The question has an essentialist ring to it, and thus is probably best left unasked. Indeed, I doubt it would be discussed had not two American presidents referred to Islam as a religion of peace.
But Presidents Bush and Obama raised the issue and so we’re stuck with the debate. Max Boot offers a sensible perspective:
Is Islam a religion of peace, as many claim, or is it a religion dedicated to making war on unbelievers and infidels, as others assert? Are the terrorists the true Muslims–or are the law-abiding French Muslims truer to their faith?
The answer is “yes.” Both are true at once. Islam, like every other broad-based religion, is subject to numerous conflicting interpretations. Some use it to justify hateful violence; others use it to justify a path of nonviolence. It is impossible to say which is the true version because Islam is a decentralized faith that, unlike Catholicism, has no pope to rule on matters of theology.
What do public opinion surveys of Muslims tell us? Nothing dispositive:
Surveys indicate that the broad majority of Muslims around the world are not in the violent, jihadist camp. A Pew poll in 2013, for example, found that across 11 Muslim countries, 67 percent of those surveyed said they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism and 57 percent said they had an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda while 51 percent had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. . .Indeed the only place where a majority of Muslims justified suicide bombings was in the Palestinian territories.
It seems safe, then, to say that most Muslims around the world are moderate. But there is a substantial minority of extremists which, in absolute numbers, pose a serious threat, given the fact that there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world.
While those extremists pose a substantial threat to the West, they present an even bigger threat to fellow Muslims. The vast majority of victims of Islamist terrorist organization such as the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have been fellow Muslims.
From this, Boot concludes that there “is not a war between civilizations but a war within Islamic civilization pitting an armed, militant minority against a peaceful but easily cowed majority.” Accordingly, any talk of waging “war on Islam” is “deeply misguided and harmful.” What the West needs to do “is to help moderate Muslims wage war on the radicals.”
Here, I think Boot offers a false choice. There can be, simultaneously, both a clash of civilization and a war within Islamic civilization. When French Muslims terrorize Paris, they aren’t waging war against Muslims. Neither is Hamas when it fires rockets into Israel.
Moreover, Boot’s description of the “religion of peace” component of Islamic civilization is telling. In many places, he agrees, it is outgunned and “easily cowed.”
To me, this suggests that what the West needs to do “to help moderate Muslims wage war on the radicals” is to take the lead in waging war on them. Not everywhere. Sometimes, as in Egypt, it will may be sufficient for quite awhile to rely on non-Islamist strongmen.
But in places like Iraq and Syria, it’s unlikely that the “religion of war” Muslims can be defeated except by (1) the strong military intervention of the U.S. or (2) the military power of other “religion of war” Muslims, such as Iran and Hezbollah.
When Western military might defeats “religion of war” Muslims, we strike not just a military blow but also a significant ideological blow on behalf of the “religion of peace” adherents. War is typically popular when it delivers victory. It loses popularity when it delivers defeat.
This is true even when war is avowed to be not just about conquest, but also about ideology/religion. When religious leaders predict military victory but their armies suffer crushing defeats, the leaders are revealed as false prophets and the version of their religion thet preach war is discredited.