Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Exploding the myth of Muslim silence

That's the purpose of an interesting piece by Stephen Schwartz, author of "The Two Faces of Islam."

In it he argues that the media ignores moderate Muslims while covering the radicals in lavish, horrific detail, painting a distorted picture of the faith. The centerpiece of the article is a deconstruction of coverage of the plot to attack Fort Dix. He notes that the plotters weren't, as first assumed, Kosovo Albanian Muslims. They were, instead, ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who came here as children and were radicalized in Arab-dominated Wahhabi mosques. His point is that the media misses distinctions between different kinds of Muslims, lumping peaceful, moderate Albanians in with violent Wahhabis.

He then cites several examples of Muslim commentary on the case -- all of it condemning the plot -- that he says got scant coverage.

I didn't follow the Fort Dix story closely enough to judge whether he's right on that score, but the piece once again points up the intellectual bankruptcy of those who demand that Muslims "speak out" against terror. Continuing to make that argument ignores several relevant facts:

1. They do. All the time. I've cited multiple examples in the past year.

2. Demands that Muslims take the lead assume that moderate Muslims have some sort of connection to (or influence over) the extremists. What are (for example) American Muslims supposed to do: Call up Al-Qaeda and yell at them? They don't have AQ's number any more than you or I do, nor will their words be heeded any more than yours or mine.

3. Few groups spend a lot of time flagellating themselves for the extremists in their midst.

Let's expand on that last point for a moment because it's an important one, tied in with assumptions about group identity that simply are not true.

The underlying logic of the "Muslims must denounce terrorism" goes as follows: The terrorists are Islamic, and therefore Muslims have a particular duty to denounce Islamic terror.

This is reasonable to an extent: disavowing the nutjobs operating under your banner is sometimes necessary.

But where it goes off the rails is when people demand that every Muslim denounce every act of Islamic terror every time one occurs.

This is ridiculous. Every time a Christian commits murder, are Christians obligated to go on television and state the obvious -- that murder is wrong and the offender doesn't represent Christian views?

Of course not. They can simply state once (or occasionally) that murder is wrong and unChristian. Actually, they don't even have to do that; it's considered obvious that murder is wrong, so they aren't required to say anything. Silence is not assent in such cases.

So why are Muslims treated differently? Because groups are always good at pointing out the mote in other groups' eyes, even while giving their own members the benefit of the doubt. Do conservatives regularly call out nutjob conservatives? No. Liberals do that, and conservatives disavow them if necessary. Do liberals regularly call out liberal nutjobs? No; conservatives do that, and then liberals disavow them if necessary.

In this country, who spends time identifying atheist/agnostic misbehavior? Believers. Who are most likely to point out believer wrongdoing? Atheists/agnostics.

Simply put, groups are horrible at policing their own, because doing so requires admitting some kinship between your own beliefs and those of the nutjobs -- admitting that your beliefs can be twisted to bad ends. No one likes doing that.

Beyond that, when you're in the group you know that the extremists are just that -- extremists, a tiny minority that do not represent the group as a whole. They are shunned, dismissed; psychologically, the majority separates themselves from the whackjobs to the point they no longer feel kinship with them -- and thus no particular responsibility to account for their actions. Hence Christians feel no particular need to respond every time a Christian misbehaves, and Muslims feel no particular need to respond every time a member of some fundamentalist sect detonates a car bomb.

This is especially true when the actions cross national and sectarian boundaries. Demanding that a mainstream American Muslim denounce fundamentalist terrorism is like demanding that Lutherans denounce the actions of Baptists -- or, more aptly, Christian Identity adherents. It's actually even sillier than that, because at least in the example above everyone involved is American. In the case of Islamic terror, we're demanding that American Muslims feel responsibility not just for another sect, but for another country and culture. So it's more like demanding that Lutherans apologize for the atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army.

Now, political reality is a different matter, and not always fair; in this day and age, there is more political need for Muslims to speak out than there is for Christians. But that doesn't make demands that they do so any less illogical. Nor does it justify the assumptions made about them when they fail to speak up in any given instance.

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Blogger mw said...

Great post, Sean. Thanks.

5/23/2007 5:52 PM  
Blogger GistOut said...

" like demanding that Lutherans ..."

Nice analogy. Cited in Archive of Metaphor and Analogy.

11/12/2007 7:16 AM  

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