We will call him Ali. He told me he was an Iraqi living here as a student — and he was a Shia Muslim from Iraq. He asked why I did not drink. When I said it was for religious reasons, this prompted a long discussion on religion and politics. Despite some criticism of specific actions taken by the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere, he expressed a glowing appreciation of George W. Bush’s decision to topple the Hussein regime. He simply wished that the first Bush had finished the job the first time around. As for the unrest that continued within his country, he blamed that on the other Arab states, who he said were constantly sending operatives into Iraq to protract the violence and disorder in an attempt to protect their own power by showing that democracy did not work in Arab nations.
Ali spoke of the great persecution that the Shia majority of Iraq had endured at the hands of Hussein’s Sunni regime. When I told him of how the Latter-day Saints were driven from state to state — even at the hands of the state itself — he was surprised. “I did not think anything like that ever happened in America,” he said. He said it reminded him of the plight of the Shia. When I asked about whether or not Iran was governed by Shia leaders, he explained that they are Shia “extremists”.
Ali is now my closest friend who is Muslim. We often discuss religion and politics, and he frequently criticizes the zealotry that can be seen on the news every night. He watched in horror and rage as the Islamic State blitzed across his home country, seizing territory and murdering people. He told me about how they did not truly represent Islam, and how the majority of people in Iraq wanted a liberal secular government. He has even expressed interest in joining the U.S. Navy because he saw that as the only way of ever having a chance to punish the parties who he felt were truly to blame for Iraq’s plight — that is, the other Arab states.
To be sure, considering Ali’s consumption of alcohol (but not pork) and his acceptance of many aspects of our liberal American lifestyle, many hardline Islamic militants would assert that Ali is not a “true” Muslim. And yet, though admitting that he is perhaps not as pious as he should be, Ali criticizes those leading the Islamic State, the members of the Saudi royal family, and many others of not being “true” Muslims. Meanwhile, hardline conservatives in the United States are saying things like the following: “The extremist Muslim wants to cut your head off. The moderate Muslim wants the extremist to cut your head off.” Any Muslims truly seeking reconciliation and peace, Western critics would say, are unknowingly defying their religion and becoming the “hypocrites” mentioned in Islamic writings.
A reaction to Western talking heads who push the no-good-Muslim narrative is to mention my friends like Ali and the estimates — put forward by Western conservatives – that the “extremists” consist of 10-25% of the world’s Muslim population. As high as they may be, even these estimates show that most Muslims in the world — that is, 75-90% of them — are people whom we could view as either friends or potential friends. Some, though, have made counterarguments that the number could actually be much higher, depending on how one defines “extremist”. One example would be the acceptance of capital punishment for apostasy. If a Jew or Christian were to interpret Deuteronomy 13:6-10 to mean that he should respond to a child’s conversion to Islam by killing her, he would undoubtedly be labeled an “extremist”. One might venture to say that not even 1 million Jews and Christians alive today would interpret scripture in such a way. Meanwhile, 86% of Muslims in Egypt and 76% of Muslims in Pakistan — an estimation of over 220 million people in those two countries alone — believe that apostasy from Islam should be punishable by death.
Who are the extremists? And whether we strictly define them as those actively trying to kill us in the name of God or more liberally define them as those who would kill their children for apostasy, are the extremists the “true” Muslims, or are the moderates and progressives the “true” Muslims? Who is qualified to make the distinction? What should be obvious is that I, as a non-Muslim, am not in a place to say who the “true” Muslims are. Some Christians, atheists, etc. in the West may say that the more moderate Muslims like my friend Ali or the extremely progressive ones are the “true” Muslims. Others who criticize Islam may say that the Islamic State is an honest and full embodiment of Islamic belief. Neither attitude makes sense, though: if we do not believe that a religion comes from God, then we believe it comes from Man. That being the case, we should not think any man’s interpretation of Islam is inherently more legitimate than another man’s — even if that other man is Muhammad.
While we cannot know who the “true” Muslims are, we can know who our friends are — and yes, some of them are Muslims. Perhaps those are not as numerous as they should be, but they do, in fact, exist. It may be ideologically inconvenient to admit, but there are hundreds of millions of friendly Muslims out there. That being the case, Western conservatives need to realize the simple strategic fact that the no-good-Muslim narrative needs to stop, as it alienates friends and potential friends — who, believe it or not, are currently fighting on our side and dying on the front lines.
Perhaps Muslims like my friend Ali really are not true Muslims. Perhaps Muhammad’s message really was a message of hate, violence, and despotism like American conservatives say. Perhaps Ali really is betraying that message by aligning with me and my country. I cannot say for sure. But even if that is the case, that should not matter to me or to other Christian conservatives, as we are not Muslims. We have not received any great revelation from God about what Islam should really be, and we have not sat down with Muhammad to get clarification on what he really meant. It should be enough for us to know who our friends are and let them sort out any ideological contradictions on their own without making enemies of them by trying to sort out such contradictions for them.
Ronald Kimmons is a 2016 candidate for U.S. Congress in Texas District 7. He is affiliated with the Reform Party.