In a 2017, interfaith leaders gathered to meet with US Senator Patti Murray to talk about Anti-Muslim bigotry. The Senator asked what the main message of the anti-Muslim hate industry is. I answered, “Anti-Muslim hate groups claim that the Taliban represent the truth about Islam. That is no more true than to say that the KKK represents the truth about Christianity.” She nodded.
Sadly, many of our public leaders, pundits and reporters are not so clear. Any lack of clarity about this will not lead to a neutral outcome, but rather lead to increasing violence against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. Many factors in this include:
- The baseline of institutional racism and personal bias in our nation generally
- The anti-Muslim rhetoric from politicians
- The fact that most Americans do not know a Muslim personally
- The lack of religious literacy in the US
- The anti-religious bigotry by many
- The messaging of anti-Muslim hate groups
One reporter that I respect a lot is Richard Engel. I listened to him in one NBC broadcast say that the Taliban has a “strict version of Islam.” In another, he said that the Taliban have a “strict and austere interpretation of Islam.”
The difference between these two is small, but the meaning is quite different – yet both miss the critical point.
The statement that the Taliban has a “strict version of Islam” seems to imply that the Taliban represent Islam correctly, while other Muslims seem not to do so. This seems to place the responsibility for the actions of the Taliban at the feet of Islam itself. I am sure the Taliban love this statement, as it seems to offer them sanction for what they are doing. I am sure this not what Mr. Engel intended!
The statement that the Taliban have a “strict and austere interpretation of Islam” is better, because it honors the reality that people interpret their religion in different ways. This seems to place the responsibility for the actions at the feet of the Taliban. Scholars tell us that most of the time, groups use religion to justify their violent actions rather than their religion being the source of their violence in the first place.
Both statements fall short of clarity, however. When spoken by such a courageous, thoughtful, and careful reporter they strengthen anti-Muslim sentiment in our nation. The fact is that the Taliban no more represent mainstream interpretations of Islam than Westboro Baptist, The KKK, or the Lord’s Liberation Army represent mainstream Christianity.
A clearer, more truthful statement might be: “The Taliban hold an interpretation of Islam that is highly divergent from mainstream and majority Muslims.”
It on all of us to be on the lookout for ways that our casual language about each other can buy into false narratives of dehumanizing language.
If you want a view into mainstream Islam, read the book, Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash