More than 14 years after the September 11 attacks, why are Americans still arguing about whether Muslims are people?
In 2001, the country suffered an act of terrorism carried out by 19 men, all of whom were Muslim and claimed to be acting on divine orders. Even then, however, cooler heads occasionally prevailed when it came to assigning blame.
Consider the following statement from September 17 of that year:
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. […] When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. […] America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
That was George W. Bush. In a special address to Congress three days later, he added, “[T]hose who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”
In other words, even President Bush in 2001 understood that a war against Islamic extremists was not the same as a war against Islam. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, so why are we having so much trouble with it now? Why can so many Americans still not distinguish a gang of murderers from the billion-plus peaceful folks whose religion they happen to share? Why are we scapegoating all members of a particular faith for a problem caused by some of them?
The explanation for this can roughly be traced to three separate but occasionally interconnected sources: Ignorance, bigotry and a few unfortunate facts.
The first two require little explanation. Regrettably, a sizable minority of American citizens are just plain dumb when it comes to understanding people who are different from them. Either because they don’t bother to educate themselves or because they reject the information that is staring them directly in the face, these people are impervious to reason, sensitivity and intellectual growth.
In the present context, this would include those who look at someone wearing a hijab and immediately think, “Terrorist!” Or, more explicitly, those who see Muslims committing atrocities overseas and bellow, “Let’s not allow any Muslims to enter the United States!”
Not even Mark Rothko painted with a brush that broad, yet that is precisely the mainstream view among nearly all Republican presidential candidates and their supporters. Donald Trump surprised no one this week by suggesting all American Muslims should be “registered.” (Whatever that means.) Ben Carson has said an observant Muslim should not be elected president. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz gave the game away by advocating preferential treatment to Christian refugees over those who, shall we say, pray to a slightly different god.
Against all of this xenophobic nonsense—betrayals of such foundational American values as multiculturalism and religious freedom—there remains a profoundly uncomfortable question: Why , at this moment, are ISIS and its ideas so goddamned popular among certain members of the Islamic faith?
In 2013, Pew released results of a survey of Muslims around the world. Among other things, the survey found that 72 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Suicide bombing in defense of Islam is never justified.” That seems reassuring—until you realize that it means 28 percent of respondents didn’t agree with the same statement.
In fact, 11 percent of the world’s Muslims explicitly endorsed the view that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is either “often justified” or “sometimes justified.” That leaves 17 percent who either refused to answer or didn’t have an opinion on the merits of murdering large amounts of civilians.
I don’t know about you, but I find these numbers slightly alarming.
If one out of every nine Christians were in favor of blowing themselves up in a crowded marketplace because someone said something disparaging about Jesus, would we not be correct in saying that Christianity had a problem?
We can bang on and on about how Islam is a religion of peace and that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violence in all its forms—the latter being an incontrovertibly true statement, particularly in the United States—but we are entitled to look at that minority and conclude that Islam itself might have something to do with it.
There’s a popular refrain that says the problem isn’t religion; it’s people. That is, there’s nothing in religion to turn good people evil; rather, it’s that certain people are already evil and will cling to any philosophy to justify their actions.
It sounds convincing and is largely true—in the end, each individual is responsible for his own behavior—but it does not resolve the question of why a disproportionate number of these murderous psychopaths belong to one faith is particular. If suicide bombing doesn’t have to do with religion, why do virtually all suicide bombers belong to the same religion? If Islamic texts don’t instruct adherents to resort to violence in response to blasphemy, why is one in nine Muslims so convinced that they do?
These are the sorts of questions we ignore at our peril. However, they are ultimately mere window dressing for the only question that matters: What do we do with this information?
As we have found, there are two general approaches to addressing this issue. One, we could decide that because 11 percent of Muslims are sympathetic to Islamic terrorism, we are therefore entitled to stigmatize and openly discriminate against the other 89 percent. Or two, we could stop acting like children and recognize that two separate and seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time. Namely, that Islamic holy books provide justification for holy violence and also that most Muslims have the decency and common sense to ignore what those books say.
We can all recite verses from the Christian and Jewish bibles that condemn certain people to death for all sorts of offenses, and we can equally recite the names of people—in America and elsewhere—who take those verses to heart. Why, it was just a few weeks ago that several GOP presidential candidates spoke at an event hosted by a Colorado pastor who openly advocates the murder of all gay people on Earth—as explicitly recommended in Leviticus 20:13. In many countries in Africa and the Middle East, of course, this commandment is actually carried out.
Yet somehow, the balance of the world’s Jews and Christians manage to overlook these prehistoric injunctions, living, instead, according to the laws of man and the good old Golden Rule. If we Judeo-Christians can pat ourselves on the back for pulling this off, why can’t we extend the same courtesy to others who have done the same?
As ever, the tonic to religious fanaticism includes such concepts as secularism, pluralism, rule of law and—when all else fails—treating one’s fellow human beings with dignity and respect. This necessitates seeing people as individuals rather than members of a group—even when they identify as both—since applying labels to each other tends to produce hatred and discord at the precise moment when common ground and reconciliation are in order.
We might agree that love, respect and empathy will not solve a problem like ISIS all by themselves. On the other hand, there is no instance I know about in which they have ever made matters worse.