The past few decades have been a difficult time for the public image of modern Islam throughout the world (and the West in particular). Failed states, sectarian conflict, and the unfortunate phenomenon of global terrorism have left many people believing that the entire religion is full of violent, crazed radicals hell-bent on America's destruction. As we have detailed before, this is certainly not the case. Yet, the belief remains as strong as ever.
But this belief often implicates non-adherents who seek to defend the religion too. Or, as one individual this author met once put it "Why do Liberals always defend Islam?" Naturally, the assertion that only "Liberals" defend the religion is totally false. But with America set to receive its 10,000th Syrian refugee this week (further enraging those who broadly condemn anyone they believe to be Muslim), it's worth discussing anyway. This week, we look at a few of the main reasons people defend the religion.
1) The majority of the religion and its adherents are peaceful
Since this post is all about combating broad, sweeping generalizations, it seems only appropriate to start with a broad generalization in response. The majority of the religion and its adherents are peaceful. Most Western intelligence agencies estimate that less than one percent of Muslims are at risk of becoming extremists. Nearly any group will have a small number of radicals, but part of the reason even these numbers are so high is a result of the instability and suffering which has plagued predominantly Muslim areas for centuries. We see extremism in nearly every country with instability or active warfare, but (despite media narratives to the contrary) Islamic extremism is focused primarily on targeting people in countries throughout the Middle East.
Even if they aren't all radicals, surely their "backwards" society is something to feel superior about right? Sadly, the perception that many people see of the entire religion comes from the most oppressive examples. For example, strict Islamic dress is only mandated in a handful of countries, and outright banned in some areas of others. Human rights are notoriously bad in many of the Persian Gulf countries, but we conveniently forget that appalling human rights abuses are prevalent throughout the world, regardless of the official religion of the government. You know, it almost seems like governments are just using (abusing?) religion as a means to consolidate and exercise power...
2) Blaming Islam ignores the real problems: Instability, poverty, and resentment
Sure, it's a lot easier to just say all those bad people are following a "false" religion and that's why they have problems. But that line of thinking (besides being delusional) doesn't actually do anything to solve the problem (unless your problem is wanting to feel better than them). As many professionals have argued, the root causes of extremism are varied and often hard to determine. Sometimes terrorists are poor and uneducated, other times they are well-off and intelligent. But nearly all of them also hold deep feelings of alienation or resentment to their government or society.
The reality is that violence tends to beget violence. Those who are already the victims of institutionalized discrimination are more likely to commit crimes (either out of a desire to commit violence or as a means of self-preservation). It is this initial exposure to violence, more than almost any other factor, that helps predict whether or not an individual becomes radicalized. This is becoming a serious problem in prisons throughout Europe, where radicalization happens at an alarming rate. It is also why proposals which actively discriminate against Muslims are so dangerous, because they increase the possibility of people ending up in the prison system to begin with. But that's not the only problem with discriminatory laws and rhetoric...
3) Dividing the issue into Us vs. them creates more problems
By perpetuating the narrative that Islam should have to defend itself, we run the risk of creating a false dichotomy between "Us vs. Them." Not only does this unfairly paint otherwise good people as enemies, but it also directly threatens national security. As we have discussed before, counter-terrorism relies heavily on the use of Muslim allies to gather intelligence and stop potential plots. Few people would be willing to lend their support or assistance to a government that directly labels them as an enemy. This has already played out on an international stage as well. Recent comments by some potential presidential candidates have already caused tensions in relations between the American government and several Middle East allies. Even if their commitment to a friendly relationship with the United States is suspect (which it sometimes is), actively severing this relationship with accusations of complacency doesn't exactly solve anything.
The "Us vs. Them" ideology also creates serious problems when attempting to combat the ideology of extremism itself. Ideas have power, and countering violent ideologies is critically important in reducing extremism. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have admitted that they want people to believe the West is at war with Islam, so statements or policy positions which promote this view or create discrimination are doing the extremist's recruitment work for them. In short, if we treat an innocent person like an enemy long enough, is it really any surprise when they finally decide to become one?
4) Blindly Blaming One Group Leads To Some Dark Places
But even beyond the factual and practical problems with falsely accusing an entire religion of a crime, there are several moral problems as well. When radical ideologies (like the belief that all Muslims are complacent in terrorism) start to gain traction, they can quickly turn violent. Sure, it starts innocently enough with asking why Muslims don't condemn terrorism (they do). But then this belief can morph in to general disdain for all adherents of a religion. From there, general violence or discriminatory polices might not seem so bad (since in theory they are all complacent in terrorism anyway). And once state sponsored discrimination begins, that's when true atrocities can occur. Already, politicians are proposing extreme vetting and putting all Muslims on special lists, so it's not an exaggeration to say that this is the exact line of thinking that led to things like the Japanese internment during the Second World War. That's why people are so quick to jump on groups that shame and denigrate all Muslims.
All of this isn't meant to pretend that terrorists or radicals aren't doing what they do in part because of their religion. Nor does it pretend that modern Islam doesn't have a serious problem of mainstream radicalism. Overall, many of the spiritual and political leaders throughout the Muslim world will have to contend with this reality. What mainstream Islam needs now is support for this effort, not shame, ridicule, and resentment for the small minority of radicals within their ranks. They are fighting a battle too.
The truth is that our perception of reality is due in large part to the news media. They focus intensely on violence when it potentially involves a Muslim because it scares people. That drives ratings which in turn drives revenue. Just this week, a plane was redirected to Minneapolis because someone was attempting to open a locked door and acting erratically. If this person had been suspected of being Muslim, you can guarantee it would have made national news. But since this person seemed to be suffering from mental illness, it barely made the local headlines (like almost anything involving mental illness these days). So long as people continue to cower in fear over the Muslim boogeyman, the media will continue to pretend that we are on the brink of annihilation. Those who know better will continue to defend an admittedly troubled, but mostly peaceful religion. It's not being politically correct, it's being morally and factually correct