It is always hard to see ourselves the way that others see us. The same applies to the way that others see our religion.
When it comes to other people's perception of Islam, I think my personal background, spending my education and working life in an overwhelmingly non-Muslim environment, and having been an agnostic, an atheist, and a Seventh-Day Adventist, (as well as being raised as a Muslim and a Muslim since my late twenties) makes it easier for me to think about this than it is for most Muslims.
I was recently asked by Tasnim Idriss, Editorial Associate at the Islam & Liberty Network, if I would like to write an ILN article on a subject of my choosing.
I suggested the title "Why does Islam have such a terrible reputation?" and it was recently published on the ILN website under the category of "Religious Freedom" at the link in the title. You can also read it below.
Memory is a strange thing. Writing this website page made me remember some lines regularly quoted by one of the characters in a series of science fiction books I read as a a teenager (the Kemlo series by EC Elliot) which I have not thought about for decades.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
They are from the poem “To a Louse” by Robert Burns, and in the Scots language. The link explains what they mean in English!
Grammatically, Islam is an abstract noun. Logically, Islam’s reputation should be determined by people evaluating the ideas constituting Islam and deciding what they think of those ideas.
However, the world does not work that way. In practice, non-Muslims decide what they think of Islam by deciding what they think of Muslims. So how do non-Muslims see Muslims?
I have lived in the United Kingdom since 1952 when I came from Pakistan at the age of two. Until the 1980’s, the white British population (almost universally non-Muslim) saw me as “Asian,” defined by my ethnicity and culture.
So also did I. In the mid-1980’s, I helped to form a group of professionals in Manchester to bring together professionals from the Indian subcontinent. We chose the name “The Asian Circle” and took zero interest in our members’ religious beliefs. None of us thought of our varying religions as being significant differentiators.
Everything changed in 1989. Salman Rushdie, who had won the Booker Prize for his novel “Midnight’s Children” published a new book in 1988 called “The Satanic Verses.” I recall reading reviews that year which described the book as turgid. It would have faded into obscurity as one of Rushdie’s lesser works but for what happened next.
In January 1989, Muslims protested on the streets of many British cities. The book was burned on the streets of Bradford. Many commentators pointed out that the last time that books had been burned on the streets of Europe was in the 1930’s when the Nazis were burning Jewish books. Then in February 1989 came the fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, calling on Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, with the Iranian state offering a reward for his murder.
Very many non-Muslims formed the view that Muslims must be backward savages. (Some Muslims did condemn the fatwa and the anti-Rushdie protests, but most kept their heads down and said nothing.)
The 1990’s saw the rise of international terrorism committed by Muslims. The prime instigator was Al Qaeda with the East African embassy bombings, the bombing of the USS Cole, and then the 9/11 attacks in New York City and Washington DC in 2001. Subsequent major acts of terrorism by Muslims include the Madrid train bombings of 2004, in my own country the London bombings of 7 July 2005, and the Bombay train bombings of 2006.
2006 also saw riots in many Muslim majority countries, and protests by Muslims in many European countries which included death threats, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
The growth of sectarian hatred and murder in Iraq after the US-led overthrow in 2003 of the Saddam Hussein regime culminated in the rise of the extremist Sunni organisation ISIS in 2014 which massacred Shia Muslims and non-Muslim Iraqis alike, and which took Yazidi women as sex slaves, with the ISIS leadership stating this was religiously appropriate behaviour in Islam.
The following year, January 2015 saw the murderous attack by Muslims on the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris, and in November 2015 major terrorist attacks again committed by Muslims in Paris.
The above list does not try to be comprehensive but simply lists what I regard as the most memorable incidents. While the terrorism mentioned above is the biggest single determinant of how non-Muslims see Muslims, and therefore what they think about Islam, it is not the only factor.
Followers of international affairs can see that apart from the oil rich states, with a few exceptions Muslim majority countries are typified by widespread poverty and economic failure.
Furthermore, apart from a few countries which have democratic systems (of varying robustness) Muslim majority countries are typified by either monarchical rule or military dictatorships.
Observers can also see the widespread lack of religious freedom in many Muslim majority countries, with the law criminalising Muslims who no longer wish to be Muslims, and also criminalising people who declare that they do not believe in the existence of God or who seek to propagate other religions.
With this history of terrorism committed by Muslims, widespread lack of economic freedom leading to poverty, widespread lack of political freedom, and widespread lack of religious freedom, no Muslim should be in the least bit surprised that Islam has a terrible reputation amongst non-Muslims.
Indeed, I could ask why the measured reputation of Islam in opinion surveys amongst non-Muslims is not even worse than the surveys find.
What can we, as individual Muslims who care about the reputation of Islam, do to improve the position?
That will be the subject of my next post.
Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Islam & Liberty Network Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.