It is easy to despair over the state of Islam after a horrible terrorist attack such as the one in Orlando. Omar Mateen appears to have been a lunatic whose mind was deformed by all sorts of pathologies, including self-hatred, since we now have evidence he was a closeted gay man who chose to attack a nightclub full of gay people. But there is no disputing the fact that he was inspired to act in no small part by Islamist propaganda, as seen from the fact that he pledged bayat (allegiance) to ISIS before carrying out his mass murder.

And there is no disputing, too, the intolerance toward homosexuals in many Muslim countries, which has not infrequently morphed into violent persecution. The Islamic State has carried this evil to its highest degree by tossing gays off buildings and otherwise murdering them.

But just as it’s wrong to deny that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda are Islamic in their orientation, so, too, is it wrong to claim that they are the sole valid representatives of Islam. This is a fiction that both Islamists and Islamaphobes embrace for reasons of convenience. The reality of the Muslim world—composed of 1.6 billion people spread around the globe—is so varied and complex as to defy easy characterization.

During the Middle Ages, for example, Muslim states were considerably more accepting of homosexuality than Christian ones. As the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Modern World notes:

Whatever the legal strictures on sexual activity, the positive expression of male homeoerotic sentiment in literature was accepted, and assiduously cultivated, from the late eighth century until modern times. First in Arabic, but later also in Persian, Turkish and Urdu, love poetry by men about boys more than competed with that about women, it overwhelmed it. Anecdotal literature reinforces this impression of general societal acceptance of the public celebration of male-male love.

The Muslim world has become considerably more fundamentalist in recent decades, but even this trend is hardly universal. Consider Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation. The BBC reported: “Homosexuality and gay sex are not illegal in Indonesia, and the world’s largest Muslim country has a vibrant transgender culture and tradition, which broadly meets with tolerance from the Indonesian public.”

But, the BBC reported,  “On the main street of Indonesian university town Yogyakarta last week, 100 men could be found standing carrying signs that read ‘LGBT is a disease.’ Just a few hundred meters away, a group of rights activists battled it out with the police: ‘Stop attacks on democracy and threats against minorities!'”

The battle between tolerance and intolerance—liberalism and totalitarianism—then is not simply a battle waged between the West and Islam; it is a battle being waged within Islam, just as in centuries past it was waged within Christendom and still is to some extent.

The West’s ultimate hope must be that Muslim states become more liberal and more secular as their Western counterparts have over the past several centuries. This is a trend that the U.S. and its allies should encourage by supporting liberals in the Muslim world—and, yes, they do exist.

That this is not a vain hope is evident from the example of Tunisia, which has emerged from the Arab Spring as the only true Arab democracy. (Lebanon is also a democracy of sorts, but its polity is effectively dominated by the armed might of Hezbollah.) Recently, Ennahda, Tunisia’s largest Islamist party, has disavowed Islamism—the political doctrine which originated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and which calls for religious rule.

The party has adopted measures that end its “commitment to ‘dawa,’ proselytizing Islamic values. This makes the party a purely political organization, with no overt religious mission—a radical break from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition from which the Ennahda movement sprang.” Instead, Ennahda is embracing the label of “Muslim Democrats,” similar to the Christian Democrats of Europe.

Many of Ennahda’s critics remain suspicious of its sincerity but, whatever the case, it is significant that Ennahda felt compelled to transform itself in order to compete for votes. It no longer feels that Islamism is a winning formula.

Amid the daily headlines of violence carried out by terrorists in the name of Islam, it is encouraging to see a countervailing trend play out even in a country as small as Tunisia. It suggests we should not despair of Islam’s future or write off all Muslims as enemies–an overgeneralization that is as wrong as it is dangerous.

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