“Assalam Olaykum” was one of the first greetings I learned when I was trying to grow into Islam. The greeting translates to “Peace be upon you.” Those who frequent Muslim communities will hear other heartfelt phrases such as “Allah Hafiz.” It roughly translates to “May God protect you.” These phrases silently resonate in my mind as I live with the memories of love and hospitality I received while visiting my husband’s family last year. The comforting memories act as little charms for well wishes and peace that are used uniquely within the Muslim community.
Mainstream Western “Islam is a Religion of Peace” Conversation
In addressing whether Islam is a religion of peace, I propose that we focus on our cultural fishbowl and the stories which circulate about Muslims instead of retrieving verses from the Quran and Hadith. This is for numerous reasons. First, credible arguments hinge upon mastery of Arabic. Second, there are numerous scholars in both Islam and Christianity—namely YouTube— who are already are tackling this question from what seems to be a “religious” angle, but very few explore if Islam is a religion of peace from a sociopolitical perspective.
Those who say that Islam is a religion of peace may reference Quranic verses which center around peace and inclusivity. People who claim that Islam is a religion of peace will point that one of Allah’s one hundred names as Salam to emphasize the importance of Peace. They will also note that the greeting I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is a greeting which incorporates peace. Finally, many who argue Islam is a religion of peace will say that the same Arabic root in Salam is also present in the word Islam: SLM. However, it must be noted that Islam’s linguistical roots come from the word for “submission,” as in, submission to God.
Mahatma Gandhi noted when explaining the depths of Satyagraha, his practice of nonviolence, that the tenets of peace which is present in all religions is present in Islam, too. Influencers like Linda Sarsour will push that Islam is a religion of peace, claiming that the religion is an empowering, feminist religion. Several Christian apologists, apostates, and Muslim scholars on YouTube have already covered these topics at length, with exception to Gandhi’s assessment. I commend and admire their work, but from the cultural perspective of a nation like the United States of America, the tenets of a religion simply should not be the criteria for identifying a peaceful person.
Stories of Muslim Peace and Islamic War
As an American, specifically a Black American, different cultural stories build my own cultural and familial identity. When I was in kindergarten, my father would read stories of Martin Luther King before I went to bed. I attended church regularly and was a devout Christian who loved-and still loves- God. I still feel raw with sorrow when I think of the crucifixion of Jesus. These stories made me who I am today: a curious, emotive spirit with a thirst for justice.
Not once did I hear about Muhammad as a child. I have no recollection of even a single fragment Arabic lore—except for 1001 Nights. Not once did I hear about Al Khidr. I most certainly haven’t heard of the Islamic “Isa.” Just as stories I was told as a child heavily influences my sense of self and identity, it similarly does the same for Muslims. Even though I am just now hearing these stories as an adult, I can only describe what I perceive, like blind men describing an elephant. I can represent what I perceive—but not perfectly understand—about the Muslim community with three authentic first-hand experiences which represent countless other experiences I have had:
I am telling these first-hand accounts to break the narratives which usually come to mind and to reinforce the need to look this matter from an angle outside of religiosity. However, those who argue that Islam is not a religion of peace will state facts and statistics in addition to narratives about Islamic terrorism.
Many who oppose the argument that Islam is a religion of peace will boldly state that 2001 over 3000 people were killed in a terrorist attack against the United States’ Twin Towers. This act of terrorism caused United States citizens to vow to never forget, and we have been at war for going on a decade because of our national traumatic memory. At the same time, news of honor killings, like that of Noor Almaleki in 2012, committed on American soil are not given much attention. They are hidden in the shadows of the media and never properly placed in its religious context. Even though these incidents are rare, such graphic tales of horror remain fresh in the American imagination like it happened yesterday.
But I believe that the United States’ trauma has created a twisted form of xenophobia, so much so that we fail to realize that most of the terrorist attacks within the past 7 years have come from right-wing extremists and white supremacists. According to the Washington Post, “Of 263 incidents of domestic terrorism between 2010 and the end of 2017, a third — 92 — were committed by right-wing attackers, according to The Post’s analysis. Another third were committed by attackers whose motives were either unknown or not clearly political. Islamist terrorists committed 38 attacks. And left-wing attackers were responsible for 34 attacks — about 13 percent.”
However, those who may argue that Islam is not a religion of peace would note that it was only two Islamic terrorists who killed over 3000 people. In response, those who argue that Islam is a religion of peace will assert that the Islamic terrorists weren’t Muslim at all. But the problem with the “the Islamic terrorists weren’t Muslim at all” defense emphasizes a discussion within the Muslim community that outsiders may not understand nor even accept. Even if it were true, it is questionable if it’s a relevant point to non-Muslims who are part of the national community.
What is Peace?
According to R.J. Rummel, peace may be an internal or external state of calm. He also mentions that peace can be in relation to social contracts that constitute the government. My personal go-to for a model of peace is that of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who state that the role of the government is to create peace, but everyone being governed has to forfeit some personal security for a collective, shared security. While generally, religion can offer a sense of internal—and sometimes a material—calm and peace, Hobbes model points out the role of the government in creating peace through security.
Theoretical exploration aside, peace has many practical faces. Libraries for Peace has an online board of individual descriptions of peace for curious visitors. A prominent view of peace which the International-Alert uses is that peace is the absence of war and the ability to resolve differences without the use of violence. They later explain that equal economic opportunity and equality under the law is necessary for peace. In 2014, the United Nations emphasize the need to establish a peace culture with “…access to education, health, and essential services – especially for girls and women; giving every young woman and man the chance to live as they choose, and developing sustainably and protecting the planet’s biodiversity.“
These descriptions show that equal access to resources and opportunity is a measurable component for peace that is subject to change should resources at any point become unavailable. However, there is also a myth to unhinge which changes the nature of the question being argued: Is Islam a Religion of Peace. Peace is dependent upon resource availability and the sacrifices of citizens to give up a portion of their resources and agency for the sake of others. Peace does, however, vary based on resource availability, meaning that it is geographically and economically contingent. Peace can never belong or be attributed to any one religion, ever, no matter how much the followers of the religion may argue otherwise. However, it is possible for both religious institutions and the government to promote actions to create peace.
The State and the Maintenance of Peace
Living in the United States, I can have a peaceful robust discussion about the details of why I believe what I do and don’t believe, and this discussion is protected by the federal government. In contrast, many countries have blasphemy laws that prohibit religious insult to keep the peace. The government steps in to protect religious rights, usually in partiality of one religion over another, causing inequity in application of the law. At its worst, fellow civilians could accuse another of insult for economic leverage or even revenge. Violating these laws—even on social media platforms like Facebook or YouTube— can range from imprisonment, as is the case of Germany’s hate speech laws, to fines, or death, as is the case of Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
The government model in some Muslim majority countries is Sharia, or laws inspired by the way of life as described in Islam’s holy scriptures, the Quran and Hadiths. In contrast, the first amendment of the United States Constitution explicitly prohibits this kind of favoritism:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
This simple clause offers peace by protecting religious freedom by forbidding the establishment of a national religion. It also ensures that no religion, person, or group is deemed more important than another on the basis of their religious affiliation. In many Islamic nations, this clause simply doesn’t exist. While the United States establishes peace upon the grounds of freedom of expression, Muslim majority countries have a different kind of peace established on the grounds of freedom of religious expression, sometimes with unique preference to certain sects Islam. Citizens who live and choose to remain in those countries consent to refraining from certain actions for shared religious security as a part of their social contract.
I also think it is important to note that in an era of global connectivity. On a global scale, there are simply limited regulations and having to uphold local social contracts can be especially difficult when people from different nations are ruled under different laws and espouse different beliefs. Despite this, users still have the desire to connect with each other. This is another area of conflict that requires sympathy and understanding between citizens of the world.
Peace, Here, Now, and in Present Time
I was somewhat a stranger to the Muslim community, but I cannot deny that as a stranger I was treated kindly and with hospitality in foreign lands with significantly less availability of resources than I am used to. They shared their resources with me and made sure I had everything I needed. While the question “Is Islam a Religion of Peace” may be rife with cultural misidentification, xenophobia, misunderstanding, I also acknowledge that it is no argument that governments vary from nation to nation in methods to enact tactics and laws to uphold social contracts and peace. Some nations are wealthier and afford their citizens more rights than others.
In the United States of America, it is my hope that its citizens clearly remember their people. It includes the Muslim community. Conversely, it is also my hope that the Muslim community remembers they are in the United States of America, a country that has laws designed to accommodate everyone.