Opinion

A Memo to the 'Alt-right': Answering Some FAQs About Islam

My dearest alt-righter: Your views about Islam and Muslims are largely incorrect, not just politically, but also socially, culturally and theologically

White nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
White nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Dear alt-righter,

You pride yourself on your profound understanding of the truth about Islam and the lies spread about the Religion of Peace® not just by Muslims but also by the politically correct mainstream media, as well as the liberal and progressive political and intellectual classes. 

Well, bravo, you are politically incorrect. But not in the way you think. Your views about Islam and Muslims are largely incorrect, not just politically, but also socially, culturally and theologically.  You bemoan and bewail the moral relativism of the allegedly self-hating left and multiculturalists. I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality, non-violence and tolerance of others are the norms. However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against ‘moral relativism’ are generally the first to insist on a lack of moral equivalence because the West’s actions are ‘benign.’ 

My dearest alt-righter, if you have read this far, I congratulate you. Although you are likely seething by this stage, I urge you to bear with me as I analyze and deconstruct some frequently asserted questionable statements (or FAQS) about Islam. 

The Christian God is not the Muslim Allah

You are probably used to hearing people speak of ‘Allah’ when referring to the god whom Muslims worship. Although some do so innocently, out of a conviction that it is more authentic to use Arabic terms, some westerners do so because they believe Muslims worship a different god. 

For Arabic speakers, the issue is not and has never been controversial: Allah is used by Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews to refer to the singular God of monotheism, and it takes on plural form to refer to polytheistic gods (lower-cased in English), such as the deities of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian pantheons. 

Islam is the religion of the sword

Many leaders and celebrities of the far right, or "alt-right," if you prefer, believe that Islam is innately violent. During the Republican primaries, the candidates not only tried to out-Christian one another, they expressed an alleged dichotomy and incompatibility between their Bible-bound religious beliefs and a benighted Islam. 

Ann Coulter, the queen of rightwing punditry, has been pedalling the violent Islam trademark for years. In Coulter’s view, it is not just Islam that is intrinsically and irrationally violent, Muslims are too. Funnily enough, like quite a few others who condemn Islam as being a violent religion, Ann Coulter has no problem advocating mass murder, forced conversion and even genocide.

But is Islam really more violent than Christianity and other religions?

If Trump, Coulter, et al, were actually to delve into the Bible, they may well be surprised by what they find, and even mistake it for the much-maligned Quran. This is exactly what happened in the Netherlands, when a couple of pranksters disguised the Bible as the Quran and read out some shocking passages to unsuspecting passers-by. 

Early Christians may have been against war, but for many this was due to their opposition to Rome and rejection of its Imperial Cult than out of any squeamishness about shedding blood. When Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, what had been arbitrary acts of violence and intimidation against adherents to the various polytheistic religions and cults turned into active and systematic persecution, in which the Christians were no longer the martyrs but the martyr-makers. As statecraft and Christianity mixed at the top levels, it has been used, over the centuries and to the present day, to justify all manner of aggression, violence and war.

None of this is to suggest that Christianity and Judaism are somehow more violent or that Islam is a religion of peace: Islam was spread both by the sword and the word, not to mention the trade winds.  

Islam with dhimmitude 

Muslims apparently have a serious dhimmitude problem. This portmanteau combing the Arabic word ‘dhimmi’, a classical Islamic term for non-Muslims in Islamic societies, with ‘servitude’, expresses the alleged Muslim attitude of superiority towards and persecution of minorities. 

Dhimmitude is also a mortal danger everywhere Muslims set foot or lay down roots, according to a theory popular amongst the European and American right. Muslims are not only sneakily and stealthily working to introduce creeping sharia, the non-Muslim majority are, inexplicably, aiding and abetting this process. In this case, dhimmitude is a case of political correctness gone suicidal.

Even though there are some small groups and cells of Muslim extremists in Europe and America who fantasises about subjugating the infidel and bringing the West into Islam’s orbit, they are but a small minority of a tiny fringe. The majority of Muslims in the West do not seek the destruction of western civilisation and its integration into some future caliphate. In truth, despite the all-encompassing label of ‘Muslim’, the Muslim minorities in the Europe and America are not one homogeneous population. They differ according to their nation of origin, their class, education level, whether they are recent immigrants, or have lived in society for generations. They also differ in their attitudes to Islam. For instance, an extensive poll conducted in 2016 found that nearly three-quarters of Muslims in France admire or accept the country’s secular laws. 

Likewise, the attitudes and approaches to non-Muslims vary dramatically in Muslim societies. The most restrictive and repressive occurs in ISIS-controlled territory. Each in their own way, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Pakistan have serious problems in dealing with minorities, who are not recognised as equals and often actively repressed. But extrapolating the situation of these worst offenders to generalise about Muslim societies everywhere in every age is akin to taking western fascist regimes’ treatment of Jews and other minorities as representative of the western treatment of non-Christians. 

Moreover, these regimes are facing a groundswell of condemnation and dissent, both internally and externally. This is the case in Pakistan, where liberals voice loud criticism, at potentially great personal risk, against the country’s regressive sharia laws and condemn the mob violence and intimidation targeted at minorities. 

Although 35 Muslim-majority countries restrict religious freedom to some extent, at least a dozen guarantee equal religious freedom for minorities. This group includes countries like Albania, Kosovo, Senegal, Tunisia and Indonesia.  

Travelling back in time, the classical dhimmi system is misunderstood and twisted by modern far-right critics. While it certainly did not grant the kind of full equality to minorities that we aspire to in the contemporary world, at its best, it was one of the nearest examples in the pre-modern world. At a time when Europe defined Jews as ‘Christ killers’ and indigenous, pre-Christian, European faiths as ‘pagan’, numerous Muslim empires offered protected minority status (dhimmi) to the “people of the book”, which traditionally meant Jews and Christians but was often extended to include Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus and other religious groups. This does not mean that persecution did not occur (it did, periodically), but it made it less likely than in Christendom. In addition, the Ottoman millet (community/nation) system supplied the religious communities with so much autonomy that they often effectively functioned as states within a state. 

This is a shortened excerpt from Khaled Diab’s new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, which is due out in September. Pre-order your copy from the publisher. ©Khaled Diab.