Can We Lose the Violent Muslim Cliche?

Most Muslims, like most people everywhere, are peaceable and law-abiding. So why are we continually inundated with images and hate speech perpetuating this harmful lie?

There has been a lot of ranting about Muslims in the press, as when Bill Maher recently dissed the entire religion of Islam on television: “It’s the only religion that acts like the Mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.” This is rather a harsh indictment of a religion that has 1.6 billion followers, making up nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Can there be any justification for this kind of talk?

One expects to hear such talk in Israel, and one does. The 19-year-old son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently posted a message on his Facebook page suggesting that Muslims “celebrate hate and death.” Like father like son, I suppose. The Israeli prime minister is no fan of Islam. He was in New York only a couple of week ago, speaking at the United Nations, where he denounced “militant Islam.” Yet he made it sound very like every Muslim in the world was somehow tainted by their extremist elements. He singled out Iran, which he says is pursuing a “global mission” meant to export its violent revolution “to the entire world.” That sounds very like “godless Communism,” which in the ’50s was regarded by many in the U.S. as wishing to export its “global mission … to the entire world.”

To be fair, Netanyahu is not entirely wrong. There are extremist groups within the Islamic community, including movements such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram in Nigera, and An-Nusrah in Syria—just to name some of the ones that appear in the news almost every day. These fanatical groups wish to create fundamentalist enclaves in which some version of Sharia law will prevail. To Western eyes and ears, Sharia law seems devoid of respect for differences of opinion or complex moral thinking. Certainly the American idea of separation between church and state is lost in Sharia-style governance.

That being said, it seems worth recalling that vast majority of Muslims lead peaceful lives, and—does anyone doubt this?—hope for peace in the world. It’s probably incorrect to say that Islam is “a religion of peace,” as some politicians like to say. Overstatements like that don’t clarify anything. But the Koran does suggest that Islam is a religion of peace, as in Chapter 25, verse 63: “The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, ‘Peace!’” This is one of many similar passages, although those who wish to support violent Islam will find passages about slaying the enemies of Islam.

The same can be said for the Christian scriptures, which offer contradictory messages about the use of violence.

It might be noted, as Ruhat Husain has done, that American Islamic leaders have repeatedly condemned terrorist acts. They did so after 9/11, and they continue to do so. Only last year, after the Boston marathon bombings, major statements condemning this horrific behavior were issued by the leading Muslim organizations in the U.S., including UMAA, ISNA, and MPAC. The sad fact is that few important media outlets in the world made much of this universal condemnation, and the idea that Muslims somehow “like” violence seems to pervade American thinking.

Recently in Cairo I sat at a dinner party next to an elderly Islamic businessman. He spoke so eloquently about his faith that, were I not myself a Christian, I would have been tempted to join him in the mosque for prayer! He spoke movingly about how Muslims are called five times a day to prayer. As he put it, Muslims never go for long without coming into the presence of God. Their lives are filled with the spirit, and they submit to the will of God when they bow in prayer. The word “Islam” itself means “submission,” but this isn’t a slavish submission to some horrible force. It simply means that one comes regularly into contact with the universal spirit, the creator God, the source of being—one can describe this term in any number of ways.

As a Christian, I try to meditate or pray at least once a day, however briefly. It’s a personal thing, a spiritual practice, and I find myself wonderfully buoyed by the experience of making contact with a deep source within myself or outside myself or wherever it lives. I envy Muslims their practice of regular and genuine prayer. It’s a beautiful practice that enriches their daily lives. (I know what you’re thinking: I should pray more often if I like it so much!)

My experience of talking to everyday Muslims over the years in North Africa, Jordan, Egypt, on the West Bank, and elsewhere has been uniformly uplifting. In my experience, they are humble, spiritually informed people, more often than not frustrated by the bad press that Islam gets in the West.

Extremists exist in every religion, and violent people will be found among all of them. The barbarism of ISIS and their ilk gets big headlines; but it’s worth reminding ourselves repeatedly that most Muslims aren’t like this. They, too, recoil at the beheading of innocents, and wish that extremism—wherever it arises—can be diminished, as it does nobody any good.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Jesus: The Human Face of God. Follow him at [email protected]