Does Islam have a problem with violence? This question is being passionately debated, particularly in Europe. Yet a new study points to just the opposite. Rainer Sollich comments.
It is certainly understandable that the question could arise of whether there is a connection between Islam and violence. Not only are an alarming number of Islamic countries suffering from war, terrorism and violence - the Arab world, the historic core of Islam, is most affected - but brutal terrorist attacks are also being carried out "in the name of Islam" in European metropolises such as Brussels and Paris. Here, experts point to frustrated young people with no life perspective as being most susceptible to the radical ideologies of "Islamic State" (IS) and similar groups.
This makes the results of a study recently published by a US institution in cooperation with an agency in Dubai seem that much more remarkable: 78 percent of the 3,500 young Arabs that were polled in 19 countries across the region said that they would not support "IS" even if it used less violence. More than 50 percent called the jihadist group the biggest obstacle to development in the Middle East and North Africa. More than half of those Arabs polled also said that religion "carried too much weight" in their home countries. Although it remains unclear as to how representative these statements actually are, they are worth taking note of. And they also increase the awareness that one should never oversimplify matters when dealing with such a sensitive subject.
Islam is being instrumentalized
Do these survey results mean that Islam does not have a problem with violence? That would also be an oversimplification. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid the fact that Islam is used today as a justification for terrorism and violence far more often than any other organized religion. And the perpetrators are convinced that they are good Muslims. At the least that means Islam has an image problem: It is often, and unfortunately, successfully misused by extremists. Trying to explain this phenomenon by pointing to the miserable economic and social conditions in many Arab countries also falls short of the mark.
It would be more than desirable if the Islam-dominated societies in the region were to finally develop a modern understanding of religion, one that would fit our globalized world. This change can only come from within the Islamic community itself. However, at this point Islamic reformers have little chance of making headway againt the patriarchal structures of many of those countries, or in some of the Muslim communities across Europe. Discourse and religious practices are dictated by the conservative powers-that-be in this context. Those powers are not being challenged by modernizers, as has often, and sometimes successfully, been the case throughout the history of Islam, but by political extremists. Such extremists skillfully use populist religious slogans for their own ambitions and their crude visions for the future, presenting themselves as more "Islamic" than individual rulers.
Don't reduce people to their religion
What Europe can learn from this study is just how important it is to differentiate. There is no single "Islam," nor is there any one group of "Muslims." We are talking about people. Muslims are perpetrators and victims - mostly the latter, and not just since the "Arab Spring" collapsed: No religion has had to suffer more deaths among its adherents as a result of war and terrorism than Islam. And there is hardly another region in the world where more repression and brutal despotism reign than in the historical heartland of Islam.
But does that really have anything to do with religion? Whoever believes that must also believe that Muslims are especially fond of being politically repressed, or yearn to be the victims of terror attacks.
No general suspicion
The biggest mistake that Europe could make would be to be suspicious of all Muslims. By doing so we would only be playing into the hands of "IS," whose ideology seeks to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims. It also would not help in light of the enormous challenges that the influx of untold numbers of immigrants present to European society.
The fact that most immigrants happen to be Muslims is not really the crucial point. The bigger problem is that many of them come from societies in which conflicts have a history of being resolved with violence and repression. And religion - this applies to many Arab Christians as well - often conveys identity in their home countries to a degree that is barely conceivable for many Europeans today. This inevitably gives rise to misunderstandings. Nevertheless, we must never reduce people to their religion alone, especially here in secular Europe.
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