Most Muslims are non-violent

By Lorenzo

It is true: most Muslims are non-violent (in the straightforward sense that, outside defence of themselves and their immediate family, they do not engage in violence). In fact, as far as I am aware, that has true across the history of Islam, especially as Muslims includes women and children. But even if we just consider men, most Muslim men are non-violent. Again, as far as I am aware, that has also been true across the history of Islam (apart from its earliest years).

It is also irrelevant. Sadly, across the breadth of human societies through time, it is the violent who have been wildly disproportionately important in determining the trends and patterns of human history. So, with Islamic history, the key issues have far less to do with what connection it has to the non-violent majority, but what sort of connection it has to the direction, forms and patterns of violence (and violence-laden aggression) among any violent minority.

There the news is less good. We can observe among the Muslim minority (pdf) in France–including those born and raised in France, and given a secular state education–the same patterns of persecution of minority kafir as we do in Muslim majority countries.

Recurring patterns

What is striking about Islamic history is how powerful the recurring patterns are. While we currently observe violent movements claiming to purify Islam and return it to its original vision, such started not long after the death of Mohammad, with the Khwarij, and continued in medieval Islam, with the Almoravids and Almohads being perhaps the most notable examples.

In modern times, the Mahdiyya movement in Sudan, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the Deobandi of South Asia and the Salafist movements are all examples of this reformist (in the sense of returning to the origin and getting rid of later accretions) urge in Islam.  So is the Islamist movement, though it has a modernising element in its operational techniques while overlapping greatly with the aforementioned movements. Though Salafism in particular has a strong quietist stream, violent revivalism has been a notable feature of these movements.

Proselytising violence by non-state actors also has a long history in Islam, though the successful examples usually turn themselves into states. The Assassins are a colourful example of the non-state version, while the Almoravids, Almohads, Safavids, Mahdists and Wahhabis are examples of non-state actors founding states. Thus both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have plenty of precedents in Islamic history. That Sharia is not state-based law, but is the law of Allah, the sovereign of the universe, aids and encourages the operation of non-state actors while providing the means for relatively easy evolution into states.

Modernisers and traditionalists

Just as the reformist urge is a recurring pattern within Islam, so is the modernising urge–seeking to incorporate within Islam useful thinking by non-Muslims. Again, this was an early manifestation in Islam, notably with the Mu’tazila movement.

The pattern so far in Islamic history is clear–the modernisers lose. Accepting the technology of the infidel is acceptable (with some resistance: the Ottoman Empire‘s reaction to the printing press was to ban it for believers and then license a single printing press during the C18th), but not much more than that. Seriously new thinking in Islam has tended to either give rise to minorities regarded as dubiously Muslim by the majority (e.g. IsmailisAhmadisAlawitesAlevis) or to movement out of Islam (DruzeBahai).

Which leaves traditional Islam as the dominant stream–the Islam inherited from one generation to another, taking on local accretions on the way through. A stream that nevertheless produces reformist and modernising outbreaks.

Migration to the West tends to disrupt traditional Islam by taking it out of its traditional cultural context and constraints, leaving members of Muslim communities open to the reformist or modernising urges. Unfortunately, the reformist urge has billions of Saudi petrodollars behind it. It also has the appeal of the heroic sacrifice of jihadism–to which the Islamic State has managed to add psychopathic sex-tourism (pdf).

Built for imperialism

That the adherents of traditional Islam are relatively passive and non-violent is far from meaning that mainstream Islam is unproblematic.

Generally speaking, imperialism is what states do. States are mechanisms for dominance and expropriation and tend to expand that dominance and expropriation up to when some constraint sets in (either a rival state or the benefit/cost ratio is not worth it). Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation became so successfully imperialist because it evolved extremely effective states. So much more effective than anyone else’s states that they came to dominate most of the planet.

Conquests under Mohammad, the early Caliphs and the Umayyad Caliphs.

Of the existing human civilisations, only one is actually structured for imperialism, and that is Islam, and it was so structured from its calendrical origins, Mohammad’s flight to (and then taking control of) Medina. It is not some weird accident, some historical absent-mindedness, that Muhammad’s companions, and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates that followed them, presided over the largest surge in religious conquest in history. Nor was it some weird accident that, over a thousand years after the Mohammad’s death, the largest Muslim state was still trying to advance into the heart of Europe using religious justifications and structures that had been used, in various forms, to aggress against every culture Islam came up against during those thousand years.

From 634 to 1683, the level and scale of Muslim aggression against Christendom hugely outweighed the reverse. Christian offensive efforts were counter-aggression, attempts to regain lands previously lost to Islam; the ultimately failed Crusades–or, as Muslim writers called them, the Franj wars–and the successful Reconquista.

Muslim aggression against Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Brahmin lands also hugely outweighed the reverse. Nor did Islam stop aggressing because of some change in basic ideas: it came up against the better predators the European targets of its aggression had evolved into while itself failing to adapt successfully to the increasing competition.

The features which structured Islam to aggression are:

  1. The concept of Sharia as the law of the Sovereign of the universe, to which everyone is rightfully subject to and to whose rule everyone should rightfully submit to.
  2. The centrality of the acceptance of the revelations of Mohammad to one’s moral status: in particular, that those who accept said revelations should rightfully rule those who do not, could rightfully fight to impose such rule and, in the interim, raid and enslave non-believers in lands that had not yet accepted Sharia rule. Hence the classic Islamic concept of martyrdom was do die in battle against unbelievers.
  3. The endorsement of both polygyny (creating a wife shortage among low status male believers) and sex slavery (sanctifying the normal response to [pdf] polygyny–raiding of outgroups and seizing their women).

In other words, Islam created an encompassing moral-and-religious identity that could unite people across lineages (and later, after the Abbasid Revolution, ethnic groups) while sanctifying and motivating violence, particularly proselytising violence, against those outside the identity, or its rule. The separateness of this identity can be readily extended to admonitions that believers should not be friends with non-believers and strong resistance to taking the side of a non-believer against a believer.

Zealots past and present

It is worth noting that Muslim clerics have few incentives to soften the package. They have interests in having the moral and social authority of being gatekeepers of righteousness. Restricting the moral realm to revelation that they have the knowledge of, and skill in interpreting, and emphasising the difference between believers and non-believers, increases the salience of their role as gatekeepers of righteousness.

We have been here before. The Hebrews were very unrestful subjects for the Roman Empire. Violent minorities therefrom would be periodically homicidally enraged that following God’s law was subject to the constraints imposed by mere human law. Particularly the law of the pagan Romans, who tolerated all sorts of gender and sexual identities. The sicarii sub-group stabbed Romans and Roman sympathisers. Much of the violence of the said homicidally enraged fell on fellow Hebrews.

What we now think of as Judaism is essentially the rabbinical, the religious scholars’, response to the dilemma of Roman rule–the dilemma being that they could not successfully revolt but, if they did not find a way of adjusting the deemed authority of God’s law, the Romans were going to destroy them as a people. The Roman response to revolt being severe–massacres, enslavings, deportations, salutary crucifixions.

The rabbis were building on the experience of living in Mesopotamia, and in Alexandria (their largest urban community), as minorities in foreign lands. On the way through, they caveated into oblivion the Mosaic Law’s penchant for capital punishment.

But the effect was to squeeze out–via external Roman slaughter and internal doctrinal adjustment–the homicidal opposition to human law (even non-believer human law) trumping God’s law.

The same underlying dynamic of permanent minority status drives much of the difference between mainstream Islam and the various Muslim minorities–the latter have adjusted to permanent minority status and its implications. Conversely, the mainstream have had few reasons to make similar adjustments which are sufficiently persuasive across the entire body of scholars. Considering what it took to squeeze out the violent tendency in Hebrew religious conceptions, the prospects for an end to religious violence emanating from within Islam are not good. Especially not when organised and violent religious fervour can demonstrably create (Saudi Arabia, Islamic State) or seize (Islamic Republic of Iran) states.

Christianity has its own history of religious strife. But Christianity always accepted the validity of human law, did not take revelation to be the entire moral realm, generally accepted the world as the direction creation of God so trumping Scripture (the indirect creation of God). This allowed social bargaining to become entrenched in political institutions. Reaction against the slaughter and destruction of the religious wars could also lever off appeals to classical ideas, the impact of the Scientific Revolution and the expanded horizons of the Age of Discovery to make religious identity increasingly less salient, and other aspects of identity more so.

It was only the overwhelming success of the West which allowed broad notions of social bargaining to get anywhere in Islam (though Western imperial interests also intervened to periodically sabotage or undermine the same). But even with wide acceptance of the value of democracy by Muslims, Middle Eastern Islam in particular has great difficulties taking a broad view of who to bargain with. The continuing pattern being that, if one’s ethno-religious group does not control the state, then you are oppressed.

It just does not get us very far

The point is not that any given person of Muslim heritage endorses this whole package, or even that most do. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of any given believer.

The point is that Islamic identity is not one without content. Nor is it one with only congenial content. And the outlooks and ideas deeply embedded in Islam perennially motivate separation between believers and non-believers and aggression against non-believers. The contemporary foreign fighters people angst about are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets, and Islam has been producing ghazis regularly for its entire history.

So yes, most Muslims are non-violent. That is true, and beside the point.

What is much more to the point is that the experience of European countries, such as France (pdf), shows that the problematic patterns within Islam kick in at remarkably low proportions of the population–more than 2%, less than 10%. In that range, the combination of problematic ideas deeply embedded in Islam, plus the development of a motivated minority of sufficient size, generates problems for the host society folk would prefer not to have to deal with. Particularly for such vulnerable minorities as Jews and queer* folk. Islamic supremacism is deeply embedded.

There are problems which are simply specific to Muslim migration because Islam really is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive presumptions and patterns.

So, it is not inherently irrational or prejudiced to be concerned about the level and scale of Muslim migration. Such concerns can be well-grounded in the content, history and contemporary experience of Islam.


* I really dislike the inelegance and elasticity of the GLBTI acronym, hence using queer.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. Tom Biegler
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Of course most Muslims are non-violent. What we see daily in the commentary on religion and violence is the complexity of dealing with a simple truth: Almost no Muslims are terrorists; almost all terrorists are Muslims. It is a waste of time to argue about the evident truth of each statement. Concentrate on resolving the dilemma they create in combination, which is a mighty challenge.

  2. Posted January 6, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Tom [email protected] Quite. If we could just move the debate along to that point, that would be an advance.

  3. Tom Biegler
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I should add an analogous pair of true statements that have, through misuse, created considerable damaging conflict and controversy: “Almost no males are rapists; almost all rapists are males”. So the dilemma is hardly new. As you say, accept the dilemma and move on.

  4. Hasbeen
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    While it is true that most Muslims are not violent, it is equally true that they do at least passively support their violent members.

    Be it through fear of retribution, or adherence to their religion’s teachings, they will hide & protect the violent among them, making it very difficult to counter the more violent of them.

  5. Tony Schumacher Jone
    Posted January 7, 2016 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    I wonder if, given the increasing globalization of culture (particular as driven by the internet), that the best chance for ‘de-radicalization’ is simply the ability to confront disparate individuals with a way of being that they have never envisaged. That is, expose people to a wide range of ideas, opinions, beliefs, justifications, life choices, ‘conceptions of the good’ and so on. Rampant radicalism cannot control the internet, and cannot control access to other ways of thinking. Once you find yourself in a world of choices – what then?

  6. Tony Schumacher-Jone
    Posted January 7, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    actually my name is Tony Schumacher-Jones but there weren’t enough characters. Can I claim some form of discrimination?

  7. HansBuddhistAndersen
    Posted January 8, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    A thoughtful article, which I think says that – on the issue of the place of violence in religion – Muslims are essentially little different to Christians.

    I have scarred memories of “the troubles” in the six counties of Northern Ireland, second half of the 20th century and all. A generation of christian-on-christian murder and mayhem, partly financed and blessed by their US cousins. Something like 4,000 violent deaths in a region with a then population of 1.5m. Yes, a per capita equivalent to 100,000 deaths in 37m-strong Iraq for example.

    I have no doubt that a propensity to glorifying violence for purposes defined as “religious” exists in humans, and some of those are Muslim. What to do, though?

  8. Posted January 12, 2016 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Nice analogy.

    [email protected] The passive support issue is, indeed, a real one. Partly it is another instance of the believer/non believer split, as agreeing with non-believers about problems with believers is doctrinally awkward.

    Tony [email protected] Actually, the internet can easily turn into a set of echo chamber and social “bubbles”. People can find diversity confronting and retreat from it.

    Tony [email protected] Yes, particularly as certain ethnicities must be particularly disadvantaged :)

    [email protected]

    on the issue of the place of violence in religion – Muslims are essentially little different to Christians.

    Not quite. When Christian identity is tied to political identity and political claims, yes the capacity for religiously motivated violence is similar. The differences are:
    (1) Christian identity is not inherently tied to political identity and political claims, while Islam doctrinally is.
    (2) Said attachment for Christian identity is in long term decline, a much longer and sharper decline than with Islam. There is no “Organisation of Christian States”, for example.

    On the “what to do?”, one thing to do is to be particularly circumspect about Muslim migration. Cherry pick carefully and aim to keep Muslims at no more than 2% of the population.

    If they are already more than that, block further immigration until integration is well underway so that the Muslim minority is not a threat to, for example, your queer and Jewish citizens.

    These are very un-PC suggestions, but they are about the practical realities, not moral posturing.

  9. Posted January 12, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    As a more general comment, the recent New Year celebration outbreaks of mass sexual violence are only incidentally about the perpetrators being Muslim. They are much more about how criminally stupid it is to import large numbers of young men into societies they have no kin or other attachments to. That increased sexual violence will result is an elementary prediction of considerable social science.

  10. T.S. Jones
    Posted January 12, 2016 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo says that, “Christian identity is not inherently tied to political identity and political claims, while Islam doctrinally is”. Yes an important distinction to be sure.

    Christ (apparently) made the comment distinguishing between the worldly realm and the realm of God – render unto Ceaser and so on. For Christ the relationship was between God and the individual with (perhaps) Jesus in some way acting as mediator. It was only when the Catholic Church become both powerful and confident with its power that it undermined this relationship and turned Christianity into both a religious and a political force.

    That is my reading of it anyway.

    I suspect the biblical Christ would turn over in his grave if he knew what the Church of Rome had done – in order to cement its political power.

  11. Posted January 24, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] There is a longstanding critique that embracing state power corrupts a religion. Buddhism, for example, has the same issue.

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