Here’s a quick exercise: go to Google and start typing the following: “Is Islam compatible with.” What are some of the predictions Google gives you for the end of that sentence? I get: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with modernity? Is Islam compatible with secular pluralistic societies? Is Islam compatible with evolution?
In comparison, when I type, “Is Christianity compatible with,” I get evolution, capitalism, yoga, and free masonry. Hinduism gets only one prediction: Christianity. Buddhism gets science, Christianity, atheism, and Judaism. Incidentally, there are no predictions for “Is Judaism compatible with.”
When Google predicts the end of your search, they’re looking for results based on what others before have searched for frequently. So although the exercise is admittedly trite, the message could not be clearer. People (or at least people who use Google) question Islam’s compatibility with fundamental political ideologies (democracy, modernity, secularism) much more regularly than they do other religions.
And it’s not just average Google users. You can’t open newspapers these days without seeing Islam classified as a monolith. Even papers such The New York Times ask questions like “Can Islamists Be Liberals?”
This does not come as a surprise. Muslim scholars like Tariq Ramadan have had to dedicate their careers to battling the idea that Islam and “Western” values like democracy and secularism are incompatible. Others like Haroon Siddiqui and Soumaya Ghannoushi have done the same. American Muslims continually have to fend off arguments from those who use sharia as a buzzword to prove that Islam and American values are incompatible.
But we don’t often hear arguments that majority Catholic countries like Ireland and Poland can’t be democratic because the Church is hierarchically organized. And even when we do hear of disastrous events in non-Muslim majority countries, entire religions are not held responsible. When Hindus massacre Muslims or Christians in India, for example, there’s no serious consideration of the possibility that Hinduism is inherently violent.
Essentializing Islam is a key part of an effort to “other” Muslims. After all, to define an us-versus-them dichotomy, it is necessary to have an impression (however false) of who the “other” is. And such an approach leaves very little room for complexity.
I don’t mean to undermine serious questions about how, why, and when ideologies clash, but perhaps the biggest problem with the way Islam has been approached is that, as Ghannoushi says, it essentializes everyone involved. It treats Islam and Muslims as a monolith, but does the same for democracy, liberalism, secularism, and the other terms people have been searching on Google.
As Inside Islam heads towards a close, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of our mission to “challenge misconceptions and stereotypical perceptions about Islam and Muslims worldwide.” And I’ve come to realize that perhaps the most important thing we can do (and hopefully have done) is challenge the idea that Islam is a monolith—that the religion is one set of ideas interpreted the same way by all adherents, and that all Muslims, everywhere are the same.
We have written about Sufis, Shias, and Sunnis, covered topics from Eco-Islam to Islamic heavy metal bands, addressed issues of sharia, hitting wives, and female circumcision. And to further break down the stereotype of Islam as a homogeneous, isolated religion, we’ve reported extensively on Islam in conversation with other faiths.
I couldn’t agree more.
Do you agree that much of the rhetoric around Islam deals with issues of compatibility? If so, why do you think there is such an obsession with the question? Do you think there is a value to working through questions of potentially clashing ideologies, or do you think such discussions are too reductionist? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.