Never before have Islam and the Muslims been held up to such relentless scrutiny. Never before have journalists devoted so many articles, interviews and analyses to the "Muslim world" or to "Muslims in the West." And yet never has knowledge of Islam, of Muslims, and of their geographical, political and geostrategic circumstances been so superficial, partial and frequently confused—not only among the general public, but also among journalists and even in academic circles.

When confusion is widespread, the dominant note is suspicion. Terms of reference are rarely defined, nuances barely acknowledged, areas of research sketched out in the most desultory fashion. Far too often journalists or public intellectuals present their findings in research projects, articles, television or radio broadcasts with the assertion that they have taken pains to distinguish between radicals and conservatives or average Muslims. But when we examine their offerings more closely, we note a striking lack of clarity and an atmosphere of incomprehension that can only generate suspicion and fear.

Religious outlook has, in fact, very little correlation with political posture: A rationalist or a liberal viewpoint in religious terms does not necessarily correspond with a democratic outlook in the political sense, just as all conservatives are by no means supporters of dictatorship.Let us begin with a simple proposition: The world of Islam is as complex as those of Buddhism, Judaism or Christianity, in terms of its intellectual, spiritual and religious currents. Conversely, we must not begin by classifying Muslims according to the schemas inherited from the colonial era, dividing them into "good" and "bad" Muslims, into "moderates" and "fundamentalists." Not surprisingly, the former invariably seem to be those who share "our" values, leaving all others to be classified as dangerous, either outright or "potentially."

Large numbers of politicians, intellectuals and journalists have adopted such a system, with a fine dusting of sophistication. It is a system as scientifically untenable and intellectually superficial as it is politically dangerous. Drawn either from ignorance (a serious matter in and of itself) or derived from the ideological construct of a new Islamic enemy (a far more serious matter), it is in fact a projection.

The time has come to call upon intellectuals and journalists to broaden their frame of reference. The time has come to learn to apprehend the Islamic dynamic in its own terms, through its own terminology, internal categories, and intellectual structures. The time has come, as they enter into another referential universe, to make every effort to distinguish between that which gives that universe its unity and that which elucidates and makes possible its diversity.

Islam’s Levels of Diversity

In the broadest sense, there is only "one" Islam, as defined by the unity of its Credo (al-‘aq”da, the six pillars of faith), and by the unity of its practice (al-‘ibad‰t, the five pillars of Islam). This unity, in both Sunnite and Shi’ite traditions, draws on shared recognition of two bodies of founding texts (the Qur’an and the Sunnah). There may be disagreement over the authenticity of certain texts, but common recognition of scripture-based sources and of the unity of faith and practice point to recognition of a single Islamic reference. At this level, the supreme level of unity with which all the world’s Muslims can identify, Islam is one.

There exists, however, a first level of diversity as old as Islam itself. From the very beginnings, and particularly among two of the Companions, Abd Allah ibn Umar and Abd Allah ibn Mas’žd, there were notable differences in reading and interpretation of the texts. Literalist, traditionalist, reformist, rationalist, mystical and strictly political readings and interpretations appeared early on—a reality that has continued down to the present day. Not only was the history of Islam to witness the rise of more than 18 legal schools (nearly 30 when counting the Shi’ite tradition), diverse ways of reading the texts also developed. Over the centuries, schools of thought emerged that reflected interpretations ranging from the literalist and traditionalist, to the mystical or reformist. Intellectual and often political confrontations accompanied and shaped the coexistence of these trends.

All of this understanding takes us far from the binary classification systems of "good" and "bad" Muslims. Religious outlook has, in fact, very little correlation with political posture: A rationalist or a liberal viewpoint in religious terms does not necessarily correspond with a democratic outlook in the political sense, just as all conservatives are by no means supporters of dictatorship. Western journalists have often been misled—and have misled their public—by reductionism of this kind (which would not be tolerated in reference to Judaism or Christianity, where the fine points of political orientation are better known and understood).

Moving beyond this first level of diversity, we must take into account the multiplicity of cultures that today influence the way Muslims express their belonging to Islam. Though grounded in a sole Credo and in the same practices, the world’s Muslims naturally partake of a multitude of cultural environments. From West to North Africa, from Asia to Europe and North America, stretches a rich variety of cultures that make it possible for individuals to respect the principles of Islam while adopting lifestyles, tastes, artistic expression, and feelings that belong quite specifically to one particular culture or another. Arab, African, Asian, North American, or European Muslims all share the same religion but belong to different cultures—a fact that wields a determining influence on their identities, their sense of belonging, and their vision of contemporary issues.

Islamism and the Perils of Reductionism

Many observers will easily recognize, in a broad sense, this elemental diversity in Islam. But they too hastily fall into another kind of reductionism, which can be equally nonfunctional and ultimately fraught with peril: the temptation to set Islam—with all the diversity we have outlined—against "Islamism" seen as an object of rejection or even opprobrium. Even though it is little more sophisticated than the first variant, this reductionism shifts perspectives. But it is ultimately founded on the same simplistic binary mode: "good" Muslims vs. "bad" Islamists.

The definition of "Islamism" is often vague, depending on the journalists, intellectuals and scholarly studies involved. We frequently hear of "political Arab, African, Asian, North American, or European Muslims all share the same religion but belong to different cultures—a fact that wields a determining influence on their identities, their sense of belonging, and their vision of contemporary issues.Islam" in the broad sense, of "Salafists" or "Wahhabis," of "radical Islam" or even of al-Qaeda. The lines of demarcation between the different trends are rarely elucidated. All available evidence points to the conclusion that there is such a thing as a single "political Islam," that it constitutes a threat, that whatever distinctions exist are at best insignificant and, at worst, the result of manipulation by Islamists propagating the image of "moderate Islamism" to lull the West.

Analyses of this kind are legion in Europe, where "experts" and journalists have generated a stream of reports and studies of the apparently monolithic universe of "political Islam." Any scholar daring to apply such an approach to Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism would be immediately dismissed on grounds of superficiality and for the unscientific nature of his or her conclusions. Indeed, would it be possible to reduce political activity by Christians (political Christianity) to fundamentalism?

We know there are liberation theologians who reject a dogmatic reading of biblical scriptural sources who are deeply involved in politics on the left of the political spectrum. More toward the center, and sometimes quite to the right as well as to the left, we find Christian Democrats who are active in politics in the name of their Christian religious convictions. But who could possibly justify—in the analytical terms of the social and political sciences—relegating all these Christians to one single category, that of "fundamentalist—or even radical—political Christianism?" Who could claim that the most "moderate" of them are nothing but the objective, concealed allies of the "fundamentalists:" that the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff is nothing but the prettified face of Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre? One could only smile at such a fantasy-like approach to the Christian referential universe, but it seems that it can be quite easily accommodated—either through ignorance or ideological bias—when the subject is "political Islam."

Political Islam’s Complexities

Yet the study of Islamism—of "political Islam"—reveals complexities equally as significant as the study of Islam itself. Between the positions of the promoters of political liberation through Islam, such as al-Afghani and Abduh in the 20th century and the extremist positions of the leaders of al-Qaeda today, lies an ocean of difference, both in terms of the understanding of Islam and of political action.

What holds true for the study of the historical timeline applies as well to the comparative study of the words and actions of the modern-day movements that are active in politics in the name of Islam. It is impossible to reduce the Turkish experience under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the 25 years of Islamic political power in Iran, or the 80 years of activity by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the same reading of the sources, to the same position on the political spectrum as that of al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is quick to condemn both his predecessors and his contemporaries as traitors to the cause, even within the confines of political Islam.

Whether one agrees or not with the theses of these movements, systematic study and a serious effort to understand the forces at work within political Islam require a triple approach:

  1. A study of the theological and legal underpinnings of the movements (literalist, reformist, mystical or other).

  2. Knowledge of the historical depth of these manifestations; numerous movements and/or leaders, such as Erdogan in Turkey and Ghanoushi in Tunisia, have changed their positions in the course of their political involvement.

  3. A detailed study of the national realities that have impinged on the growth and evolution of Islamist movements.

Only this kind of three-pronged examination can provide us with a proper framework for understanding the phenomenon of political Islam, far from ignorant reductionism or ideological manipulation of "the Islamist threat." This inquiry is not about agreement or disagreement with this or that political-religious thesis, but of dealing scientifically with the matter under study.

Intellectuals, the general public, and journalists often find themselves pressed for time. Yet time, further study, greater effort, and intellectual humility are what are needed to understand the reality of Islam and of Muslims today, as well as the broad diversity of belongings and the demands expressed by political Islam. Our political simplifications may well reassure us, but they lead us only toward fear of the world. Reconciliation with the complexity of the Muslim world will, paradoxically, have the reverse effect.

Instead of seeing the "Other" as an emanation of "evil," a goal that extremists pursue each day in the media, we must become aware of the existence of a multiplicity of views and of the millions upon millions of Muslims who, in their extraordinary political and religious diversity, daily turn their backs on violence, strive for democracy and freedom, and reject extremism. It is time for all of us to demonstrate humility, to appreciate the complexity that demands greater study, and the suspension of hasty and thus risky judgments. The hallmark of respect for others is to recognize in them the complexity we find in ourselves, to acknowledge their thirst for human dignity, and to realize that it, like ours, asks only to be respected.

Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic Studies ( He is Senior Research Fellow at St Antony’s College (Oxford), Doshisha University (Kyoto), and Lokahi Foundation (London) and a Visiting professor at Erasmus University (Holland). He has written more than 23 books, including "In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad," (Oxford University Press, 2007) and "Western Muslims and the Future of Islam," (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment