One Secularist's Take On The Violence Associated With The Muslim World

By Sujewa Ekanayake
Recently several individuals & I found ourselves in a debate regarding the best way for a secularist to approach the Muslim world; the world wide community of believers of Islam.  One suggestion was that Islam was too violent a religion & that secularism and Islam are not compatible & that secularists should actively oppose Islam.  My reply was that some Muslims are violent but many are not, and that mainstream/non-violent Islam is as compatible with secularism/modernism as any other major religion in this world & that secularists should be open to working with those Muslims who are interested in our world view.  The following are some of the highlights from our conversation - my replies are quoted directly, and items that I was responding to are in brackets.  The following content may be of use to others - specially agnostics, atheists, & secularists - who are thinking about how to react to contemporary Islam and its many manifestations.  I should qualify the following by saying that I am not an expert on Islam and that I am merely a person who is interested in world events & improving living conditions for all in this world, and that I live in the United States where excessive actions by the faithful of any religion are highly discouraged (as well as excessive actions against the faithful by non-believers) through the secular government and society here, & thus, all of the following & my views expressed within may only be relevant to places similar to the United States & not to places where there are no restrictions or there are only weak restrictions against excessive actions by believers & non-believers.
[Several people suggested that Islam is very violent and not compatible with secularism, and that secularists should work against Islam, and below is one of my lengthy replies.]
"Re: believing all Muslims are extremists - if you feel/are convinced for the moment that that's the way to go I guess then that's the way that you'll go.
But here's my take on this matter, with some supporting documents (and after this I'll leave this topic alone):
There are plenty of Quran & tradition/history based support for a Muslim to engage in war with non-believers, as pointed out by this document:
And Muslims have also been persecuted & killed by others in large numbers since the start of that faith (including recently - Bosnian Genocide, war on Iraq, perhaps war in Afghanistan could be placed here even though I believe the existence of the Taliban in that country justified the US invasion):
The global Muslim population is placed at, at this document, around 1.3 - 1.5 billion people, or, roughly 1/5 of the total human population on earth.
So, is it wise to consider 1/5th of the human population as an enemy and proceed or should we separate the violent from the non-violent & deal with each accordingly?
How many, or what percentage, out of the 1.5 billion Muslims are actively at war with the rest of the world?  Probably a very small percentage.
Though the Muslims are in the news often these days because there is an active war between the West & Muslim extremists at the moment, historically, the Muslims do not appear to be as violent/warlike/destructive as the west. Some historical events to consider/Western war/violence/killing: violence caused by the Romans, the crusades, slave trade, violence & death caused by western colonialism, violence & death caused by segregation & apartheid, the Serbian genocide (as mentioned above - 300,000 Muslims killed, tens of thousands of Muslim women raped), the attack on Iraq & the resulting violence & death (including thousands of non-combatants), and thousands of non-combatants killed in Afghanistan during the current war there.
So, if all of the Muslims in this world actually wanted to start a war with all non-believers & believers of different religions, it would not be difficult to justify such a war. However, only a very small minority of the total population of Muslims are at war with the West & India & others. Thus, I find it highly inaccurate to conclude that all Muslims are violent/war like & are a threat to the world.
Now let's take a look at the thing that we here are engaged in - secularism. Is Islam an ally of secularism - can it be?  Is it now?  Has it been in the past?  Or is it an enemy of secularism?
The Wiki page Islam & Secularism says the following:
"Secularism is often condemned by Muslims who do not feel that religious values should be removed from the public sphere, though "Muslim theologians have long distinguished between matters of din (religion) and dawlah (state)."[1] Secular states had existed in the Muslim world since the Middle Ages.[2]"
And here is a list of modern secular countries with a majority Muslim population (17 countries are listed, including Turkey, hundreds of millions of people all together):
Also, the Islamic philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) is credited by some with providing assistance to the rise of secular thought in the West
"Abū 'l-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Rushd (Arabic: أبو الوليد محمد بن احمد بن رشد‎), better known just as Ibn Rushd (Arabic: ابن رشد‎), and in European literature as Averroes (pronounced /əˈvɛroʊ.iːz/) (1126 – December 10, 1198), was an Andalusian Muslim polymath; a master of Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics. He was born in Córdoba, Al Andalus, modern-day Spain, and died in Marrakesh, modern-day Morocco. His school of philosophy is known as Averroism. He has been described by some[2] as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe and "one of the spiritual fathers of Europe,"[3] although other scholars oppose such claims.[4][5]"
"According to Ibn Rushd, there is no conflict between religion and philosophy, rather that they are different ways of reaching the same truth. He believed in the eternity of the universe. He also held that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; while the individual soul is not eternal, all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul. Ibn Rushd has two kinds of Knowledge of Truth. The first being his knowledge of truth of religion being based in faith and thus could not be tested, nor did it require training to understand. The second knowledge of truth is philosophy, which was reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake this study.
The concept of "existence precedes essence", a key foundational concept of existentialism, can also be found in the works of Ibn Rushd, as a reaction to Ibn Sina's concept of "essence precedes existence".[11] Ibn Rushd's most famous original philosophical work was The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a rebuttal to Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers. In medieval Europe, his school of philosophy known as Averroism exerted a strong influence on Jewish philosophers such as Gersonides and Maimonides[7], and was opposed by Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas.[4][5]"
So, Islam has a long tradition of being able to differentiate between religious thoughts & secular thinking. Also, in actual use of violence, Islamic civilization world wide does not appear to be as violent as Western civilization (which you & I are a part of - at least partially). On top of all those factors, only a very small minority of the current Muslim population in this world are actively at war with non-believers or different believers. Plus, people are only guilty of the actual acts that they commit, not the potential for such acts nor because of their background - thus - I think it is wise to consider the Muslims (some or many) as a potential ally of secularism & also only to treat the violent with violent means, rest according to their actions & needs.
And let's not forget, micro banking - a very useful tool against poverty - was pioneered by an Asian Muslim:
"The origin of Grameen Bank can be traced back to 1976 when Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Fulbright scholar at Vanderbilt University and Professor at University of Chittagong, launched a research project to examine the possibility of designing a credit delivery system to provide banking services targeted to the rural poor. In October 1983, the Grameen Bank Project was transformed into an independent bank by government legislation. The organization and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006;[5] the organisation's Low-cost Housing Programme won a World Habitat Award in 1998."
Anyway, in conclusion, blanket hatred of 1/5 of the human population - w/ out differentiating between the good, the evil, & many other levels in between among the population, does not seem like a wise approach for a secularist. Research & think deeply about why you may feel that all Muslims are evil before continuing along that path of blanket/wide hatred. Hopefully you will be able to see the differences between various Muslims in present time & in the past & you may see that being born or raised a Muslim does not automatically mean that such a person is the enemy of the rest of the world.
Good luck."
[In reply to the above several others suggested that the goal of secularism, in many of its modern manifestations, is not to act against any one religion but that some religions are more compatible with secularism and that Islam is not one of them, and to that I replied with the following below.]
Islam - as practiced since its inception up until now, and as practiced now all over the world by various communities, is neither any more or less incompatible with secularism than any other major religion in this world (if you look at the strict, orthodox, by the book world view behind each major religion - neither core ideas in Buddhism (karma being responsible for the misery of some in this world), Hinduism (caste system), nor Christianity (historically antagonistic relationship with Jews, also Jesus' reaction to money changers at a temple - the mix of commerce & religion) are any kind of a significant ally of modern/humane secularism - however, both Buddhists - as in Japan, & Christians - as in US, have removed/isolated certain ideas found within the traditions to certain time periods, and have made peace/found ways to work with secularism & modernism in this time period, as countries such as Turkey are doing/attempting to do with Islam). But I am sure, as we proceed, we will come up with good guidelines as to how to deal with different types of believers - the violent ones and the non-violent ones, to mention just two different types of believers that are to be found in all the major religions & also in the non-religious category.  In some places (Turkey, the Iranian people - many of them from what I hear, not the gov) Islam & modern values are finding good ways to co-exist, other Muslim places have a long way to go (alleviation of poverty/development may assist w/ pushing extremist interpretations of Islam out of these areas).
The following quote & document may be of interest to you, from Islam Watch
"In the present day, although Islam has lost its military dominance, it has not yet come to a consensus about how Muslims should conduct themselves under non-Muslim rule. There is no consensus that a just war should not be conceived in sacralized terms as a jihad.
There is no consensus that the earlier, more peaceful verses of the Koran take priority over the later, more violent ones. There is no consensus that the old program of military expansion should not be resumed if and when it becomes practical to do so. There is no consensus that non-Muslims should be allowed to discuss the Koran and the life of Mohammed without becoming the target of intimidation, and subjected to accusations of ignorance, incompetence or racism.
The Muslim world is incredibly diverse and such a consensus may never be developed. Nevertheless it must be attempted. The important work to achieve this consensus is under way, but it remains to be completed, and any debate that can hasten the development of a less sacralized approach to the use of force within Islam deserves everyone’s whole-hearted support.""
Hopefully the above exchange will be of positive use to secularists when considering the courses of action we may want to adopt regarding dealing with, working with, or not working with, Muslims & the Muslim world.  I do believe that us, humans - of all manner of faiths & of no faiths - at least most of us, are capable of working out our differences and that the excessively violent among us are only a minority, & that many significant problems in this world can be solved without having to go to war.