As someone who has spent the better part of my adult life studying history and religion, I become easily frustrated by basic errors of thinking that are common when people begin to discuss the intersection between religion and politics. We obviously live in a time when religious ideas are impacting global politics in dramatic and often frightening ways. It is thus natural for people to question the role of religious doctrine in motivating such action, and to draw correlations between sacred texts and political deeds. While this is understandable, it often produces specious reasoning and rhetorical excess (exhibit A: Donald Trump). The most common fallacy is the impulse to treat particular passages in sacred texts as self-fulfilling prophesies. If, for example, the Qur’an calls for the death of unbelievers in a particular sura, it is thus no wonder that 84% of Egyptians believe that apostates should suffer the death penalty, and anyone who claims to be both a faithful Muslim and a believer in the First Amendment must be either lying or deluded.
This type of reasoning, of course, ignores the way religion really works in society and history. Let me give an example of what I mean, drawn from my own circumstances. If I were to enter into a debate with a West Bank settler, claiming that as a Jew and a Zionist I am opposed to her living on occupied land (as I am), she would no doubt take the position that I am not a real Jew. If she were reasonably erudite she could produce reams of evidence from Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, Talmud, and the writings of great Jewish sages to show that my refusal to recognize the rightful claims of Israel to the holy land of Judea and Samaria precludes my calling myself a Jew. In practical terms she would of course be wrong, millions of devout Jews feel exactly as I do, some of them vastly more orthodox in their observance than I. But as a matter of doctrine I could never, EVER prove her wrong. If doctrine had to decide the question of which of us was a real Jew, at best all I could hope for would be a draw. I might be able (with much more knowledge of scripture than I currently possess) to find some countervailing passages with which to attempt to rebut her evidence, but I could never hope to dispositively settle the issue.
These same parameters hold true when we think about the relation between doctrine and political practice in Islamic society. Yes, Islamic holy texts contain much to affirm and support the world view of ISIS. But no Muslim is bound to assent to those scriptural precedents any more than I am forced to admit that, because I disagree with my settler interlocutor, I am not a real Jew. Muslims are as free to pick and choose among their sacred texts as the practitioners of any other faith, with the result that there is no one monolithic “Islam” that can be easily understood by reference to a circumscribed set of writings. There are many, MANY Islams, some of which are very malignant in their interpretations and practices, others of which are relatively benign.
This being the case, we should be careful to make distinctions in our discussions, not only of Islam but of any religious tradition. To go back to my personal example: though I vehemently disagree with my imaginary settler counterpart, I am compelled to acknowledge her as a fellow Jew. There is anti-Semitism in the world, and if I hope to protect myself from it I must make common cause with everyone who openly affirms the identity for which anti-Semites would stigmatize me. If someone tells me, “Those settlers on the West Bank are a lot of trouble,” I would be inclined to agree. But if someone tells me, “Those Jews on the West Bank are a lot of trouble,” I would view him or her as a bigot, or worse.
The same holds true in interacting with all faith communities. If one is concerned about groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or Al Qaeda, one should absolutely critique their malignant ideas and especially condemn their evil practices. But if one attacks them as Muslims, one will alienate other Muslims in the same way that I would become alienated if the West Bank settlers are attacked as Jews. Making “Islam” the enemy is a red herring. Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda are the enemy. Islam is a resource that they try to manipulate in pursuit of their political ends, and attacking “Islam” in the abstract adds fuel to that fire.