By Muhammet Keles
February 15, 2015
A day does not go by where Islam and Muslims do not occupy the headlines and are not the central point of many political and religious discussions.
The violent and terrorist acts by those who claim to act on behalf of and for Islam intensify the already established suspicions of Muslims and, more importantly, make it even more challenging to argue against such an understanding of Islam. The fact that the perpetrators somehow justify their actions according to Islam does not necessarily make the political aspects -- whether domestic or international -- of the corresponding matters in question any less important or valid as in many cases what appear as “religious” are in fact mostly political in nature. However, this does not change the fact that religion, which is, in this case, Islam, is being utilized and perhaps instrumentalized as a driving force for a certain ideological construction with a particular understanding of Islam that justify violent actions.
This identification does not imply an inherent connection between Islam as a religion and violent extremism or terrorism; however, it raises the question of whether there are certain historic, sociological or political practices in Islamic history that can be used as a justification for violent extremism. Tariq Ramadan once said just as you can justify anything with history, you could also do so with religion, meaning that it is always possible to find or construct knowledge or a practice in religion that one sees as a justification for their actions. This implies a certain degree of fluidity and flexibility in the compatibility of a certain action with Islam, which in return raises the question of whether it is really possible to argue for a “true Islam” by denying the Islamicness of, for example, a terrorist act or should we accept the possibility that there might be various interpretations of Islam just like any other religion and therefore we should recognize the Islamicness of an action if its perpetrator claims to carry out that action according to and for Islam?
It is perhaps academically more popular and acceptable to be critical and suspicious of any notions that claim to have knowledge about the truth, and Islam as a religion is no exception. This partly comes from the danger that when certain knowledge in religion is treated as only having one strictly defined understanding or way of practice, it tends to become a taboo, which does not allow for critical thinking and religion in the end becomes dogmatic. This is, however, one aspect of the problem and does not necessarily answer the question of whether the other end of the spectrum is complete flexibility in definition and understanding whereby the meaning and value we assign to religion and its practices become loosely defined and take the shape and value that its practitioner performs. In this form of thought process, the argument for a “true Islam” is not possible as every practice becomes “Islamic” in its own sense. There are certain problems with this approach, not least because of double standards or perhaps the selective application of this critical thinking process when Islam is in question and, more importantly, deliberately or inadvertently treating Islam as a religion without any principles, core values or a moral code.
For example, if a person who claims to be liberal, democrat or socialist does and says certain things which are deemed to be incompatible with the core values or principles of what these notions are known by, we wouldn't take that person's claim and recognize him/her as liberal, democrat or socialist. This is not because we see ourselves as the gatekeeper of that particular notion who has the ultimate say about it, but because there is a common knowledge and years of practice that a person, for example, who does not respect free market economy can hardly be called liberal. We would then at least argue that the denial of free market economy is not compatible with the core values of liberalism.
The same approach can easily be applied to Islam or any other religion in that sense as Islam is not a religion without any principles, core values, moral code or historical practices that would challenge those who somehow justify their violent actions through Islam. However, it seems that when it comes down to Islam or religion in general, there is always a tendency that sees what one considers “good” as the exception and “bad” as the norm whereby bad examples, such as terrorist acts or violent extremism, become a representative of Islam and those who argue against these actions are being considered as a tiny minority or accused of being in denial that Islam is the source of these devil acts.
This is precisely why an argument for a “true Islam” is helpful if not required in order to change the public perception but more importantly to challenge those who use Islam for their politically motivated aims through violence. The fact that some claim to act according to and for Islam should then be taken as a political manifestation that an argument for a true Islam needs to address and challenge as a result of which core values and fundamental principles of Islam should become clearer and more accessible. The key point here is that the argument is not for the muslimness of the perpetrators but for the Islamicness of their actions, for which extensive discussions are needed more than ever.
Muhammet Keleş is a Ph.D. candidate in politics and international relations at the Institute for Social Sciences at Keele University.