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The face of Islam’s peace and Islamic terror

Written By | Jan 12, 2015

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2015 – During the three days of terrorist violence in Paris, magazine cartoonists, police, and civilian hostages were killed. One of the police was a Muslim.

During the attack on the kosher market in Paris, a quick-thinking employee saved lives by herding customers downstairs to hide in a freezer. When the slaughter was over, they called him a hero. He was also a Muslim.

Religious leaders and regular people across the Muslim world denounced the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Even the leaders of Hamas condemned it. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will attend a national rally in Paris on Sunday to stand in solidarity with the people of France against the terrorists.

Muslims have left flowers and sent cards to the scenes of bloodshed. “The terrorists do not represent us,” is the message. According to Palestinian news agency WAFA, French President Hollande says he appreciates the support from Muslims and Arab leaders, “so that we can prevent the attempts to heighten emotions and link these criminal actions with Islam.”

Most Muslims are, like most other people, essentially decent, kind, and appalled at terrorist violence. Yet within Islam is another powerful sentiment, often coexisting with the kindness.

A Pew Research study shows that most Egyptian Muslims, a whopping 88 percent, think that death is the appropriate penalty for leaving Islam. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, solid majorities of Muslims believe in death for apostates.

In Turkey, a much more secular, much less conservative country, a solid majority opposes the death penalty for apostates, but even there, 17 percent of Muslims favor it. In Islam, leaving the faith isn’t simple apostasy, as westerners see it, but a form of treason against the larger community, called ridda. As many Americans consider death an appropriate penalty for treason, so do many Muslims, who do not draw the bright line between religion and the rest of life that many Westerners do, see it as the appropriate penalty for apostasy.

This is not a fringe view. It is mainstream. But even if Muslims favor inflicting death on fellow Muslims for apostasy, that doesn’t mean they favor violence against non-Muslims, and a majority don’t. But again the numbers are disturbing.

In 17 of 23 countries with large Muslim populations, most Muslims believe that sharia is the revealed word of God. Many of the others believe that sharia was developed by men from God’s word.

Of those who believe that Sharia is the word of God, most favor making it the law of the land. That number is as high as 99 percent in Afghanistan, 84 percent in Pakistan, and 77 percent in Thailand. Of those who believe it should be the law of the land, 74 percent in Egypt say it should apply to non-Muslims, with more than 40 percent of Muslims believing that across the Middle East.

The analysis of these numbers is tricky, but they underline an important point: The beliefs and attitudes that promote violence against non-Muslims for offenses against Islam are held by a minority of Muslims, but it is not a small minority. In terms of the absolute numbers, it is probably in the high tens or low hundreds of millions.

To say that Islam is a religion of peace, as leaders from President Hollande to President Obama are prone to do, is true for hundreds of millions of Muslims. To counter that it is a religion of violence is also true, for tens of millions of others. Islam is both a potential ally in the fight against terror, and a deadly threat.

There is competition within Islam for believers, competition between the conservative, harsh Islam of the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and a more moderate, humanist Islam. Each has the ability to draw people from the other side, so the direction that the majority of Muslims will go is not a given.

To treat all of Islam as the enemy would be a mistake. It is not, and we should not make it so. To treat Islamic terrorism as a fringe phenomenon, akin to domestic terrorist movements in the U.S., though, would also be a mistake. Not all conservative Muslims are terrorists, but the pool from which organizations like the Islamic State and al Qaeda can draw is enomous.

Al Qaeda and IS illustrate yet another divide within Islam. Cherif Kouachi, one of the killers at Charlie Hebdo, claimed to have been sent by the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda. Amedy Coulibaly, who killed the hostages at the kosher market, claimed to be affiliated with the Islamic State.

Those two organizations adhere to the same ultra-orthodox wahhabi strain of salafism.

The differences between them are personal, a matter of personal animosity between al Qaeda’s Ayman al Zawahri and Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This animosity has produced deep political divisions, which in some areas, most notably Syria, has led to open warfare between them. People might hate strangers for various reasons, but there’s no hatred so venomous as that between old friends and between members of the same family.

Islam is not like Catholicism; there is no single face of the religion. Islam is a way of life and a culture, not just something Muslims do one day a week at a mosque. But it is a culture that is influenced by other elements of national culture, a culture that need be neither friend nor foe to the West, but that will always be very different.

Where Muslims have extended hands in sorrow and friendship over the week’s events in Paris, we should be glad.

The terrorists were Muslim, but they killed a Muslim Frenchman who did his duty, and they were defied by a Muslim who believes in a religion of peace.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.