Muslims and otherness: Thoughts on Dr. Rashied Omar’s “Muslim Extremism: Between Myth and Reality”

Is Islam itself inherently violent or extremist?  This is the question that was discussed in a recent talk given at IUSB by visiting scholar Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar.  In it he discusses public perceptions of Islam in the West, offers a historical background for the interpretation of key Qur’anic texts, and discusses the socio-political factors that may influence Muslim extremism. Since 9/11, public perception of Islam in the United States has become increasingly divided, as can be seen in a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, which shows an equal split amongst respondents to the question of whether Islam is more likely to encourage violence amongst its adherents.  Interestingly, a converse relationship between political affiliation and opinion on this issue also emerges, with two-thirds of Conservative Republicans and Tea Party members Isla encourages violence more than other religions, while two-thirds of Liberal Democrats believe the opposite.  From this polling data it is clear that this is a partisan issue, and one more likely influenced by politicians and the media than by actual academic study.

In the speech, Dr. Omar analogized between Islamic violence and the use of Biblical texts to justify such atrocities as apartheid in South Africa.  Several more analogies could be extended to other incidences of Christian faith-based violence, such as the work of the IRA in the United Kingdom, or domestic terrorist groups here in the United States, leading Dr. Omar to posit that it is not the religious text itself that is inherently moral or immoral, but the individual interpretation governed by the reader’s own morality.  He offers as an example verse 5 of chapter 9 (surah al-Tawbah) of the Qur’an to demonstrate how moral interpretations of a text void of all historical context can misidentify Islamic beliefs.  The verse states:

Once the sacred months have passed, you may kill the idolaters when you encounter them, and take them [captive], and besiefe them, and prepare for them each ambush.  But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.  God is Forgiving, Merciful.

Taken out of context, this verse could be seen as advocating for religious intolerance and warfare, however, as Dr. Omar points out, most Westerners and even many Muslims are unaware of the context of the verse, where hostilities against Muslims were frozen for three months and due to resume imminently.  In this context, it can be seen that the permission to “kill the idolaters” was specifically during a time of war when the very future of Islam was threatened.  To compare, we can take one of many Biblical verses out of context to make the, admittedly facile, argument that Christianity encourages violence:

Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. (Ezekiel 9 : 6, King James Version)

So why is this analogy unconvincing to the modern Western citizen?  While it is arguably rare for a serious academic to believe that Islam is a religion of violence and commonplace extremism, the fact remains that a distressingly high percentage of Westerners believe that Islam in general is a violent religion.  In my mind, the most serious omission to the speech given by Dr. Omar was not touching on the theory of the ‘Other‘ that has served to separate Muslims in the Arab world as well as Muslim-Americans.  While it is important to spread awareness and dismiss the misinformation that spreads about Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Westerners who have deep-seated anti-Islamic beliefs are not likely to be swayed by academic explanations for contentious Qur’anic passages.  The theory of the ‘Other,’ that has been posited by philosophers such as Hegel, Said, and Lacan expresses the natural human tendency to separate, whether physically or ideologically, a non-dominant culture or group.  This separation confirms and establishes their dominance, protecting their own self-identity.  With the advent of global technologies, the boundaries of separation caused by Othering have been diminished, but not erased, and much still needs to be done to unify disparate cultural and religious groups.


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