Imposing Islam is an affront to Islam
A recent New York Times story ran under the headline, “In Indonesia, a Push for Prohibition Strikes Fear.” Accordingly, the more secular citizens of Indonesia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, were concerned about a draft bill for a nationwide ban on alcoholic drinks. The tourism industry in particular was worried. It was, as one could expect, the Islamist United Development Party, or P.P.P., which drafted the measure. While the party, at first, said that it would scale back its goals and instead “seek comprehensive regulations on the sale of alcohol,” nothing was certain. Moreover, there were more hard-core Islamists such as the Islamic Defenders Front, which is a vigilante group known for smashing up bars that it views as “affronts to Islam.”
This story was about Indonesia, but it actually is about the whole Muslim world, where what is being observed can be easily repeated in almost every nation. Because in almost every Muslim nation, there are groups that we can roughly call “the Islamists”, and their main motivation is to impose what they see as the Islamic way of life. Most typically, they want to impose “modesty,” such as a more conservative dress code for women, and want to ban “immorality” such as drinking, dancing, or flirting.
By maintaing this concerted effort, which takes its most radical forms in theocracies such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, the Islamists certainly believe that they are doing a great service to Islam. But, as a fellow Muslim, I have news for them: By depicting Islam as an intolerant, oppressive, aggressive religion, they are doing the religion a great disservice. Millions of non-Islamist Muslims have started to turn cold toward their religion, simply because of their understandable aversion to the Islamists. Millions of non-Muslims, on the other hand, are drawn to Islamophobia, for the Islamists often give them every reason to fear Islam.
When they seem to achieve their stated goal of building pious societies - say, where all women are covered and all spaces are dry - the Islamists in fact only succeed in creating their greatest harm: building a society of hypocrites. It is a known fact that in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran, many people lead “double lives”: they appear very conservative in public, whereas a little bit on the “wild side” in private. For the vices that are banned by the state are always achieved somehow, and only become more attractive.
The core of the problem is that of the Islamists’ troubling notion of religion. They understand it mainly as a “system,” a legal and a political one, which is to be imposed by force. However, true religion only starts with “faith,” which can exist only in the hearts and minds of individuals. And it can be achieved not by force but only by persuasion.
Of course, according to Islam, true faith should lead to piety. Muslim believers, in other words, should refrain from certain vices, observe certain rituals, and display some moral qualities. However, piety is valuable only when it comes about as a result of a natural externalization of an internal faith. Forcing this externalization of faith by force, which is what Islamism is often all about, is the very anti-thesis of faith.
In summary, if there is really an “affront to Islam” in Indonesia or elsewhere, it does not come from those who fail to observe the rules of Islam. It rather comes from those who try to impose those rules, in their own narrow understanding, on people against their will.