"The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion."- Thomas Paine
Too much focus has been placed lately on the negative things which have been done in the name of religion (Islam in particular). It's time we took a moment to look at the brighter side of Islam and its varied interpretations. Groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and ISIS show us the worst examples of people abusing Islam, but what about those who use it in a positive way. There are over 1,600,000,000 (1.6 billion) Muslims in the world, while the estimated enrollment numbers for the extremist groups previously mentioned numbers somewhere around 50,000. Even if we triple this number to account for any other extremist groups that may or may not be out there (and this is an absurdly high estimate), the total percentage of Muslims who are members of terrorist groups still wouldn't even reach one percent of one percent of the Muslims in the world (.0001% to be exact). In short, it goes without saying that not all Muslims are bad. But hopefully this post will succeed in highlighting some positive examples of Islam.
One of the best examples of this can be seen in one of the pillars of Islam itself: the Zakaat. Similar to the practice of tithing in Christianity, the Zakaat is a tax which is usually considered obligatory for Muslims to pay if they are able. The proceeds of this tax are intended to go towards providing food and clothing for the poor, in addition to other social welfare and development programs.
Another pillar of Islam, the observation of Ramadan, holds a similar regard for the less fortunate. Some people view the requirement of fasting during the Islamic holy month (where neither food or drink is permitted) as being cruel. It is important to note that those who are sick or doing very strenuous work can be exempted from fasting (they can often just make up those days some other time during the year). The purpose of refraining from food and drink (as well as smoking, dancing, and sex) is to remove things which can distract from the worship of God and to remember the sufferings of the less fortunate. Nearly one billion people go without access to clean water every day and at least as many endure extreme hunger. The practice of fasting (when done out of appreciation rather than decree) helps remind people of the suffering which still exists in this world.
Just like other religious groups, there are plenty of Islamic international charity organizations. Groups like the International Islamic Relief Organization and Islamic Relief USA are two such organizations which promote charity by funneling Zakaat contributions and donations into large-scale programs aimed at combating humanitarian disasters around the world. They are often among the first relief organizations to become involved in refugee and humanitarian relief work when groups like ISIS start taking over.
All of this highlights the fact that there are about as many interpretations of Islam as there are Muslims themselves. A prime example of this is the story of Thanaa El-Naggar. She identifies as a Muslim woman, yet does not actively practice many of the "typical" behaviors commonly associated with Islam (wearing a veil, abstaining from alcohol). However, she prays often and fully believes in the existence of God and the elevated status of Muhammad. Like nearly every person in the world, she picks and chooses which examples and behaviors seem right for her situation. Even the most devout Christian rarely keeps all of the biblical laws of the Sabbath laid down in the first five books of the Bible. For non-Muslims to point out someone's behavior as not following "true Islam" would be like a British person telling and American they are incorrectly celebrating Independence Day.
What all of this means is that we shouldn't focus only on what religion says you can't do, but focus instead on the positive things it encourages people to do. We are all familiar with the restrictions in most contemporary Islamic interpretations against thinks like drinking, eating pork, and rolling around naked in a kiddie pool full of non-halal jello, but we forget that religion also empowers people to make meaningful positive change. Women received vastly more rights under the first Islamic society than they had before. Unfortunately some modern societies in the Middle East have been slow to improve upon the spirit of this empowerment. However, the majority of Muslim women in the world enjoy far more freedom than your average depiction of an oppressed Muslim woman.
Ultimately, religion is an intensely personal experience, far more that most religious leaders want people to believe. People use it to enslave or empower both themselves and others. Like any other organizational system, it can be used for either good or evil (or sometimes just really misguided) purposes. In the end, maybe religion, like socioeconomic class, gender, and even ethnicity have a lot less to do with what someone says you are, and a lot more to do with your own personal identity.