Countering “Violent Islam”

Monday 12 February 201809:25 pm
“Islam promotes violence”. This statement has become almost blasé in this day and age, used as a trope by journalists, political pundits and world leaders as a way to rationalize terrorist acts committed in the name of the religion. It’s rather common to find social media flooded with comments supporting the opening statement; individuals quoting verses from the Qur’an that allegedly support Islam’s inherent violence. As a reaction to this deluge of commentary, many Muslims feel the need to justify their religion in the eyes of the “other”. Just as common are statements and quotes from the Qur’an that attempt to prove Islam’s place as a religion of piece. The question that arises in this context is: why do Muslims carry the burden of responding to these accusations? This back-and-forth raises a red flag concerning the politics that assigns Muslims the task of correcting misconceptions about them within and without the US and the Western world more generally. There are several historical moments that emerge as key in this heated debate. Most notable are the 9/11 attacks in New York, followed by al-Qaida and Ossama bin-Laden’s emergence as the perpetrators, and more recently, the appearance of ISIS as a terrorist threat in Syria and globally. These events, coupled with a series of geopolitical and economic changes, triggered a Global War on Terror that has given US and Western policymakers a newfound tool to target individuals and groups based on ethno-religious orientation. This is one more recent chapter in a long-existing process of otherization whereby the politically and economically shape perceptions of the marginal and less powerful other — in this case, Arabs and Muslims. The seeming chasm between both groups is not one between nations or peoples per se, but a political project seeking to divide. This lack of understanding is dangerous on several fronts: firstly, it results in rash generalizations about a massive group of people who themselves understand their religion in various ways; secondly, these generalizations manifest themselves in very physical acts of discrimination and harassment; thirdly, it exposes the large chasms that exist within interpretations of the religion itself. What, then, does this mean for understandings of Islam in the region? How is the Islamic world pressured into defending itself against labels of terrorism or fertile ground for terrorism?The article addresses the relationship between human rights and Islam through the work of Dr. Zaid Eyadat, associate professor at the University of Jordan.


Eyadat views the rise in religious extremism and hegemony as a crisis in religious authority and a result of a lack in constructive dialogue between the “Muslim world” and the “West” more broadly. Thus, to counter these dangerous forces, a dual reform movement is needed: an internal one vis-a-vis the religion and an external one vis-a-vis its perceptions by the non-Muslim other. Here, it is important to note that while the article addresses efforts at understanding the relation between Islam and human rights within the Arab world, a reform movement in the “otherizing West” is also necessary. There is a need to deconstruct the “Muslim” as an identity category on political, cultural, and mediated fronts in order to counter generalizations and understand the richness of the Islamic culture and faith In his article "Islams: Between Dialoguing and mainstreaming", Eyadat emphasizes the central role that conversation and debate in Islam and Islamic history can play to facilitate interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue, deconstructing the imposed binary between “Islam” and the “West”. As the title suggests, he counters the idea of a monolithic Islam referring instead to various “Islams” created by a vibrant culture of religious debate. According to Eyadat, viewing Islam within such a limited framework undermines its diversity and marginalizes rationalism, relegating this necessary component of dialogue to the realm of the condemned. For Eyadat, rationalism does not mean a total separation between religion public sphere; rather, it is a means of uniting traditionalist scholars and pious citizens in a way that critically engages with the religion and facilitates religious pluralism. The promotion of dialogue happens on two levels. While the above is an internal mechanism that happens within the Muslim community, a concurrent discussion must happen without it so as to demystify the religion in the eyes of non-Muslims so as to criticize generalizations regarding the faith, spur interest in understanding the richness of the religion and those who adhere to or identify with it, and counter political rhetoric that equates Islam with violence. Dr. Eyadat teaches an Islam and Human Rights course both in the Arab world and elsewhere as a first step towards fostering inter-faith dialogue. Speaking to Raseef22, he notes, “I developed this course to be taught in the Arab world and everywhere else. I had a chance to teach it in Europe, the United States and Jordan. I started thinking about this topic because of the identity crisis besetting the Arab world, and religion was at the heart of this”. For Eyadat, there is a lack of communication and knowledge between students from the Arab and Muslim world, and the West about the religious and cultural traditions that inform their perceptions. “Both parties end up feeding into misperceptions about the real nature of Islam. What I do in my teaching is introduce the original position [borrowed from philosopher John Rawles] of Islam. My key theory is that we must deconstruct Islam and human rights, then show similarities between both ideas of human rights,” he says.

Multiple interpretations

Dr. Eyadat notes that it is equally important to teach the topic in Arab and Muslim countries, as well as Western countries in order to foster constructive communication. He emphasizes the fact that there exists a difference between text and interpretation of religion. “The key issue is that there is no one Islam but several Islams; we have the Qur’an and we have historical practices and experiences, and there is a need to differentiate between them”, says Eyadat to Raseef22. For him, Islam is an individual-based faith and what made its role in politics grow was the politicization process it underwent in order to suit interests of authorities at the time. This various Islams that exist, particularly with regards to religion, are sometimes compatible with international values of human rights and other times are not. He notes that “only by re-reading Islam and interpreting the Qur’an can one show the compatibility between Islam and human rights. His view counters the idea that the two ideologies are always incompatible, while also emphasizing that human rights itself have multiple ways of being read. In that light, Eyadat views the “problem” of human rights as one that affects every corner of the world; however, it is multiplied in Arab countries. “Arab governments at large deal with human rights from an opportunistic point of view and not from a serious belief in their value,” he says. What matters is maintaining a status quo and promoting special interests rather than ensuring human rights are protected. Here, it is necessary to examine the root of the seeming disconnection between Islam and human rights in the Arab and Muslim world. While human rights abuses do, in fact, exist worldwide, Arab governments are hesitant to accept and adopt international human rights laws, which they view as impositions of Western political power. This in no way excuses corrupt dictatorships and grave abuses of power that do occur in the MENA region; however, it raises the importance of questioning the centrality of human rights as a Western-specific phenomenon. It would be equally important to deconstruct this relationship, highlighting a culturally-led understanding of human rights, within which Islam plays a necessary role.


Within this context, there emerges a need to reform one’s understanding of the religion in order to arrive at a more democratic and consensus-based society that acknowledges the plurality of voices available and promotes human rights as legal and fundamental rights human beings enjoy. Eyadat places himself within the tradition of reformers who view Islamic reformation as necessary to achieve a viable Arab Renaissance. Eyadat notes reformers of the Arab Renaissance (end of the 18th and 19th centuries) as inspiration for re-thinking Islam through a human rights lens. He cites Mohamad Abdo and Jamal Al-Din al-Afghani as early reformers who discussed deeply reforming the military, education, health, women’s rights and other such issues in order to arrive at a more democratic and consensus-based society. He also highlights more recent reformers who emerged in the last 40 years like Radwan Al-Sayed and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim who re-read Islam and provided new interpretations of it. “We need to call things by their name,” he notes. “Intellectuals and scholars like myself have a moral responsibility to address the problem. We have the right and liberty to re-read Islam and private new interpretations of it”. Eyadat suggests a new model of Islam which he calls rational-liberal-secular. It is rational because it takes human interest and faculty into account; liberal, because it gives individuals the faculty of choosing their path; and secular because it is the only way that democratic values and respect for human rights can be achieved.  “We have failed states at the moment- bar a few exceptions. There are new sociopolitical cultural realities on the ground which require public reasoning”, says Eyadat. Despite the difficult situation in which most Arab countries find themselves in, there exists in this dilemma an opportunity to promote rational-liberal-secular Islam by thinkers as a real alternative to the failing status quo.

Future challenges

The discussion on Islam and human rights, and more specifically Islam refracted through the prism of human rights is an important one to have at a time when the region is as divided as ever along political, social, economic, ethnic, and religious lines. Reform on the micro and macro levels are required; reform that addresses the religious rubrics. Several challenges could emerge; most notably a social reluctance to accept the “Islam” that emerges from within the various “Islams” and whether this “Islam” could be unifying across the Arab region. With regards to fostering dialogue, Dr. Eyadat’s course on Islam and Human Rights is an important step to bridging the gap between the religion and how it is perceived globally. Yet, the course is taught in the safety of ivory towers, embraced by the comfort of scholarly discourse. How can this dialogue transcend the academic realm and address a broader audience, especially when there are widespread media efforts to portray Islam and Muslims as a troubling monolith that flattens out their heterogeneity? How can the Muslim community address its problem with fundamentalist political Islam while simultaneously countering international imaginaries of a violent Islam, without resorting to blanket apologies?

Moreover, in order to deconstruct the binary that exists between “Islam and the West”, it is equally necessary that the other party — in this case, the Western world — places just as much effort on reform. Rash generalizations, lazy and plainly false media representations of Arab and Muslims, targeting of minority groups…political and cultural actions that propagators need to take responsibility for in order to better understand the richness of Islamic and Arab history.

Looking through the lens of human rights, it is equally important that the phenomenon is removed from its Western pedestal and given a culturally-specific orientation that is adaptable within communities.

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