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Recent terrorist events in Paris (then Washington DC, then Belgium and now apparently major pre-emptive anti-terrorism police operations underway in at least four other European countries, not to mention earlier Sydney, Ottawa, London, Madrid, New York…) have really provoked me, and quite a few others, to become more vocal about ideas that go a little against the grain on the subject religion of Islam, and it’s relationship (or not) to terrorism.
In terms of the most recent incidents, and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in particular, besides the obvious recoiling and rejection of violence, the proximate issue for many of us has been that – call it a “clash of civilizations” or whatever you like, there can be NO compromise when it comes to the fundamental right to free speech. Most people wouldn’t – and didn’t – pay any attention to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and may have found them downright repulsive, but when people are killed for exercising their right to free expression, there is not only no excuse, there are no mitigating factors either. When we sense any vacillation on this point, we feel compelled to push back now, finally – and hard.
In the course of such online conversations – where support actually is widespread it seems to me and the social media community much more committed to that free speech principle than traditional news outlets (who have effectively conceded to adhere to the demands of the Jihadists by hiding the images in question from their audiences, or trying to), the consensus begins to break down on the “is this a problem with Islam or not?” question. The typical mainstream received wisdom I’ve gotten from some correspondents on Facebook is either “this stuff has nothing to do with Islam”, or the more nuanced “it’s only a tiny Islamic extremist group so it’s wrong to discuss their terrorist activities in the larger context of the Islamic religion.” Our White House still seems to be in the former camp.
I feel compelled to tackle this misconception, even at the risk of being declared an Islamophobe (which many in liberal/progressive circles seem to be on hair-trigger alert to do). Why? Because the motivation and desire to take this “tiny minority” stance is laudable, but frankly I believe it is facile, ahistorical, dangerous strategically and at a policy level, and risks provoking an even worse backlash than its advocates fear.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the quantitative aspect of this debate – the “it’s only a tiny minority” mantra. You have to wonder just at a basic level about this idea, if you typically pay close attention to news events (most Americans do not)…you can’t have missed scenes of large crowds dancing in the Arab street when the Twin Towers came down, burning or stomping of the U.S. flag by joyful mobs, widespread (and state-sanctioned in many cases) persecution of Christian minorities that has crossed the line into ethnic cleansing in many localities, let alone the fact that the theistic regime in Shia Iran is run by a group of Ayatollahs with apocalyptic visions who issue fatwas advising killing of blasphemers or wiping infidel countries off the map (while blatantly trying to acquire nuclear weapons). Minority? Maybe…but tiny? Really?
Let’s go the more objective, empirical route though. Please read details at the link provided which gives a good example, but in sum polling data in the Muslim world reveals shockingly widespread support for the likes of Al Qaeda and lack of concern about extremist terrorist tactics (outside their own countries). True, the actual perpetrators or potential perpetrators (suicide bombers, decapitators, etc) are a “tiny slice” (as in many tens if not hundreds of thousands), but if you add on layers of degree of support or at least sympathy for extremism, you’re crossing into a “very large segment of Muslims” if not an outright majority in many Islamic countries. Here, large swathes of the population have views that are anathema to western values and do not encompass any real contemplation of peaceful coexistence in practice even if there is lip service. Just one example, enough in and of itself: 57% of Muslims overall do not support Al Qaeda. Great, but…please contemplate this…43% can’t bring themselves to say that. That’s a “tiny minority”?
Here is the link to the results from the authoritative Pew Institute survey (the actual results of which it seems to me are incongruously at odds with the sunny headline on the article): http://www.pewglobal.org/2013/09/10/muslim-publics-share-concerns-about-extremist-groups/
In fairness, for a more comprehensive… and in some ways more optimistic….view of Muslim public opinion, see also Pew http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/ – some encouraging stuff but much that is problematic (for example, the desire to violently enforce Sharia law stems from very widespread – overwhelming majority – support for the idea that Sharia law should govern).
Some will now quibble with details of my analysis of Muslim public opinion, or question the source (there are others), or…as I often find…change the subject to “it’s all our (the West’s) fault” due to colonialism (how many times are we going to hear about how the European nations carved out arbitrary, illogical borders in the middle east), or Western imperialism “it’s all about the oil”, etc, etc. I haven’t seen much evidence that these are the real motivators of Islamic extremism (acknowledging there is a rich history in Islam of learning and…usually exaggerated…accounts of eras of peaceful coexistence between the three great “Peoples of the Book” under tolerant Caliphs). Maybe we should just take the people of the Muslim world at their word? They say it’s about following the Word of the Prophet and adhering to the tenets of the Koran and Sharia law. Why do we refuse to believe them? The extreme tiny minority does not spring from a vacuum.
A related line of reasoning is the implicit idea that in the end, and in essence, all religions share in common a basic desire for everyone to live and coexist in an atmosphere of peace, love and understanding. In the end, the Koran and the Sermon on the Mount stem from the same basic philosophy and guidance from the respective Gods and prophets of Islam and Christianity. I’m sorry, that’s just ridiculous. Pure, unadulterated wishful thinking. Many of us were raised to want to believe this, but that’s not the way most of the world thinks – or operates. Very Western ethno-centric, if you will.
Sure, if you go by the Old Testament, maybe followers of the God of the Bible should be busy killing, stoning, cutting off hands and poking out eyes of various infringers of the Ten Commandments (not the way it’s worked out in Judaism of course), but we have this thing called the New Testament, the essence of Christian belief…and the message – unequivocally is of peace and respect for others as the way to honor and worship God. Fundamentally not what you immediately find in the Koran. Sure there’s peaceful stuff in there too, but to an Infidel it seems quite schizophrenic (at best) on the idea of peace and freedom to believe as one chooses. That’s the challenge…getting believers oriented to the parts that support peaceful coexistence, and ignoring the bloodthirsty parts. But it can be done…
…which brings me to the home stretch in deconstructing this “true nature of Islam as it affects the West’s relations with them” question. I had an exchange on Facebook with a friend of deep convictions and (Christian) faith. I posted about the need for an equivalent to the Western/Christian Reformation in Islam now. She responded, essentially, with the “it’s a tiny minority so not fair to characterize in broader Islamic terms” counter but also pointed out that other religions (to which I’ll amplify, notably Christianity) have also done their share of killing, pillaging and conquering in the name of their God.
Here, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to concede (sort of) the “tiny minority” point to turn this towards the really important question, which is what do we do about all this? And, how do we stop the carnage, violence and oppression? I do believe a Reformation…for lack of a better word..within Islam…big Islam…HAS to be the answer. It’s the only answer.
Let’s focus on the Christian Reformation for a minute if it’s to be a model or at least precedent. Back in the deepest, darkest days of the Dark Ages, or later the insane internecine Christian fighting between Protestants and Catholics, when unholy killing and other atrocities were being perpetrated at massive scale in the name of God, and often (as with Islamic extremism today even though Islam lacks the clearly identifiable clerical organization/hierarchy of Christianity) with the explicit or at least implicit endorsement of the Church(es)…back then, it was also a TINY MINORITY actually doing the killing (including the fact that some Cardinals actually waged war, in person!). Meanwhile though, the vast majority of Christians wanted nothing more than to get by, till their lands, keep a roof over their heads, feed and clothe their families, and get along peaceably with their neighbors.
This, in my view, is a precise parallel of the portrayal we’re striving for today vis a vis the Muslim world…of course most Muslims don’t go around actively plotting the killing infidels or imposing Sharia law on everybody. That’s a straw man. But we don’t view the errors and crimes of the historical Church as having been perpetrated by a tiny minority, we understand that it was something that required systemic change, basically from inside the institution of the Church, with outside prodding and pressure. It was a very messy, protracted process which may never be “complete”, but the Christian world…through a combination of theological evolution and emergent secular influences in philosophy and politics…came to a consensus (still very imperfectly applied all too often) that Christianity was unequivocally coming down on the side of “loving your neighbor” and “turning the other cheek”, and rejecting the absolutist, Old-Testament-y judging and punishing bits. We decided to leave that to God. To the extent we often don’t act that way, religion is not the motivator anymore.
This now in broad strokes is exactly what needs to happen in Islam. Islam is not inferior to Christianity or other religions – it’s just stuck about 600 years behind the curve (actually, it has backslid in the last two hundred years). A “Reformation” in Islam won’t look exactly like what happened in the West, nor should it (hopefully in the internet age it will unfold a lot faster)…but it must happen in some, way, shape or form. It will start with leaders in the Islamic world, and I note, it seems – seeing and hearing more of this recently from some Muslim leaders. Tentatively, cautiously…unorganized. We should focus on amplifying those voices, and giving them aid and comfort. The alternative? Really, it IS likely a true “clash of civilizations” if present trends continue. Wishing it were not so is not a solution. Demographics are destiny, and the views held by a very large slice of the Muslim world really are anathema and incompatible with Western values (which are mostly secularized at this point)…separation of church and state, women’s rights, gay rights, cultural & entertainment standards, et. Freedom of speech.
I don’t consider myself an Islamophobe. When I meet a Muslim, I don’t feel I have an axe to grind. I do however have views of the bigger picture that are shaped by careful observation, study and thought. And I try to follow all angles/points of view, tempting it is for all of us to succumb to confirmation bias. I hope I’m open to being proven wrong but I now feel compelled to push back against bromides and start to ask that they be backed up. If we keep whitewashing the real issues and mouthing rosy platitudes like “this extremism has nothing to do with Islam”, I fear we’re putting a lid on a boiling pot of water and that may make the ultimate explosion worse when it inevitably comes. Islamophobia is real…hate is a key component. When people are misled, or elaborate intellectual and rhetorical contortions used to sugarcoat the truth, the result may be to unleash those forces. Especially in Europe, where the philosophy on immigration hasn’t really encouraged integration and adoption of cultural/societal norms, and where the percentage of the total population that is Islamic is now over 6% (over 10% in France). I know the goal is to keep that lid on, but I’m not optimistic the current messaging strategy is going to hold. If all the cells that are being disrupted by authorities now had managed to erupt in bloodshed over the course of a couple of weeks, it would have been very dangerous in the aftermath to be a Muslim on the streets of Europe. Talk is cheap…people react viscerally in circumstances like that.
So, it seems evident what needs to happen in Islam…and in the West, we need to start being honest and open about what we’re dealing with, if only so we can channel our energies from suppressing open debate to developing strategies to reach out to our Islamic brethren in a spirit of collaboration, not hate, and help them with their transition, if they are open to that. إن شاء الله (Insha’Allah).