Since the 1970’s, terrorist attacks from Islamic fundamentalist groups have colored the perceptions of Islam from Western nations, and have been the cause of economic sanctions, anti-Islamic foreign policy, and far-reaching wars that continue to this day. Troublingly, the actions of these groups have caused many to assume that Islam itself is a violent, hateful religion, and one that is entirely at odds with democratic values. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the concept that “religion and democracy need not be in conflict” was questioned, with the author citing various attacks on Christian churches in Indonesia by Islamic militants as an example of the impossibility of religious democracy. But is the very existence of religiously incited violence enough to prove the mutual exclusivity of religion and democracy?
It is true that Indonesia, following the example, has instituted policies and laws that limit religious freedom, particularly as it pertains to the freedom of speech against Islam, and have failed to properly disincentivize acts of religious intolerance. But this is a legal, governmental, and societal problem, not a Muslim problem. Without proper enforcement of laws designed to protect disenfranchised Christians, and by allowing human rights violations to go unprosecuted, Indonesian policymakers have created a society that will reward discrimination and violent crimes of hatred. But the fact that in Indonesia Muslims perpetrate the crimes against Christians is an effect of this society, not the cause. In Turkey, persecution of Christians is rare enough that it does not make the World Watch List, the ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe as compiled by Christian NGO Open Doors. Indeed, the 2007 murder of three Christians at a religious publishing house shocked the nation, and was decried as “savagery” by the Turkish Prime Minister.
What’s more, the incidence of religiously intolerant acts does not belong to Islamic groups alone, with religiously motivated violence continuing to be reported throughout Europe and North America. Great Britain has been experiencing religious terrorism since the 17th-century “Gunpowder Plot,” a plan by English Catholics to blow up Parliament and thereby assassinate the King. In the modern age, the incidence of religious hate crimes has been growing exponentially in Great Britain, particularly against Muslims, since the 2005 London bombings. In Northern Ireland, terrorist attacks against Protestant and Catholic churches have occurred since the 1960’s. Here in the United States, religiously-motivated terrorist groups, such as the Christian group The Army of God, the Jewish Defense League, and the Mormon white nationalist group The Order, have been responsible for the bombings of abortion clinics and nightclubs catering to the homosexual community; massacres at non-Christian places of worship both abroad and at home; the targeted assassinations of numerous religious and secular figures; as well as a vocal, and often violent movement to convert America into a Christian theocratic state.
While it is true that both domestic and international terrorist acts by fundamentalist Islamic groups have been an increasing concern, tying these acts to Islam itself is counter-productive for both Western and Middle Eastern nations. To call religiously incited violence and terrorism a Muslim problem is comparable to equating the acts of the groups and individuals cited above to the beliefs of Great Britons and Americans as a whole. But this is not the case – there is no serious academic or politician arguing that these nations cannot be democratic or free because of the acts of the few. Rather, it is taken for granted that the actions of a few radical fringe groups do not speak for the nation as a whole. With the vast majority of Muslims decrying these acts as against Islamic law, this presupposition should be extended to Muslims as well. I am a Muslim woman, and one that believes in the ideals and values of democracy. I do not assume that David Koresh, The Army of God, Timothy McVeigh or the IRA speaks for you and your political beliefs. Do not assume that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Army of Islam speaks for me.