In recent days, we have heard from people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris and Bill Maher who have repeatedly blamed Islam for the actions of extremist groups like Boko Haram, ISIS and Al-Shabab. In fact, Ali, a somali-born American activist, has referred to all Muslims as “rotten apples” in a recent New York Post article, where she talks about the urgent need to reform Islam.
Ali grew up in Somalia where she witnessed beheadings, stonings and other incidents of violence occurring in the name of Islam. It is not uncommon for people like Ali to become disillusioned with their faith after witnessing such atrocities. But while no one can deny Ali’s unfortunate encounter with extremism in Somalia, her personal experiences are not enough to validate her argument against Islam and its 1.6 billion followers.
In fact, Ali is using fallacious arguments to make broad claims about Islam that are simply not true. First of all, using language with blanket statements like “all apples are rotten,” she is not giving Muslims the benefit of the doubt. She refuses to acknowledge that there might be another perspective to the issue— a perspective that shows that many Muslims are leading peaceful lives as a result of following the teachings of their faith.
She is also using her personal experiences to draw a conclusion about a religion that is represented by more than a billion people. This type of argument is known as the “anecdotal” fallacy, where the person making the argument ignores the facts and makes a generalization about a complex issue. Ali’s argument that the entire “basket of Islam” is corrupt is simply not authentic, because it doesn’t represent the whole.
The Islamic world today is a realm of complex and diverse beliefs. While it may be true that Islam is a guiding source in shaping the cultures of Muslim societies, it doesn’t mean that all Muslims follow the same traditions. In fact, in the United States alone, many Muslim sects celebrate Islamic holidays on different days because of varied interpretations. Muslims living in hundreds of countries across the world speak different languages, eat different foods, and come in every shade and color. Ali is looking at Islam through a narrow lens that ignores the beauty and diversity of the Muslim world.
With that said, I admit that there are a multitude of challenges facing the Islamic world such as extremism in the broader world and sectarian violence within Muslim communities. But unless we looked into the hearts of all Muslims everywhere, we cannot conclude that the entire Islamic world is based on a foundation of a corrupt ideology. It is simply an unfair generalization that all Muslims must be either extremists or at least sympathetic to extremist ideology.
Such arguments are not just fallacious in nature, they can also be extremely dangerous as they lead us away from facts. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, there is little support for extremism in Muslim nations, whereas the concern for it is increasing. In Jordan alone, 85 percent of Muslims believe that suicide bombings can never be justified.
The truth is that extremism is a complex issue and arguments rooted in generalizations cannot provide the right solutions to end this growing cancer. Ali, and others like her, are ignoring the deeper causes of extremism by saying that Islam must bear the burden alone. The truth is that Islam, like any other religion, is a belief-system dependent on human practice and interpretation. We must learn to separate the teachings of a faith from how they are put into actions by people.
The Islamic scripture clearly states that there are two types of verses in the Quran— some that are “firm and decisive in meaning” and others that are “susceptible [to] different interpretations,” (3:8). For example, the Quran says that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). This verse does not leave room for any other interpretation and bars Muslims from using coercion in the matters of faith. However, there are other verses that need proper contextualization and “repeated consideration” to grasp the deeper meaning. For example, the Quran says to slay the transgressors wherever you may find them (2:191). The context of this particular verse refers to a time when Muslims faced intense persecution and were told they could engage in self-defense if they were attacked by their enemies.
But the Quran also warns us against people who misinterpret the verses of the Quran in order to “cause discord” on Earth (3:8). Perfect examples of such perversion are the extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabab. These so-called “Muslims” justify violence through Islam by twisting the interpretation of the teachings in their own favor. However, these extremist groups represent a small minority that likens itself to Islam and is in no way conclusive of the beliefs of vast majority of Muslims around the world.
To say that all Muslims must be “rotten apples” is to say that all of us are guilty by default. As a Muslim who denounces extremism on a regular basis, these types of statements are hurtful and damaging. Does Islam need reformation? No. Do Muslims need reformation? Yes, certain Muslim societies require reformation in the way they practice Islam. But to say that Islam as a whole is corrupt and all Muslims should be held in suspicion is simply wrong.
Ali represents a very skewed understanding of Islam, and it is unfortunate that we live in a world where sometimes new perspectives take precedence over the truth itself. I have no doubt that Ali, like many of us, is trying to do her part in making this world a better place. But I think she needs to engage in a profound self-reflection where she weighs her ideas and perceptions against the truth. All of us who are trying to win this fight against extremism owe it to ourselves and each other to be completely honest in our perceptions so that it does not hinder us from seeing the full picture.
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