Ghavri: Understanding Islam

by Anmol Ghavri | 5/19/15 6:41pm

The recent death sentence for Chechen Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has rekindled debate over whether Islam is compatible with the West. Tsarnaev and his now-deceased brother, Tamerlan, exploded pressure-cooker bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 264. According to the Anti-Defamation League, they were inspired in part by Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki after watching his sermons online.

As a disclaimer, I am not Muslim. I grew up in a multi-religion home, and I have family of many faiths around the world. I am a fervent advocate of religious understanding. Most Muslims are simply devout people who go about their day-to-day lives without a single radical thought. While there is an extreme minority that act on radical beliefs, they are not representative of the beautiful and diverse global community of Muslims. To reform the religion and live peacefully with Muslims, the West must understand Islam as a religion and respect the spiritual value many of its followers acquire from their beliefs.

On April 10, Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria was a guest on HBO’s, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the eponymous host of which is known for his often controversial statements on everything from American military intervention to birth control. Maher, an outspoken critic of religion in general, has recently developed a very aggressive anti-Islam stance in light of the emergence of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — on the global stage. Maher believes Islam is an intolerant religion and has a history of making anti-Islamic comments. During a debate on his show last year, Maher expressed agreement with a participant who said that Islam is the “mother lode of bad ideas,” and Maher reiterated that comment in his recent conversation with Zakaria. Maher also cited a 2013 Pew survey that claims, among other things, that 86 percent of Egyptian Muslims support a death penalty as punishment for leaving Islam. There were serious problems with how that survey was conducted, including the fact that respondents could not answer freely — in countries where Islam is a state religion and speaking out against it is punishable, people are not necessarily inclined to speak their mind to surveying pollsters. If a great majority of Muslims did have radical beliefs, there would likely be many more attempted and successful terror attacks than we see now.

Maher is not the only one who holds these beliefs. Particularly since the attacks on September 11, 2001 — and reinvigorated with the constant media coverage of the Islamic State and their murderous rampage across the Middle East — many pundits have developed a paradigm of “Islam versus the West,” placing blame for this binary on “radical Islam.” It is true that the leaders of the Islamic State justify many of their barbaric actions as Islamic, but attacking Muslims in the West because of the actions of a fringe terror group is unjustified.

I agree with Zakaria, who told Maher that while there is “a cancer” in Islam, the West will not reform a religion by telling almost 1.6 billion devout people — most of whom peacefully go about their daily lives — that their religion is filled with bad ideas and requires fixing. Statements like these make for great news headlines on Fox News, but do little else. To change the religion, the West needs to push for its reform, respect the spiritual value it gives it followers and work to understand the history of Islam. There is nothing inherently wrong with Islam, as a whole.

Many high schools throughout the United States teach about Islam in world history classes, along with other religions and cultures. Some parents, including recent examples from Massachusetts and Florida, have expressed anger because their children are learning about the pillars of Islam in a state-mandated curriculum. Without developing an understanding for the workings of Islam, parents run the risk of raising their children with a narrow-minded worldview, and this lack of understanding can help to allow the cycle of violence between the West and Islam to continue. An adequate education is key to preventing conflict.

Denying Islam’s significance and dismissing it as “the mother lode of bad ideas” is unscholarly, Islamophobic and will only hurt the West in the long run. Moving forward, globally-minded citizens in the West must become more open to learning about Islam — along with other faiths and cultures — if future events like the Boston Marathon bombing are to be prevented. The religion must be understood by the next generation of leaders, as the world’s almost 1.6 billion Muslims will play a major role in shaping the future for us all.