True to format, I’m not really countering the argument but rather using it as a jumping board into a topic. What follows is super-summarized and skips over many fine details, examples, and references; I hope to explore these in the ensuing discussions.
(Note: In this article as in the entire project, I am writing of Sunni, or mainstream Islam. This may not correspond to Shia Islam; a topic I will expand upon in later articles.)
All Muslims are guilty?
Many Islamophobes start by pointing to an atrocity committed by a Muslim individual, group, or state, in the present or at some past era of history, and then arguing that this incident characterizes all Muslims, wherever they are, whenever they have lived.
Islam is not monolithic. It stresses a unity of core beliefs but allows – even demands – a wide range of opinions, approaches, and schools of thought. This is essential for the growth and maturation of Islamic jurisprudence, and its applicability across cultures and historical eras.
Islam’s religious order is non-authoritarian
The Islamic religious system has no equivalent of “Church” or “Pope” – no religious institution with doctrinal or legal authority, no ordained priesthood or religious hierarchy, and no doctrinally sanctioned “official truth.”
In the absence of such central religious authority, several interpretations and schools of thoughts exist side by side. Islamic tradition teaches that alternative interpretations are to be tolerated, even respected, as long as they proceed from the same sources in a principled way.
Islam: One or many?
What this allows for is the development of various “regional” Islamic legislations. This is seen as a welcome feature, one that allows Islam to be practiced and implemented in a way more suitable to the intricacies and realities of various societies.
This diversity should not be mistaken for “many Islam’s”; rather, what you see is one Islam with many manifestations. You would hardly expect Islam to be practiced in Afghanistan the same way it is practiced in Canada, for example.
So where do terrorist groups stand?
Islam’s history occasionally saw groups employ gratuitous “loop holing” in order to justify their pre-determined (typically political) positions. To counter them, Islamic scholars have traditionally employed arguments based upon scripture and reason.
As we will see in later posts, state control has led to a stunting of the religious establishment in status and stature, making it mostly incapable of filling its historical role of “answering” aberrant groups, and leading to an atmosphere if ignorance in which violent ideologies thrive.
Why don’t Muslims stand up to the terrorists?
This is a common criticism; Muslim scholars are indeed unwilling to proclaim terrorists to be outside the folds of Islam. This has led some Western observers to conclude that Muslim society is somehow “enabling” the terrorists by continuing to call them “Muslims”.
For example, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in a sermon following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, condemned 9-11 but refused to declare Bin Laden an apostate. For this, he was accused of “providing a religious cover for terrorism”.
The Islamic tradition of standing up to such sects involves public debate, not excommunication. Excommunication is a lengthy and exhaustive process that can only proceed with clear evidence that the accused has abandoned the most central tenets of Islam.
In the 7th century, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and Islam’s fourth Caliph, was in the midst of a bitter and violent struggle with the Kharijites, a violent and dogmatic Islamic sect with anarchist tendencies.
When asked if they were infidels, he said: “No, they are our brothers in faith, but they transgressed against us”; indicating that he fought them not for their beliefs but for their initiation of violence.
“So, are the terrorists practicing real Islam? Answer the question already!” I hope the format isn’t confusing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am not responding to the “opening argument” (often the title) but rather using it as a “jumping off point” to explore an aspect of the Islamic Paradigm.
But to sum up this article, there are many Islamic schools of thought. Despite disagreements and debates among themselves, all of them are “real”, in so far as they agree upon core tenets and principles and obtain their legislation from the same sources: the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
Terrorist groups represent an aberrant anomaly, politically motivated but religiously justified through gratuitous “loop holing”. Within the spectrum of Islamic viewpoints, they are considered at the fringe, yet within Islam and not outside it.