Throughout history, there has been no shortage of groups who have cloaked themselves in the mantle of religion to commit the most horrific acts of violence, sometimes even among people of their own faith. Today, al-Qaida and, most recently, the Islamic State group continue to misrepresent and manipulate a religion of peace and tolerance, Islam, for their own political and social ends.
In the West, and particularly in the United States, political commentators and experts on the political right have gleefully capitalized on the butchery of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to present Islam and Muslims in general as violent, incompatible with Western values, and a serious threat to the Western way of life.
Most recently, following the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, notorious Islam-basher Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to criticize Western Europeans for not dealing with their Muslim "menace," claiming incorrectly, "There are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn't dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire."
The irony is that without the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's own extremist misrepresentation of Islam, the Emerson types would find little reception for their bigotry. Instead, this extremism not only plays into the hands of those eager to vilify a whole religion, but it sows confusion about what the true tenets of Islam are among moderate Muslims who may not have read every passage of the Quran to know better.
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The Hebdo massacre by al-Qaida and Islamic State group atrocities in Syria and Iraq have illustrated how Muslim extremists have completely distorted the questions of blasphemy, jihad and pictorial representations of the Prophet Muhammad.
After shooting the Hebdo staffers, the gunmen were heard shouting "the prophet has been avenged" for what they considered insulting cartoon images of the prophet that the satirical publication had run over the years.
What is little known, however, is that the Quran itself does not forbid representing the prophet in image form. Further, if we look at Islamic law, according to Christiane Gruber, an Islamic book arts scholar at the University of Michigan, "there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet."
In fact, the Prophet Muhammad has been depicted in beautiful historical and poetic texts over the past seven centuries in both Shiite and Sunni traditions and in varying manifestations. It is only in much more recent history that Salafist and extremist interpretations of Islam that present themselves loudly as the "true, pure Islam" have endeavored to ban images of the prophet and to violently attack those who continue to do so, especially if in a mocking way.
The "punishment" the Hebdo gunmen considered themselves to have meted out was for the sin of blasphemy. In reality, however, there is no punishment for blasphemy in the Quran. As explained by CNN commentator and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, "Like so many of the most fanatical and violent aspects of Islamic terrorism today, the idea that Islam requires that insults to the Prophet Mohammad be met with violence is a creation of politicians and clerics to serve a political agenda."
There are more than 200 verses in the Quran in which contemporaries of the Prophet Muhammad commit acts that would be considered blasphemous, yet nowhere does the Quran recommend punishing these individuals. Nor did the prophet himself protest the abuses he received, according to Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan.
Muslim extremists consider killing blasphemers as jihad, one of the most highly misunderstood Islamic concepts. The ignorance surrounding the true meaning of jihad is shared by both the extremists who kill and maim in its name and by the Western media.
In Arabic, the word "jihad" does not mean "fighting," "killing" or "war." The word for "war" in Arabic is "harb," whereas "fighting" or "killing" means "qital." The correct translation of "jihad" is "struggling," "striving," or "exerting an effort."
The main jihad that Islam promotes is the inner jihad, an ongoing battle against the self. It is a struggle for the strength and willpower to refuse to give in to base desires and whims, to exercise morality and self-discipline. In the Hadith, the recorded sayings and teachings of the prophet, the prophet said, "The real jihad is to strive against the ego in order to obey God."
The outer jihad, fighting the enemies of Islam, exists too, but only under very strict and clear conditions. It must be agreed upon by a unified Muslim nation under a knowledgeable leader, and it strictly prohibits the harming of women, children and invalids, the demolishing of houses and even the burning of trees.
Responsibility for correcting misrepresentations of Islam falls primarily on moderate Muslims themselves, who are the vast majority of Muslims. This must include understanding their religion thoroughly in order to authoritatively counter extremist interpretations, speaking out against governments or groups that misconstrue Islamic concepts for political or social reasons, and engaging the Western media as full citizens of their adopted Western countries.
[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and political commentator.]