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Well, There's Islam And Then There's Islam

In last Sunday's Denver Post, John Andrews refers to "Islam's violence problem." It's a formula that inevitably draws protests that the problem lies not with Islam, but with some violent people who claim to practice it. This is misdirection masquerading as nuance.

I think there's a terminological problem here. "Islam" is a religion, described by books, and defined by religious, theological, legal, and ethical traditions. There are many versions of "Islam." To say that "Islam" (these aren't scare quotes, just quotes to distinguish terms under discussion) can't be peaceful, or isn't peaceful is indeed too broad if it's this "Islam" we're discussing.

"Islam," however, is also a community, a people, with current religious and political institutions. The shape that "Islam" the religion takes is determined by what direction "Islam" the community directs it to take. In that sense, "Islam" has a serious violence problem, which it needs to rid itself of. I don't doubt that many if not most American Muslims, as terrified of the bomb-makers as we are. But there are specific steps that Islam the community can take to isolate and destroy the radicals.

I'm going to take the unusual step of suggesting that Islamic (or Arabic, in this case) terminology may help clarify matters. Rather than discussing "Islam," criticism of which will inevtiably lead Muslims to argue the first definition, I suggest saying that the "Umma," or the Muslim community, has a violence problem.

I don't doubt that Islamic texts give plenty of sanction to violence to expand the religion. Jihad is as jihad does. But by making this distinction, it then becomes possible to pin the responsibility where it belongs. When a Muslim says, "Islam doesn't have a violence problem, certain Muslims do, or certain people calling themselves Muslims do," then the proper response can be, "OK, so what is the umma doing to isolate and rid itself of these people?"

It's a case where we can, with little effort, use the language of those we're trying to persuade to simultaneously clarify the issues, and to discredit our enemies. And if a Muslim responds by saying that the religion and the umma are indivisible, then we can go right back to saying that Islam does have a problem, after all.


Great thoughts. I've never heard it discussed this way. We need to talk sometime and expand upon your thoughts.

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