The most recent act of horrific violence in the United States — in San Bernardino, Calif. — was reportedly perpetrated by a Muslim man and woman. There are about 3 million Muslims in the United States, almost all of whom are law-abiding citizens. How should they react to the actions of the couple who killed 14 people on Wednesday?
The most commonly heard response is that Muslims must immediately and loudly condemn these acts of barbarity. But Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim American leader, argues eloquently that this is unfair. She made her case to NBC’s Chuck Todd.
“According to the FBI, the majority of domestic terrorist attacks are actually committed by white, male Christians. . . . When those things occur, we don’t suspect other people who share their faith and ethnicity of condoning them. We assume that these things outrage them just as much as they do anyone else. And we have to afford that same assumption of innocence to Muslims.”
Muslims face a double standard, but I understand why. Muslim terrorists don’t just happen to be Muslim. They claim to be motivated by religion, cite religious justifications for their actions and tell their fellow Muslims to follow in their bloody path. There are groups around the world spreading this religiously infused ideology and trying to seduce Muslims to become terrorists. In these circumstances, it is important for the majority of Muslims who profoundly disagree with jihad to speak up.
But it is also important to remember that there are 1.6 billion Muslims on the planet. If you took the total number of deaths from terrorism last year — about 30,000 — and assumed that 50 people were involved in planning each one (a vastly exaggerated estimate), it would still add up to less than 0.1 percent of the world’s Muslims.
The writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a tough critic of Islam. She divides the Muslim world into two groups: Mecca Muslims and Medina Muslims. (The Koranic revelations to Muhammad made in Mecca are mostly about brotherhood and love; the ones in Medina have the fire and brimstone.) She estimates that 3 percent of the worldwide community are radical Medina Muslims, the other 97 percent being mainstream Mecca Muslims. Now, 3 percent works out to a large number, 48 million, and that’s why we spend lots of time, money and effort dealing with the threats that might emanate from them. But that still leaves the other 97 percent — the more than 1.55 billion — who are not jihadists. They may be reactionary and backward in many ways. But that is not the same as being terrorists.
While I believe that Muslims do bear a responsibility to speak up, non-Muslims also have a responsibility not to make assumptions about them based on such a small minority. Individuals should be judged as individuals and not placed under suspicion for some “group characteristic.” It is dehumanizing and un-American to do otherwise.
It also misunderstands how religion works in people’s lives. Imagine a Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York. He has not, in any meaningful sense, chosen to be Muslim. He was born into a religion, grew up with it, and like hundreds of millions of people around the world in every religion, follows it out of a mixture of faith, respect for his parents and family, camaraderie with his community and inertia. His knowledge of the sacred texts is limited. He is trying to make a living and provide for his family. For him, Islam provides identity and psychological support in a hard life. This is what religion looks like for the vast majority of Muslims.
But increasingly, Americans seem to view Muslims as actively propagating a dangerous ideology, like communist activists. It’s not just Donald Trump. Republican candidates are vying with each other to make insinuations and declarations about Islam and all Muslims. And it’s not just on the right. The television personality and outspoken liberal Bill Maher made the expansive generalization recently that “If you are in this religion, you probably do have values that are at odds [with American values].”
What is most bizarre is to hear this anti-Muslim rhetoric described as brave truth-telling. Trump insists that he will not be silenced on this issue. Chris Christie says that he will not follow a “politically correct” national security policy. They are simply feeding a prejudice. The reality is that Muslims are today the most despised minority in America. Their faith is constantly criticized, and they face insults, discrimination and a dramatic rise in acts of violence against them, as Max Fisher of Vox has detailed superbly. And the leading Republican candidate has flirted with the idea of registering Muslims, a form of collective punishment that has not been seen since the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.
This is the first time that I can recall watching politicians pander to mobs — and then congratulate themselves for their political courage.
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