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A Sensible Approach to Islam

The following is a statement from American Humanist Association Board of Directors concerning a sensible approach to Islam.

A Sensible Approach to Islam

Islam and the Politics of Violence

Over a long period culminating in recent years, Muslim fundamentalists dedicated to establishing Islamic theocracies have ascended to power and solidified their authority in several countries. They have also established enclaves in many other nations, and some of them have formed terrorist organizations. Though belonging to various Muslim sects, these theocrats share a willingness to implement Islamist Sharia laws with punishments that disregard basic human rights, particularly women’s rights, and some conduct assassinations and brutal reprisals in the name of "true" Islam.

Though adherents of this type are gaining in numbers and power, they do not represent all Muslims. Generalizing Islam as entirely violent undermines the efforts of millions of Muslims and others who are struggling to challenge the rise of extremism.

Since September 11, 2001, prejudice and discrimination have been on the rise in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere against Muslims. Such individuals are suffering from increased security screenings, hostile media attention, and oppressive new laws, as well as localized acts of violence and widespread disrespect. Moreover, disinformation campaigns and negative imagery have led to popular confusion wherein al-Qaeda is inaccurately connected to the former regime of Saddam Hussein, Iranians and South Asians are misidentified as Arabs, Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims, and the world faith of Islam, with its 1.3 billion followers, is viewed as a doctrinaire monolith.

The American Humanist Association is opposed to both the activities of Islamic extremists and to the “crusade” mentality rising in Western circles that condemns all Muslims indiscriminately. This statement aims at defining a rational and informed humanist position.

Common Standards                     

Humanists should assess Islam using the same standards applied to all belief systems. This means, in practice, that humanists support the concept of a democratic secular state, with complete separation of religion and government. Consistent with this, humanists oppose theocracy in all of its forms and support:

  • The freedom to think and believe or not believe, and to profess or critique, resisting efforts to impose one’s religious beliefs on others through coercive and punitive measures
  • The choice to observe or not to observe religious practices, to the degree that such practices do not harm others or interfere with their rights
  • Democratic principles, to the degree that such choices do not permit the state to engage in religious indoctrination or similar tyrannies of the majority
  • Modern human rights, not tolerating violations of those basic rights whether or not they are bolstered by religious law or custom 

A Balanced Humanist Policy

There is a great deal of violence in the world today, a disturbing portion of which is perpetrated in the name of Islam. Humanists recognize that the world of Islam is vast and heterogeneous, and problems that exist in one area may not exist in others. For this reason, one-size-fits-all responses to issues that outsiders perceive within Islam are not only unworkable but are likely to be detrimental to humanistic solutions.

While small numbers of Muslim revivalists may reside in the United States, and while there is a continuing threat of terrorist attack from Islamic terrorist groups, extremist Islam as a political force has not taken hold in this country. Problems are mostly limited to instances when Islamic requirements, such as those relating to dress or prayer, conflict with preexisting law and custom. These are often resolved in a spirit of mutual understanding. When that fails and the courts intervene, their decisions should reflect both practical requirements and a respect for religious freedom. In general, humanists do not support either extending religious accommodation in ways that would create an unequal playing field between the religious and nonreligious or rigidly enforcing legal provisions that unnecessarily encumber individual religious liberty.

Some countries, notably in Western Europe, have been less successful than the United States in integrating Muslim immigrants into mainstream society. Humanists respect the desire of the majorities in these countries to preserve their human rights traditions; they also support the efforts of humanist groups to resolve emerging problems in a humane and practical manner. But this is not a blanket endorsement of cultural preservation. Some approaches have been strikingly racist and ethnocentric in nature. While freedom of speech must not be compromised, humanists oppose nativism, jingoism, and open hostility toward Muslim citizens and immigrants within any nation.   

Humanists strive for a world where violence and fear are not the drivers of ideals and actions. In every case and in all its forms, extremism must be condemned. But neither should fear and ignorance be permitted to sanction prejudice and discrimination. Humanists recognize that challenging Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, and all others who hold to religious or ideological extremes is not a process with an easy or short-term conclusion, but it is the way toward progress.

Humanists see no contradiction, on the one hand, between their longstanding adherence to principles that run contrary to religious beliefs and, on the other, their strong distaste for efforts to propagate a crusade mentality against Islam or any other religion. Religious liberty means freedom for all: freedom to peacefully affirm and practice a faith, freedom from religious coercion, and freedom to peacefully leave or reject a faith. Such religious liberty is and always has been a central tenet of humanism and is herewith reaffirmed.

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