The face of Islam’s peace and Islamic terror

Islamist terrorists killed cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and hostages at a kosher market, and other Muslims resisted the terrorists. Which represented the real Islam?

Malek Marabet brother of slain officer Ahmed Marabet
Malek Marabet brother of slain officer Ahmed Marabet

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.


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  • A.Rizvi

    Koran says there is no compulsion in religion. If any one forces Islam on non Muslims he is not a Muslim because he is going against the teaching of Koran. It is up to people to follow any religion they want to,God is the final JUDGE.

    • moohammy

      But if a Muslim wants to be a Christian–off with his or her head!

      • A.Rizvi

        If Muslim wants to become a Christian, Jew or Hindu that is his choice. No one has a right to stop him. THERE IS NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION (ISLAM).GOD IS THE FINAL JUDGE.

        • gmarti

          I’m genuinely confused then. I agree that the Quran says there is no compulsion in religion. It also demands for the killing and forced slavery of anyone that is different. How do Muslims resolve these differences? This “perfect holy text” contradicts itself repeatedly. One group says Islam is all about peace, the other side uses Islam as the reason behind their violence. Both sides use the Quran as evidence supporting their cause. Who is the “real Muslim” and which is the “true Islam?” I’m not trying to be hateful, but I really am curious.

          • A.Rizvi

            Prophet in his life time never forced any one to become Muslim. All he did invite people to look into the facts of being a Muslim. And decide if they want to become Muslims or not.

  • Joe Chernicoff

    So the question, Jim is the old one – how do you tell the good guys from the bad ones?: Aside from which, Islam, like ancient religions, finds no sin in harm against those who are deemed destructive towards Islam , only actions between those within the umma are sinful…

    • JWPicht

      You tell the good guys from the bad the way you do with everyone else – by what they do, by their fruits. Life doesn’t always make it easy for us to tell sheep from wolves.

  • Joe Chernicoff

    The good guys comment was meant to be sardonic, Jim…Islamic fundamentalism has tainted all Muslums – words and even actions have to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, until that individual or organization is proven to be trustworthy. Preemptive security is always the best…