Understanding Islam requires historical, social scientific data

November 19, 2009

Be prepared. Be very prepared.

We can expect another surge of misinformation about Islam from politicians, bloggers and other pundits after the shooting spree earlier this month at a Texas Army base by, authorities say, a major who is Muslim.

So take a moment to test your own knowledge.

True or false?

1. Islam and Christianity share a similar history of connections between religion and violence.
2. Muslims in countries where they are the majority want more political participation, freedoms and rule of law.
3. Forbidding female students from wearing head coverings in public schools lowers the possibility of religious violence.


If you answered true, true and false, congratulations. You agree with some of the top scholars in religion offering their perspectives in a timely effort by the Association of Religion Data Archives to widen access to the best of international religion scholarship.

The new Guiding Paper-Working Paper Series was launched by ARDA in mid-November with the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. The series provides forums for the latest data on critical issues in religion, bypassing the time lag of months or even years that it can take for research to be published in academic journals.

The data archive earlier this year gave commissions to a dozen leading experts to write “guiding papers” promoting understanding and offering creative ways of thinking about contemporary issues of faith. In a separate working paper series, the archive invites scholars to submit unpublished research on the scientific study of religion to the site.

Just how valuable the new series will be is evident in several papers that provide historical, social scientific and practical research on Islam in the modern world.

History’s burdens — and lessons

America’s antipathy toward any “foreign” religion seeking its place in the mainstream in America is playing out again with Islam – just as it once did with Catholicism and Judaism.

The prejudice barely changes: American democracy is threatened with the influx of immigrants practicing an unfamiliar religion. The on-the-ground evidence of political assimilation here receives scant attention next to any evidence – real or imagined – that reinforces popular fears.

However, the lessons of history offer key revelations about contemporary Islam, according to historian and religion scholar Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University.

Both Islam and Christianity have a history of religious violence, from beheadings of theologians in the streets to mass killings in the name of doctrinal differences, Jenkins points out in his guiding paper, “Ancient and Modern: What the History of Religion Teaches Us About Contemporary Global Trends.”

“We can indeed find numerous connections throughout history between Islam and violence,” he writes, “but in scale and character, these are almost indistinguishable from incidents in the history of Christianity.”

The parallels suggest to Jenkins that none of the violence associated with Islamic extremists today “is, so to speak, in the DNA of that religion, but just reflects particular social and political circumstances. Christianity changed over time: Islam can and will likewise.”

What Muslims want

Our nation is largely biblically illiterate. Since most Americans lack a good, working knowledge of their own Scripture, it’s easy to understand how so many commentators get attention by twisting the most difficult texts in Islam to claim the faith requires a theocratic state with no room for unbelievers.

Forget that Christians and Jews share scriptural texts that seem to approve of sexual slavery and the mass murder of women and children who are nonbelievers in God. Few would apply those texts literally today.

What do Muslims themselves think?

John Esposito reports that like a majority of Americans who want the Bible as a source of law, many Muslims want to see Sharia as a source of law. But like Americans, they also want democratic freedoms, says Esposito, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. He reached those observations based on Gallup Poll data from 2001-2007, encompassing a survey sample including more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

Significant majorities of Muslims in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct role in legislation, foreign policy or restricting freedom of the press. Citizens in countries in which Muslims are a majority said they want greater political freedoms and rule of law, Esposito writes in his guiding paper on “Rethinking Islam and Secularism.”

“Most believers,” Esposito says, “desire a system of government in which religious principles and democratic values coexist.”

Preventing violence

Even if a more peaceful future awaits, nations still face the threat of religious violence today. The question many countries face is whether to restrict religious freedom in the interest of public safety.

Sociologists Roger Finke and Jaime Harris of Pennsylvania State University found that societal restrictions on religious groups is the strongest predictor of religiously motivated violence. When societal restrictions increase, religiously motivated violence increases, they write in their working paper “Wars and Rumors of Wars: Explaining Religiously Motivated Violence.” The paper is based on data from the 2001, 2003 and 2005 U.S. State Department ‘s International Religious Freedom Reports on 138 countries with populations of at least 2 million.

The authors also found that restricting religious freedom is more than a case of heightening tensions and increasing grievances that potentially feed violence. It increases the social and physical isolation of the groups and motivates them to social action.

No one denies the reality of violence committed in the name of religion, and the need for nations to protect themselves against acts of terror. Public policy decisions, however, need to be informed by the realities of the role of faith in public life.

So ask yourself one last question that only you can answer.

True or false? I have a responsibility to be better informed about Islam.

–David Briggs

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