Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to forge a new relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world, and it was reported last week that he had his advisers rewriting the national security strategy to omit references to "Islamic radicalism." While about one-quarter of the world's population is Muslim, including several million people in the U.S., many non-Muslim Americans know little about Islam. Mohammad Khalil, a professor of religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and visiting professor of law in the College of Law, specializes in Islamic thought and has published and lectured on the topics of Islamic ethics and bioethics, Western analyses of Islamic theology, and the significance of the veil in Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Khalil recently spoke with News Bureau editor Sharita Forrest.
What is your reaction to the president's directive that U.S. security strategy omit references to Islamic radicalism?
I can understand how some would take issue with President Obama's decision. The radicals in question quote passages from the Quran and claim to be driven by Islam. Many Muslims find it insulting that their religion would be somehow connected to these radicals. Just because certain groups claim to be followers of a religious tradition does not mean that they necessarily understand the nuances and spirit of that tradition.
When people refer to the radicals as jihadists, it gives the impression that jihad entails the killing of innocent civilians. Many Muslim scholars would find that repulsive. As they see it, jihad is a struggle for a greater good. It can include armed struggle. But Muslim jurists have long regarded acts of violence that lead to a sense of fear and a sense of helplessness among civilian populations, Muslim or non-Muslim, to be not jihad but something called hiraba. Many often mistranslate hiraba as highway robbery. In fact, hiraba is not too dissimilar from our modern understanding of terrorism. There was a recent memo circulating in the State Department suggesting that we refer to the radicals as hirabists, not jihadists. This would help undermine the radicals' approach.
Are the media and the Internet fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment?
The Internet brings people from all over the world together, including people with radical views, gives them a community and allows them to add fuel to the fires. People can say all kinds of things online and make claims without any real support. There are blogs and Web sites that do precisely that. And if you look at any CNN or New York Times online article on Islam, you'll see all kinds of anti-Muslim comments. My students also forward me e-mails they've received that say how evil Islam is, and how major Muslim scholars never condemned the 9/11 attacks - a disturbingly common misconception.
Just go to your local bookstore and see the kind of books that often dominate the section on Islam. If you read them and are unfamiliar with the Quranic passages they're quoting, the end result is often a distorted understanding. It is comparable to when certain non-Christians discuss the New Testament dishonestly, quoting, for instance, the passage in which Jesus says, 'I did not come to bring peace but a sword,' and stopping there.
Would Muslim journalists and commentators reporting on or providing their perspectives with news stories help people put things in context or better understand Islam?
Absolutely. It is incredibly easy to forget that we are all more similar than we are different. So long as Muslims are regarded as the mysterious, possibly scary 'Other,' there will be no real understanding. And this goes both ways. It is also important that non-Muslims be represented in the media in the Muslim world.
Does Islam promote violence or peace?
The Quran says to strike fear into the heart of the enemy, but in the very next verse says, "But if they incline toward peace, incline toward peace." There are passages that call for war but also those that advocate turning the other cheek. The role of context here cannot simply be overlooked or dismissed.
The famous scriptural justification for fighting is that it is a means of defending men, women and children who cry out for protection from oppression. This notion of a "noble fight" is widely accepted among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, even as they regard peace as the ideal. Needless to say, Muslims have long debated what qualifies as a "noble fight."
A common misconception is that according to Islam, God is primarily a god of wrath. All but one of the 114 chapters in the Quran begin with the statement "In the name of God the compassionate, the caring." Both "the compassionate" and "the caring," however translated, are derived from a root that connotes mercy. And in a famous report, or hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying that "God's mercy overcomes his wrath."
Is suicide bombing presented as a positive act in Islamic culture?
Many have a favorable view of suicide bombing, viewing it as a heroic act against oppressors – even when the targets are civilians. But as the problem has grown in recent years, Muslims have begun taking a stronger stand against it.
I would hazard that most Muslims today regard suicide bombing as a detestable act, especially when civilians are among the victims.
It is worth noting that just three decades ago, there was, to my best knowledge, not one Muslim suicide bomber. Additionally, much of the terrorism that occurred in the Muslim world in, say, the 1960s and early 1970s was fueled by secular, nationalistic sentiments.