What is and isn't Islam? By Nikolaos van Dam

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It is not only important to explain what Islam really is, but it is also important to make a distinction between what Islam involves, and what people have incorrectly associated with and attributed to it.
What is the relation between Islam and the actions of people that practice the Muslim faith? In my opinion there are many things which have very little to do with Islam as a religion, but are nevertheless ascribed to it because the people who are linked to it happen to be Muslims.
Certain radical actions have been carried out by Muslim individuals or groups in the name of Islam, but those actions are not supported by the majority of Muslims, and are generally disapproved of by them, although sometimes their disapproval is not explicit enough to create the impression that the radical Muslims that carry out these actions do not in any way represent any Muslim majority.
All this has contributed to existing misunderstandings. Many of these misunderstandings have to do with false perceptions, but not with academic reality. Although one might also argue that perceptions become academic realities if people believe their perceptions to be true.
The responsibility of scholars – both Muslim and non-Muslim – is therefore to subject these perceptions to a reality test, particularly if this can help in providing a global forum which would help create better mutual understanding, as well as a stronger cross-cultural friendship.
Islam is a hot topic in the West – and not only there, but also in the Muslim world itself. Many people talk about it, but much fewer people are knowledgeable about it. If you want to organise a seminar on "Democracy in South East Asia", for instance, it may not be that easy to raise funds for it. But if you add the word "Islam", and make it about the role of democracy and Islam in Southeast Asia, your chances become much better.
Nevertheless, it may be wrong to stress the idea of any connection between Islam and developments in the world. The danger exists that Islam becomes a kind of fixation, thereby adding to a misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims or between so-called Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries.
When Islam spread outside the Arabian Peninsula and came into contact with other cultures, Islam adapted itself to these regions in the sense that various local habits and traditions were not only accepted as not contradicting those of Islam, but were later on sometimes interpreted by the local populations as being in line with Islam, if not Islamic. Many new Muslims continued part of their former traditions and gradually came to argue that these traditions were in fact part of Islam.
More generally, one might say that in large parts of Indonesia Islam has adapted itself to the local cultures and traditions, or has embedded itself into them, instead of adapting to the culture and traditions of the Arabian Peninsula. A similar phenomenon could be said to have taken place in other regions of what today is considered to be the Muslim world. In many places people interpret local habits or traditions as part of Islam, whereas they are not really. Also cultural manifestations based on different religious-cultural backgrounds generally coexist peacefully together in Indonesia.
Other Muslim countries have their own examples concerning the local cultural heritage and Islam existing side by side. It could be noted, for instance, that whereas in strongly traditional Islamic Saudi Arabia women are prohibited from driving a car, the same is allowed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. These differences have nothing to do with Islam itself, but rather with different cultures existing in these countries.
Similarly, the harsh treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan is much more a reflection of regional tribal customs and attitudes than a part of Islam. Throwing acid in women's faces happens in wider parts of Asia, including India and Cambodia, and can be seen as purely criminal. Other examples are female circumcision, most widely spread in Africa, and so-called "honour" killings.
But this does not prevent larger parts of the non-Muslim world from perceiving these attitudes as connected with Islam, which therefore generally has a non-favourable effect on the attitude towards Islam in the West.
Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have a common responsibility not only to explain relevant issues about Islam, but also to make clear what is not related to Islam, but rather to other factors, such as politics, culture and local traditions. In doing so, academics not only contribute to bridging misunderstandings but also correct inaccurate perceptions.
When exchanging views within the framework of an intercultural, or interfaith dialogue, we do not necessarily have to discuss religious issues as such. After all, it is common for most believers to consider their own beliefs to be the best and most correct. What is more important is to discuss underlying values and beliefs that the various parties may have in common.

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* Dr. Nikolaos van Dam is the Netherlands Ambassador to Jakarta. This article is part of a lecture, "The Global Political Trend and the Role of Islam: the Academic Responsibility of Muslim Scholars" delivered at the Institute of Koranic Studies in Jakarta on 29 April 2009. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Jakarta Post. The full text can be found at www.nikolaosvandam.com.

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