A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion on the state of domestic terrorism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
A seasoned foreign correspondent from a well-known newspaper sat next to me, furiously scribbling on her pad. After the presentations ended, the journalist stood and posed a question to the lone Muslim panelist, who represented a prominent, national advocacy organization for American Muslims:
…[T]alking about the hate [Islamophobia] industry. I think this rhetoric of hate, it doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not being made up of whole cloth. . . . I lived a lot in the Muslim world. There is something going on. . . .You are seeing really scary things happening. . . . People see this. . . . They’re scared to death . . . .
Do you think the Muslim American community is doing enough to counter this not unreasonable fear?. . . .
The Muslim panelist gave a nuanced answer. Gently challenging the journalist’s premise, he noted that American Muslims had consistently condemned violence committed in the name of Islam. He also referenced research demonstrating the ways in which vested interests often exclude these dissenting voices from the mainstream media.
As news broke on September 12 of the tragic death of several U.S. diplomats in Libya, the absurdity of that journalist’s question stood in stark relief against the words of remorse and outrage pouring in from Muslims around the United States and abroad.
The deaths in Libya came a top a wave of protests sparked by an American-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a child molester and womanizer, among other less than flattering portrayals. In the course of only a few days, demonstrations, which began in Egypt, spread to Libya, Yemen, and other countries in the crudely defined “Muslim world.”
Some analysts have rightly argued that political and economic reasons, rather than mere religious zealotry, provide a better explanation for these recent events. Many Muslims in the United States and elsewhere have, however, largely eschewed this deeper reflective analysis. Instead, they have nudged, hollered, and screamed their unequivocal condemnation of these demonstrations, issuing blanket apologies on behalf of Islam and Muslim-kind.
The statements have ranged from self-described rants to finger wagging at Muslims aboard and in the United States to shape up and fly right. There have been Facebook posts galore from ordinary American Muslims apologizing for the actions of their co-religionists and reassuring their fellow citizens that Islam and the majority of Muslims do not subscribe to the violent behaviors on display.
Twitter campaigns were created to transmit these messages far and wide. American Muslim advocacy organizations gave interviews, issued formal statements, and held press conferences to ensure the condemnations and apologies received a national forum.
Perhaps the most poignant gestures of remorse came from Muslims abroad, including photos of hand-written messages of sadness and apology from ordinary Libyans to people in the United States.
My journalist neighbor of a few weeks ago could not have asked the global Muslim community for more full throated, unequivocal rejection of and apology for the “really scary thing” that had just happened. Of course, the same levels of community outrage had been consistently voiced over the last eleven years as Muslims found themselves increasingly depicted as one undifferentiated mass acting with one hand and thinking with one brain.
Will my journalist neighbor remember this latest round of vocal and impassioned condemnation from the global Muslim community? Probably not. Will she and others continue to demand that Muslims around the world take responsibility for the actions of those who act in Islam’s name? Sadly, it’s likely. Will many Muslims in America and other places continue to oblige these expectations? Unfortunately, all signs point to yes.
Of course, violence, whether religiously affiliated or not, should be condemned. There are, however, numerous problems with Muslims in the United States and around the world assuming culpability for actions taken by those acting under the titular banner of Islam.
Let us put aside the many ways in which these expectations undermine meaningful conversation about the factors contributing to these incidents and the stereotypes they reinforce about Islam’s so-called “violent” tendencies.
Let us, instead, consider how these pressures perpetuate and continue cycles of violence and discrimination in the West and the Middle East.
Bigotry meets violence when essentialist and reductivist attitudes hold sway and connections are unquestioningly created between the acts of the individual and the identity of entire nations, ethnicities, or global religious communities.
These sorts of unreflective, one-dimensional approaches to complex global events set the stage for the murder of innocent individuals at the Oak Creek Sikh temple, the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Tennessee only hours after the Wisconsin shooting, and the controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero several years ago.
The same tendencies also mark the embassy attacks. Those protesting the film assigned blanket blame to the United States for an inconsequential movie that happened to have an American pedigree.
There is no indication that the film was financed by the U.S. government or was anything other than privately produced. It has, nevertheless, undoubtedly been used, in part, as a proxy for political grievances with the U.S. government. Its utility aside, that a private American film could be painted with such a broad-brush speaks to the destructive reductivist tendencies at play.
Those fanning the flames of hatred against the United States and the West share much in common with those holding Islam’s adherents responsible for the actions of their fellow believers. Muslims who give in and accept this culpability give further credence, however unintentional, to the collapsing of diversity and difference and the reinforcement of bigotry and hatred.
Through their well-intentioned efforts, they reduce the actions of the few to the guilt of the many. They blur distinctions between individual, particularized motives and universal religious identity. It’s no wonder that their outrage and apologies do little to appease perceptions about the Muslim community’s failure to “speak out”. Actions, as they say, are louder than words. If “they” were truly sorry, wouldn’t these attacks end?
Of course, confronting the dominant narrative on Muslim culpability is as daunting as it is important. A media industry that largely ignores challenges to this narrative coupled with a vocal minority eager to paint American Muslims as a fifth column represent only some of the obstacles.
Hoping perhaps to improve perceptions of their community, it is understandable if shortsighted that many Muslim leaders in the United States have chosen to accept this narrative of blame. It, nevertheless, remains necessary to chip away at these expectations not only for Muslims, who are its more obvious victims, but also for all Americans who hope to confront and overcome bigotry and the violence it engenders.
Writing a few weeks after September 11th, the great cultural critic, Edward Said, captured the intimate connections between and destructive effects of the various forms and sources of cultural reductivism:
How finally inadequate are the labels, generalizations and cultural assertions. At some level, for instance, primitive passions and sophisticated know-how converge in ways that give the lie to a fortified boundary not only between ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ but also between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and debate. A unilateral decision made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism and, in Paul Wolfowitz’s nihilistic vocabulary, to end nations entirely, doesn’t make the supposed entities any easier to see; rather, it speaks to how much simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, ‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs.’
These are not tendencies unique to Muslims or Americans or the current geopolitical world we find ourselves in. Rather, they are trends that are deeply rooted in human history. Instead of throwing our hands up in alarm and frustration at their continued strength, we must stop empowering these perspectives. This means ending the cycle of guilt and apologetics that reinforces destructive stereotypes and misdirects responsibility and blame.
We should all be sorry whenever narrow-mindedness defeats empathy, and violence wins out over acceptance. We should not, however, apologize or take responsibility for these defeats on the basis of a shared ethnic, religious, or national background. Instead, our responsibility lies in ending the cycle of intolerance and cultural essentialism that allows those defeats to continue.