Islam=Peace: What’s in a Slogan?

islampeace2

The slogan “Islam is a religion of peace” has always sounded off key to me.

It’s not that I think the statement is false. In fact, my experience working in the American Muslim community resoundingly affirms that peace is the heart of what Islam means to its adherents, who revere and respect their tradition’s calls for justice and righteousness. But in the U.S. context, saying the words “Islam is a religion of peace” does little to help bridge the gap between Muslims who believe their faith compels them to do good in the world and non-Muslim Americans who had little knowledge of Islam before September 11, 2001.

The gap is intentionally widened by the concerted efforts of a cluster of intensely anti-Muslim and anti-Islam individuals and groups seeking to depict violence done in the name of the religion as the norm rather than a fringe movement. In doing so, this short phrase is openly mocked on Fox News and in other right-wing news media. Those who avow the truth of those words often find them thrown back in their faces whenever there is an act of terrorism committed by someone claiming Islam as their religion.

So I’ve come to ignore these words. In fact, I even roll my eyes when anyone—naively, in my opinion—imagines it might somehow be useful to intone them yet again.

But then I went to Amman, Jordan.

I was there to participate in a convening of youth leaders from Africa and the Middle East under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace, which had invited me participate in the meeting and to lead a training session on conflict communication. As we sat around a table in a hotel conference room, I was astounded by the stories of young community leaders doing work to change their neighborhoods and their countries against a backdrop of poverty, violence and turmoil. And I met Ndugwa Hassan, one of these young leaders.

During a break from the conference sessions, he found table at the end of the room and laid out materials from his organization, the Ugandan Muslim Youth Development Forum (UMYDF). I walked over and was immediately struck by the pictures in the upper left corner of the table. Ndugwa was shown sitting on a bed, his clothes covered in blood. He was bleeding from his face. I asked him what happened, and he described the injuries he sustained on July 11, 2010 at the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, Uganda.

He and his friends had gone to the club to watch the World Cup final between Holland and Spain. Then an al-Shabaab cell launched the organization’s first terrorist attack outside of Somalia. Two blasts were set off, one in front of the screen where the match was being broadcast. Ndugwa and his friends felt the blasts. Injured, but not mortally so, they ran to the nearest hospital. He explained what took place in the aftermath:

When I left hospital the following day, I watched the news. The attack had claimed over 80 lives and left 76 injured. Investigations were underway, and later suspects were paraded for trial. All suspects and accomplices were Muslim youth. I was so puzzled and asked myself so many questions. Why would people believe that when you kill someone you get a passport to heaven? Why would a young person be lured into acts of terrorism? Why does a 17-year old boy in a tough neighborhood join a gang? Why does a high school student in a quiet town sign on to terrorism groups who preach supremacy? Why does a young woman abandon her family and future and become a suicide bomber?

In the months that followed, Ndugwa and a friend who was with him that night in the stadium founded the UMYDF. He has been involved in trying to fight the lure of terrorist groups with what he describes as the true teachings of Islam. They work with imams to turn mosques into youth development centers where those who are at risk of being drawn into potential violence are counseled, given educational services and vocational training. Other UMYDF publications on the table in our conference room detailed the group’s activities. And at the lower right of the display was a simple green and white bumper sticker that read: ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF PEACE. islampeace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I experienced those words in a whole new way. Ndugwa was not using that slogan to try to explain his religion to a non-Muslim American audience across the yawning cognitive divide that opened between the communities after 9/11. Instead, he and UMYDF were trying to teach Muslim youth in Uganda—many who are as young as 12 when they are lured into violence—to see their religion in a different way.

It’s not a slogan explaining Islam to me as an outsider, but rather a slogan encouraging young Muslims interpret their sacred tradition in a way that is positive and life-affirming—an especially urgent task in places where there are people trying to convince young Muslims that Islam is calling them to violence.

And it is only one tool of UMYDF, which has a complex and sophisticated understanding of the multiple drivers of youth violence. Ndugwa explains the importance of listening to youth, who are “actors with compelling stories and motivating factors that are important to understand, so that we can begin to craft policy solutions to problems too often ignored or treated reductively by the policy community as simply religious, tribal or cultural.”

Read as part of a larger in-house movement to reassert the soul of Islam and push back against the forces of extremism, this bumper sticker had new meaning for me. And I realized that I had cynically underestimated its power.

Photo credit: Shahed Amanullah, used with permission.
bloskota@dornsife.usc.edu'

Brie Loskota is the managing director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. 

  • DKeane123

    First of all, I applaud all efforts by religious communities to bring more peace to the planet. And I hope these young men are at a minimum partially successful in their campaign.

    That being said, I think I have a very different understanding of what is covered by the word “extremism” than many (not all) Muslims. And I’m not a “Fox News” viewer either, although I suspect I’ll may be tarred as an islamaphobe for this comment.

    Whenever I see someone claim how wonderfully peaceful Islam is, I can’t help but think of the Pew survey from a few years ago that showed how much of an uphill climb the UMYDF has – many Muslims:

    - think suicide bombing is okay in some instances.

    - are in favor of making sharia the law of the land.

    - think stoning is an appropriate punishment.

    - believe the death penalty is appropriate for apostasy.
    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/pew-report-on-muslim-world-paints-a-distressing-picture/

    There is a bunch of other stuff in there, that indicates lots of “extreme” views. And let us not forget, countries like Saudia Arabia (where women can’t even drive) and Iran are not included.

    The larger problem is that a literal interpretation of the Quran allows for the killing of apostates, in the same way that Christians are not to suffer a witch to live or are instructed to stone those that are working on the Sabbath. The Muslim community really needs the equivalent of UU or reformed Judaism and quick.

  • GregAbdul

    Guest, This is very tiring. Ms Brie did a good job of starting in the middle and then going on to show that true Islam is not violent, but life affirming. Now here you go with the tired stuff: Muslims believe in suicide bombing, we want to overthrow the federal government, we are all out to stone people and we kill anyone who leaves Islam. This is a whole crock of canards. Your going down this list is basically you putting your prejudice on display. Do you actually know a Muslim who believes in any of these things? More specifically, do you know a Western Muslim (from Europe or America) who has told you that Islam at its core is about stoning someone? Please drop the stereotypes and treat us like people. I pray you are not a troll here on a paid mission from Hate Inc. If you are not, then 50 years after Martin Luther King, you should know by now not to lump everyone in any group all together with some overarching negative behavior…you know, like all blacks are lazy? Are all white people forever racist idiots? I think the white Jews and Christians who aided Dr. King disproved that all whites are racist and bigots. So why are you here pushing your generalizations of all Muslims with your fake poll? And as far as the gay thing goes, all religions teach that immoral people go to hell. Only crazy people try to play god and send people to hell. That job’s already taken and it belongs to no human being. Please visit a mosque because after this excellent article, your comment contains a lot of things that show you don’t know any Muslims. Please visit your local mosque by using Islamicfinder.org. If you are a woman, they will gladly introduce you to many women at our mosque, (what you call oppression is we don’t let any strange man go into our ladies section). Please visit a mosque and ask these questions you have. Your questions show how much you really do not know more than anything else.

  • http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk IftikharA

    God has created diverse human beings to live in this tiny global village of one family. Creation by its very nature is diverse with different species, different communities, different cultures and languages. These differences represent the beauty and wonder but diversity is sometimes not
    fully appreciated, resulting in all sorts of clashes. The British society and Establishment must learn to respect and accommodate others, as if in a family.

    Much of the fear of Islam is simply prejudice against immigrants. Dislike of Muslims is in this respect no different from dislike of any other migrant group, be it Jews at the turn of the last century, Poles at the turn of this one, Romanians and Bulgarians now, and lots of other peoples in between. Racial prejudice is always a despicable trait, especially when it
    hardens into hatred (though it is not to be confused with opposition to mass immigration, a view that is held by all ethnic groups). It has inflamed some of the reporting and corrupted some of the coverage of the halal meat controversy.

    But there is more to anxiety about Islam among many non-Muslims, in Britain and elsewhere, than aversion to Muslims or objections to immigration. There is a belief that there is a problem inherent in the religion which Christianity and Judaism, its fellow Abrahamic faiths, don’t share, and which isn’t present in other religions either. Is it right? The best answer is that it depends which problem one has in mind. All religions, Judaism and Christianity including, produce fanatical mutations and terror. Consider Europe’s own wars of religion.

    When Umar ibn al Khattab the second caliph of Islam ruled his empire Jews and Christians were free to perform their own religious duties without any hassle

    Infact Jews and Christians had their own courts and justice system which was based on their own religious books instead of the majority law which was sharia. I bet u didn’t know that little historical titbit

    Yet in the so called bastion of freedom Jews and Muslims can’t even have their own kosher and halal methods of food. Much less have their own legal systems.

    Islam is a peaceful religion, terrorism arose in response to the massive killings done by the west in Muslim lands, starting with Afghanistan, and now the Arab world where the West is interfering now. As a Muslim I’m taught that I have 2 kinds of brother, brothers in Islam, and
    brothers in humanity, that’s why I love everyone unconditionally. I believe in the truth and the truth is that Islam does not allow the deaths of innocents and you’re cherry-picking and misinterpreting and taking out of context. According to Islam, as a Muslim who studied it for more than a decade, is AGAINST the killings of innocents. Don’t judge a faith from the misguidance of others. It is a sin in Islam to kill innocent people including children, women and elderly. You are fooled by your media and anti-Islamists misinterpreting the sources of Islam.
    IA
    London School of Islamics Trust
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  • DKeane123

    ” terrorism arose in response to the massive killings done by the west in Muslim lands” Lots of Muslim violence against different sects – it isn’t just a problem with the west – it is in the actual Muslim community – didn’t you even read the article? Or is the west responsible for this also?

    “Islam is a peaceful religion” – the majority of Muslims are peaceful, but the actual data from the pew poll in another comment does you no favors. 18% and 15% of Muslims in Malaysia and Turkey believe that suicide bombing is justifiable in some instances – that is about 3.0 million and 11 million people in each of those countries (respectfully) that think strapping a bomb to your person and blowing up a bunch of people is an appropriate political statement. Those number have to come down.

    Quakerism, Jainism, and Pastafarianism – it is litterally built into their theology – are all peaceful religions. I couldn’t even conceive of needing to survey any of them to determine if suicide bombing is okay.

  • al

    When will Muslims stop blaming the west for there problems.http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/4341.htm

  • GregAbdul

    DK, that is something wrote in a comment section. Do you know it to be fact? How many people in Malaysia and Indonesia actually are involved in suicide bombings? In that region they have their idiots, but to be fair, it is NOT our part of the world. You are jumping on the thread that says Islam is foreign and violent. There are Muslims all over Europe and America and Canada. How many of us actually are violent as percentages of our populations worldwide? I won’t go research this, but the last time I looked, Muslims were not even the world’s numberer one terrorists. We are number one on the evening news, while Burma runs a concentration camp for Muslims and we are indiscriminately killed in CAR with not a peep from the same mainstream media. Please drop the prejudice. i have to keep repeating because a whole lost of us have lot the ability to think in simple straight lines. MLK gave his life so we would treat everyone as individuals. Are you a modern enemy of Martin Luther King? If you don’t see Dr. King as a stupid man who died fighting for nothing (cause you will never stop your prejudice), then you should know that all people all over the world are people. There is no innocent group versus the evil group (unless you are explicitly in a hate group). Archie Bunker has been off the TV for like 30 years. Please don’t come here with the tired Archie reruns.

  • DKeane123

    Did I say anything about Muslims in Canada, US, or Europe? The study also said (did you read it?) that Muslims in the US were significantly more apt to have a peaceful interpretation of the Koran). I also stated in my post that the majority of Muslims are peaceful – so I find your knee jerk reaction to my post puzzling.

    I specifically noted two countries from a scientifically conducted study that says millions of people think suicide bombing is justified in some instances (unlike Quakers or Baha’i). PR does not trump data and how is citing actual data prejudiced? If anything data strips away prejudice.

    Please re-read my comment.

  • andrew123456789

    Never take religious texts literally. That cheapens them. I wish fundies of all stripes would realize that.

    As for your questions, I agree with them but also take into account that it’s not true that the whole world experienced what we call the “Enlightenment” so value differences are to be expected (not to mention all kinds of weird distortion in cultural values brought on, ironically I guess, by the “Enlightened” colonialists/imperialists a few hundred years ago.

    Most of the stuff you are addressing is making most of its progress in the western communities…things like gay Muslim meetings, etc. Out of curiosity, what brought up, for you, the science question? I’m not aware of that being a big issue in Islam, but there’s always room to learn!

  • Fran

    Glad you shared your thoughts. I’m neither Muslin nor Christian – whatever that means, but no group of people, no race, no culture can lay claims to having cleans hands. ALL religions supposedly started out as peace- loving, thoughtful, caring groups. Sadly, ALL have minor groups of haters, crazies and bigots – just like the strange members all families have – who highjack the original message to further their own twisted or greedy reasons.

  • Harry Underwood

    “And as far as the gay thing goes, all religions teach that immoral people go to hell.”

    Absolutely wrong. East Asian, South Asian, African and other non-Abrahamic religions *do not* teach that homosexuality is a sin or a divine offense worthy of punishment.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_homosexuality#Indian_religions

  • cranefly

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but Quaker is a lot more specific than Muslim. I think that’s the rub. Christians have got to be at least as violent as Muslims when they feel justified, even if they’re more likely to use drone strikes than suicide bombers.

    I also don’t really have facts on this, but my impression is that oftentimes Muslims are fighting other Muslims, and I’m guessing more often than not, it’s over political power and economic angst as much as anything, with differences between sects magnified by propaganda. I would really like to see someone, somewhere, find a way of isolating religion as a variable, and really show how much trouble it causes when there’s nothing else going on. I would love to know. I don’t expect it to be nothing, but I also have a very hard time believing it’s everything.

  • DKeane123

    I agree that it is often intra-religious fighting that is the larger issue for violence and would also love someone to tease out via multi-variate analysis of what is the biggest contributing factor.

    My larger point, you can’t say:
    -the Quran is the literal word of God.
    -The punishment for apostacy is death (along with just being an infidel).
    -Islam is a religion of peace.

    And I would never say that either Judiasm or Christianity are necessarily religions of peace, because they have the same problem with the Old Testament (primarily). The real difference is that these other religions have decided that the more troubling components of their books aren’t literal, and more metaphor.

    And I agree about the Quaker comment – there may be some Muslim sect that is equivalent to Quakerism, I am just don’t know of any off the top of my head.

    You can say I’m wrong – I actually like it when I’ve been able to root out some opinion of mine that proves to be false.

  • cranefly

    I’m pretty sure there are sects of pacifist Muslims (and most Sufi only believe in violence for self-defense). I think your second point, that the punishment for unbelief is death, is the one that most peaceful Muslims would debate. Not that some Islamic states don’t enforce it, interpreting the Quran for maximum theocratic control. But I think Islamic people, when free to do so, are more likely to say that the condemnation of apostasy in the Quaran refers to the afterlife, analogous to when the Bible says “The wages of sin is death.”

    I don’t know if it’s a religion of peace yet, but I have a ton of Muslim friends, and they’ve never tried to kill me, so I hate hearing Muslims attacked as if they’re all secretly evil, or their holy book were really any worse than the rest of them. Apparently, 82% of Malaysian Muslims are against suicide bombing in all instances, for what it’s worth. I doubt that many Americans are against drone strikes in any instance.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    Almost all the terrorism around the world can be attributed to Islamists.

    It will always be as such.

  • GregAbdul

    sorry…silly me…most Western Religions teach that homosexuality is a sin

  • GregAbdul

    all groups have bad people…we agree….is atheists a group?

  • GregAbdul

    when you say the Quran teaches violence, you indict Western Muslims. If you go to an area of the world where there is already conflict and people are carrying guns to shoot out their national identity, it really surprises you….or it’s a religion’s fault that people in the middle of a violent conflict believe violence is the solution to their problems. In the American context, America is 90% Christian and jails more people than any other nation on earth. Is that a reflection of American Christianity?

  • GregAbdul

    I specifically asked you not to be Archie Bunker. I doubt your specs cause Malaysia is a pretty decent place, but if you are right….you want me to give extra suspicion and disdain for every Malaysian I meet? You can’t see how your writings ask us to be prejudiced against foreign Muslims and Muslims in general? Why is it okay in your mind for you to be a modern enemy of Martin Luther King?

  • GregAbdul

    cliche from someone who spends way too much time on the couch in front of the tv.

  • DKeane123

    You don’t doubt my specs, you doubt Pews specs. Which means you didn’t even read the results of the survey.

  • DKeane123

    When I say the Quran endorses violence, I indict the Quran and those that take a literal interpretation of the book. If some Muslims disagree with many of the calls to violence, it is up to them to square that circle – it isn’t my holy book.

  • GregAbdul

    DK,

    you are trying to explain why you are writing racist things. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to simply stop writing racist things? Visit a mosque (Islamicfinder.org) and ask Muslims if our book endorses violence. It’s our book and we decide its interpretation, not you. Please join Martin Luther King and the good guys and drop the nonsense. If you say our book is evil, then you are calling us evil. If you say the Bible is evil, then you are calling Christians evil. If you say the Torah is evil, then you are saying Jews are evil. You are trying to be sideways as if someone can’t see you are stuck in a racist spot. Please simply let the racism go. It’s the only decent thing to do.

  • GregAbdul

    I did visit the website and verify what you posted. I tried to explain to you that deciding if someone is religious and how serious they are about religion can be hard to determine. For example, Muslims in the US often don’t practice our faith and then when it’s time to count American Muslims, the stat that is most often used is mosque attendance on Fridays…when there are probably a bunch of Muslims who go to mosque on Saturdays and Sundays because it may be the only days they can get off work…or there may be someone on the verge of apostasy who identifies as Muslim as well as those who are about to join but answer as their old religions because they have not officially converted. I did not reject your evidence. i told you you are using funny stats (never met a violent Malaysian Muslim) and that when it come to religion, often stats don’t give us a very complete picture.

  • DKeane123

    How about instead of labeling anyone that disagrees with you as racist, you actual make some valid points backed up back actual evidence.

  • GregAbdul

    I used comparison and contrast to show you that you are displaying prejudiced behavior. When you hate our book, you hate us. Please stop the hate….it’s no debate…it’s you and the hate of entire group and that is anti MLK…and I am here pleading with you to be pro MLK.