Stuck in a Dangerous Rut: Conservative Discourse and Islam

 
 

If conservatives want to seriously help address issues related to Islam, the Muslim world, and encounters with the West, they need to escape their narrow information networks.

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What happens when we cannot escape our information networks? What is the result when we become dependent on a limited group of like-minded thinkers for information without considering alternative modes of thought and research? When it comes to Islam, do conservatives try or want to think outside of their usual themes of terrorism, civilizational threat, religious extremism, and the search for moderates?

It’s true that American liberals have their own limiting information networks when it comes to Islam. Yet it is important for conservatives not only to criticize liberal faults but to be aware of and open to correcting our own. Too often, we are content to repeatedly rely on the same stultifying information network—one that replicates its staleness by feeding on other unoriginal and partially true conservative sources.

As an example, consider a recent PragerU video. This video has been shared over 25,000 times, mainly within conservative circles, and viewed well over two million times. In the video, Hussein Aboubakr, an Egyptian-born military instructor and researcher, asks the oft-repeated question, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” He explains that he came from a middle-class family in Cairo, where he was regularly told the moral necessity of the caliphate and that Muslim suffering derived from the abandonment of conquests. Elsewhere, he has mentioned that he was taught that “a Jew is essentially a demon in flesh and that it is our destiny as good Muslims to kill them all.”

He claims this was typical, citing data from the Pew Research Center. He points to the large percentages of Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan, and other parts of the Muslim world who support the death penalty for apostasy and the application of stoning and hand-cutting for certain violations of Islamic law (shari‘a). He further argues that “most of the world’s Muslims” believe any act of violence against Israel, including the suicide bombing of buses full of civilians, is justified.

Aboubakr concludes by connecting these problems to the prevalence of “bad ideas and bad beliefs” in the Muslim world. While many Muslims exist who might be called “moderate,” he firmly believes they do not form a “critical mass.” By the term “moderation,” Aboubakr means a belief in tolerance, women’s rights, gay rights, and the freedoms of speech, religion, and press. The answer, then, is to support heroic moderate Muslims, voice these problematic realities, and encourage “reform” of Islam from within.

Granted, Aboubakr certainly ends up more or less at the proper conclusion. As I have argued here before, the real solution must ultimately come from Muslims working from within their own religious tradition. His presentation, however, is so burdened by partial truths, misguided assumptions, limited context, and unhelpful terminology that the video does more harm than good.

Let us begin with his assumptions and omissions. First, Aboubakr never tells the viewer anything specific about his life in Cairo: which mosques his family attended, where he went to school, or what the people he claims as representatives of all Muslims worldwide were like. As a student of history and someone with multiple Egyptian friends and colleagues, I find his anecdotal assertions hollow. Certainly there are radical Muslims in Cairo and elsewhere who advocate violence, but to argue that they constitute a majority, especially among the middle class, is outlandish. Without historical grounding, Aboubakr mistakenly leads the viewer to assume with him that his personal experience was reflective of broader Muslim society.

Secondly, Aboubakr misrepresents the recent 2013 Pew data, reporting incorrect numbers and cherry picking statistics to tell his audience the terrifying and shocking story that they want to hear. In fact, a minority of countries surveyed had Muslim majorities supporting death for apostasy. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, only 16 percent supported this policy. Of the countries with majority support, he only cites Egypt’s percentage correctly. For example, he mistakenly says 51 percent of Nigerians support the policy, while the report actually found that 29 percent do. Aboubakr may have stitched bits of a different 2010 report together with the one from 2013 to skew the portrait toward extremism. While the studies’ relative merits are debatable, the significant disparity should at least be acknowledged. All of this is to say nothing of his neglect of any non-religious factors in shaping Muslim attitudes in various countries.

Third, even the correct Pew data does not account for what the respondents actually understood shari‘a to mean. John Esposito’s book, Who Speaks for Islam?, clearly explores this and other limitations of such statistical surveys. Aboubakr seems to assume that all Muslims who support shari‘a support the same (violent) view of it. The Pew data, however, shows that Muslims express varied beliefs about the nature of shari‘a, which can often simply carry a vague sense of good governance for many.

This is to gloss over the reality that shari‘a is not a codified system of law but an ongoing discussion among religious scholars. It only became more rigid and codified in certain states’ penal and personal status laws as a consequence of colonial administrative practices, since imperial powers such as Britain and France wanted more systematic and replicable sets of laws to refer to when dealing with Muslim matters.

Furthermore, the bold claim about support for suicide bombing against Israel, worded in such a way to imply a high level of acceptance for civilian casualties anywhere, seems to be patently false based on current data. Certainly Palestinian Muslims support violence more strongly, but even this has declined from earlier high points. Most recently, the 2011 Gallup and the 2013 Pew data show that most Muslims, especially American ones, reject suicide bombing and violence and support religious freedom. Even if the data on Israel are correct, that does nothing to disentangle religious justifications from cultural, political, and historical considerations.

As for the word “moderate,”Aboubakr is right to question its usefulness as a term, but he misses the point by presenting a limited definition. The inclusion of support for gay rights, for example, raises more questions than it answers. If moderation requires support for gay marriage and other LGBTQ celebratory causes, many American Catholics and Protestants who respectfully oppose such policies would all be considered radicals in the same camp as people who support cutting off hands.

“Moderate” is a particularly problematic term in the Muslim world, because it has long been associated with a specific strand of liberalizing Islamic thought. It is also associated with the War in Iraq and Western neoliberalism and secularism more generally. To be a moderate carries the connotation of being lacking in one’s piety and under the spell of Western influence and power. Many Muslims, like other non-violent people of faith, want to be known as right and zealous believers, not “moderates” characterized by spiritual lukewarmness. Similar problems plague the rhetoric of reforming Islam as well.

Many other crucial details are left out of this portrait of the Muslim world, leaving viewers with a simplistic and harmful lesson. Where, for example, is the mention of organizations like the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, which creates a platform for leading Muslim religious scholars and academics to spread their more peaceful interpretations of issues such as apostasy from within their own tradition? Where is the acknowledgment of influential figures such as the extremely popular Kuwaiti speaker Tariq Al-Suwaidan? Where are the references to the repeated statements against unjustified violence and terrorism throughout the Muslim world?

Conservatives keep asking where the moderates are. Instead, they should be asking what moderation truly is, what perpetuates extremism and violence in Muslim countries, how radical ideas and materials are created, circulated, and used, and how we can engage with a decentralized faith.

Many conservatives seem to discount any possible positive Muslim activity that is not thoroughly liberalized within a Western framework or fully supportive of American foreign policy and culture. Association with the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is seen as obvious uncompromising fanaticism, and support for Palestine as predominately motivated by hatred and religious hostility to all Jews. In fact, both Muslims and conservatives frequently engage in conspiratorial musings about each other. Each imagines the other to be duplicitous and out to destroy them.

If conservative outlets consider Islam an important topic, they must improve their selection of experts regarding the Muslim world and be careful not to share simplistic content. Easily accessible pieces in First Things by Gabriel Said Reynolds and John A. Azumah, or in Public Discourse by Jennifer Bryson and Daniel Philpott, for example, are more revealing of the dynamics of competing visions of Islam at work in the Muslim world than Aboubakr’s selective presentation. Why not engage with people doing serious work on these issues, like Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institution? Even if disagreements persist, at least a healthy awareness of alternative explanations and ongoing research will sharpen and refine conservative writings. Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis’s work with John Corvino clearly shows that such engagement is possible and fruitful even on hotly contested issues.

Conservative outlets do a serious disservice to their audiences by only presenting partial facts. The harm is amplified when other well-known conservative figures, such as Ben Shapiro and William Kilpatrick, echo this same narrative and unhelpful line of inquiry. It is also discouraging when established conservative institutions, such as the Heritage Foundation, share Aboubakr’s video on Facebook, providing its message with the credibility and wide outreach that comes with its expert reputation and public online support. All of this reinforces an insular information network about the Muslim world, especially since many conservative readers and viewers do not have the time to explore multiple opposing scholarly opinions. If we are to seek and promote the truth, we must look at a complete picture, even if that means having to see the world for the muddy, contradictory place that it is without simple solutions and diagnoses.

If conservatives are serious about talking about Islam, we must stop relying only on our own limited information networks. Otherwise, we will keep asking the same question, never wanting or receiving actual answers.

David A. Rahimi is a PhD student in Middle Eastern history at the University of Texas-Austin. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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