Parliament of the World’s Religions: Clarifying misperceptions about Islam to defeat ISIS

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Erica Palmer
Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat speaks about how the Western media often misrepresents Islam. He and three other Muslim experts said distinguishing between the true religion and the distorted, violent extremist rhetoric of terrorist groups is the first step to fighting ISIS. (Erica Palmer)

Correcting Western misconceptions about the Islamic faith can help take down ISIS, according to four Muslim scholars and leaders who spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

“When we educate the public, we empower the public to not believe the lies that are being spread about the faith,” said Nadia Hassan, interfaith and government relations coordinator for the Islamic Society of North America. She said correcting these beliefs will create an environment where Muslims can work with the rest of the world to fight against ISIS.

Speakers at the Saturday session discussed how one of the driving forces behind these misconceptions is the Western media’s coverage of the Islamic faith, especially with regards to violent extremist groups.

Hassan began by listing various public shootings that have happened in America, including Umpquat Community College, Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School. Although some of these incidents were religiously motivated, she said, the American media did not cover them nearly as extensively as the Muslim-initiated Boston Marathon bombing or the Fort Hood shooting.

“For both of these crimes, Islam was shamed and blamed. And of course these three Muslims were labeled as terrorists,” she said. “The media reported nothing about (the others) being terrorist(s).”

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, founder of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, said this would be similar to the media in the Middle East reporting on the actions of the KKK as though it were a representation of Christianity.

The presenters cited verses from the Quran and showed how violent extremist organizations distort the terms and teachings of Islam to serve their own purposes.

“They take these words, these terms, and they twist them. And they take everything out of context. So it’s a very warped interpretation of the faith,” Hassan said.

Two examples are the terms “martyr” and “jihad.” ISIS has taken the term martyr and applied it to suicide bombers who supposedly sacrifice themselves for the religion, although suicide is specifically forbidden in the Islamic faith. In addition, they have taken the term jihad it as an excuse for violent attacks against unbelievers.

Daisy Khan, founder of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality, explained that according to true Islam, jihad implies “an exertion of energy.” Although one verse in the Quran uses the word jihad in reference to fighting in self-defense, the main use of the word is an inner struggle within oneself to come closer to God.

“All of (the types of jihad) relate to the struggle toward excellency, renewal and growth,” Khan said.

The panelists emphasized that faithful Muslims do not see these violent extremists as part of their religion in any way.

“There is no faith that will condone violence, killing,” said panelist Maria Khani, who currently serves as the senior chaplain with the LA Sheriff’s Department. “Those people are mentally deranged. They don’t belong to a faith. Those actions are inhumane.”

Khani said the first verse in the Quran, which is repeated over a hundred times in the book, emphasizes mercy and compassion.

“No one can do anything in the name of Allah if it does not have mercy and compassion,” she said.

They corrected other common perceptions about Islam, such as that the religion believes in forcing others to convert to Islam and that women are less than men. Although such beliefs are often practiced by so-called Islamic states, such as Pakistan, she said they are not part of the true religion.

“If you ignore women, then you are ignoring half of the society that is raising the whole society,” Khani said to applause from the crowd. “There is no gender issue in heaven. We are all equal.”

Imam Arafat emphasized that the true, overall message of Islam can apply to all believers of any faith.

“Islam is to submit your will to the creator and live your life as a good human being on the surface of this earth, worshipping almighty and being good to fellow human beings,” he said.

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