This is a guest post written by Michael Epperson. He’s a professor of English at Philadelphia University and Arcadia University.
Of all the empty slogans tossed around this election season, “religion of peace” is one of the most mindless. Less than a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Hillary Clinton offered a remix of this familiar slogan:
“Let’s be clear: Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”
I would agree that most Muslims are peaceful and tolerant. Clinton, however, goes farther than that when she equates peace and tolerance with Muslims and Islam, as if violent people are, by definition, not Muslims. This isn’t a new idea, just new wording. And it’s still inaccurate.
Columbia University professor John McWhorter took to CNN to defend Clinton and Islam. He echoed Clinton’s sentiments, not to mention her way of beginning sentences:
Let’s face it: That Islam is a religion of peace, as George W. Bush stressed after 9/11, is something most of us need reminding of.
But 1400 years of history, 500 pages of scripture (at least in my edition), and 99 names of Allah cannot be reduced to 5 letters. This oversimplification is dismissive of Islam and the Abrahamic tradition.
Since people create scripture, it shouldn’t be surprising that scripture is as complex as we are. Multiple authors and scribes created the Qur’an. It was designed by committee — literally. Their competing voices, vices, and virtues are embedded in the final product. If someone believes that God inspired scripture, that would only complicate the matter further. What we end up with is hardly a religion of any one thing in particular. Instead, it’s a recipe for a complicated ideology that promotes peace, violence, and everything in-between.
And the creation of the Qur’an was just the beginning. For more than a millennium, Muslims across the globe have been translating, interpreting, debating, reinterpreting, and preaching the text. This has only added more voices to Islam. And we’re still talking just about scripture. We haven’t touched on the customs and practices that evolved outside of — often in spite of — scripture.
I just oversimplified Islam in nearly 200 words. So what makes anyone think it can be accurately described in just one word?
I understand that language is inherently imprecise. However, at this time, we can’t indulge oversimplifications. We can’t afford pet names and word games. I understand that Clinton would play the “religion of peace” game even if she viewed Islam as horrific, but this carelessness shut downs the conversation. We need sophisticated conversations about a complicated religion. If your contribution to that conversation is limited to five letters, you’re not doing Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful and tolerant, any favors.
It seems that many people think that they are doing Muslims a favor. But those good intentions foster bad thinking. Some people praise Islam for being a religion of peace and, without coming up for air, condemn critics of Islam for generalizing the faith. The irony is lost on these people.
The truth is that war has always been a significant part of Islam. This is a statement of fact, not of condemnation. War was part of Islam before non-Muslims could say that anyone had “hijacked the faith.” War was part of Islam when Muhammad conquered Mecca, when Aisha coached warriors from a camel’s back, and when another Muslim stabbed Ali while he prayed.
Islam’s violent history is one chapter in a larger story about Abrahamic religion. The Abrahamic religions are, among many things, religions of struggle. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam foreground, some might even say fetishize, struggle. Genesis, with its dueling creation accounts, sets the tone, introducing the struggle between good and evil, between people and God, between people and themselves. After the most famous wrestling match in literature, Jacob adopts the name Israel, a name which has typically been translated as “one who struggles with God.” In the New Testament, Jesus articulates a core struggle for Christians: “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Islam continues the Abrahamic tradition. The name of the religion speaks to the struggle inherent in surrendering one’s desires to God’s will.
And then there’s jihad. The jihad debates — a topic that warrants a full-length book — are indicative of a larger struggle among Muslims. The peaceful majority and violent minority struggle with one another when they offer competing ways of reading, worshiping, and living. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims compete with one another on intellectual, cultural, and political playing fields. The violent minority often take this struggle to battlefields.
To better understand the Islamic faith and our role in it, we need new conversational tools. We can start by framing Islam as a religion of struggle.
I’m not arguing that anyone should mindlessly chant a seven-letter word instead of a five-letter word. I’m arguing that the “religion of struggle” framework will expand, not shut down, our conversations. This framework acknowledges an essential aspect of Islam that empty “peace” rhetoric dismisses. It prompts us not to dichotomize violence and peace, but to analyze the relationship between violence and peace. It pushes us to acknowledge the roles that the peaceful majority and the violent minority play in Islam rather than pretend one group is removed from Islam. Practically speaking, this framework doesn’t lend itself to accusations of demonizing Islam; struggle, after all, doesn’t have to be violent. On the contrary, this approach takes seriously Islam’s tradition, doctrine, and history.
People who cling to the “religion of peace” slogan don’t take Islam seriously enough. They might think that they’re defending Islam, but they’re not. Reducing Islam to a religion of peace isn’t a defense of Islam. It’s a denial of Islam. It’s a denial of its complicated history, complex scriptures, and core doctrines. It’s a denial of the struggle among Islamic followers, scholars, and warriors. It’s a denial of Islam as a process.
I call Islam a process to emphasize Muslims’ ability to shape Islam for the better. While Islam has been violent, it does not have to be violent. Violent history and scripture cannot be erased, but how Muslims practice their faith now and in the future is still to be decided.
I commend Muslims who promote peace in their communities. I applaud Muslims who denounce terrorism across the board. I encourage peaceful Muslims, who certainly have the numbers on their side, to continue the intellectual and moral struggle against violent Islamists — Islamists who are, by the way, as much a part of Islam’s history as anyone else.
I say all this knowing that peaceful Muslims don’t need my praises. With or without my support, they will continue to struggle for peace. That struggle is a crucial component of their Muslim identities and Islam’s history, a history that they continue to write.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author.