The Islamic movement in the West has undergone radical changes in the last 25 years since I've been a part of it. In the 'old days,' it was all about da'wah. Back in the 90's we largely confined ourselves to handing out pamphlets, holding book table giveaways and hosting 'Christian/Muslim' debates.
We had a few Islamic magazines that tried to present an Islamic worldview. We had conferences with much less political talk than we have nowadays. We tried our best to get youth groups in operation and build masjids and Islamic schools.
It seems with the new realities today that our priorities and methodologies have changed. We seem to be building fewer masjids and schools. We also don't seem to be doing as much face-to-face contact. I don't remember the last time I heard about a good old fashioned debate.
A lot of what we seem to be doing is damage control. This or that terrible thing happened in this or that foreign land. Uh oh, time to roll out the people who will try to explain that the Islamic religion should not be blamed for the mostly politically-motivated activities of people who have been brutalized for decades by outside forces.
I know a lot of believers have cocooned themselves, because it gets truly tiring to always have to defend your religion to people who are being told they should blame it for every bad thing. The likes of Pamela Gellar et al who have made their careers at sensationalizing criticism of Islam and Muslims is getting really old now.
What is hard to get people to understand is that the turmoil in the Middle East goes all the way back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The French and British made unnatural borders and left illegitimate political structures when they withdrew from the area. They broke promises made to the Arabs who helped them in World War I and left behind a checkerboard of cobbled-together 'nations.'
The final stab in the heart was in allowing a Western colony to be established in the Holy Land. Israel was not the creation of the people of Moses, but of European extremists (Zionists) who wanted to create a safe haven for their people even though it meant taking land and rights away from others. (Didn't Hitler say he needed to take land and rights from others to make his own people safe and prosperous?)
The Zionists (who were largely NOT religious Jews) came in with Euro-style secular organization and through political double-dealing, manipulation and ultimately superior motivation and technology, defeated the Arabs in their own newly minted statelets. The Arabs didn't stand a chance.
The point is that this unnatural creation, which needed then and still needs today untold trillions of dollars of support from the outside world, was like a supreme insult against the Arabs and also ultimately was a source of injustice against the native population of the Holy Land.
In short, the Arabs were enraged and to this day want that wrong righted. Of course, in the West the narrative is falsely flipped on its head. We are always told about the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust, and then we fast forward to the 'land without a people for a people without a land' boondoggle. Oh yeah? There were hundreds of thousands of people ALREADY living there, many of whom were driven away by force, by Israel's own (modern) admission.
Those people and their descendants are still suffering the loss today, and even in modern times the Israeli government continues to routinely confiscate more land and do more horrible things. Oh, but the media here largely ignores it, or justifies it by saying those Arabs are bad. They do this whenever the Arabs try to fight for their rights, especially violently.
The narrative is always: look what those terrorist Arabs did, now Israel has to RESPOND to it. The truth is never shown, that Israel does the bad things first and then the enraged Arabs rise up to riot, etc. Take for example the big "Gaza War" that happened in 2013, when Israel was pounding the concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip. It "all started" because some Arabs killed three Israeli young men who were out traveling the roads. What really happened was two weeks prior to that event, two young Arab men were killed by extremist Jews, and this caused the Arabs to seek revenge.
But again, we were treated to the idea that Israel was minding its own business when the Arabs did something bad 'first.' I remember back in the late 80s and early 90s when Israel had a policy of breaking the bones of Arab protestors who threw stones. Some of those incidents were caught on camera, of soldiers grabbing teenage boys during protests and violently breaking their arms. It was all presented like this: "If those violent Arabs would just stop protesting and doing bad things, then poor Israel wouldn't be forced to 'defend' itself. It is a 'rough' neighborhood you know!"
I think you get the point of my rant. What outsiders did to the sleepy Middle East after World War I set the stage for endless conflict today. There was no 'Islamic extremism' in 1920, 1930, 1940 even into the 1970s. Any Arab resistance was largely secular in nature.
Why is it all about the religion now?
Put simply, so much meddling by foreign powers - supporting the dictators, the West taking Israel's side in all things right or wrong, the failure of secular resistance leaders to make things better and finally the corruption of all the governments from one end of the Middle East to the other. Religious people got fed up and one used-to-be brand of Islam - Salafi teachings - seemed to offer a way to get revenge and build a new order.
The Salafi mindset is rigid and sees the world completely in terms of black and white, right and wrong, 'correct' and 'incorrect.' There are no nuances allowed. No grey areas. No compromises or differing opinions. This is what separates it from the 'mainstream' Sunni trends that have remained fairly constant since Islam began.
So this brand of Islam, which mostly began in the 1700s, but whose roots really go back to the Kharajites (early purists from a few decades after the Prophet's passing) has given people a new channel to vent their anger and frustration. It provides a path and offers salvation both in this life and in the next. It is uncompromising, as I mentioned before, so opposition to it can and must be eliminated (by killing usually), and this is demonstrated by their liberal use of bullets to solve their problems, even if traditional Islam would forbid their extreme acts of brutality.
Unfortunately, this gives us 'regular' mainstream believers a bad name. Critics of Islam take verses from the Qur'an that are meant to rally the believers to fight against enemies that MADE WAR ON THEM FIRST, and then they juxtapose them on the violent acts of extremists and say with glee, "See! Islam by itself is naturally violent!"
Those knuckleheads then ignore that their very own holy books could be treated in exactly the same way (and often are by atheists who attack them). We could look at some wacko Christian cult and say, "Look! That's what Christianity is about!" The history of Christian actions against Jews for the last 1500 years could be used to say their religion is just awful and prone to genocide. Ah, but the critics have an agenda, and they keep the focus on us.
Writers have pointed out that the Islamic State or ISIS is at its core the remnants of Saddam Hussein's secular Republican Guard. I don't know if that's true, but I do know an extreme form of the Salafi brand of Islam is its guiding core. Like the Kharajites that preceded them, there are only absolutes. They attack everything and anyone and their leader Baghdadi even came out and said, "Islam is the religion of War."
In our da'wah in the past, we always said that Islam was the religion of Peace. Everyone in the movement from the 80's and 90's can recall countless speeches, articles and face-to-face contacts where we always espoused this truth. Now, whenever we hear the news, all we get are statements such as, "U.S. bombed Islamic State targets..." Talk about a daily downer.
So here we are. We want to live as good Muslims. We want our kids to feel good about being a Muslim. We want an Islamic State like the ones we read about in the history books, you know, tolerant, wise, merciful and all that, not like what extremists have brought us. We want to do da'wah and share the good news of Allah's mercy, but at every turn we have the usual external enemies of Islam walking hand-in-hand with extremists from within Islam, who are making our religion seem something other than what it truly is. We are taking it on both sides of our collective faces!
The noble Prophet (p) - we hold him up as an example of wisdom, justice, fairness and yes - MERCY. Yet we are thwarted from promoting this message both from within and without. Thus, many Muslims are disheartened and confused. Many young people hide being Muslim or abandon it. Women drop the hijab. Men are afraid to talk to people about their faith.
Due to historical problems beyond our control, we are made to feel ashamed of our faith and constantly are on the defensive. It is wrong, because our faith is beautiful, yet our lives today are what they are. Our current situation is bleak, but not impossible.
In my next article, I will try to offer some insight into how we may be able to turn this around. Inshallah we can survive these dark times. The Muslims who lived in the Middle East during the Mongol invasions had it far worse than we do today. They survived. Inshallah so shall we.