Honesty about Islam and Islamism

Honesty about Islam and Islamism

On Jan. 8, a day after the deadly attacks by Islamist terrorists on the Charlie Hebdo offices, The New York Times ran an article with the headline, “‘Dangerous Moment’ for Europe as Fear and Resentment Grow.” Reporters in Paris predicted that the National Front and other right-wing nationalist groups would undoubtedly exploit the tragedy to stoke fears about Muslim immigration and integration. “The attack left some Muslims fearing a backlash,” according to the article.

Granted, this was one day before the terrorist siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris that left four hostages dead. And indeed, The New Yorker reports that in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the magazine, traffic surged on the Facebook page of National Front leader Marine Le Pen and that “she picked up thousands of new followers.”

Still, I am guessing that with the killers still on the loose, the backlash against France’s Muslims was not the main thing on the minds of France’s terrified citizenry — Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The Times article, suitable perhaps for another day, seemed ill-timed and reflexive. Yes, France’s Muslims do not deserve to be punished for the deeds of an extremist minority. And how Europe’s politics will be shaped by the attacks is a subject worthy of analysis. But the article and its front-page placement seemed an attempt to deflect from the prevalent story line — the scourge of a radical strain of Islam and its followers.

It’s a noble impulse, I suppose. At a time when people might be tempted to demonize Islam for the acts of its most radical elements, the Times article was a reminder that Muslims too are victims of the extremists in their midst. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made this impulse explicit in a column, written within hours of the attack, titled “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?” “Small numbers of terrorists make headlines,” he wrote, “but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents.” 

Again, an honorable sentiment, but sometimes such honorable sentiments mask a clear and present danger, from Syria, to Iraq, to Pakistan. Radical elements, in the name of Islam, seem to glory in bloodshed as a means of exerting their cruel and nihilistic version of the Koran. Asserting that “this is not Islam” seems to forestall scrutiny of the tenets and practices of a faith that, even accounting for the peaceful, non-radical majority, seems to have spawned an extremist cult with at times troubling ties to the “mainstream.”

It took another New Yorker writer, George Packer, to find the sweet spot between “all Muslims are to blame” and “Islam is a religion of peace.” Packer diagnoses what I’ll call the “Kristof problem”: “Some well-meaning people tiptoe around the Islamic connection, claiming that the carnage has nothing to do with faith, or that Islam is a religion of peace, or that, at most, the violence represents a ‘distortion’ of a great religion,” writes Packer. 

And yet, he reminds us, “A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique.”

Packer’s acknowledgement of this substantial minority is not a call to suppress the majority. Honesty about beliefs and practices of any religion is not synonymous with intolerance. But honesty, on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, may be the first step in finding solutions. Yes, it will mean increased scrutiny on radical imams and the madrassas that teach hate and intolerance — scrutiny within the bounds of our values of freedom of expression and religion, but scrutiny nonetheless. Prominent Muslims will need to step up their games and not just denounce violence but propose systematic ways to counter radicalism across the Muslim world. And countries like France will need to look at the conditions that radicalize disenfranchised youth, and work with Muslim community leaders in ameliorating them. 

And one last thing about honesty: It’s not a license to slander whole communities on the basis of those beliefs either. Frankly, too many of my fellow Jews engage in this kind of defamation, exploiting — no less than Marine Le Pen — “I told you so” moments like last week’s terror as a vindication of their chauvinism. They write and follow blogs that belittle Islam, spread unfounded fears of Sharia taking hold in the heartland, and label every Muslim critic of Israel a terrorist or fellow traveler. And too many have used the label “Islamist” to discredit or undermine constructive solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the targeting of Jews by Islamist terrorists, like last week’s obscene attack and a series of assaults in France that preceded it, I understand the impulse, believe me. But as Benjamin Netanyahu put it in his remarks at the Grand Synagogue of Paris, “Our shared enemy is radical Islam, not Islam and not just radicals — radical Islam. This form of Islam has many names: ISIS, Hamas, Boko Haram, Al Qaida, al-Nusra, al-Shabab, Hizbullah; but they are all branches from the same poison tree.” It’s a tree that can be pruned, without destroying its roots or main branches.

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