The True Nature of Islam


Star & CrescentWhat is the true nature of Islam — peaceful, or warlike?

That’s a reasonable question which has been asked many times in the years since 9/11, though I don’t think it’s been decisively answered.

The responses most often given have a defensive edge — something like…

Most Muslims want to live in peace.


Don’t assume all Muslims are terrorists.

And that’s true enough. I accept that most Muslims want to live in peace. And I know all Muslims aren’t terrorists. Indeed, I assume that only a very small number of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world engage in or provide material assistance to acts of terror. And I’m aware that there’s a debate throughout the Muslim world on the proper understanding of jihad.

Still, the question remains…

What is the true nature of Islam?

Rather than how many Muslims are terrorists, perhaps it would be more relevant to ask…

How many Muslims would agree with the characterization of America as the Great Satan?

The answer to that would be quite pertinent, it seems to me, since Muslims constitute about 23 percent of the world’s population (Islam being the second-largest religion, after Christianity), and an estimated 3.5 million currently live in North America. Knowing their attitudes toward us might help provide a clearer picture of what portion of our Muslim community would be sympathetic or supportive to some organization mounting a serious terror campaign on U.S. soil.

It’s not easy to get a handle on Muslim attitudes. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that in the Middle East, favorable feelings toward the U.S. in majority-Muslim nations ranged from a high of 47 percent in Lebanon to a low of 14 percent in Jordan.

A lot of things have changed in a year. I wonder where we stand now.

Surveying Muslims living in the U.S. back in 2011, Pew found the majority (64 percent) feeling there was little support for terrorism among their co-religionists. On the other hand, the survey also found…

“A significant minority (21%) of Muslim Americans say there is a great deal (6%) or a fair amount (15%) of support for extremism in the Muslim American community.”

Which is rather disquieting.

There was a just-about-even split on the question of whether or not U.S. moves to combat terrorist activities were sincere (43 percent agreed; 41 percent didn’t). Of course, that’s kind of an abstract question. What would we have to do to demonstrate sincerity in this context? More to the point, what is it they see as insincerity? Do they suspect that counter-terror activities are a cover or for anti-Muslim discrimination?

According to the Pew study, 56 percent of U.S. Muslims say they believe assimilation into mainstream American life is a desired goal among their people. Only 20 percent say Muslims prefer to live in a distinctive, separated way.

This is encouraging — though it’s somewhat belied by the occasional burka-clad woman I encounter even in my part of rural Michigan.

I would imagine that the most vexing problem for Muslims who reject extremism is that the radical elements within the Muslim world claim to speak authoritatively for Islam. Those claims — reflecting the concept of violent jihad, the progression to ever-more barbarous acts, and the stated intention of bringing the world under Muslim domination — are dramatically conveyed to us by the international media. Little wonder they’ve succeeded in striking fear into the hearts of non-Muslims who wonder if the radicals’ claims are true.

Is Islam an inexhaustible fount of violence? Does it promote an unquenchable thirst for blood and conquest?

Muslims themselves are concerned about how their attitudes toward extremism are perceived. Pew reported that…

“Many Muslims fault their own leaders for failing to challenge Islamic extremists. Nearly half (48%) say that Muslim leaders in the United States have not done enough to speak out against Islamic extremists; only about a third (34%) say Muslim leaders have done enough in challenging extremists.”

Actually, they think individual Muslims are doing a much better job…

“…68% say that Muslim Americans themselves are cooperating as much as they should with law enforcement.”

But then, how much is…should?

Another ambiguity.

The so-called Islamic State — that ultra-violent faction that has coalesced out of the Syrian civil war and thrust into Iraq — has declared the rebirth of the Caliphate, the worldwide united Muslim authority that once dominated the Mediterranean basin. They are demanding that all Muslims recognize it and submit to its leadership in a great jihad to regain territories Muslims once controlled or penetrated (they’ve even issued an online map showing the scope of their projected conquests).

Projected Caliphate MapThis has met with mixed reactions throughout the Muslim world, and may very well spark the region-wide sectarian war long feared. Since the Islamic State is Sunni-led (being related to al Qaeda), its staunchest opponent is Shiite Iran. The Saudis are also opposed to this Caliphate — Sunni though they are — since the Royal family is seen by many radicals as an accommodationist, Western puppet regime that happens to control Islam’s most sacred sites, primarily Mecca. Saudis know that the House of Saud is in the radicals’ sights.

Not everyone is against the Caliphate, however.

In an article in the Express Tribune, an international outreach of The New York Times, Safa Hussein Al-Sheikh, Iraq’s deputy national security adviser, observed that…

“‘Many Sunni leaders inside and outside Iraq have criticized or derided al-Baghdadi’s [the IS leader’s] declaration of a new caliphate, but it will have a deep appeal for millions of young Sunni men for whom the political and economic status quo promises nothing but joblessness and poverty.’

“Sheikh said the establishment of the caliphate would increase ‘the recruitment of jihadis’ into ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. ‘They will get more recruits from abroad.’”

No doubt including from the U.S.

Numerous young American Muslims — including American-born Muslims and converts to Islam — have felt themselves drawn to Islamist radicalism. Some have gone to join in the fight; some have been interdicted while preparing to do so. The so-called Islamic State will no doubt provide inspiration to others, whether or not it is ultimately validated by the Muslim world as a whole.

Why are these young Muslims attracted to violent jihad? Does it merely reflect specific conflicts or deficiencies within individual lives? Is there a more general sense of alienation among young Muslims raised in the West, a recoil from our highly secularized culture?

Or does it speak of some underlying reality within Islam itself?

Which brings us back to the question again…

What is the true nature of Islam?

Perhaps there is no single, all-encompassing answer. The Muslim world is vastly complex, with many more divisions than just the main Sunni-Shiite split. Certainly I have no answer, and no entrée into Muslim circles through which to obtain any accurate insights.

I’d very much like to hear the views of Muslims or those with knowledge of Islam — deeper knowledge than mine, at any rate, which I readily admit is not very deep at all.

As we enter a new phase of our great global crisis with the proclamation of this so-called Caliphate, understanding Islam isn’t just a matter of cultural interest. It’s a matter on which may hang the fate of humanity.



Stubborn Things LogoThis post has been picked up by the online journal, Stubborn Things, and can be viewed at…




WSJ LogoIn 2010, as controversy raged over the proposal to build a mosque near the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, The Wall Street Journal published a collection of essays on the topic of moderate Islam. Six participants, all close observers of the Muslim world (most themselves Muslim) examined the interface between the West and Islam. They explored Muslim traditions and attitudes, in contrast with the perceptions of them by non-Muslims. The articles are all brief and the points easily digested — well worth the investment of a small amount of your time…


Here are links to Pew Research Center studies of Islam and Muslim attitudes…

Pew Research LogoOn distribution of the world’s Muslim population…

On the opinions of overseas Muslims about the United States…

 On attitudes of Muslims living in the United States…


Arab American News LogoFinally, here’s the article on the so-called Islamic State and its possible appeal to young Muslims around the world…



  1. Brendan says

    I think perhaps one of the problems, and only one, is the freedom to interpret jihad as either a spiritual war against one’s own weakness or as a holy war against the infidel.  

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