Being what you would call a Western Muslim, I find myself in the aftermath of tragedies like the murder of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, looking to make sense of my constantly interacting yet increasingly polarized worlds. I become obsessed with the task of recollecting the pieces of a puzzle that was once a somewhat clear picture in my head, a picture that every time takes much effort to put together again. I find myself frantically dissecting the various discussions on news channels and social media. It is a frustrating and extremely exhausting exercise for me. Yet, I cannot help myself.
In the last few weeks, so many innocent lives were lost in terrorist attacks all around the world, including young children killed while sitting in their classrooms in Pakistan and entire villages wiped out in Nigeria. These atrocities did not attract a lot of Western media attention at least not nearly as did the cowardly attacks on Charlie Hebdo. I guess as long as the “crazy” people are doing those “crazy” things in those “crazy” lands over there, no one seems to be eager to send a million reporters to cover every minute of the events. However, once it hits the land of the “sane,” it is a different story. The psychology of this double treatment would be an interesting case study that can tell us much about the dynamics of power in our global world. We can spend a lot of time lamenting the inequalities that we created in our world, partly resulting from the vagaries of a dysfunctional international order. We can also write countless pages on the failures of European governments to integrate their “Muslim” citizens and of the American administrations to take responsibility for their actions in various parts of the “Muslim” world. All these are important issues that deserve much patient debate. Yet, given my interest in the study of religion and starting from my own history as someone who once bordered on being a disaffected young Muslim man in a Western setting, I just want to raise two simple points. These points stem from my frustrating interaction with discussions across social media and mainstream TV and radio stations in both the American and French settings this past week.
1— Muslims must stop claiming Western conspiracies every time a Muslim is involved in a terrorist attack; it’s time for a healthy dose of self-criticism
Western Muslims and Muslims who live in the West find themselves in a defensive position every time that atrocities are committed in the name of Islam. Anti-Muslim sentiment all around Europe and in the United States are arguably at an all-time high these days. Understandably, People of Muslim background seek to distance themselves from such atrocities. Yet quickly, this defensive position turns into denial that any “Muslim” would commit such terrorist acts. Muslim discussions on social media thus become dominated by conspiracy theories seeking to absolve Islam and Muslims from any wrongdoing. This is a very unhealthy situation. Engaging in conspiracy talk greatly limits the ability of the mainstream Muslim community to fight what can only be termed a virus that is seeking to take over its body.
Without falling into the simplistic analyses in many media outlets that present religion as the only factor that shapes terrorist actions, Muslims must come to grips with the fact that there are individuals and groups that have no problem committing acts of extreme violence and that they find at least part of their inspiration in what we call Islam. This is not new. There are multiple groups, throughout the long history of Muslim-majority societies, that took similar violent paths long before the encounter of Muslims with the modern West. This is a fact. And although multiple social, economic, and political factors have played a role in shaping the behavior of such groups, Islam was instrumental in providing a framework for their actions. There are texts in the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira (the so-called biographies of the Prophet) that can provide justification for violent actions against all kinds of internal and external enemies. This is also a fact. I do not want to imply that these texts can only be interpreted in this fashion; Muslims past and present have read them in a variety of ways. But the point is that it is simply not true that these violent actions have no basis in Islam. Instead of denial, Muslims who care for a peaceful and pluralistic Islam must recognize that there is a ferocious battle of conflicting interpretations to be fought within Muslim communities everywhere, including in the West. But this cannot be achieved without a self-critical attitude which, in this case, is severely undermined by conspiracy theories that seek to constantly direct blame elsewhere.
We are all, Muslims and non-Muslims, entering a dangerous stage. Grasping the gravity of the situation is the first step in finding a path toward a more stable future for all. Everyone has a role to play, but all sides must start by asking tough questions about their own views and actions. Thus, it is incumbent upon Muslims to start by acknowledging that there is an enormous problem within their communities and that they must courageously face it for the sake of their children and the children of all human beings in our increasingly shrinking world.
2— Westerners must stop condescendingly demanding that Islam reforms; yet at the same time Muslims must embrace reform
It is frustrating to witness so many politicians and so-called analysts on various prominent media outlets, who seem to have little if any grasp of Islamic history or religion, yet demand from on high the reform of Islam. Certainly, I agree that Islam, like all other religions, must be constantly rethought in order to remain relevant in changing historical circumstances. In fact, there is an urgent task for Muslims to carefully rethink their religion today more than ever before. What is bothersome is that influential individuals who are drunk with a superiority complex act as if the Islamic tradition has no history of reform or critical thought. The truth is that the Islamic world has produced over the centuries some of the brightest minds in the history of mankind. Importantly, the sources that shaped these great minds are the same that shaped Western civilization, namely the Greek philosophical tradition, the Biblical heritage, and the larger Near Eastern environment and its traditions (including the Iranian legacy). Geopolitical and economic factors dictated some of the different trajectories taken within the Western and Islamic contexts, but it is highly misguided to cement historical accidents into essences. This leads uninformed yet influential people to act as if it is only the West that knows reform and that it must therefore dictate it to Muslims who otherwise would not know what reform is if it knocked on their door.
More importantly, these media interventions that condescendingly call for reform end up strengthening the status-quo among Muslims rather than supporting any kind of positive change. This is partly because the anti-reform elements within Muslim communities find easy ammunition to use against reformers, branding them as enablers of mischievous Western agendas and interests. This is an especially potent argument when Muslim communities perceive themselves to be under siege by the policies of various Western governments or when waves of anti-Muslim sentiment is sweeping the European and American landscapes, as is the case today, making some fear a near civil war on the horizon.
That being said, Muslims must also acknowledge that they are today disconnected from the richness of their heritage. Gone are the complex debates about important issues, gone are critical treatments of religious views, and gone is the willingness to face the intellectual challenges raised by all forms of knowledge that come from all kinds of sources and people. What dominates most Muslim communities today are simplistic, anti-intellectual, and anti-humanist forms of Islam that threaten the emancipation of these communities and their participation in shaping a positive future for all. So, yes! There is an urgent need for reform, but not reform dictated by myopic Western politicians and talking heads. What is needed is an internal reform that reconnects Muslims to the best of their heritage and that embraces the best of what modern critical knowledge has to offer. Muslim thinkers and leaders please stand up!