‘There is no institution like the Vatican in Islam that can excommunicate extremist Muslims’

“Are all Muslims good people? Of course not. Are there criminals and idiots among Muslims? Yes. But are there more than among Lithuanians or Europeans? No one can say, since there is simply no statistics on that,” Račius says in an interview to DELFI.

He compares the image of Muslims in Europe to what Norwegians could think of Lithuanian migrants in their country. Lithuanians, too, do not always stick to the norms and standards of behaviour in their host country, “but Protestant Norwegians are not saying: Catholic Lithuanians are beating their wives and children. Because religion plays no part in this.”

When you discuss Islam, you keep emphasising that there is no one Islam, there are Muslims who practice their religion in a variety of ways. Your new book is titled “Muslims and Their Islams”. Why is this an important point to make? What is it that united all Muslims, besides believing in one god?

To put it simplistically, there are three layers in a religion: faith (dogmas), ritual (conventional rites of worship), and ethics (everyday life behaviour). When it comes to Islam, one can say that the layer of faith is where Muslims share most in common, since the absolute majority believe in the same things.

As for the ritual, we can see that there is a fair amount of variation. There is a broad agreement on many of the rituals, but some Muslims believe that not all rituals are equally necessary, that some are more important than others.

If we move on to the third level, ethics and behaviours, there is essentially very little commonality. Therefore when people use the words “Islam” and “Muslims”, it can be very misleading.

The basic idea that I have is that we should distinguish between Islam and Muslims. In other words, to distinguish between social realities and theory, since different communities have very different ideas of Islam, practice it differently. The spectrum is very wide, from very liberal to extremely conservative forms.

There are things that all Muslims share. A person who denies the divine origin of the Koran cannot be Muslim, even if they say they are. But what can we say about groups of people just from the fact that they believe the Koran is a sacred book? Virtually nothing.

Just like Christians are different?

Indeed. In Lithuania, people say they are Catholic, but if you question them about the fundamentals of their faith, some would give up soon, they do not know all that much about their religion, even if they practice it.

There was a study conducted in Lithuania some time ago to determine how religious Lithuanians were. The questions in the questionnaire were: Are you Catholic? Yes we are. Do you believe in reincarnation? Yes we do.

I’m not saying that this is what everyone said, but any Catholic who believes in reincarnation should raise the issue with their spiritual leaders.

This just shows that many people who identify with a particular religious tradition can have very different notions of it and practice it differently.

The big question, however, is this: what is this thing that we call Islam? The Roman Catholic Church is an institution. Do Catholics stick to their church’s prescriptions on abortion, euthanasia and other issues, is a separate question, but at least we can reliably define Catholicism institutionally, via Vatican.

Islam has had a different history. So it is more comparable to Judaism, which also has many different branches: some conservative, some reformed, some ultra-orthodox. Sure, there aren’t as many believers in Judaism in the world as there are Muslims, but I think we are mistaken when we take Christianity and Judaism to be two branches on the same tree. In my opinion, if we want to compare anything, we should put together Judaism and Islam, leaving Christianity aside. There is more in common between Judaism and Islam than between Christianity and Islam.

Is the fact that Muslims do not have their Vatican and that Islam is not as institutionalized that gives rise to disagreements among Muslims? After each terrorist attack, there is always a Muslim organization condemning violence, saying “not in my name”. One sometimes gets an impression that these are different religions, quoting different holy texts and worshipping different prophets.

It just so happened that Islam has not developed institutions that could claim monopoly on dogma. To give you a simple example, imagine this: there is a terrorist attack and the perpetrator says: “I am doing this in the name of the Russian Orthodox believers!” The supreme patriarch would soon release a statement: Not in my name, this is not what our religion is about. He would thus – directly or indirectly – excommunicate the terrorist. The one claiming to perpetrate attack in the name of Orthodox Christians would be isolated.

There is no institution in Islam with so much authority to be able to say: According to our canon, this action is illegitimate. There will always be alternative groups and spiritual leaders claiming that their version of Islam is the right one, even if represents a tiny fraction of the Muslim population. These groups can still claim that everyone else is wrong and they are the only righteous ones. No one can claim an undisputed monopoly.

The divide that often gets mentioned when talking about conflicts within Islam is one between Sunni and Shia. Is there really so much animosity between them?

I think this divide is not that important. True, historically Islam has splintered into three branches: Sunni, Shia and the Khawarij.

When we are talking about Sunni and Shia, we are primarily talking about the layer of faith: there are some differences in their beliefs about who should lead the community. Shia Muslims maintain that, after the death of Muhammad, the community and the state should be led by his descendants, someone who is not just related by blood to the Prophet, but also has the ability to see what’s hidden. In other words, this person is someone unique in the humanity, although he does not directly speak to God, as Muhammad did.

Sunni Muslims did not believe that any group of people, related to Muhammad or not, have hidden powers. This led to differences on the level of faith. There were also divergences in ritual: Sunni Muslims organize pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, while for Shia Muslims, the important sites are Karbala and Najaf. They hold hands differently during prayer.

But I’d say the most important is the third layer, ethics, or shall we say, law. How should people interact, live, behave?

For instance, a father dies and leaves behind a daughter and a son. What would be the Islamic way of dividing up the inheritance? Sunnis have one answer, Shias have another. Shia Muslims do not believe that the daughter is any worse than the son, so they should divide up the inheritance equally. Meanwhile Sunnis maintain that it would be wrong for a woman to inherit as much as a man. This is a simplistic example, but there are differences like that. Going further, you have different forms of marriage, procedures for divorce. So the Sunni-Shia differences mostly lie in that.

Still, I think that the Sunni-Shia-Khawarij divide is not that important, it is only relevant if we are talking about different legal traditions. But it is likely that on some issues two Sunni legal traditions will diverge more than a Sunni and a Shia one.

Still, we keep hearing groups of Muslims calling other groups infidels or not true Muslims.

I think we should look at it not through the Sunni-Shia distinction, but from the point of view of ideology. Say, Islamic State believes that everyone is an infidel before they adopt the caliphate ideology.

They burnt alive a Jordanian air force pilot, who was probably a devout Sunni Muslim. Not because he belonged to a wrong religion, but simply because he refused to support their ideology. The police officer who was gunned down during the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris was a Muslim, but no one took much interest in whether he was Sunni or Shia. So my/our ideology takes precedence over the Sunni/Shia distinction.

For example, some people in Europe converted to Islam and went to fight for the caliphate. Media in Estonia reported extensively on a Russian-speaking man who went to the Middle East with his family. If you asked him whether he’s Sunni or Shia, which legal tradition he subscribes to, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. To put it otherwise, he’s think of himself as of a non-denominated Muslim.

Some Christians, too, don’t think of themselves as Catholics or Protestants, just people who believe in the Christian god. There’s even a trend among Muslim converts of reverting back to the times before the Sunni-Shia divergence, they think that was a mistake.

But what I mean to say is that the era of classic Islam is over, there is no point in looking at things today from that perspective.

We now have ideologised or politicised forms of Islam, where religion and politics is meshed into one. In classical Islam, they were separate, Marja’ or Sufi leaders would not be involved in politics.

Coming back to the image that Muslims have in the world, it is often associated with violence. There is also the fact that very few Muslim states are democracies that take care of minority rights and freedoms.

Perhaps the problem is that we know too little about Muslim states? In Indonesia, the official state doctrine is pancasila, which maintains that all religions are equally valuable. That means that even though 90% of the population in Indonesia are Muslim, they do not enjoy any exceptional status, since there are other religions, too. And this is a country of 220 million Muslims, one eighth of the global total.

Malaysia could be another example, although it is much less populous. We could speak about India’s Muslims, about Bangladesh.

What happened than that terrorism has come to be associated with Islam?

Well, we could invoke here Edward Said who said that the orientalisation of Muslims, who were defined negatively as the Other, began in the nineteenth century. When Europe discovered itself, it had to find an anti-Europe, and Islam and Muslims suited that purpose very well.

Why did they?

It was the age of colonialism. The French and the British were making forays into North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia. Most European colonies were in Muslim-dominated territories. Europeans had to justify themselves, why they were going there. Their answer was: there’s something wrong with Islam. I’m talking here about the discourse that was used to answer the question: what are we doing here? Since then, there’s been an ingrained notion that there was something wrong with Muslims. They are less civilized, less neat, less enterprising, less reliable… When we fight, we sit down and talk, while they are impulsive, irrational and violent.

This is comparable to the image that the Irish had in the United States in the nineteenth century. There was a widespread belief in the US at the time: Catholic is bad, because Catholic equals Irish, and Irish equals drunkard and roughneck. There is plenty of textual evidence. The Catholic-Irish image was very bad in the US for a long time, there is still some of that left in the United Kingdom. When Tony Blair converted to Catholicism because of his wife, the reaction was: Fie! Why? Because there is also a notion in the UK that Catholic means Celtic, Irish, and violent.

In Ceylon, where we have Tamil and Singalese people, the Tamils are thought of as violent.

Sure, there are reasons why certain images emerge. I am not saying that all Muslims are saints and have nothing to do with political violence. But why should everyone be blamed for what is done by some? If there are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, how many engage in political violence? How many Christians engage in violence?

Say, the Lord’s Resistance Army is a very brutal Christian group in Uganda. Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma was a Reformed Christian fundamentalist. Or Branch Davidians with David Koresh? We usually dismiss these examples by saying, these are just marginals, they don’t count. But then why do Muslim marginals count?

Simply because in the West, the times when you could use the name of God to mobilize armies to fight infidels, Christianity is no longer able to do that and, in that sense, it is harmless.

I agree, it is no longer able to do that. But there are plenty of people in Europe and elsewhere in the West who deplore this state of things: how could Christianity grow so careless and give up? Others, on the contrary, celebrate this.

The same is true of Muslims: some are glad that religion is on the retreat, because they have needs that fall outside religion; other want to have religion back in public and private life, have it govern people’s everyday behaviours.

However, Muslim movements in Muslim-dominated countries often have a difficult time gaining power in legal and peaceful ways. I am talking about regimes. Say, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was very naive and believed in democracy: he thought you can bring great ideas, take part in political processes, make proposals to the king who will deliberate on them with parliament, everyone will be happy. But it didn’t happen.

When the regime started oppressing them, the Muslim Brotherhood became radicalised. And then we have a vicious circle of vendetta: if you’re doing this, we will do that.

There has been an interesting report from Norway, where Muslim migrants are apparently sent to training and, among other things, are instructed on proper behaviour with women. Say, if a girl dances with you in a party, let’s you touch or even kiss her, it does not mean she is agreeing to sex. How much is that related to religion?

Sometimes these spheres are related, sometimes they are not. If Muslims interact with one another in certain ways, does it mean that religion is behind it, or does religion have nothing to do with it? Maybe they simply think that religion does not prohibit them to interact in such a way?

For example, when taharrush, or mass harassment of women, happened in Cologne, I was asked: How is taharrush regimented in Islam? Absolutely all Islamic traditions punish such behaviour. In normative Islam, a Muslim who harasses a woman is a criminal. But he does it nonetheless. Why? Is it because Islam permits him? Or he doesn’t care one bit about Islam?

Are all Muslims good people? Of course not. Are there criminals and idiots among Muslims? Yes. But are there more than among Lithuanians or Europeans? No one can say, since there is simply no statistics on that.

It might be useful to compare Muslims in Europe to Lithuanians in Norway, Spain or the UK. It is not always the elites that emigrated from Lithuania, and so it is not university professors that emigrate from, say, Jordan.

I’d put it this way: the middle class, who could enjoy satisfactory living standards, is very small in most Muslim countries. In the US and Europe, the middle class makes up the majority, while Lithuania is closer to third world countries in this respect, not unlike most Muslim societies. Repressive regimes link very clearly economic prosperity to loyalty. So there are masses of people who are challenged in terms of education, culture or even personal hygiene. They make up the lower social ranks, people with less education, no opportunities to move up the social ladder, they are essentially paupers. What does that have to do with religion?

Lithuanian migrants in Norway are also paupers, but Protestant Norwegians are not saying: Catholic Lithuanians are beating their wives and children. Because religion plays no part in this.

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