It is high time for western political leaders to stop responding to terrorism by naming Islam as ‘the religion of peace’. It is time to have a hard conversation about Islam.
The West is in the throes of acute cognitive dissonance over Islam, whose brands are at war with each other. On the one hand we are told that Islam is the Religion of Peace. On the other hand we are confronted with an unending sequence of acts of terror committed in the name of the faith.
There is a depressing connection between the two brands: the louder one brand becomes, the more the volume is turned up on the other.
The slogan ‘Religion of Peace’ has been steadily promoted by western leaders in response to terrorism: George Bush Jr and Jacques Chirac after 9/11, Tony Blair after 7/7, David Cameron after drummer Lee Riby was beheaded and after British tourists were slaughtered in Tunisia, and François Hollande after the Charlie Hebdo killings. After the beheading of 21 Copts on a Libyan beach Barak Obama called upon the world to “continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam.”
One may well ask how ‘the religion of peace’ became a brand of Islam, for the phrase cannot be found in the Qur’an, nor in the teachings of Muhammad.
Islam was first called ‘the religion of peace’ as late as 1930, in the title of a book published in India by Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi. The phrase was slow to take off, but by the 1970s it was appearing more and more frequently in the writings of Muslims for western audiences.
What does “religion of peace” actually mean?
Words for ‘peace’ in European languages imply the absence of war, and freedom from disturbance. It is no coincidence that the German words Friede ‘peace’ and frei ‘free’ sound similar, because they come from the same root.
While there is a link in Arabic between salam, a word often translated ‘peace’, and Islam, the real connection is found in the idea of safety.
The word Islam is based upon a military metaphor. Derived from aslama ‘surrender’ its primary meaning is to make oneself safe (salama) through surrender. In its original meaning, a muslim was someone who surrendered in warfare.
Thus Islam did not stand for the absence of war, but for one of its intended outcomes: surrender leading to the ‘safety’ of captivity. It was Muhammad himself who said to his non-Muslim neighbors aslim taslam ‘surrender (i.e. convert to Islam) and you will be safe’.
The Religion of Peace slogan has not gone uncontested. It has been rejected by many, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Melanie Phillips writing for The Times, who called it ‘pure myth’.
Even among Muslims the phrase has not only been challenged by radical clerics such as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, but also by mainstream Muslim leaders.
Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti of Syria was one of the most widely respected traditionalist Sunni scholars before he was killed in 2013 by a suicide bomber. The year before he had been listed as number 27 in the ‘The Muslim 500’, an annual inventory of the most influential Muslims in the world. According to Al-Buti, the claim that Islam is a peaceful religion was a ‘falsehood’ imposed upon Muslims by westerners to render Islam weak. He argued in The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography that when non-Muslims fear Islamic jihad, their initial inclination is to accuse the religion of being violent. However they then change tack, and craftily feed to Muslims the idea that Islam is peaceful, in order to make it so. He laments the gullibility of ‘simple-minded Muslims’, who:
“… readily accept this ‘defense’ as valid and begin bringing forth one piece of evidence after another to demonstrate that Islam is, indeed, a peaceable, conciliatory religion which has no reason to interfere in others’ affairs. … The aim … is to erase the notion of jihad from the minds of all Muslims.”There does seem to be something to Al-Buti’s theory, for it has invariably been after acts of violence done in the name of Islam that western leaders have seen fit to make theological pronouncements about Islam’s peacefulness. Who are they trying to convince?
In the long run this cannot be a fruitful strategy. It invites mockery, such as Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada’s riposte to George Bush’s declaration that ‘Islam is peace’. Abu Qatada asked: ‘Is he some kind of Islamic scholar?’
We do need to have a difficult conversation about Islam. This is only just beginning, and it will take a long time. The process will not be helped by the knee-jerk tendency of western leaders to pop up after every tragedy trying to have the last word on Islam. This strategy has failed, and it is time to go deeper.
* Mark Durie is a theologian, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and author of The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.