A battle older than Islam

Opinion by AZ Gordon
Oct. 5, 2014, 10:52 p.m.

“It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”

The man that comes to mind when we read these words is not your outspoken liberal, left-leaning pundit best known for his dismissal of the War on Drugs. But it was just that man, Real Time host Bill Maher, who uttered these words on television last week while debating Ben Affleck and others on religion and Islam.

Maher’s severe assertion is neither arbitrary nor devoid of some factual basis. Looking at a Middle East inundated with subjugation and slaughter, it is hard not to blame Islam for the faults of those who claim to live by its principles. Seemingly legitimate polls showing that 64 percent of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for Muslims who convert to other religions only makes Maher’s case more convincing.

The first and most hackneyed response to these claims is that they exclude those Muslims who have disavowed religious violence and who support liberal values. This is undoubtedly true and has manifested itself in rally after rally by Muslims around the world against ISIS and its unholy tyranny. Polls showing that Muslims largely support freedom of religion for non-Muslims, in America and the Middle East, also confirm this view.

However, this response alone is insufficient to defang Maher’s argument, that Islam is the genesis of the Middle East’s violent wreckage. Missing from both Maher’s argument and responses to it are the geopolitical and sociohistorical influencers of modern Muslim extremism. As it turns out, these influencers are largely tribal in nature, not Qur’anic.

In his book, The Thistle and the Drone, diplomat and scholar Akbar Ahmed convincingly argues that much of the violent jihad that we witness in the Middle East and Afghanistan is the result of an age-old conflict beyond the confines of Islam. This conflict, characterized by the unforgiving centralization of government to the dismay of tribes throughout the Muslim world, has engendered a long-lasting cycle of violence between tribal Muslims and Western-influenced governments.

One particularly enlightening example of this phenomenon is that of the Asiri tribes in Saudi Arabia, a people long plagued by tribal warfare and violence among its clans. In 1922, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the future founder of Saudi Arabia, annexed the Asir region and killed hundreds of thousands in the process.

The gratuitous violence not only begot massive loss of life, but it also preceded a cultural imposition of extreme Salafism on the Asiris. The Saudis supplanted the Asiri’s ancient and moderate dress with the full facial veils and homogenous practices that now characterize our perception of Saudi Arabia.

In effect, the state of Saudi Arabia degraded the Asiri culture, but it also allowed the warring Asiri tribes to coalesce around a common enemy: the centralized state. As Ahmed shows, it is no surprise that 10 of the Sept. 11 terrorists hailed from the Asiri tribes.

This story is not unique to the Asiri tribes, and it defines much of the violent extremism that we see today, from Waziristan to Yemen. Both homes of violent extremism, each has seen its fair share of conflict between a Western backed, centralized government and opposed tribes. In areas where such tribal conflict is less prevalent among Muslims, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, an unsurprising dearth of religious violence exists as well.

Nonetheless, we have a tendency to label such extremism apriori as Islamic and a function of Islam, when in reality the history and culture of these regions — not the religion — has hardened the violent extremism. We are unable to properly defend this label when the generalization fails. For example, the largest Muslim in country in the world, the democracy of Indonesia, is not a bastion of violent extremism but a relatively tolerant and prosperous society, despite some issues with terrorism.

Also, we are unable to reconcile the lack of religious adherence among some ISIS fighters with our “Islamic label.” This became clear when news reports revealed that ISIS recruits Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed’s last purchases before heading to the Middle East were copies of the book, Islam for Dummies. A sound understanding of Islam was clearly not the motivating factor in these men’s decision to kill in the name of Allah.

None of these counterarguments to Bill Maher’s claims should be understood as tacit acceptance of violent extremism. When groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda threaten our livelihood and our interests, we must respond and unambiguously limit their power.

However, in responding to these threats we have an obligation to ensure that the voices of Muslim moderates, in Syria, Iraq and the United States, are not defined by those easily identified extremists.

If we fail to accomplish this dual task of silencing extremists and emboldening moderates, Maher’s argument will become more salient as radical interpretations of Islam continue to sweep the globe.

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ Stanford.edu.

Aaron Zelinger Gordon likes to argue with anybody who can bear it—friends, strangers, other Daily columnists, and himself. As such, a friend once berated him for refusing to believe that it's not butter. He appreciates few things more than astutely cited Will Ferrell quotes, dance floor shenanigans, oreo milkshakes, and foreign policy debates. When not studying Symbolic Systems and Economics, he can be found procrastinating in the pool, writing poetry, and learning languages other than his native Spanish and English. Contact him for coffee at zelinger 'at' stanford dot edu.

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