The futility of blaming Islam
Members of the Muslim Congress demonstrate against hatred and religious insults on Sept. 22, 2012, in Los Angeles. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
Consider this a companion post to "The Insanity of Blaming Islam" for the Boston bombings. I'm glad I have a chance to revise and expand my remarks, although I'm really only going to expand upon them. A lot of people who read the piece, which I pecked out after hearing Rep. Peter King call for a vague new examination of Muslim radicalization in America, believe me to be a lot of bad things: anti-American, obtuse to moral truths, committed to apologetics for inexcusable behavior, or blind to the true reality of Islam.
I think many of my critics keyed in on a sentence of two and extrapolated from there. The whole piece I still agree with. My basic point is, and remains this:
Some people in America believe in some variant of what you might call radical Islamic theology. One example: About 8 percent of Americans in recent surveys are willing to tell pollsters that suicide bombings are OK in some circumstances. Around the world, the percentage is much, much higher. So, the worry is, that pluralistic Islam that predominates in America will be contaminated by the beliefs, however they are arrived at, of Muslims in the world. Hence the notion of "radicalization."
But: There is NO evidence that American Muslims are becoming more radical. Aside from people like Pete King telling Americans that American Muslims are in danger of quickly becoming radicalized, there is no evidence that they are becoming more radical.
There IS, among American Muslims, significant opposition to certain parts of U.S. foreign policy. Many American Muslims believe they are an unfavored minority, are condemned and repressed, and are seen as suspicious by others. A certain percentage feel alienated and separated from other Americans. Well, yes. Bigotry against Muslims after 9/11 exists. Let's not whitewash it away.
But let's also not whitewash away the difference in the way Muslims are treated in Democratic America than they are in, say, Democratic Europe, or even Democratic Israel. The American government was wary of anti-Muslim bias from day one, and there is no official cultural sanction for it. Americans may be intolerant, but they are less intolerant towards Muslims than most everyone else.
If someone who has been radicalized — that is, who has come to believe in a form of Islam that endorses violence against innocents — blames American foreign policy or values, and who, having become such a believer, decides to advance the ideology through a violent act, do we ignore, shy away from, excuse, or otherwise explain away the ideological component of their motivation? Of course not.
But since this sort of terrorism is so rare — and is much more rare than many other types of mass violence, like mass shootings committed by young white men — it makes no sense to isolate the Muslim community itself for more exclusion, more surveillance, more scrutiny, more laws, more cultural approbation.
And it is NOT anti-American to say that American foreign policy, even if we think it's a good foreign policy, can be cited as a reason why someone might feel alienated from the country. Even if you think that the war in Iraq was fundamentally a good thing (I don't, but I assume some still do), you can also recognize that every significant action taken by Americans in the name of America will have downstream consequences that might persuade others to dislike America more. This does NOT mean that we must somehow appease everyone who might one day be radicalized by aggressive American foreign policy. It DOES mean that we simply cannot live as if history does not exist, that good actions only have good consequences, and that simply because we believe we are right, we are invincibly right.
Neither should we, collectively, avoid doing what we can to mitigate the factors that tend to push people over that threshold separating belief from action. This we do NOT do by singling out one group for nebulous surveillance. This we do by setting examples: by following the rule of law, by treating people equally, by arguing against beliefs that don't comport with the way in which we allow religious expression into the secular public square. We hold elections where people who pursue bad policies can be kicked out of office.
We say: Yes, in America, you can believe that drawing a picture of the prophet Mohammed is sacrilege. Americans who think that belief to be absurd will die for your right to believe it, and even argue it in public. But what you cannot do, and where we've usually drawn the line in sober times, is to find people who don't hold that belief — that the cartoon is sacrilege — to be guilty of a crime which requires punishment. Further, you must be willing to hear those who believe that the whole idea of drawing a sacrilegious picture of anything is absurd. And yes, you must even tolerate people who will make this point provocatively. We do NOT hold all beliefs to be equal. Beliefs which conflict with other, strongly-marinated American values, like the freedom of speech and expression, WILL be held in disfavor. That is how we accommodate religious beliefs of all types in a pluralist democracy.
The way we encourage these beliefs is to bring Muslims in and not exclude them. Exclusion and shame will encourage separation. From a practical and a moral standpoint, it makes no sense to hold Muslims in America to account for the actions of two Americans, one a citizen, who were assimilated-and-not-assimilated, who were subject to a whole number of pressures as individuals; one of which who may have been simply a younger brother who idolized, idealized and also feared his other brother. Noticing this reality is not the same thing as blaming America for anything. The Tsarnaev brothers are suspected of committing a violent crime, became terrorists, and killed other Americans. It may take a while to understand why they did it, and we may never fully understand it.
I just don't see what Islamic fundamentalism itself ought to be the scourge we blame. To end with an initial point: A tiny tiny fraction of people who hold these beliefs (and still we really don't know exactly what the Tsarnaev brothers actually believed!!! We don't!) actually act violently. If these boys were radicalized, the "fact" of radicalization is the starting point for a discussion of motive, not its end.
For those looking for an analog to American gun culture: For Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, Dylon Klebold, James Holmes, we can recognize that easy access to guns and a mental health system with too many holes are potential access points for policy discussion. Stigmatizing American gun owners generally is kind of dumb, but it's different than stigmatizing a religion. American policy can actually do something about guns; it might also do something about Islamic radicalization, but in a very different way, and probably only very indirectly.
But blaming guns for massacres is only a way to help us explain them to ourselves, just like blaming radical Islam for the terrorist attack in Boston is a way to evade a more disciplined and potentially disconcerting set of explanations.
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