15 years later Americans can’t see the difference between Islam and violent radical Islamist ideology

Jason Criss Howk
10 September 2016

“”That’s the key, they tell us; we can’t beat ISIL unless we call them radical Islamists,” the president continued.”

-President Obama, June 2016 speech


After 15 years of American Presidents and the press dancing around the topic of Islam, and confusing nearly every American instead of educating and leading them, we come back to September 11th.

I have spent 20 years studying the Middle East and Islamic culture. Since retiring I have spent one year on an interfaith dialogue speaking tour to help Americans understand a topic our Presidents have avoided. I now teach courses on Islam at three institutes and am two-thirds of the way through writing a modem-English interpretation of the Quran. 
Why the hell do I care about explaining the difference between the religion of Islam and the ideology of violent radical Islamism that groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram follow? Why do I take on a topic our presidents are scared of discussing? Why do I want to dispel myths about Muslims and myths about Islam? Why do I want to assure Americans that we can live in peace but we need to be honest about what’s going on inside the Muslim world today. Why do I spend my time explaining the difference between Islam and Islamism?
Because someone needs to. 

Here are some of the questions that Americans still have about Islam and Muslims 15 years and two presidents after the violent radical Islamist group Al Qaeda launched a massive attack on America. 

Why can’t you talk about Islamism in the government?

Why is Islam so strong in the government?

Doe the Quran say x, y, and z? (Usually negative myths)

Where do middle of the road Muslims sit? What are their beliefs? What are they called?

Why don’t you hear about the counter-Islamism activities?

Why aren’t Muslims standing up loudly against the violent Islamists twisting their religion?

Is mosque attendance dropping?

How is foreign aid interpreted in the Middle East?  

What is truly Quranic-based Islam?

Can you discuss the Sunni Shia split?

Are Muslim countries willing to let women increase their roles and power?

What’s the golden era of Islam the Islamist salafists seek? 

What were the relations between Hitler and Islam?

What’s the significance of the Great War winners redrawing new nation-boundary lines?

What’s the effect of the Israel and Palestine issue in the Middle East?

Is Islam in its truest form a total system of life?

What was Muhammad’s transition from preacher to military leader like?

What is Islam’s perspective on modern social issues like homosexuality, gender equality, women’s rights etc?

We see lots of Muslims at their center and they seem to keep to themselves. How do we find out if they are good or bad Muslims?

There are hundreds of other questions that we discuss. This is a sampling. The people asking them aren’t racist or mean. They are often scared, unaware, confused, and don’t know anyone that is Muslim. 

If our current President, who constantly tells us that words matter, is afraid to talk honestly to the American people about Islam then the rest of us need to lead where he fails to lead. 

Islam is a religion just like any other. Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to put Islam into government because secular governance has failed (in an Islamist’s view). Violent radical Islamists think they have the God-given right to be the judge, jury, and executioner and to kill any human being that does not think exactly like they do. Their first victims are usually Muslims that won’t bow to them. The world must unite to support peace seeking Muslims around the world to help them discredit the ideology of radical Islamism. Violent radical Islamist groups are some of the many extremist groups in the world that use the technique of terrorism on a regular basis. But to specifically undermine an ideology you have to identify it. 

I love when Muslims sit in my discussions and their eyes burn right through me when I walk on stage and they see an ex-military non-Muslim standing before them. They are not just doubtful of my message but often angry. I watch their body language as my presentation goes on. They get excited when they see me calling for understanding and dispelling myths. They ask a tough question or two trying to see if I actually understand how hard it is for them to live their lives under such horrible stereotypes about their culture. Then after the talk they come up to me, shake my hand and say thank you for explaining this issue and standing up for peace seeking Muslims. Then they always ask why do you do it?

I say I was a Soldier and no one wants understanding and peace among people more than a Soldier.  

By the way President Obama, words do matter. Be a leader and an educator. Americans are listening and they need to hear leaders using the right words. Candidate Trump and Hillary need to get this right before we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.  

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