If ever you’ve wanted an accessible and reliable primer on Islam, for your own edification or to send to your well-meaning aunt who forwards emails echoing the misinformation about the Muslim faith she hears on cable television, today’s your lucky day. On Thursday the Interfaith Alliance, together with the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center released “What is the Truth about American Muslims? Questions and Answers” (PDF), a brief nine-page primer in q&a form that will do the trick.
With nary a mention of the manufactured hysteria that’s dominated the post-9/11 political discourse and been pushed by what Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison has called the “anti-Islam industry,” the guide nevertheless seeks to answer the questions raised by the misinformation machine that’s been churning away relentlessly for the past decade, given political cover for congressional hearings on supposed creeping Muslim radicalism, fueled the citywide surveillance of whole communities and led to a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes. The smearing of Islam, American Muslims and those who are mistaken for them, has been swift and aggressive.
In clear, calm prose, the authors answer questions like: “Is Islam a political movement?”
No. Islam is a religious tradition, and adherents to Islam are called Muslim. Of course, American Muslims, like Americans from other religious groups, participate in American political life. American Muslim voting patterns generally mirror the broader American population. American Muslims are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, liberals and conservatives. There is no one political platform or agenda for those who practice the religion of Islam in the United States.
And, “Do American Muslims want to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia?”
No. American Muslims overwhelmingly support the U.S. Constitution and do not seek to replace it with Sharia or Islamic law. The vast majority of American Muslims understand Sharia as a personal, religious obligation governing the practice of their faith, not as something American governments should enforce.
But question 14 out of the 27-question primer is especially relevant, given just the latest controversy involving subway ads posted in New York City’s subway stations on the very topic:
What does “jihad” mean? Isn’t it a “holy war”? Below is an excerpt from the guide’s response:
“Jihad” literally means striving, or doing one’s utmost. Within Islam, there are two basic theological understandings of the word: The “Greater Jihad” is the struggle against the lower self - the struggle to purify one’s heart, do good, avoid evil and make oneself a better person. The “Lesser Jihad” is an outward struggle. Jihad constitutes a moral principle to struggle against any obstacle that stands in the way of the good. Bearing, delivering and raising a child, for example, is an example of outward jihad, because of the many obstacles that must be overcome to deliver and raise the child successfully. Jihad may also involve fighting against oppressors and aggressors who commit injustice. It is not “holy war” in the way a crusade would be considered a holy war, and while Islam allows and even encourages proselytizing, it forbids forced conversion. In Islamic tradition, the form of jihad that involves fighting requires specific ethical conditions under which it is permissible to fight, as well as clear rules of engagement such as the requirement to protect non-combatants. Scholars have compared Jihad that involves fighting to the Christian concept of “just war.” The variety of interpretations of Lesser Jihad, or just war, over 1400 years in many settings is a complex discussion. Much of the contemporary misuse of the term “jihad” may be dated to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when stateless actors began to claim the right to declare jihad. In Islamic tradition, there is no theological or political basis for this claim. Radical and extremist groups appropriate and misuse the term “jihad” to give a religious veneer to their violent political movements and tactics.
In a sea of so much demagoguery and straight up deception, this kind of plainly written information is all too rare, and all the more necessary. Download the guide (PDF) for more.