When the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, last week decided to hire its first Muslim chaplain — referred to obliquely as a "religious coordinator" — it also published an "infographic" that explains "true Islam."
"Jihad," we are told, "does not mean 'holy war.' Often mistranslated in Westernized media, the term simply means 'to struggle' or 'to strive.'" Moreover, "Islam in its true form grants women man rights, and any Muslim man who oppresses women is not following the true words of Allah."
Based on the cited source for this text, "man rights" is supposed to be "many rights." In fact, the text for the infographic was not copied and pasted, but edited and condensed. It seems that a state government official saw fit to review and alter the text before publishing.
Should a state governmental body be dictating what "true Islam" is?
For a start, Islam is not, of course, a monolith. Sunni Islam alone comprises hundreds of competing religious sects, political movements, schools of jurisprudence and theology, and various sets of mystical beliefs. Within that pandemonium, there is an enormously diverse array of views. Some are violent, some radical, some quietist, some moderate, some reformist; and then there are all those groupings in between these categories.
Thus, there are indeed some Islamic clerics and activists who may agree with the Washington state government's explanation of "true Islam." But others certainly do not.
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent clerics in the Middle East (and the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), wrote a long book on the jurisprudence of jihad, in which the term refers clearly to support for armed struggle.
As a review of the book published on Qaradawi's own website (islamonline.net) explains, jihad is not about "spiritual values and behavioral virtues"; it is an armed struggle, and that "without jihad, the Ummah's boundaries will be violated, the blood of its people will be as cheap as dust, its sanctuaries will be less worthy than a handful of desert sand, and it will be insignificant in the eyes of its enemies."
Qaradawi's work, by the way, is frequently cited by leading American clerics.
A 200-year-old book republished in 2016 by Al-Azhar — the most important Islamic seminary in the world — only refers to jihad as an "armed struggle." And when, as NPR put it in 2003, "around the Muslim world, mainstream Muslim clerics are calling on their followers to make jihad, or holy war, against American troops" in Iraq, were they only asking for Muslims to practice a quiet internal struggle?
There are indeed Muslims — often from Sufi sects — who believe jihad to be a peaceful pursuit. And this is the point: there are myriad interpretations of Islam. From a non-Muslim standpoint, there can evidently be no "true Islam."
It is certainly not up to government bodies to determine whether beliefs are religiously valid or not. Unless, that is, the illustrious officials of Washington state government are declaring Qaradawi and the leaders of Al-Azhar to be outside the fold of Islam.
Similarly, there are clerics who believe that women should be oppressed, in clear contradiction to the mighty infographic's declarations. Take Yusuf Estes, for example, a prominent American Salafi cleric and a regular presenter on the American Islamic speaker circuit. Estes claims that "women do have a responsibility to obey their men, whether their fathers, brothers, husbands, or even grown-up sons." He instructs Muslim men with disobedient wives to "roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit [her]."
Once again, there are also many Muslims who find such rulings abhorrent. So, is Estes no longer a "true" Muslim? Of course not.
Washington state officials are not the first to offer such absurdities. They're everywhere. Barack Obama frequently spoke about Islam as a "religious that preaches peace." George W. Bush made similar remarks. Theresa May, when Britain's Home Secretary, told the Conservative Party conference that ISIS has "nothing to do with Islam." Even H. R. McMaster, while serving as Trump's national security adviser, reportedly stated that ISIS was "un-Islamic."
In fact, Washington state's source for its proclamations about Islam is rather peculiar. The infographic cites "Swedish Nomad," a blog published by a "Professional Travel Blogger and Photographer from Sweden." He is also very much a non-Muslim.
Relying on non-Muslims to explain "true Islam" to the world on behalf of Muslims everywhere is enormously helpful to the non-violent Islamists. These duplicitous extremists may spout hatred behind closed doors, but they too offer these infographic-themed platitudes in front of the cameras. This distances them from the jihadists and legitimizes them as examples of "true Islam."
By denying the diversity of Islamic thought and speaking only of a dichotomy featuring true Muslims on one side and ISIS on the other, politicians and government officials homogenize Islam, making it impossible to separate moderate Muslim partners from the dangerous Islamist networks that operate lawfully within the "true Islam" of Western Muslim communities. This obfuscates counter-extremism and counter-terror work and hurts efforts by Muslim reformists to challenge Islamist influence within their own communities.
The inanity of such rhetoric also leads to fascinating uncertainties. In September, flyers posted around the town of Winchester, Massachusetts, contained only the text, "Islam is RIGHT about women."
Local residents thought hardline Islamists were behind the message; a few online commentators thought progressivist activists were responsible; while the local Islamist organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, thought it might be the work of a mocking "Islamophobe."
The fact that no one could be sure is rather telling.
Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.