The Far Ends of the Spectrum

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report a couple of days ago after conducting an extensive study on Muslim populations throughout Asia, Africa, and the US.  The text is here, but I warn you it’s 226 pages so it’s not a quick read.  In it, they explore views of Sharia Law and Muslims’ desire for its implementation in their respective homelands.  Not so surprisingly, support among Muslims in Southeastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia for adopting Sharia Law even among their own kind is pretty low.  Other places like sub-Saharan Africa and South / Southeast Asia, the support was far higher, approaching 90% in some places.

The study did go to great lengths to point out than even among those who supported Sharia Law, there was significant variation in its interpretation and the degree to which it should be incorporated into their legal system, differing in views ranging from divorce and contraception to apostasy.  (Hint:  never leave the faith in South Asia under any circumstances.  Move to the US and then convert.)

The study also explored the attitudes of American Muslims, and how they compare to their counterparts across the globe.  Again, not surprisingly, there was comparatively greater tolerance and acceptance of people of other religions, and far less acceptance of the use of violence against civilians:

U.S. Muslims voice support for suicide bombing or other forms of violence against civilians in the name of Islam; 81% say such acts are never justified, while fewer than one-in-ten say violence against civilians either is often justified (1%) or is sometimes justified (7%) to defend Islam. Around the world, most Muslims also reject suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians. However, substantial minorities in several countries say such acts of violence are at least sometimes justified, including 26% of Muslims in Bangladesh, 29% in Egypt, 39% in  Afghanistan and 40% in the Palestinian territories.

I’m still a little worried over the fact that there are still some who would believe that blowing yourself up to kill civilians is acceptable under any circumstances, and that it’s 8% of the American Muslim population that thinks so.  I’m also wondering exactly what constitutes a situation in which one would be forced to “defend Islam” in that manner.  It seems especially confusing in a place like the US, with a system of secular law that – while clearly imperfect – is designed to prevent the need for people to take the law (or revenge) into their own hands.

This, I think, is one of the reasons for Islamophobia in this country.  There is little doubt that there a serious problem with Islam around the world:  its holy book contains plenty of calls to war and putting to death those who oppose you (granted, it’s not alone in that regard), there is no central authority, and it’s taken root in countries with low rates of education and secular rule of law.  Riots with people numbering in the thousands will start in the streets if word gets out about a copy of the Quran being treated with anything less than reverence.  The potential for such violence – as regularly demonstrated in other parts of the world – is good reason for people to have a legitimate fear of Islam.

Here, though, the overwhelming majority of Muslims have learned to integrate themselves peacefully into a modern secular society, with views on other believers actually approaching that of Christians …

Of the countries surveyed, only a majority of Muslims in America — 56 percent — believe people of other faiths can go to heaven; by contrast, that figure among U.S. Christians is about 64 percent. U.S. Muslims are also less likely than Muslims abroad to believe in evolution, sharing views that are closer to those of U.S. Christians.

(Oh, wonderful.  More creationists.  They are truly adopting American culture.)  Anyway, this should be taken into greater consideration when discussing Islam.  I have no special love for the religion, and I think it is the most problematic in the modern world.  That said, the sentiment in this country on the part of conservative Republicans / Christians appears to be that the potential for any Muslim to be radicalized – no matter how small the chances – is enough to bundle up the entire population into one featureless mass with the same propensity for violence and brutality in the name of religion.

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2 Responses to The Far Ends of the Spectrum

  1. Richard says:

    In my crazy armchair way, I’m going to offer an hypothesis: could it be that support for Sharia in countries with less rule of law is because they’re turning to the only source of order they know? (given that the secular authorities aren’t up to the job?) This might be self-perpetuating: putting trust in new secular institutions within budding weak states, over against the existing power structures, could be a dangerous thing for anyone to do. What are perceptions like about corruption in the administration of Sharia law (however brutal it may be)?

    Similarly, the prevalence of violence in less-developed areas could be due simply to the rise of a “culture of honor” in the absence of a strong Leviathan. Steven Pinker suggests in _The Better Angels Of Our Nature_ (I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that book) that this could also explain the strong divide between North and South in the levels of gun violence and the support for guns: if you live in an area which is too rural, mountainous, poor, and sparsely populated for the Feds or even a local police force to operate effectively, vigilante justice may be the only kind of justice you get.

    • There is no way other than crazy armchair way!

      I think your hypothesis is very likely. When secular rule of law fails in a strongly religious part of the world (or was never there to begin with), it’s a simple step to turn to the only other institution that could promise that degree of control combined with an efficiency that doesn’t put much weight on due process or civil rights. Using that as a mechanism to sow distrust for any other authority – especially one without divine mandate – is a natural outcome.

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