What’s A ‘Real Muslim’ Anyway?
It’s clear to me that the problem of Islamic fundamentalism will not be solved by non-Muslims. It’s going to take a great number of liberal, secular, progressive Muslims to reform their own religion from within. That’s not to say that non-Muslims do not have a valuable role to play in this process, but given that this process has already begun, I think it’s worth asking whether we are helping it or holding it back.
One of the biggest hurdles appears to be getting non-Muslims to accept that there even is such a thing as a liberal, progressive, secular Muslim. Pointing out examples invariably leads to cries of ‘no true Scotsmen’. How can they be Muslims if they don’t wish to push their faith on society? Surely they are not true Muslims if they favour secularism over theocracy.
I’ve noticed a double standard at work here when we consider the legitimacy of progressive thinkers within the Islamic faith. Non-Muslims are quick to decry Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, yet hold all Muslims to a literal, fundamentalist understanding of Islam on the other. Any deviation betrays a lack of authenticity in the mind of the non-Muslim.
The popular press, even when well-intentioned, bolster this way of thinking too. They were quick to tell us that the Paris attackers weren’t true Muslims for example. Why? Because they were reported to have enjoyed alcohol and marijuana. This reinforces the narrative that in order to be considered sincere in the Islamic faith you must adhere to all its dogmas, stigmas and injunctions – wholesale. Coincidentally, this is also the narrative of the Islamist.
Non-Muslims toeing this line strikes me as odd given we don’t do this with Christians. Can you recall any newspapers investigating whether or not Christian lunatics had any tattoos or enjoyed shellfish? No, Christianity has been allowed to ‘progress’ and reform – yet Muslims are being held back, pigeonholed in a literal, medieval box – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
I’ve often wondered what it must be like for a progressive Muslim to hear ‘I’ll kill you’ in their right ear and ‘you’re not a real Muslim’ in their left, simply for the crime of being a Muslim and challenging literalism, fanaticism and orthodoxy. Just like many Christian reformers have done throughout history to the benefit of us all.
How can we hope to see a change for the better if we continue to issue an Islamic ‘purity test’ which demands the worst from Muslims? We say we don’t want fundamentalists, but in the same breath we are telling Muslims that they must adhere to the fundamentals of their faith to have any authenticity. I understand the unique problems the literal ‘transmission’ of Islamic scripture presents, but since there’s no actual god holding Muslims to this, why can’t they take a fresh approach?
This is not about treating Muslims with kid gloves, but rather affording them the same privileges to cherry pick and interpret their religion however they wish. Just like everyone else does. Everybody cherry-picks their religion. The very nature of religious scripture makes this process inevitable and necessary. No-one can possibly hope to satisfy all the contradictions and demands of their particular ‘holy’ book. This is not to confuse the reformers, who recognise the problems within their faith, with the apologists who wish to distract you from them. They hinder Islamic reformation more than most.
This isn’t a case of ‘going soft’ on Islam either. Preposterous faith based notions should be ridiculed and challenged wherever they rear their head. This is about making sure that we don’t abandon those Muslims who want to live their lives in accordance with what they understand their faith to mean – but also understand the importance of human rights and secularism too. Many of these Muslims risk everything to do this openly. And we need them.
This doesn’t mean we have to give Muslim reformers a free pass either. By all means, feel free to quiz them on where they stand on hoofed aviation and a prophet’s choice of bride. It’s just that there’s an important distinction to be made between a person of faith, and a person who wishes to push their faith on everyone else.
Would it be better if all 1.6 billion Muslims abandoned their false beliefs? Of course it would. But that’s not going to happen. Not any time soon anyway. So in the meantime, perhaps it’s best for non-Muslims to support those Muslims who are trying to influence their fellow believers to adopt a more progressive interpretation. A mainstream alternative to pious literalism is desperately needed. Just as it was with Judaism and Christianity.
It seems hypocritical to lament the ‘nothing to do with Islam’ brigade whilst at the same time abandoning Muslims who acknowledge the problems within their faith.
Religion, despite what the believer may tell you, has always been fluid. Oral dictation, alteration, translation, reinterpretation and reformation are religious themes as much as anything. Secular, progressive Muslims are not asking for anything new here. Sure, the Ayatollahs and the Imams will dismiss the reformers as apostates. But that’s exactly why it’s important to empower the reformers in order to diminish the influence of the literalist theocrat.
If you are looking for a list of Muslim reformers and dissidents to acquaint yourself with and support, I recommend reading ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She dedicates a sizable chunk of the appendix section to them. If anyone would like to hear what a secular, liberal reforming voice sounds like right now, please listen to my discussion with Maajid Nawaz.