The myth of the murderous Muslim

Islamophobia promotes a “racialised view of Islam” – the actions of the few represent the “intentions” of the whole.

The West has invented weapons of mass destruction and "used them in ways no other parts of the world have" [AP]

Muslims are subversive jihadists. The Middle East is perpetually unstable. “Islam has bloody borders.” If you’ve already made up your mind, you’ll find a way to twist the facts to support your conclusion. And if the facts don’t do the job, you can always hire new ones.

In the last year, American anti-Muslim hate groups have increased threefold. As playwright Wajahat Ali and others have found, the farther we move away from the September 11 terrorist attacks, the worse discrimination, prejudice and violence against Muslims become.

There’s a simple enough reason for this: Islamophobia has become an industry. In the absence of alternative narratives, which can make sense of Muslim extremism, place it into context and guide American domestic and foreign policy, we are stuck with the voices we have – too often, these have been unqualified and uninformed.

It will take us a long time to get past the damage done by years of well-funded Islamophobes, who have dominated the media landscape (finally answering, incidentally, why it is that “Muslims don’t do more to condemn terrorism” – nobody was listening). But the resistance to bigotry has already begun and has already scored a number of successes.

There is only so long, after all, you can lie to people.

The boy who cried Islamist

Islamophobia promotes a racialised view of Islam, viewing Arabs and Middle Easterners and Muslims generally as one interchangeable, subversive, homogenous mass; the actions of the few represent the intentions and aspirations of the whole. Thus we were led to believe there could be a plausible connection between bin Laden and Saddam. The resulting cost in American lives, treasure and credibility, is hard to quantify. This is Islamophobia’s fruit: poisonous policies.

For reasons of strategic shortsightedness alone, Islamophobia would be discredited soon enough. But there’s another reason: Islamophobia doesn’t correspond to reality. The more likely an American is to know a Muslim, the more likely she is to have a positive view of Islam. Exposure undermines prejudice. That is, meeting real Muslims pushes aside the media narrative that is so pernicious and harmful. Why? Because much of what Islamophobia peddles is hyperbolic, fanciful, or meaningless.

Let’s see how Islamophobia does its damage. The value extends beyond anti-Muslim bigotry, by the way. The same type of “reasoning” is employed by all bigotries – radical Muslim voices, who require a conflict between a homogenous West and an ideally homogenous Islam, make the same types of arguments, often down to the disturbing details. But then it shouldn’t be any surprise that extremisms are broadly similar, or that they need to see opposites in the world, for their own identities to take root and thrive. 

A lie told often enough feels true

Consider this interview from The New York Times, in which a prominent anti-Muslim voice makes the following remark:

Why isn’t it a shrine dedicated to the victims of 9/11 or the 270 million victims of over a millennium of jihadi wars, land appropriations, cultural annihilations and enslavements?

The woman behind these words, who I have no interest in naming (I don’t want to give her any more attention than she already has), used to be a regular on Fox News, but has lost even that perch. Her extremism was too extreme. (Indeed, one of the best ways to fight Islamophobia is to give the bigots a microphone and let them keep talking. Their disturbing rhetoric will soon unsettle the overwhelming majority of people, who recoil from such extremism.)

But let’s spend a moment to reflect on this allegation; namely, that “270 million” are victims of a homogenous jihadi juggernaut. It is certainly an amazingly precise claim. It is often frequently repeated – Islamophobia resembles nothing if not an echo chamber of incorrectness. In the months since, I’ve encountered many anti-Muslim voices repeat or inflate this number. Most recently, I’ve been challenged to explain the “300 million” killed by “jihad”.

Even if we stick with the lower number, I can tell you that this number was probably pulled out of thin air. (Even if it wasn’t, as I will show, it doesn’t matter.) But for the sake of argument, let’s take this claim seriously. Namely, that “Muslims” killed somewhere between two or three hundred million. Can that be possible? Where does this number come from? Does it reveal a uniquely and dangerously recurrent Islamic aptitude for mass violence? In short, no, out of nowhere, and no.

1,000 years of jihad

First, I think, it’d make sense to choose a time period. We’re told there were 1,000 years of jihad, although to be fair, elsewhere the same person described millions of years of jihad, but this is a thought exercise. I imagine she means the period from roughly 600 to 1600 AD, which covers the time when Muslim states were generally not (as was subsequently true) on the receiving end of colonial conquest. 

When Islam emerged in western Arabia, around 610 AD, the total population of the world was likely between 300 and 400 million. Fast forward to right past our period. The United Nations Census Report suggests that the world’s total population in the year 1800 was 1 billion; since then, of course, it has shot up to some seven billion.  

At that point, the world’s largest Muslim population, which would be located in South Asia, was almost entirely under British rule. (In 1947, the population of the Indian subcontinent was under 350 million.) We are being asked to believe that jihadis killed, by the year 1600, more people than lived in South Asia in the year 1600. Keep in mind that India is one of the most densely populated parts of the planet and has long been a centre of world culture and civilisation.

How did Muslims kill so many people?

India, or properly most of northern India, was under Muslim rule from 1200 to 1800. By the Islamophobe’s logic, millions of these Indians should have been slaughtered. But by whom? Muslims were never more than a minority and Islam was never imposed by force. The proof for this is in the geography – the capitals of Muslim India rotated between cities like Delhi and Agra, but conversion proceeded most widely on the fringes of these empires, in what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is like saying the Roman Empire imposed Christianity and Christian populations were found farthest from the centre of imperial power. 

Further, under Muslim rule, India became increasingly wealthy. (The same happened, by the way, in Muslim Spain, as Arab rule brought with it an agricultural revolution and an urbanising boom.) How was India becoming increasingly wealthy while its Muslim rulers were slaughtering Indians left, right and centre? How were they able to cause so much damage, for so long, without being overthrown? Muslims never enjoyed the kind of decisive advantage in military technology the West enjoyed after 1800. And the organisation of Muslim India gives the lie to the entire edifice of eternal jihadism. 

 Dutch photographer was held by “Jihadis”
on Turkey-Syria border

The capital of the world 

We often look to the Ottomans as the world’s most powerful pre-modern Muslim dynasty. But the Mughals, rulers of much of South Asia, ruled over far more people and were far wealthier – compare Istanbul’s monuments to the Taj Mahal and you’ll see what I mean. There is however one thing both empires had in common: both ruled over majority non-Muslim populations. 

Under the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, some 30 percent of this Muslim dynasty’s nobility were not Muslim, a proportion that had risen to 50 percent in the reign of his son Aurangzeb (1658-1707). By nobility, I mean those individuals given land and status based on their ability to muster troops to defend and expand the realm. If Islam was perpetual jihadism, why would so many non-Muslims join in – and be allowed to join in?

If Muslims were savages bent on perpetual terror, by what moronic logic would they arm their enemies, teach them to fight and incorporate them into their armies? What would we make of the fact that the greatest threat to late 17th century Mughal rule was the remarkable rebellion of a Hindu king named Shivaji, who was finally captured and defeated by the Mughals’ senior most general, whose name was Jai Singh – he, too, was not a Muslim.  

Somewhere jihadis are killing everyone they come across, more or less, but still Muslim dynasties remain in power, their wealth increases, the urbanisation of their population increases and they leave behind magnificent public and private structures, which suggests they had quite a bit of free time. When the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of World War I, its capital, then called Constantinople, was over 50 percent non-Muslim. This is not to suggest the Ottomans were liberal democrats. But it also suggests they were remarkably tolerant for their time. Probably no other city in Europe was so diverse. 

And we’re not even talking about most of the planet. 

Muslims aren’t everywhere 

Many of the territories conquered, ruled or dominated by Muslims, such as Central Asia, North Africa and Arabia were comparatively empty. Muslim dynasties never touched the Americas, Australia or East Asia; the last of these undoubtedly held a significant percentage of the world’s population throughout the last 1,000 years plus.  

So Muslims, who ruled over vast desert spaces and many sparsely populated areas of the world, still killed something of the equivalent of one-quarter of the world’s population in 1800. When the first Mughal emperor Babur conquered north India – from another Muslim dynasty, I might add – his army is estimated to number around 10,000; his opponent’s army is estimated at several times than that.  

Is it conceivable that Muslim empires, such as the Umayyads, Ottomans and Mughals, who ruled over majority non-Muslim populations, could have contributed to the killing of huge percentages of the world’s population while staying in power for centuries? How would they, as minorities, have been capable of sustained carnage for decades at a time? When did they get the time to build huge public works projects, establish towns, rebuild cities, fund wells, hospitals, mosques, pools and fountains?  

What technological advantage did they have that made them so superior to their enemies that they could sustain such a bloody and vicious record – for 1,000 years? The Mongols exploded out into the world and caused horrific damage, but they managed that for only a few centuries and left nothing of the kind of legacy the great Muslim empires did. Indeed, the Mongols ended up adopting the religion of the peoples they conquered, whereas the reverse happened early in the Muslim period. 

A most post-modern warfare 

And thus we are left with an implausible and absurd suggestion that jihad killed 270 million people. But even with all this, still three more points need to be stressed, because in recognising their significance, we recognise the ultimate absurdity of the Islamophobic worldview. 

First, more Muslims died fighting each other than died in battles against non-Muslim dynasties. Armies were often mixed too, which drives bigots off the wall; when the Ottomans were defeated at Vienna in 1683, they were finished off by a charge of Polish Muslim cavalry, allied with their enemies. Where do these casualties fit in? Should we arbitrarily decide that “intra-Muslim jihad” killed 50 percent of the total number? Why not, considering most of Islamophobia’s made up? How were Muslims who so often fought each other also able to fight everyone else?

Unless of course it’s not about Islam versus non-Islam. 

“Islamophobes link events that take place across the planet and hundreds of centuries apart and want us to take it seriously.”

Second, this isn’t real history. It’s dumping “facts” on the unawares, hoping that the sheer flood of information covers up the lack of an explanatory framework. Not only does the Islamophobe play loose and fast with very different eras, places and peoples, but she ties events together without attempting to explain why. If jihad is really the most murderous ideology ever and it is equal to Islam, then why would so many people become Muslim? What motivated their violence? What sustained it? And how come most Muslims live peaceable lives?

Bigots make up history because actual history undermines them. 

Third, let’s say for the sake of argument Muslims killed 300 million people over a 1,000 year span. That doesn’t mean anything. One could just as easily construct a counter-narrative that works like Islamophobia does: arbitrarily, ignorantly and entirely unself-consciously. I mean, we’d link disparate events based on the religious (or cultural) identity of the culprit.  

We could construct a narrative of Western perfidy in response. 

According to Charles Mann’s 1491, which explores the pre-Columbian Americas, nearly 100 million perished during the European “Age of Discovery”, making that the most violent contact between peoples in human history. Nothing in Islamic history remotely compares. With the typical sloppiness of the Islamophobe, we could note how Western ideologies like Communism and Nazism led conservatively to the deaths of another 120 million people; we could note the brutal colonial exploitation of Africa and Asia, in which millions more perished and then breathlessly announce, “Five Hundred Years of Western Civilisation Kills Hundreds of Millions!”  

We could toss in the fact that the West has invented weapons of mass destruction and used them in ways no other parts of the world have. (Chemical weapons in World War I; aerial bombing was invented by the Italians against Libyan civilians; and, of course, only America has used nuclear weapons, and twice, both times against civilian targets.) But this would be stupid, because it assumes that people in different times and places are the same, responsible for each other’s actions and should only be judged by the dark chapters of their history. 

Osama bin Laden portrayed the history of Islam and the West as one long narrative of confrontation, as do many intemperate and extremist voices. He chose to ignore all the countervailing evidence and ignored the differences between times and places, peoples and their leaders. He downplayed and dismissed the achievements of Western culture and civilisation, of which there are so many I’m hard-pressed to know where even to begin. Penicillin? Goethe? The modern museum? 

Islamophobes play a similar game, linking events that take place across the planet and hundreds of centuries apart, and they want us to take this seriously. And so you get numbers like “270 million” or “300 million”. And these are brought up talismanically, as if they constitute overwhelming proof. The Islamophobe is completely and congenitally incapable of reflexivity. They cannot, in other words, look in the mirror; their mind has been made up, and what history is marshalled is not to engage in discussion but to preclude it. 

The jihad on accuracy

There is this last little problem. 

The Muslim proportion of the world’s population has accelerated dramatically in the past centuries and continues to do so today; during our 600-1600 AD window, there were far fewer Muslims in the world, proportionally speaking. Which means we have to figure out what everyone else was up to. 

What about the people killed by other peoples – or, the biggest killer of all back then – disease and its most vulnerable victims, infants and the young? Where do we put the Crusades, the Aztecs and the Incans, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Mongols (good heavens), Slavs and Byzantines, the Chinese, Korean and Japanese? 

Add them all together, and more people were probably killed than ever lived, which is about as accurate as you can expect this kind of nonsense to be.  

Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at New America Foundation and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author and a graduate student at Columbia University. 

Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul