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Is Islam Inherently Violent?

The jihadist attacks in Paris have grieved and frightened the world again with the reality of Muslims committing violence in the name of Islam. Again we face the question – is Islam inherently violent? Are Muslims required to commit violence as a religious obligation?

There is no doubt that unsettling numbers of Muslims would not only answer ‘yes,’ but follow through on the jihadist, terroristic mandate. Islam has a unique problem with terrorism and violence, among all the world’s religions.

Still, there is some reason to hope that many of the world’s billion Muslims do not agree with, and many even vocally oppose, the call to violent jihad. Here’s a post I wrote on Indonesia before the Paris attacks – the topic now seems more pressing than ever.

Quick: what is the world’s largest Muslim nation? When I ask people this, I often get guesses like Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Some with a bit more knowledge of the Middle East might guess Egypt, but Egypt only has the fifth largest Muslim population in the world.

Those who know the history of the Indian subcontinent might remember Pakistan, or even Bangladesh, but they have the second and fourth largest Muslim populations. Many would undoubtedly forget India, which is only about 15 percent Muslim, but with 177 million Muslims total, India still has the third largest Islamic population.

Stumped? I suspect that few Americans, aside from scholars of world religion, will know that Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation. About 88% of its population is Muslim, or about 205 million people. Part of the reason we don’t know that is that Islam in Indonesia is, by comparison to what we see among the jihadists, Al Qaeda, and Daesh (ISIS), quite tolerant. Indonesia has many problems, of course, including some episodes of religious violence and violations of religious liberty. But on the whole, Indonesians don’t need a “Coexist” bumper sticker – they’re already living in the reality of religious pluralism.

Indonesia expert and religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall, who recently spoke at Baylor regarding Indonesia, addresses the improbable qualities of Indonesian Islam. He explains how he attended a congress held by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), “the world’s largest Muslim organization.” That’s right, the world’s largest Islamic organization, in the world’s largest Muslim country. Surely Marshall, a western scholar and a Christian, would not be welcome there? Not so. Marshall writes,

NU’s gathering was a great, sprawling, colorful, four-day business reminiscent of a state fair. There were thousands of delegates, and tens of thousands of visitors and observers, though only a handful from abroad. The official delegates often appeared drained and strained since there were major and acrimonious disputes over election procedures for the new leadership, and the last sessions of the day did not begin until 11 p.m. But ordinary NU members were happy and friendly. I was asked over 100 times to be part of group photos. There was plenty of music from a large soundstage and scattered local bands, as well as an exhibition of NU-related art, myriad food stalls, commercial booths, foot massage stations, and endless vendors offering T-shirts, Islamic fashion, hats, rocks, toys, jewelry, buttons, CDs, bedsheets, and more. My prize: a combination cigarette lighter and bottle opener embossed with the NU logo. 

The stalls also included serious items. Some advertised NU’s many magazines, its expansive and growing charitable and social work, its 22 universities, thousands of schools, and millions of students. There were wonderful book exhibits and sales, from children’s books on Islam to dense theological and philosophical works, including the epistemology and axiology of Islamic jurisprudence. I was particularly struck by a reprint of the 1922 work Menolak Wahhabi (Wahhabism Rejected), by Muhammad Faqih Maskumambang, one of NU’s founders. NU has been struggling against Wahhabism, the repressive Islam of Saudi Arabia, for a century, trying to counteract its inroads into Indonesia, including by articulating and promoting an Islam at home in a plural society.

The event was front-page news in Indonesia, but aside from Marshall, there was little participation by western scholars or journalists. Indonesian Islam does not make for interesting news, because its conflicts play out at the level of ideas, theology, and elections, rather than suicide bombs and American invasions.

But if this is the world’s largest Muslim nation, shouldn’t Indonesians at least compete for the role of the world’s “typical” Muslims? Wahhabists and jihadists, of course, reject the moderate Muslims of Indonesia and elsewhere, saying that they are sellouts and syncretists. Christian critics of Islams sometimes mirror this critique, arguing that moderate Muslims simply aren’t being good Muslims, because good Muslims are violent and intolerant. Anti-Muslim critics point to Daesh and say, “they’re the REAL Muslims!”

But I would concur with Marshall when he suggests that Indonesia offers a vitally important counter-example to the media-driven impression of what Islam is, and what normal Muslims do. We should highlight and applaud Indonesia. For all of its imperfections, we should defend Nahdlatul Ulama and all other Muslims who reject the jihadist insistence that Islam is inherently violent.

For more on this topic, see Martin Accad’s article Beating Back ISIS.

This article originally appeared on the Patheos website where Thomas Kidd is a regular contributor.

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