How Do We Talk About Islam After Charlie Hebdo?

Screenshot of CNN's Don Lemon asking human rights lawyer and editor of Islamic Monthly, Arsalan Iftikhar whether he supports ISIS.

So here we go again—militants acting in the name of Islam go on a murderous rampage. They shout “God is great” and declare their fealty to the Prophet Muhammad while they kill and terrorize. Sickening déjà vu moments. For all those who want assurance that Islam is indeed on a collision course with the West (and vice versa), the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris served to do just that.

Add to that the continuous carnage being wreaked by the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (or Da‘ish) under the banner of a revived “caliphate” and there can be little doubt, it seems, that Muslims are increasingly devolving into killing machines motivated by blind rage. Such a phenomenon is furthermore understandable because Muslims supposedly can draw seamlessly from Islamic history and vocabulary to provide justification for their violence.

No matter how many learned books and articles are written about the rich, diverse, tolerant, and dynamic Islamic tradition, some will continue to choose to believe in this frightening narrative. In a recent New York Times column Thomas Friedman almost gleefully referred to a Moroccan man known as “Brother Rachid,” who declared that he had renounced Islam and who was subsequently moved to counsel President Barack Obama thus:

Dear Mr. President, I must tell you that you are wrong about ISIL. You said ISIL speaks for no religion. I can tell you with confidence that ISIL speaks for Islam. … ISIL’s 10,000 members are all Muslims. … They come from different countries and have one common denominator: Islam. They are following Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in every detail. … They have called for a caliphate, which is a central doctrine in Sunni Islam.

Brother Rachid, whose program has aired on evangelical satellite channel Alhayat TV for nearly a decade, may or may not be telling the truth about his past, but his invocation makes it possible for Friedman to articulate a prevalent accusation against Muslims in toto without appearing to explicitly endorse it.

So the ritual begins in the wake of Charlie Hebdo—condemnations of the perpetrators must be made, especially by Muslim groups, which sometimes but not always will make it to the front pages of major Western newspapers. More clever op-ed pieces will be written insinuating that it’s not extremist Islam that’s responsible for such barbarities but Islam itself. Other, more level-headed essays will warn of overreacting to violent fringe elements in any religious tradition and warn against besmirching Muslims en masse on the basis of the actions of a few. It’s all too depressingly predictable and sickeningly familiar.

Those of us who teach Islamic Studies in various American institutions are particularly entitled to shudder when such violent actions in the name of Islam occur, for we are frequently asked to parse and explain such actions to our students and sometimes to the press. As specialists, of course we know that saving a human life is of the highest priority in Islamic ethics; of course we know that Islam does not condone attacks upon civilians; and of course we know that Muslim jurists deemed such attacks in Arabic hiraba (terrorism).

Sometimes our statements are met with skepticism; we’re accused by Islamophobic pundits of being apologists not only for Islam but, worse, for terrorism. And these days it’s getting harder and harder to get these facts across because frankly they seem to be belied by the spate of violence being committed by fanatical Islamist radicals.

It would be tempting to give in and stop trying to convey historically nuanced information in the face of such pushback. It’s also tempting to stop trying to counter an equally frightening rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment in the West. But then we would fail as educators. It may seem trite and banal but the antidote to extremism and bigotry remains education which stresses exposure to complex concepts, historically nuanced data, and, yes, even to religious ideas.

A pervasive historical and religious illiteracy in contemporary societies has led to historical amnesia and religious myopia so acute that, at the popular level, opinion-makers often seem to either trade in empty dogma and religio-nationalist slogans and/or fall prey to them. As educators we have a mandate to convey our perspectives to a broader public, whenever such opportunities present themselves, to help provide much-needed historical context and balance.

Finally there is one more thing that Muslims in particular can and should be doing to avoid falling short of what their own religious tradition expects of them. The Qur’an (5:8) exhorts, “Let not the hatred of others towards you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.”

There will always be injustice in this world—like members of other religious groups, Muslims will continue to be victims of political oppression and their faith will continue to be targeted and lampooned by those who despise them simply for being Muslims. If they are worth their salt, Muslims will take the high moral ground as their holiest text adjures them to do and refuse to stoop to injustice themselves, regardless of the provocation. A tall order but one worth striving for—not only because it is commanded but also because there is no other effective and moral way of combatting what is wrong.