As the U.S. ramps up military action against terrorists in Iraq and Syria, an emerging narrative is calling for 'soul searching' in Muslim communities and the 'Muslim World'. As a Muslim myself, I find this trend nauseating and worrisome.
'The war against the terrorist outfit ISIS is a symbolic battle for the soul of Islam,' say some cable news hosts and self-appointed experts of the Middle East. 'The fight against ISIS will also require soul searching within Muslim communities,' say others. And so it goes that the flood-gates for scapegoating an entire religious community have opened. As a result, Muslim women and men all over the world, who have been fighting for cultural dialogue and equality everyday, remain marginalized. Also at risk of marginalization are two momentous events in Islam -- the Hajj and Eid-ul Adha -- in which millions of Muslims gather to celebrate harmony and pray for peace. These global events are representative of Muslim communities, not the actions of terrorists.
Why do I care about this and why should you? The battles against terrorists such as the Islamic State and the centuries-old tension between Sunnis and Shias are not symbolic of the 'soul of a religion'. Instead, these sectarian and politically fueled schisms are symbolic of the battles for the soul of humanity, pluralism and peace. That means all of us... you and I have a role to play. This is a lot less convenient for you, the media and me because it is a battle that involves dialogue among Muslims from different communities, global citizens from non-Muslim communities and most importantly, leaders of the religious and political elites across the world. Any other narrative is a distraction from what is really at stake: our collective humanity.
Repeating the same mistakes
One of the greatest barriers to cultural dialogue and inter-cultural understanding -- which in turn feeds ineffective foreign policies and social distortions -- has been the presentation of Islam as living within a monolithic 'Muslim World'.
So long as we are talking about ISIS and the Middle East; nothing from the Middle East can ever be singularly representative of Islam, other than the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Middle East represents a small portion of Muslim communities with two out of three Muslims being in Asia. Cultures' continuous colonization of spirituality enables varying degrees of minority rights and pluralism from region to region.
For instance, a cleric in a Sunni mosque in D.C is likely to interpret and preach things differently from clerics in Amman or Riyadh. To put it simply, there is no such thing as a singular 'Muslim World'. The laws and practices of places such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia contrast greatly with Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco and other nations.
While the differences are many, the religion's unifying essence can be found in the five pillars of Islam: proclaiming that there is one God and that Muhammad as His messenger; fasting; daily prayer; charity; and performing the Hajj pilgrimage if you are healthy and financially able.
Sectarianism is not innate to Islam
Historians have consistently documented how the Sunni/Shiite split was predominately political in nature -- relating to disagreements on who would succeed Prophet Muhammad as leader of the small Muslim community at the time. Indeed the origins of the Sunni/Shiite split were violent and tragic. The extremism of today capitalizes on the political roots of this tragedy with one political end in mind: power. Despite the current disturbing landscape, history exhibits examples in which Shias and Sunnis lived peacefully together for long periods of time. Lessons can be taken from the political and social environment of such periods of peace.
Origins and redrawing the soul
The actions and spiritual guidance of the majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are in no way dictated by the repressive, political opportunists of ISIS, nor Saudi Arabia and Iran for that matter. To put it simply: not my religion, nor its soul, can be redrawn by one man, one terrorist group, one country and the political games of one region.
What are 'we' fighting for?
What we are really talking about here when we speak of the tragic violence befalling the Middle East is the soul of humanity. Our collective humanity needs to do some soul searching when it comes to invading countries on false pretenses, when it comes to climate inaction, discrimination against minorities and women, and allowing dictators to gas their own people with impunity. Be it with the Buddhist monks and Rohingya in Myanmar, the Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, or the Israelis and Palestinians, people of all creeds and geographies have a role to play for global peace and development today.
Of course, there are important social-political issues within individual Muslim communities that need to be resolved, particularly when it comes to freedom of expression, gender equality and minority rights. But these issues vary by country and socio-political environments. The trajectory of these battles will be determined by the dialogue -- or lack of it -- happening at people's dinner tables, classrooms, voting halls, mosques and local media.
Even before global events such as the Arab Spring, Muslims from all regions have been on the front lines of opening spaces for debate and cultural understanding. I have seen this personally in my interactions with youth activists across Muslim societies as part of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellows. I found myself in rooms filled with passionate Arab intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs who echoed the desire for progress and development but who also believe in realizing such goals as part of an evolution, not a revolution. Amidst the haze of false narratives, these important, soft battles being waged by Muslim women and men are complex and subsequently under-reported.
Messengers in the news and policy makers should refocus the narrative, being that the soul of any religion is not man-made. On the contrary, political conditions have molded the fragmented, highly sectarian world we live in today, in places like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, CAR and Myanmar. It's time we as a humanity look in the mirror and do some soul searching, not just the so-called 'Muslim World'.
If there were a soul, here it lives...
Our humanity -- I'd like to think -- has its essence in the extraordinary-ordinary examples for love and hope that live far from the hungry eye of media-hype and convenient false narratives.
This week, millions of Muslims -- from varying races, ethnicities and sects -- descend on Mount Arafat near Mecca as part of fulfilling the Hajj pilgrimage. Here, people of all colors will exhibit humility and pray for forgiveness, mercy and peace. Millions more around the world will also celebrate the second of Islam's holly days, Eid-ul Adha. If there is such a thing as a soul for Islam, it is in the strength, humility, kindness and unity of women and men displayed each year during the Hajj, Ramadan and Eid.