Shortly after news broke last week of the tragic murders in Chattanooga, Tenn., Muslims across the country took to social media to issue their condemnations of the shooting, including Muslim communities in Nashville, New York, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Advisory Council .
Nevertheless, an all-too-predictable wave of Islamophobia followed. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced President Obama because the president did not call the shooting an act of “Islamic terrorism.” And evangelical leader Franklin Graham posted on Facebook that “We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled.”
But as Ken Chitwood reminds us in “A ‘Radical’ Response to Islamophobia,” (Sojourners, August 2015), Christians have an important role in ending anti-Muslim discrimination. Through the liberating power of Christ, writes Chitwood, “[w]e are no longer enslaved to cultural constructions of antipathy such as Islamophobia.”
And given our nation’s troublesome script when it comes to responding to acts of violence carried out by self-identified Muslims, one way Christians can help end Islamophobia is by refusing to join the chorus of voices calling for Muslims to condemn Chattanooga — or any other violent act committed by a Muslim extremist. Here’s why:
1. Asking Muslims to condemn terrorism assumes an inherent link between Islam and violence.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of Islam, writes in her latest book, that “Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions — or even in theological error — but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself.” The Qur’an, she insists, is a violent text through and through. It programs Muslims to act violently.
Hirsi Ali operates on an assumption that since there are some violent texts in Islam’s sacred texts, all Muslims are prone to violence. It’s not an assumption she makes about Christianity, though the Bible has its fair share of violent texts. She also has no interest into venturing into the complexity of Quranic interpretation or grappling with the many texts that address peace, justice, and mercy. Nor does she care to explain why the majority of Muslims reject violent extremism, or why most domestic terrorist attacks in the U.S. are carried out by non-Muslims. It’s simply enough for her to state that Islam equals violence. Sadly, too many Americans share Hirsi Ali’s assumptions, hence the tendency to believe Muslims approve of terrorism unless we ask them to state otherwise.
The real question we should ask is why do some Muslims and Christians find inspiration to carry out despicable acts of violence from their scriptures, while many others find inspiration to work for peace and justice from the same scriptures? How can Islamic texts inspire ISIS to behead its enemies and also inspire Malala Yousafzai to fight for girls’ education? How could slaveholders in nineteenth-century America find justification for slavery in the Bible while abolitionists found justification for eliminating slavery from the same book?
Religion is not like the Matrix. Believers don’t “plug in” to their sacred texts and download a program that automatically makes them think and act in a certain way. How we interpret our texts and traditions is shaped by a complex array of cultural, political, and economic factors, not to mention our unique individual experiences. Otherwise, it makes no sense how the same religion can produce a terrorist organization and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
2. Asking Muslims to condemn terrorism ignores the many condemnations Muslims have made against terrorism.
Thomas Friedman, the renowned New York Times columnist, wrote back in 2005, “To this day…no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” It was a ridiculous claim. His own newspaper published a full-page ad one month after the 9/11 attacks with condemnations from Muslim leaders across the world. But Friedman can get away with such an absurd accusation because the larger public is unaware of these denunciations.
What’s strange is that these condemnations are not a secret. They are often issued in press releases and plastered all over social media. Anyone with a modicum of Google search engine skills can find plenty of example of Muslims condemning 9/11 or ISIS.
In the Internet age, we cannot plead ignorance to these realities. Evidence of Muslims condemning terrorism is overwhelming. Failure to “see” and accept this evidence is tantamount to promoting an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion toward Muslims.
3. The question masks our own violent past and present.
I know: this is a very unpopular topic. President Obama did his best at the National Prayer Breakfast in February to address the legacy of violence carried out in the name of Christianity. But the political and media establishment responded with a collective gasp. Some journalists and politicians expressed their disappointment that the president would speak so insensitively about Christianity at a gathering full of Christian clergy and leaders.
A conversation about Western or Christian violence is an uphill battle. That doesn’t mean Obama was wrong to try it. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch trials and executions – these are the clearest examples of unjust violence justified in part by recourse to the Christian faith. To this list, plenty of other episodes could be added, from the Atlantic slave trade to Hitler’s Germany to the Bosnian genocide.
Closer to our own time, the most egregious example is torture. When the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was made available to the public in December 2014, some of the most heinous human rights violations from the U.S.-led war on terror came to light. What jumped out to me around the same time was a Washington Post poll indicating that a majority of white Christians supported CIA-sponsored torture. It’s hard not to believe that there is an element of racism involved in these attitudes given that those tortured were Muslims and Arabs, not white Southern Baptists or Methodists.
Whenever we ask Muslims to condemn terrorism, we divert attention away from our own violent past and present. The question enables us to project our sins of commission and omission onto the Muslim “Other” so that we need not take seriously our own complicity in a violent world order.
It’s time to stop asking Muslims to condemn terrorism; asking this question keeps us in bondage to hostility and fear. But as Chitwood writes, the One who liberates us from fearing Muslims is the same One who invites us into fellowship with Muslims. If this is true, then our friendships and not our fears must drive the questions we ask about Muslims in the future.