The 300 million extremists

Meaningful discussions of the contentious issues are often thwarted by linguistic ambiguities. A while ago I wrote on how “liberal” may have two contrasting meanings. One other example is the use of the term “extremist” in the context of Islam.

The public pronouncements made after terrorist acts often include statements that the atrocities were committed by “Muslim extremists”. This can mean one of two things. Either the value system which inspires people to harm others is extreme in terms of the general humanistic outlook on life which most people in the West share or, alternatively, it is considered extreme within the range of views represented in Islam. When we say “Muslim extremists” are we saying that they have crossed the boundaries of what we consider a civilised behaviour or do we just claim that they are a fringe group within the body of Islam?

To better understand the difference let us consider the following example. Most people in the West probably believe that being part of an organised religion is a matter of  conscience and everyone should make their own choice in this regard, without being pressured or threatened. This means that when someone decides to leave a religious congregation they have been associated with and move on they should be free to do so. Conversely, pressuring an individual to remain in a religious organisation they do not feel comfortable with would be a disturbingly sectarian behaviour. Threatening those who want to leave would probably qualify as “extreme”. Extreme from the general, humanistic perspective that is.

You may be surprised to learn that the idea of killing those who have left their religion is very well established in Islam. The comprehensive survey carried out by The Pew Research Centre and reported by The Washington Post::

reveals the majority of Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan, Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan believe those leaving Islam should be killed.


Imagine that the Smiths have stopped attending mass at your church. After a while someone talks to them and confirms they have indeed left the congregation. Then you and other parishioners get together and decide that for what they have done the Smiths should be killed. A bit extreme? Not in the Muslim World! But what is the total number of Muslims who are likely to hold this view? By referencing the table with the Muslim population of different countries:

I have worked out that the figure is around 300 million. This is not a misprint – based on the Pew report some 300 million Muslims in the World believe that the penalty for leaving Islam should be death. It clearly demonstrates the linguistic confusion outlined at the beginning of the post. A view which qualifies as extreme from the general humanistic perspective is actually quite mainstream in Islam.

So next time you hear on the BBC that “Muslim extremists” have committed another atrocity bear in mind that the BBC are reporting it from the Western perspective and millions of people in the World may not agree. What is extreme to some may not be extreme to others.


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