Should Muslims Apologize?

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” -Issac Asimov


An interesting debate often surfaces following religiously motivated terrorist attacks.  Though details are still emerging on the Charlie Hebdo attack and related hostage situation at a Paris kosher market, it is becoming very clear that there attacks had ties to terrorist organizations.  Yesterday, media Sith Rupert Murdoch sent several controversial tweets stating that all "Moslems" are in some way responsible for these attacks.  The response by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (also linked below) and the general movement known as #MuslimApologies are very poignant.  The unfortunate debate we often have after terror attacks supposedly done in the name of Islam is this: Should Muslims Apologize? 

Perhaps a less sensationalist way to pose this question is: Should Muslims be expected to condemn acts of terrorism or violence conducted in the name of their religion?  Before addressing this questions directly, it is important to point out that the structure of the Islamic religion does not lend itself to such public expressions as easily as other religions.

For example, in Christianity (or Catholicism at least) the figurehead and voice of the church is the Pope.  The entire institution of the church acknowledges that he can speak on behalf of the church (even though many might disagree with what he says).  No such structure or figurehead exists within Islam.  Though the religious tradition says there was once a Caliph who was able to speak in much the same way, the office of Caliphate has not been widely recognized since 1924, and its legitimacy has been in question for over a thousand years.  There are individual Imams (the spiritual leader of a Mosque), religious scholars, and influential individuals or families in Islam (e.g. the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia), but no single recognized authority exists.

Instead, the very structure of Islam is community-based.  Imams are often looked at as community leaders as much as spiritual leaders, and different Mosques may not have much connection or association with each other.  There are, of course, larger groups and organizations of Muslims, but it is often said that, while Catholicism is structured from the top-down, Islam is structured from the bottom-up.  All this means that there is no "Islamic Pope" who hands down decrees and judgement.

Yet, communities, prominent Imams, and influential scholars can have widespread reach in the digital age.  So what obligation to Muslims have to denounce terrorism done in the name of Islam?  Well, it looks like many of these leaders have already spoken out against Islamic extremist violence (see article from Washington Post).  Organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America regularly denounce these acts, but their statements rarely receive meaningful press attention. 

Furthermore, most Muslims would say they do not identify in any way to terrorists.  They would argue that anyone committing acts like this are not true Muslims at all.  For example, should Christians everywhere publicly denounce the Ku Klux Klan? Should atheists all over the world loudly proclaim their disapproval for Stalin, Napoleon, and other violent atheist leaders?  I believe this speaks to a larger question, should anyone with a particular identity have to apologize for the worst among that identity?  

Finally, let's look at the vast majority of victims of attacks carried out in the name of Islam: Muslims themselves.  According to information from West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, Al Qaeda has killed nearly eight times as many Muslims as they have people of other religious backgrounds.  One story which has been circulating from the this attack is that of Lassana Bathily, a Muslim clerk from the kosher market hostage situation who risked her life to save several customers.  Additionally, Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer, was killed outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  Every day, millions of Muslims throughout the world are terrorized by extremists in places like Mosul, Nigeria, and Peshawar.  Life goes on as usual for most of us, but they live in constant fear of terror attacks.

In the end, it seems like statements condemning terror attacks are more about convincing non-Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace than reminding Muslims that their faith doesn't condone terrorism.  Rather demanding that they apologize, perhaps we ought to encourage Muslim communities to help rehabilitate those who begin turning towards violence.  It isn't that Muslims have the obligation to denounce terrorism (again, they are already doing that), but Muslim communities may be the most prepared and best equipped to help prevent some among their ranks from becoming radicalized.  Only when we stop blaming each other and start working towards solutions can meaningful change occur.

TL;DR: Even though they shouldn't have to, Muslims already are condemning attacks.  You just probably weren't paying attention.


Washington Post on Muslim Reactions to Terrorism

NPR on #MuslimApologies

J.K. Rowling Reacts to Murdoch Tweets

CTC Study on Victims of Terrorism

Muslim Police Officer Killed in Paris