamists and neo-fundamentalists often overlap, there are also neo-fundamentalist groups that do not fit the definition of an Islamist. A radical example of this would be al-Qaeda. Mr. Bubalo and Mr. Fealy explain that, “Unlike Islamists, al-Qaeda and its followers are not attempting to reorder their own Muslim states and societies—in part because they are no longer connected to them … They lack tangible political objectives or ambitions, will not run in elections or even overthrow governments—though governments may fall as a result of their acts.”
Middle Eastern Islam has been incredibly influential in the development of the religion all over the globe, especially in Africa and Asia due to its geographic proximity. Currently, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main competitors for the exportation of what they believe to be the correct form of Islam, and both countries represent two different branches—Sunni and Shi’a. The majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni. Iran and Iraq are the only two countries with Shi’a majorities, and Iran is the only country that has historically been governed by Shi’as. The divide between Sunnis and Shi’as resulted from a disagreement between Muslims with regard to who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death. The leaders of the community chose who would succeed him, but a minority who became Shi’as believed that succession should occur based on the bloodline. Over time, the divide deepened, and varying beliefs and traditions developed causing additional subdivisions of each group.
Saudi Arabia, a Salafist nation, uses its influence to support Salafist movements around the world. Salafism concentrates on practicing Islam as it was until the 10th century. As described by Mr. Bubalo and Mr. Fealy, for Salafists “the solution is personal salvation through faith and their interpretation of the correct practice of Islam, in particular by avoiding anything considered to be innovation, idolatrous, or blind imitation.” Al-Qaeda is also a Salafist group but as with all forms of Islam, the pious movement is not a monolith and the majority of its communities are not radical.
Yet another form of Islam is Sufism, which was largely successful at bringing Islam to Africa. Sufism is the mystical and aesthetic form of Islam, and is comprised of both Sunnis and Shi’as. It is in stark contrast to Salafism due to its use of the arts such as dance and poetry to worship, and in its focus on a more personal relationship with God and the need to disconnect from the material world.
One-third of Africa’s Muslims reside in Nigeria, which is mostly made up of Sunnis. Since its independence in 1999, Nigeria’s government has done a poor job of providing many necessities to its citizens, exasperated by the vast gap between the wealthy and the poor due to the country’s overwhelming economic dependence on oil exportation. The northern region of Nigeria is especially prone to the expansion of radical groups because of poverty and the influx of Algerian radicals. Additionally, other radical Salafist groups have formed in response to powerful Sufi groups in the area. As occurs in other impoverished countries, those who provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, education, and health care gain the support of the people. Jonathan N.C. Hill, a lecturer in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College in the UK, asserts that Sufis play a crucial role in preventing the spread of radicalism in northern Nigeria because not only do they actively provide resources to communities in need, but they are also fundamentally at odds with Salafists.
Although a small majority of radical Islam is known to exist in Indonesia, the majority of Muslim Indonesians have been able to form their own identity from a myriad of influences and not turn to “radical” Islam. According to Saiful Mujani and Professor R. William Liddle’s paper Muslim Indonesia’s Secular Democracy in the July/August 2009 issue of Asian Survey, parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2009 consistently showed much more support for secular parties than Islamic parties. Islam was brought to Asia via trade routes rather than through violent conquerors. As a result, much of Islam in Asia has been heavily influenced by other religions and the pre-existing cultures in the region. Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world with about 88 percent of its population. It is made up of 17,000 islands and 400 ethnic groups, which is reflected in the religious diversity of the country. About 50 percent of Indonesians are Muslim and half of them live on the main island of Java.
One the most influential studies of Islam in Indonesia was conducted by Clifford Geertz in the 1950s. While Muslims on the Outland Islands are generally more orthodox, he classified Muslims in Java as either practicing or non-practicing. Practicing or devout Muslims were further divided into two main categories of modernists (who believe in a more personal and innovative interpretation of the Quran) and traditionalists (who generally follow Salafism). Many experts today believe that these divisions are outdated, as Javanese have become increasingly more devout in part due to the heavy influence of the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia. An example can be seen in the development of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamic political party in Indonesia that receives the majority of its support from major cities like Jakarta. Interestingly, in a 2009 Pew Forum poll, 54 percent of the island’s population identified themselves as modernists and only 23 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of al-Qaeda.
Ways to improve understanding
A 2006 Gallup poll showed that the majority of Americans did not personally know any Muslims, but personally knowing a Muslim significantly correlated with a favorable view of Islam. Neil Patel and Pragya Kakani explain in the November 2010 edition of the Harvard Political Review that most Americans receive information about Muslims mainly from the news and other media sources. New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott recently told the Harvard Law Review that, “In the aftermath of 9/11, Islam and terrorism became almost synonymous in the media.”
The media is one of the strongest tools to expose the nuances of Islam. Mr. Bubalo and Mr. Fealy explain in their analysis paper for the The Brookings Institution Between the Global and the Local: Islamism, the Middle East, and Indonesia that, “Western governments and commentators should avoid labeling Muslims or Islamists simply as radicals or moderates. Not only are these terms often misleading reductionist, they also carry connotations of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Muslims, ‘friendly’ versus ‘hostile’ Muslims.” To address this issue, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) started Beyond Stereotypes in 2007. The program strives for more informed and responsible journalism on Islam. CAIR’s guide, issued to all interested journalists, includes an accurate terminology list to help journalists avoid generalizing designations.
In his 2001 book, Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam, Paul Findley, a former 11-term U.S. Representative of Illinois (1961-82), argues that Muslims should actively speak out about their faith and defend it to non-Muslims, an approach supported by the Gallup poll findings. Mr. Findley explains that many non-Muslims ask why more Muslims do not speak out against violent attacks carried out in the name of Islam. April Szuchyt, an American-Muslim convert, says that the silence results from the fact that “most Muslims do not feel any association with these groups and therefore don’t understand how or why people in the West continue to draw nonexistent parallels between them.” Andrew Patterson, another American-Muslim convert, explains that many Muslims do not trust the media’s portrayal of Islam and believe that if they give an interview they will be poorly represented. Mr. Patterson further expounds that many Muslim leaders would rather stay silent than have their words manipulated to criticize Islam. Both speak to the need for initiatives like CAIR’s Beyond Stereotypes. Regardless of whether or not Westerners view Islam favorably, education and more balanced representations of Islam allow non-Muslims to create their own opinions instead of simply believing a one-dimensional view as is often presented to them.