The same question is asked every time an Islamist terror attack shocks a Western city, such as Manchester this week. Are terrorists crusading warriors, or simply uprooted, frustrated young men? Are they “good” Muslims?
On May 21, Donald Trump was in Riyadh giving a speech to Saudi leaders and the most important kings and emirs of the Arab world. In an unusual twist, the U.S. president had himself under control and was sticking to a text written by his diplomats. He did not attack Islam in general, but rather Islamist terrorists. He invited all “good” Muslims to eradicate these terrorists alongside the United States.
We in the West are unable to define Muslims by putting them into the boxes of our traditional reasoning. We struggle to distinguish the good from the bad, and the allies from the enemies. We would like to make the Shiite/Sunni divide a looking glass through which everything can be categorized and understood. But this does not work. In reality, there are thousands of other forms that go beyond this distinction. Islam is more similar to the evangelical Protestant world than the Catholic Church, an infinite collection of autonomous sects without universal norms or recognized leaders.
In an attempt to make more sense of this situation, we could stop looking through the filter of religion and observe Muslim worlds as a collection of peoples, each with its own culture and particular interests, of which Islam is merely a component. After all, when we interact with Brazil or South Korea, we don’t define them by their religions. On the other hand, when we believe that anywhere with a Muslim majority is an Islamic country, we inadvertently accept the definition put forward by the most radical Islamist preachers. They are the ones who want to bring everything back to religion and drag us into their simplistic worldview.
The approach that I suggest is more cultural than religious, and more sociological than essentialist. These two sociological and essentialist interpretations oppose one another every time an Islamist terror attack shocks a Western city, such as Manchester this week. Did the terrorist obey the teachings of the Quran calling for holy war? Or rather was he an uprooted young man, an unemployed drug dealer who claimed to uphold Islam to legitimize his violence? I believe if we had to choose — and we do have to choose, if only to exist more peacefully with the Muslim worlds while containing terror on one side and racism on the other — then sociology offers more answers than the Quran.
I would also say that Muslims define themselves at least as much through their local culture as their faith. Someone from Bengal is Bengali and Muslim; someone from Java is Javanese and Muslim; someone from Afghanistan is Pashtun and Muslim. And they are often more Bengali, Javanese and Pashtun than Muslim. The most dangerous Muslims, those who only know Islam via the Internet, are uprooted. I also feel that if we as Westerners want to protect our commercial interests or respect any form of “cultural diversity,” we have no good reason to give up on our values and convictions.