There is a common stereotype that persists in the West that associates the Islamic faith with violence and terrorism. This mindset has been perpetuated through many individuals who base their opinions on past conflicts and influential events that have occurred in recent history. This perception has created tension between cultures that based on misunderstanding and should be corrected. Islam is the fastest growing beliefs systems in the world today and is known as one of the seven primary world religions. Yet, primarily due to violent extremist groups within the religion, Islam has been perceived by many to be a brutal religion that includes provisions for terrorism; specifically through its concept of "Jihad."
Yet the vast majority of Islamic practices are pacifist by nature. Thus it could be argued that there is a mass misinterpretation of the religion and the culture that it embodies.. Islam embarks upon its meaning of "peace" and the perceptions of the religion have been subjected to propaganda efforts to justify various political ambitions. Much of the content of this religion focuses on controlling and fighting against ones desires, and as such Muslims can then also physically exert in an attempt to worship Allah. This physical exertion is not necessary performed in a violent fashion. However, it is this physical or combative jihad, which receives so much criticism and publicity. However, the understanding of the physical jihad is widely misunderstood and narrowly represented by a small minority of practices among fundamentalist fringe groups.
Background of Islam
The very name Islam comes from the Arabic root word 'salama' which is directly translated as the word peace. Islam is a religion that is generally based upon individuals achieving peace and peaceful ways through the submission and the continual practice of what is perceived to the will of Allah (God). The central concept that defines the belief system is rooted in a pacifist perspective. If such a religion is based on the notion of peace, then it is hard to reconcile how perceptions to the contrary could perpetuate. However, in almost every cultural group, there are always fringe groups that skew the basic tenets that are practices by most.
Islam, a religion of mercy, does not permit terrorism. In the Quran, God has said:
God does not forbid you from showing kindness and dealing justly with those who have not fought you about religion and have not driven you out of your homes. God loves just dealers. (Quran, 60:8)
Also in the Quran that are many instances of the Prophet Muhammad speaking about prohibit soldiers from harming women and children, advising them to not betray, do not be excessive, do not kill a newborn child. There is even mention of the humane and ethical treatment of animals and how animals too deserve minimal amounts of respect and fair treatment.
Stereotypical Perceptions of Islam
Islam is not and necessarily an Arab religion, rather it's a religion of over a billion people worldwide that represent a wide range of cultures. The vast majority of them are not directly involved in any terrorist activities nor do they show their support for those that do. However, a particular image of the Islamic terrorist has been formed in the West and, at best this image is the result of a very narrow focus on extreme sects within the broader religious context. However it should be also noted that similar perceptions also exist for many other religions as well. For example, the Catholic Church could be perceived as tolerant to such practices as child molesting and homosexuality and such misrepresentations and oversimplifications are common in most cultural groups.
However, the perceptions of the Islamic terrorist have also been fueled by tragic events such as the attack on September 11th on the twin towers in New York. There have been other instances of terrorism such as the bombings of Bali, Madrid and London have also acted to reinforce the stereotype for millions of people. Furthermore, media channels have also contributed to portraying the Islamic groups in a negative fashion without balancing these acts with a broader perspective or any sense of context. Many media channels have furthered these stereotypes by portraying these bombers as 'Islamists' or 'Jihadists', as though they were sanctioned by Islam or Islamic leaders who have the authority to speak on behalf of Muslims. The actions of a few fanatical groups who happen to have Muslim countries that are political, economically, and socially unstable need not necessarily be the representatives of the Islamic culture.
This trend is not a new phenomenon however. Much of the recent hostility towards Islam, especially from American Christian Evangelical groups, derives from a long historical perspective (Kidd, 2009). Many Christians over the course of history have long sought to convert the Muslim world to their faith. This has led to a certain framing of events such as 9/11. Since 9/11 there have been 11 terrorist events on U.S. soil that occurred or were stopped on the planned day of attack. However, news coverage of those terrorist events revealed a thematic pattern of terrorism coverage in which fear of international terrorism is dominant, particularly as Muslims/Arabs/Islam working together in organized terrorist cells against a "Christian America," while domestic terrorism is cast as a minor threat that occurs in isolated incidents by troubled individuals (Powell, 2011). Thus the threat of terrorism from Islamic groups is significantly skewed in regards to the actual risks that are involved.
Public Opinion Polls
While many studies point to the important role public opinion plays in creating an environment in which terrorist groups can flourish, relatively few works have explored survey data to measure support for terrorism among general publics (Wilke, 2006). Findings from the 2005 Pew Global Attitudes survey on attitudes toward suicide bombing and civilian attacks and other measures of support for terrorism offer some revealing perspectives on this question; most notably, the survey finds that terrorism is not a monolithic concept -- support for terrorist activity depends importantly on its type and on the location in which it occurs (Wilke, 2006).
Figure 1- Attitudes towards Terrorism by Location and Over Time (Wilke, 2006)
The attitudes toward terrorism as a legitimate tool to be used for social and political ambitions is heavily dependent on the local, social, and religious conditions that act to foster the legitimacy of terrorism. For example, Moroccans overwhelmingly disapprove of suicide bombings against civilians, but, among respondents in the six predominantly Muslim countries surveyed, they are the most likely to see it as a justifiable tactic against Americans and other westerners in Iraq (Wilke, 2006). However, there are significant variations that appear in countries that also have similar religious beliefs which suggest there is much more to the equation than the contributions of religion alone
Figure 2 - Support for Osama bin Laden in Extreme Groups (Wilke, 2006)
A later and more comprehensive survey challenged many notions that believe that Islam is correlated with radicalism and violence. The study, which Gallup says surveyed a sample equivalent to 90% of the world's Muslims, showed that widespread religiosity "does not translate into widespread support for terrorism," said Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies (AFP, 2008). About 93% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are moderates and only seven percent are politically radical, according to the poll, based on more than 50,000 interviews. Moderate Muslims interviewed for the poll condemned the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington because innocent lives were lost and civilians killed; "Some actually cited religious justifications for why they were against 9/11, going as far as to quote from the Koran -- for example, the verse that says taking one innocent life is like killing all humanity," she said (AFP, 2008). Furthermore, the radical Muslims gave political, not religious, reasons for condoning the attacks, the poll showed which indicates that the rationales for terrorism are more rooted in something other than religion.
Other studies have also illustrated disparities in an unjustifiable general perception of Islamic terrorism. For example, after the death of Osama Bin Laden the perceptions of Islamic people in general took a noticeable negative turn. "The death of bin Laden was a focusing event. There was a lot of news coverage and a lot of discussion about Islam and Muslims and Muslim Americans," said Erik Nisbet, communication professor. "The frenzy of media coverage reminded people of terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks and it primed them to think about Islam in terms of terrorism (Shelnutt, 2011)." Americans became more likely to resent Muslims, with 1 in 3 saying the media shows "more respect to Muslims than they deserve," compared to 1 in 4 before bin Laden was killed (Shelnutt, 2011).
Figure 3 - Perceptions of Islamic Believers after the Death of Bin Laden (Shelnutt, 2011)
Islam in the Media
Despite the explosion of media coverage and publications on Islam and…