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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

 This article first appeared with Independent Journal. Originally published under the title “Anyone Using The Phrase ‘Islam Is A Religion Of Peace’ Needs To Read This”

Days after the ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in San Bernardino, President Obama’s address to the nation concerning the threat of ISIS missed the mark. In fact, President Obama seemed at times to be more concerned with Americans ostracizing Muslim communities through “suspicion and hate,” than he was with protecting innocent American civilians from murder in the name of radical Islam.

It is high time for western political leaders to stop responding to terrorism by naming Islam as ‘the religion of peace’. It is time to have a hard conversation about Islam.

The West is in the throes of acute cognitive dissonance over Islam, whose brands are at war with each other. On the one hand we are told that Islam is the Religion of Peace. On the other hand we are confronted with an unending sequence of acts of terror committed in the name of the faith.

There is a depressing connection between the two brands: the louder one brand becomes, the more the volume is turned up on the other.

The slogan ‘Religion of Peace’ has been steadily promoted by western leaders in response to terrorism: George Bush Jr and Jacques Chirac after 9/11, Tony Blair after 7/7, David Cameron after drummer Lee Riby was beheaded and after British tourists were slaughtered in Tunisia, and François Hollande after the Charlie Hebdo killings. After the beheading of 21 Copts on a Libyan beach Barak Obama called upon the world to “continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam.”

One may well ask how ‘the religion of peace’ became a brand of Islam, for the phrase cannot be found in the Qur’an, nor in the teachings of Muhammad.

Islam was first called ‘the religion of peace’ as late as 1930, in the title of a book published in India by Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi. The phrase was slow to take off, but by the 1970s it was appearing more and more frequently in the writings of Muslims for western audiences.

What does “religion of peace” actually mean?

Words for ‘peace’ in European languages imply the absence of war, and freedom from disturbance. It is no coincidence that the German words Friede ‘peace’ and frei ‘free’ sound similar, because they come from the same root.

While there is a link in Arabic between salam, a word often translated ‘peace’, and Islam, the real connection is found in the idea of safety.

The word Islam is based upon a military metaphor. Derived from aslama ‘surrender’ its primary meaning is to make oneself safe (salama) through surrender. In its original meaning, a muslim was someone who surrendered in warfare.
The start of the entry for s-l-m from Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon

Thus Islam did not stand for the absence of war, but for one of its intended outcomes: surrender leading to the ‘safety’ of captivity. It was Muhammad himself who said to his non-Muslim neighbors aslim taslam ‘surrender (i.e. convert to Islam) and you will be safe’.

The Religion of Peace slogan has not gone uncontested. It has been rejected by many, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Melanie Phillips writing for The Times, who called it ‘pure myth’.

Even among Muslims the phrase has not only been challenged by radical clerics such as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, but also by mainstream Muslim leaders.

Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti of Syria was one of the most widely respected traditionalist Sunni scholars before he was killed in 2013 by a suicide bomber. The year before he had been listed as number 27 in the ‘The Muslim 500’, an annual inventory of the most influential Muslims in the world. According to Al-Buti, the claim that Islam is a peaceful religion was a ‘falsehood’ imposed upon Muslims by westerners to render Islam weak. He argued in The Jurisprudence of the Prophetic Biography that when non-Muslims fear Islamic jihad, their initial inclination is to accuse the religion of being violent. However they then change tack, and craftily feed to Muslims the idea that Islam is peaceful, in order to make it so. He laments the gullibility of ‘simple-minded Muslims’, who:
“… readily accept this ‘defense’ as valid and begin bringing forth one piece of evidence after another to demonstrate that Islam is, indeed, a peaceable, conciliatory religion which has no reason to interfere in others’ affairs. … The aim … is to erase the notion of jihad from the minds of all Muslims.”
There does seem to be something to Al-Buti’s theory, for it has invariably been after acts of violence done in the name of Islam that western leaders have seen fit to make theological pronouncements about Islam’s peacefulness. Who are they trying to convince?

In the long run this cannot be a fruitful strategy. It invites mockery, such as Palestinian cleric Abu Qatada’s riposte to George Bush’s declaration that ‘Islam is peace’. Abu Qatada asked: ‘Is he some kind of Islamic scholar?’

We do need to have a difficult conversation about Islam. This is only just beginning, and it will take a long time. The process will not be helped by the knee-jerk tendency of western leaders to pop up after every tragedy trying to have the last word on Islam. This strategy has failed, and it is time to go deeper.

Mark Durie is a theologian, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and author of The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.


  1. When westerners and Muslims talk about peace, they have different concept and ideas about meaning of the word. In the West it is automatically assumed that our idea about peace is universal. This article has touched basic differences about subject of peace, but this is true on many other subjects.

  2. @ Boshko:
    what you say is true, there are many instances were the same words are used to describe entirely difference concepts for Muslims and non-Muslims ("peace" being one). This has the effect of:
    a) Muslims and non-Muslims "talking past" each other since each interprets the others' words by their own concepts or
    b) the cleverer Muslims using this fact for taqiyya.
    - - - - -
    On a more general point: the "Islam is peace" slogan and variants is so pervasive that even those critical of Islam fall into the trap.
    Witness the writer "Adil" on the San Bardino mass murder: "“As the motive behind San Bernardino shooting unfolds, the reactions mould into the typical mode. A small faction directs their wrath to Muslim communities and threats, intimidation, and attacks on mosques…"
    Consider the difference between the language used when describing the actions of Muslims and non-muslims in the first two sentences:

    “shooting”. What or who was shot? The term is vague and unemotional, whereas the event being described was mass-murder and maiming.

    “…wrath to Muslim communities and threats, intimidation, and attacks on mosques…” Here the language is much more threatening and emotional in nature, we have wrath, threats, intimidation and attacks.

    My point is that language matters.
    Language shapes the nature of debate and opinion and all writers, commentators and pundits need to think about HOW they express things.
    CAIR et al think about such things carefully in the, often successful, attempt to shape public opinion, those that are opposed to the on-going Jihad to Islamise the world (a la Muslim Brotherhood, CAIR etc.) need to take as much care in their use of language also.

  3. Moderate islam is still a problem for western values . We will never accept their oppressive cult . . No not ever . .

    1. What western values do you mean?
      Historicaly the westen values have meant Christianity, but today the west largely rejects Christianity.

  4. Science has taken over from man made scriptured religions,which doesn't mean people have turned evil.I am not religious,but live by treat others as I would like to be treated.I employ a belief system which is helpful,loving,compassionate,utilising common sense


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