Based on a Facebook status.
After this week’s attacks, it seems some people do know what to say. First there are those who say the right response to massacres in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut is to shoot Muslims in their nearest towns, who are no doubt discussing how and when to attack mosques; some declare their intent to rejoin the armed forces where they are, while politicians say the same words their predecessors did last time round, which fed paranoid, racist fears and helped give birth to the Islamic State now bombing them. How much has changed these fourteen years, and how little.
Then there are those who see Muslims threatened and step in to defend Islam’s honour, claiming its true teachings could never inspire violence. We hear a lot about the true versions of religions — true Christianity, it’s said, never breeds homophobia — though they rarely seem to have had historical traction. The argument goes that no faith causes problems, only its corruption by people, politics and power — as if religions would be harmless if only they weren’t part of human societies. There it goes again, the True Faith being corrupted by a realistic social context.
It’s got a lot of slogans, this approach. There’s the statement bombings reflect extremism, not religion, as if can’t be both; the statement fighters for ISIL aren’t ‘real’ Muslims, whatever a real Muslim is; that since most aren’t killers, religion can’t be relevant; that those claiming responsibility for Paris and Baghdad aren’t motivated by their faith despite saying so, and would only ‘find another excuse’ if they didn’t believe in God. For many progressives, the only response to attacks on Muslims is that ISIL has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam, fundamentalism nothing to do with religion.
There are critiques of this viewpoint beyond the weakness of its arguments, three of which are worth outlining. Firstly, it strips facts of context. If you’re a Shiite in Beirut and people you know have been killed as ‘refractory infidels’ — if ISIL claims their deaths ‘avenged the dignity’ of Muhammad’s companions, whose accession your tradition rejects, and connects you with heathen pre-Islamic religion through a mangling of the name Hezbollah — how likely are you to think this has ‘nothing to do with’ Islam? Don’t Islam and its history have a great deal to do with it?
Second: erasing religions’ role in atrocities produces splash damage. If it’s taboo to acknowledge faith’s contribution to brutality, how can the people affected move on whose sanity depends on that? I have colleagues who grew up in Hezbollah country, others who’ve lived under the threat of forced marriage, others who listened to their siblings scream when knives were taken to their genitals. Denying the ‘true’ faith could have done this means saying the worst thing any survivor can told: that what they experienced wasn’t real.
Thirdly, most critically: reacting to the attacks on Muslims that follow events like last week’s by shielding the public image of Islam denies that the rights of Muslims are as universal as any group’s. It buys into the idea discussions of religion’s role in violent acts must be a referendum on those rights — that if it ISIL were as ‘real’ a product of Islam as Sufism, if Islam did contribute to bombings as Christianity and Hinduism do, it just might be okay to push a woman wearing a headscarf under a train or shoot your Muslim neighbours dead.
It isn’t okay no matter Islam’s record, not because that record is sancrosanct, but because the rights of Muslims not to be terrorised don’t rest on it — because there is nothing ISIL will ever do for which individual believers half the world away are culpable, or which justifies fascism or McCarthyism. (Could ISIL hope for anything better than mass hostility to Muslims in the west?) It’s possible to see religion as one cause of attacks like last week’s, in a vast, complex nexus of factors, and know Muslims fleeing ISIL don’t deserve to be punished, hounded or harassed.
Similarly: it’s possible to be terrified by attacks on refugees and fire-bombings of mosques without thinking religious violence is ‘nothing to do with’ religion; without treating religion and ‘extremism’ as non-overlapping phenomena, or applying arbitrary and inconsistent tests for which kinds of Muslim count as ‘real’; without saying silly, ahistorical things about religions being ‘perverted’, or that believers who murder people are wrong about their own motives, and would behave the same in a world without religion — because shut up, they just would.
We don’t need bad apologetics to refrain from collectively dehumanising believers. Muslims don’t deserve to be treated as human beings because their religion is a squeaky-clean monolith of peace and love that never produces anything bad — they deserve to be treated as human because they are, and because no amount of harm a religion might cause makes all its followers responsible. If that’s not obvious, it’s because we’re used to debating brown people’s humanity: we can allow Islam to be critiqued without making Muslims’ conditional.