The horrific massacre of innocent Muslims in Christchurch has ignited all sorts of debates around anti-Muslim extremism. Immediately in its wake, the New York Times published this op-ed, entitled “The Roots of the Christchurch Massacre,” with the deck “All those who have helped to spread the worldwide myth that Muslims are a threat have blood on their hands.”
Sadly, the Times contributor plays right into the narrative that feeds the ugly cycle that ultimately results in acts of hate and extremism like the one we saw in Christchurch.
On top of inadvertently parroting the ISIS maxim if you criticize Islam, people will die, it is precisely the conflations of Islam with Islamism, of Islam with Muslims and—most importantly—of Muslim with Islamist that muddy the waters on this issue. And those conflations also provide direct cover for violent extremists—both Muslim and anti-Muslim—to carry out acts of violence against their designated targets.
Muslims are followers of the Islamic faith. The term Muslim is all encompassing, and includes everyone from the quietest Sufis and Ahmadiyyas to the most hardline ISIS commanders and Saudi clerics. Islam is the 1400-year-old religion followed by the world’s nearly two billion Muslims. Islamism refers to the belief, held by some Muslims, that Islam is an all-encompassing system that should dictate all legal, political and social affairs. Islamists are Muslims who ultimately seek to replace every existing social and political system with an Islamic society, governed by sharia.
Someone can be a Muslim without being an Islamist.
The Islamophobia Industry
People who genuinely think that every single Muslim is a threat are thankfully very few in number. These people do exist, and they’re very capable of doing terrible things, as we saw in Christchurch. But, just as the majority of people called Mohammed are not extremists or Islamists, the vast majority of people called Islamophobes are not racists, and do not believe that all—or even most—Muslims are a threat. Many honest and well-meaning people believe that Islamist extremism is a profound threat—and for very good reason. It’s a threat we can’t afford to ignore, especially for the sake of the world’s moderate Muslims.
Unfortunately, in the West, there is very little space in the public sphere for these distinctions to be aired out and clarified. The question of who represents Islam is a messy and ambiguous one. In the US, for example, the most prominent Muslim organizations include the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim American Society (MAS) and Islamic Relief Worldwide. When these organizations and their members are not busy funneling tens of millions of dollars to terrorist groups like Hamas, Jamaat-e-Islami and various Al Qaeda affiliates, they are providing very large and regular public platforms to radical Islamist hate-preachers domestically. These organizations are working daily to advance their extremist agendas, while operating under a carefully cultivated public image, which presents them as benign charities and civil rights advocates speaking on behalf of marginalized Muslims. Thus, they largely go unchallenged.
This is by design. In the early 1990s, having noticed of the progressive trend of Western society with regards to race, religion, sexuality, etc., clever Islamist organizations with nefarious intentions went to work to exploit that liberalism. One prominent front organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT), coined the term Islamophobia, which has since proved a weapon of mass destruction in this debate.
Not only does it effectively serve its purpose by silencing any and all critics of Islam and Islamism, it also completely destroys their credibility by making them appear as vile and ugly as white supremacists and racists, thus enabling the marginalized Islamist groups to quickly take control of the narrative. The Islamists were quick to catch on to the fact that the first one to loudly cry racist gets to frame the course of the entire debate.
In his posthumous manifesto, the late Charlie Hebdo editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, eloquently writes: “Forgive me, but the fact that racists may also be ‘Islamophobic’ is purely incidental. They are racists first, and merely use Islam to target their intended victim: the foreigner or person of foreign extraction.”
In the wake of an atrocity like the one in New Zealand, Charb’s words are truer now than ever.
Plugging the Volcano
Today, anybody—Muslim or non-Muslim—who dares to try to expose Islamist extremists for what they are is accused of Islamophobia, and of spreading hate-speech by the louder, more radical Muslims.
This happened to Salman Rushdie thirty years ago, after he published The Satanic Verses. People all around the world, including leaders of the Vatican, internalized the fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini, and solidified the overarching message that what Rushdie did was wrong—even in a free, Western, non-Muslim society. He was forced into hiding and effectively thrown under the bus, even by representatives of his own society, for the crime of writing a fictional novel, which was seen as offensive to the Prophet of Islam.
Next, came the 2005 Danish cartoon affair and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. In both cases, the attacks themselves and the reactions they invoked further cemented the narrative that, even in the West, the longstanding values, traditions and principles of a free and liberal society may readily be pushed aside in order to appease the adherents of a hardline, radical interpretation of one particular religion—and if the instruments of the state do nothing about the encroaching threat of blasphemers, then vigilantes with Kalashnikovs will.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that criticisms of the Prophet Muhammad are not protected by free speech, after an Austrian woman was accused of saying that he was a fifty-six-year-old who “liked to do it with kids.” The defendant had to either pay a fine of £480 ($634) or spend sixty days in prison.
Considering that he is the prophet of nearly two billion people, you’d surely expect Mohammed not to need a European Court or global fatwa to defend him. And, for most moderate Muslims, that is true.
But the larger issue is that when a European court sets a legal precedent dictated by the will and the ambitions of Islamist extremists, it creates a public misperception that these truly are mainstream positions in Islam advocated by the majority of Muslims—and not just by the loudest and most violent Islamists. Often, the people targeted by Islamists and intimidated into silence are moderate Muslims belonging to minority sects, especially Ahmadiyyas and Sufis.
And it certainly does no one—least of all actual moderate Muslims—any favors when people who claim to be liberal and moderate go on international TV to condemn the people who drew the Muhammad cartoons as racists and Islamophobes before uttering anything resembling a condemnation of the Islamists, who murdered cartoonists in cold blood for making a joke. This goes over really well with the white supremacists and anti-Muslim bigots, who feel empowered to act, since even the moderates think it’s okay to kill people for drawing a cartoon.
When all legitimate criticisms—or jokes—about Islam, Islamism and Islamist terrorism are silenced— whether through the state apparatus or using an AK-47—the misconception that Muslims and Islamists are one and the same will continue unchecked, soon to find its way into the mind of a disenfranchised extremist, who feels that the only available outlet left to express his grievances is violent vigilantism.
British author and journalist Douglas Murray has referred to this phenomenon as “plugging up the volcano.” Whenever society attempts to sidestep the underlying roots of an issue to tackle only the secondary, reactionary problems, it’s like plugging the crater of an active volcano up at the top, which will inevitably lead to the volcano bursting out of its side from the built-up pressure inside—making matters much, much worse.
The last thing I wish to do is to victim-blame the Muslim community. But, in this scenario, the volcano that is being plugged is an honest and open discussion of the problems with Islamist extremism, and the catastrophic and deadly explosion is the Christchurch massacre.
This is evidenced in part by the writing scribbled on the weapons used by the shooter during the massacre. Among other cryptic names and symbols, one of messages reads “For Rotherham.” This is an apparent reference to the recent grooming gang scandal in Rotherham, England, in which gangs of predominantly Muslim men were involved in the kidnapping, trafficking, abuse and gang rape of over 1500 British girls, aged as young as eleven. For many, one of the most scandalous things about the affair was that there were systematic attempts by the government, media and even the police to suppress the fact that this was happening in an attempt to avoid being seen as racially or religiously insensitive to the communities involved. The few outlets that did report on the incident carefully referred to the perpetrators, comprised almost exclusively of men of Bangladeshi, Afghani and Pakistani origin, as Asians.
With fewer and fewer platforms for people in a free society to voice their honest concerns about radicalism, there is more and more toxic potential energy bubbling beneath the surface with no way out except through the barrel of an actual white supremacist’s assault rifle at 2,500 feet per second.
Reclaiming Moderate Islam
Islam is anything but a monolith. The first step towards preventing the future radicalization of anti-Muslim extremists (which would also help prevent the radicalization of Islamist extremists) is for the public—especially moderate Muslims—to be allowed to air their legitimate concerns about Islamism and challenge the extremist organizations, who currently claim to speak on their behalf. Instead, the narrative of an attack on our beliefs is an attack on all of us prevails. It is especially crucial that the quiet moderate Muslims vocally and unequivocally divorce themselves from Islamist narratives.
The rejection of Islamist extremism must be allowed to become normalized. And this normalization must begin with vocal moderate Muslims, so that the extremists are not granted the opportunity to take shelter behind the uninformed and naive progressives and intersectionalists, who are happy to fight off the so-called racists, bigots and Islamophobes for them. Unfortunately, as matters currently stand, they are the ones controlling the narrative. Right now, they are the ones who claim to represent the collective voice of the highly diverse Muslim communities in the West.
All this only further confirms the conspiratorial predispositions that ultimately propel violent anti-Muslim extremists to act on their murderous impulses against those who they feel are infringing on the customs and traditions of their own societies. Consequently, there is a ripple effect, which pushes everybody further out towards the extremes. Moderates become conservatives. Conservatives become right-wing nationalists. And right-wing nationalists become vicious, cold-blooded mass shooters.
Unless the extremists are exposed and a space is cleared to allow for that to happen in public debate, moderates will likely never be regarded as rational or credible actors and will be continually silenced as Islamophobes and bigots. Therefore, Muslims must be allowed a safe environment in which they can say that they reject Islamism. Or that they reject the intolerance and violence advocated by extremist readings of Islam. Or that they don’t care if you eat pork, or drink beer, or draw Muhammad, or worship a different god, or whatever else. In my experience, the majority of Western Muslims are basically on board with all of that. They’re just very quiet.
Perhaps part of the problem is that, because they are so moderate and liberal, they are much less concerned with their religion than their radical co-religionists, and therefore can hardly be bothered to pay much attention to what groups like CAIR and ICNA are doing or what their local imam might be preaching behind the closed doors of a mosque. They’re probably busy being functional members of their societies, who just happen to pray five times a day and fast during the month of Ramadan. Many of them might even go out with you for a beer after work. Why should people like that be considered any less Muslim than the hardliners and extremists, who claim to be the gatekeepers of what it truly means to be a Muslim?
This is all complicated by the de facto alliance between the far-left, progressive, intersectional bunch and radical Islamist groups, who claim to be marginalized victims of the so-called Islamophobic and white supremacist status quo. These people are only pushing Muslims away from moderation and towards extremism by convincing them that they are living in a society that views them as enemies. They are sold the conspiracy theory that law enforcement is out to get them simply for being Muslim as part of some presumably Zionist, neoconservative, Islamophobic cabal to steal oil from the Middle East and kill even more Muslims—or something to that effect.
This only reinforces the us vs. them divide between Muslims and the larger societies to which they belong, and makes them believe that resistance against the perceived oppressor is justified. And that there is nothing radical about believing what they believe or behaving as they behave.
The radical white supremacists and the Islamists have this, too, in common. They both believe that how their tribe interacts with other tribes within society is adequate justification for any atrocities they might commit.
If the media, politicians and members of the public all continue to create an environment in which anybody with honest concerns about radical Islamism is simply grouped in with violent anti-Muslim extremists, it is inevitable that actual violent anti-Muslim extremists won’t make the distinction between everyday, moderate Muslims and radical Islamist extremists. Allowing such a crucial distinction to be slowly diminished, in an environment of censorship and silencing, will only set further, increasingly deadly precedents, and, unfortunately, the victims will, once again, be innocent people, who have simply committed the crime of belonging to the wrong faith.