Who Speaks for Islam?

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Who Speaks for Islam?

John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

GallupPress ISBN: 978-1-59562-017-0 222 pages $22.95

Religion per se clearly does not fall into the bailiwick of this journal. The effect of either religion or what is perceived to be religion on the life of a business or its employees, however, does. Because of this, we felt in was appropriate to discuss Who Speaks for Islam here in this journal.

Religion is a tricky issue. Those not a participant in another religion, or who are not a student of the other religion, generally have something of a misconception of even the most fundamental aspects of that other religion. For the sake of convenience, we will limit our discussion to the two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, which account for roughly fifty-five percent of the world’s population. (Adherents of all the other religions combined account for roughly thirty percent of the world’s population.) We do not wish by this to denigrate any religion, or give the impression that your religion of choice, if you, gentle reader, are not Christian or Muslim, is not the true religion, giving you the inside to track to God. That said, we nonetheless like to think that Thuggee is not the one true religion, but late at night we tend to suspect that Fitzgerald was right when he wrote in his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam:


And this I know: whether the one True Light,

Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,

One glimpse of It within the Tavern caught

Better than in the Temple lost outright.

As an example of this trickiness, imagine that you were looking at Christianity as an outsider, and basing your view of Christianity on American religious television and a quick reading of history. You might very well think that Christianity was a monolithic religion (from the outside, the differences among Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Amish, Baptist, Branch Davidian, Presbyterian, Quaker, and the other various sects being so slim as to seem indistinguishable); that Jesus’ main message was that abortion and homosexuality are bad; and that Christianity’s primary activity was killing people through the Catholic Inquisition (in several incarnations from 1231 – 1835), the Protestant killing of witches and Catholics, the 100 Years War, the Crusades,  World War II¹,  blowing up gay bars and abortion clinics, and killing doctors who do abortions to affirm the sanctity of life, et cetera. One might randomly pick some scriptural verse to demonstrate the inherent violence of Christianity, such as Luke 22:36: Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Although this might be the way Christianity appears from the outside, most Christians – actually, we like to think all Christians – would disagree with this characterization of the religion. By the same token, many of those not familiar with Islam have an equally distorted view of Islam².

The word Islam means “a strong commitment to God,” and shares the same root as salaam (similar to the Hebrew shalom), the word for peace. Thus, the traditional greeting is the peace be with you: We don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew, but in Urdu it would be . Peace be with you seems strikingly similar to what we say to one another after mass, and to the Hebrew shalom aleichem (peace be upon you). And, in fact, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are more similar than dissimilar. This should come as no surprise since Jesus was Jewish, and since our Muslim friends insist that Mohammad was born Jewish. It may come as a surprise to some, but Mary is mentioned more often in the Qur’an than in the New Testament!

For this editor, the constant state of misunderstanding among religions was captured in Richard Lester’s 1973 movie The Three Musketeers, which starred Joss Ackland, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Chaplin, Faye Dunaway, Frank Finlay, Charlton Heston, Roy Kinnear, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, Oliver Reed, Simon Ward, Raquel Welch, Georges Wilson, and Michael York. During what we recall to be the Siege ofOrleans, an exchange between the musketeers went something like, “Do you mean we are killing them because we cross ourselves left to right and they cross themselves right to left?” “Yes.” “That makes no sense.” “You just don’t understand religion.”

In our travels – and we have been to most of the countries in this world – it has been our experience that most people’s primary goals are to get up in the morning, work fruitfully during the day, spend time with their families, and have their children’s lives be better than their own lives. (See http://youtube.com/watch?v=zlfKdbWwruY to get a good understanding of people in different cultures.) Everything else is a far-distant second place. This holds true independent of country, language, religion, race, or political system.

That said, we believe that for the uninformed and unsophisticated, the views of Islam and Christianity, each by the other, are generally formed by the actions of the few, not the many. Thus, for many uninformed and unsophisticated Americans, their perception of Islam is based on pictures of some whack job, who appears to have little faith in God’s power or the Islamic way of life, cutting Nick Berg’s head off, or running planes into theTwinTowers. Conversely, for many uninformed and unsophisticated Muslims, their perception of Americais based on pictures of some whack job, who appears to have little faith in God’s power or the American way of life, having wired up Satar Jabar in Abu Graib, or dropping bombs on the homes of innocent families. Neither view is accurate, and it is important to keep in mind that while you should, unless you are a total fool, be able to find a scriptural justification in either the Bible or the Qur’an for any viewpoint you wish, that doesn’t mean that your justification is, in fact, representative of Christianity or Islam, or, even more to the point, of contemporary mainstream Christianity or Islam.

Getting an understanding of Islam, and of what Muslims believe, has just gotten easier for Westerners (and Easterners, as it apparently turns out) with to the publication of Who Speaks for Islam? by the Gallup Press and authored by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. Dr. Esposito teaches atGeorgetownUniversity, and Ms Mogahed is executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. The book is based onGallup’s World Poll, which conducted tens of thousands of interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have significant Muslim populations. It is important to understand that Gallupis an independent organization with no ox to gore, and that the book came from analysis of the data, and not from theories that the data was to prove or disprove. It is a good reflection, in our opinion, of the beliefs of Islam’s diverse 1.3 billion adherents.

Who Speaks for Islam? attempts to present the diverse viewpoint of the majority – roughly ninety percent statistically – of Muslims, based on very extensive interviewing. The book has an introduction, five chapters, and two appendices which deal with the design and methodology of the polling, and with an anecdotal description of the process. The chapters are:

1. Who Are Muslims?

2. Democracy or Theocracy

3. What Makes a Radical?

4. What Do Women Want?

5. Clash or Coexistence?

In looking at the issues, it is important to understand that Islam is no more monolithic than Christianity. This is noted by Fitzgerald in the Rubaiyat, when he writes (emphasis ours):


The Grape that can with Logic absolute                                                                                                                                                                            The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:                                                                                                                                                                  The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice                                                                                                                                                                                     Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.

Because of the wide variety of locations, customs, and behaviors represented in the survey, we feel that the uniformity of answers cuts across the cultural differences, revealing the beliefs influenced by religion.

We have neither the space nor the inclination to go through everything touched on in the book, so we wanted to pick one key issue that gets bandied about. We thought this might be why there are no Islamic democracies, but realized that this is roughly equivalent to asking why there were no 17th century European democracies, and therefore not particularly interesting.

Then we thought it might be interesting to compare common law, which is based on Roman law (which modern writers have thought started from the blood feud) and German law (which all authorities believe began in that way), to Sharia law, which was implemented to protect the populace from the power of the Caliph. And, lest you have become concerned, the fact that the American jurisprudence system is based on common law does not mean that decisions made today will necessarily be directly based on the view of Roman or Medieval law.

Instead, because of a luncheon conversation, we decided to pick the question of whether Muslims are more willing to kill innocent people than are Christians. The answer is no. According to Who Speaks for Islam:

A recent study shows that only 46% of Americans think that “Bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified,” while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.” Contrast this with data taken the same year from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified;” inPakistanthat figure is 86%; inBangladesh, 81%; and inIran, 80%.”

Similarly, 6% of the American public thinks that attacks in which civilians are targets are “completely justified.” As points of comparison, in both Lebanonand Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia it’s 4%. We will not discuss the puerile question of whether one religion is more valid than another. It is important to remember that faith, by definition, is belief absent proof or reason. We therefore feel that a discussion of whether the revelations given to our forebears are better than the revelations given to someone else’s forebears is a lose-lose game for all people of faith.

Instead, we would like to remind readers of the overwhelmingly common aspirations of people whomsoever they may be. And that terrorist activity on the part of some Muslims – always backed by political, rather than religious, justifications – is no more necessarily representative of Islam than the terrorist activity of some Christians is necessarily representative of Christianity.

We also like to remind readers that the political activities of a religion often bear, to both the insider and the outsider, no resemblance to the teachings of the religion. It would therefore be imprudent to expect Islam, over the long haul, to behave any better or worse than has Christianity.

The perceived conflict between Christianity and Islam, the widespread ignorance regarding Islam, and the vast sums dumped into the commercial exploitation of terrorism, adds Who Speaks for Islam? to the must-read list.

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