In a recent statement to Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington, Jordanian Queen Rania al-Abdullah advocated dropping the first ‘I’ in ISIS, stating that “there’s nothing Islamic about [ISIS],” and that “[t]hey have nothing to do with faith and everything to do with fanaticism.” Queen Rania, the consort of King Abdullah II, is largely seen as a progressive and a trendsetter within the Islamic world. Rania does not wear the burqa or hijab, garments traditionally worn by Islamic women, and champions many pro-female causes, including education for women.
However, the typical American view of Islam, one that sees it as purely extremist, intolerant, and violent, does not account for Rania’s progressive form of Islam or its views. Simply put, many Americans, and Westerners in general, including some in positions of power, forget that all religions vary; all, to some extent, include conservative wings and liberal wings, fanaticism and apathy, and reactionaries and revolutionaries. In the case of Islam and its Abrahamic siblings, Judaism and Christianity, believers rely on interpretations of governing documents that date back many centuries. Because of the differences in society from the time of their writing to now, more liberal and more conservative groups will naturally arise within these religions, as each tries to interpret its governing documents in a different way that fits both their life experiences and the text itself.
In the case of Islam, numerous branches exist, many of which may be unknown to Westerners. For instance, Westerners may be familiar with groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, which promote murder and terror in the name of Islam. This is based on their interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadiths (collections of reports of the teachings of Muhammad). However, there also exist liberal groups within Islam, like the self-styled “Qur’anists,” who reject the Hadiths and feel that the hijab and burqa are unnecessary to the practice of Islam. In addition, many Westerners may not realize that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda make up only a small percentage of Muslims worldwide, while moderates, as in most religions, make up the great majority.
Additionally, while Islam is sometimes pegged as reactionary or, at the least, staunchly conservative, liberal Muslims have instituted governmental policies that liberal lawmakers in the West would have difficulty supporting. For instance, take Saudi Arabia, one of the countries most criticized for its conservatism. This Sunni Islamic state is repeatedly vilified for its laws governing homosexuality and female rights. However, as proscribed by the Qur’an, every Islamic citizen who makes over a certain amount of annual income is charged a 2.5 percent tax known as a zakat that is redistributed to the poor and needy, stranded travellers, and other groups. This donation is given to the Saudi Arabian Department of Zakat, which distributes it to one of 700+ approved charities that the government first investigates for legitimacy.
Another example is Iran. Criticized for a lack of political and religious freedoms, the recognition of Shia Islam as their official religion, and a poor human rights record, Iran is far from progressive on many fronts. However, it has implemented some policies that would surprise even Western lawmakers due to their highly liberal nature. For one, Iran is second in the world after Thailand in transgender surgery. In fact, according to a 2014 article from Your Middle East, Iran has allowed transgender surgeries since 1985, and now performs about 300 surgeries annually. While these surgeries are sometimes used by the government as a way of assigning homosexuals to what the government feels is their “correct” gender, and while the process is cumbersome, it is also state-subsidized. The government covers up to half of the costs of both the surgery and post-operation psychiatric support.
Iran is far from progressive on many fronts. However, it has implemented some policies that would surprise even Western lawmakers due to their highly liberal nature.
Iran also has a state-run drug rehabilitation facility network that serves as both a medical and spiritual support facility for those suffering from drug addictions. These facilities allow those addicted to a subset of drugs known as “opioids” (including heroin, morphine, codeine, and prescription drugs like Vicodin) to undergo methadone management therapy, a way of substituting the opioid with a weaker drug for a short period of time in order to avoid the painful withdrawal symptoms of opioid abstinence. Iran has 3,300 clinics that provide such treatment; the United States, with four times Iran’s population, has about 1,300.
Even Queen Rania’s country, Jordan, is in some ways more liberal than the United States. While it is true that her husband, a hereditary monarch, does still play a large role in the country’s government, it is also true that 10 percent of the members of the country’s House of Representatives must be women, four percent must be members of the country’s small Circassian and Chechen minorities, and six percent must come from the country’s Christian minority. In addition, Jordan is one of only a few Islamic countries that recognize Israel, and even considers Israel a "key regional ally."
Why, then, does the West view Islamic countries as overly conservative? And why is Islam linked with conservatism, although it, like the vast majority of religions, has both conservative and liberal branches? This is because Islam has been used by political leaders as a way of eliciting support for what Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol describes as “Sultanistic regimes,” nations whose leaders rely upon awarding government posts and wealth to supporters as a way to retain power. These types of leaders stand upon a shaky foundation of support, as is seen by the numerous popular uprisings against leaders who rule in systems like these (including those against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisian President Ben Ali in 2011).
In order to bolster their claims of power, these leaders use their sect of Islam to oppress the other sects or religious groups within their countries, creating a “minimal winning coalition” by which leaders are able to stay in power by distributing goods and power to members of their sect in exchange for support. The coalition is minimal in the sense that it is as small as possible; being only one sect of a religion, it may not be a majority, but it is at least a large (or influential) enough sect that it allows the leader to retain power. Additionally, the fact that it is minimal means that the leader does not need to distributed goods and power as broadly, allowing him or her to retain some and to ensure that the goods and power each member of his or her sect receives is a fairly large amount.
Queen Rania’s view that ISIS is not truly “Islamic” should illustrate to the Western world that Islam is not fundamentally evil or violent, or even fundamentally conservative. It, like most religions in the world, has both conservative and liberal branches. Islamic countries can, and have, passed very liberal legislation, some of which would surprise even Western lawmakers. What can be wrong, though, is how political leaders utilize religion as a way of retaining support for oppressive regimes, as is the case in many Middle Eastern countries, and as was the case in many Western countries until the American and French Revolutions and the liberal movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What the West deems as the immorality of Islam would be more accurately referred to as the immorality of religious demagoguery, a problem by no means specific to the Muslim faith.