Hate the idea, love the reformer

I stand in solidarity with Belgium following the terror attacks which claimed over thirty lives this morning and for which ISIS has claimed responsibility. It follows the recent terror attacks in Turkey, the Paris attacks late last year, and — I am certain — many other gruesome attacks. Obviously, opinions fly like bullets in these dark times, and I find that these opinions can usually be divided into two categories, both of which are rather simplistic and lack the proper nuance. Let’s discuss.

The first category is the apologists — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — who defend the religion of Islam against any and all criticism. They brush off the underlying causes of extremism which exist in its ancient doctrines. They essentially deny that a 1400-year-old, Abrahamic religion could possibly inspire archaic values or even violence. They lay the blame squarely on the actions of the west, but they end up missing half the picture when they bend over backward to justify this simplistic view — no matter how well intentioned they are. Hatred for the west doesn’t explain regressive values regarding homosexuality, women, and disbelievers. Nor does it explain why Islamists murder those Muslims who are deemed the "wrong kind" of Muslim — infidels, like the rest of us. Islamic texts and prevailing Islamic doctrines are one clear underlying cause of Islamic extremism, no matter how much apologists say that it has nothing to do with Islam or that Islamists aren’t “true” Muslims.

However, the apologists do get half the picture right. Western foreign policy in the Middle East — such as wars of aggression and regime changing — has destabilized the region and created the conditions needed for far-right, Islamic extremism to take root and spread. The narrative of the western devil is certainly an effective tool for Islamists to use in order to groom and radicalize vulnerable, desperate, and angry people. Furthermore, if we tally up the death toll of Islamic terrorism and U.S. foreign policy, the latter comes out far worse than the former after all of its disastrous wars and regime changes in the Middle East — and elsewhere. This is something that the second category of knee-jerk reactionists fail to see; the group I am talking about is xenophobes, mostly on the far right, but it is much too easy to go down that rabbit hole even for good people.

Xenophobes — white nationalists who use rhetoric such as “death cult” — view Islam and, as an extension, Muslims as fundamentally evil. They view Muslims as a monolithic block of degenerates while they pretend that they are being objective in their criticism of Islam. They are the kind of people who think Islam should be banned or that Muslims should not live in our countries, as if that in and of itself is not an attack on our values — freedom of religion and multiculuralism. What far-right critics of Islam miss is that Muslims are not a homogeneous group: there are extremists, there are conservatives, there are moderates, and there are progressives. (Of course, in my opinion, moderate is code for conservative — someone who doesn’t want change.) The religion itself is fundamentally conservative, but Muslims and their interpretations of Islam are not all the same and quite a few are progressive. I find it ironic that the conservatives who hate Muslims with a passion share many values with conservative and radical Muslims; if only they could get past the fact that they worship different versions of the same silly god, wear different clothing, and speak different languages, they might actually be united in their hatred of minorities and any and all change.

At any rate, it is important to approach criticism of religions with a fair and nuanced mind, which the xenophobes fail in doing. They either blame all Muslims for the actions of a few — rather than criticizing the underlying doctrine — or they make no distinction between ordinary Muslims and extremists. Instead, they spread sensationalist and xenophobic narratives and conspiracy theories about how Muslims are only pretending to be good to destroy the west. Specifically regarding Muslims, they believe in guilt by association and blame blameless Muslims for not controlling extremists. When it comes to western extremists and warmongers, however, not only do they refuse to shoulder the blame as individuals, they do not even recognize the problem or the underlying issues in our cultures. It is hypocritical to hold Muslims to one standard and ourselves to another. Personally, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between: obviously, innocent people cannot be held responsible for the actions of extremists who happen to share a label; however, we all share a responsibility in moving our respective cultures forward, but this also means the west shares responsibility for our disastrous foreign policy and domestic extremism such as xenophobia and white supremacy.

What may be the worst kind of hypocrisy is how xenophobes and the far right value human lives. The rhetoric they espouse in their opposition to immigration and taking in refugees includes narratives which make it seem like an existential crisis and that the lives of our people are at stake, but they don’t care about the lives of the thousands of refugees whose lives are in danger and who need our help — after we played a role in causing the crisis from which they are fleeing in the first place. We must not to fall prey to the politics of fear and hatred, because arabs — whether they are Muslims or not — are human beings who matter just as much as anyone else; demonizing Muslims has real consequences for real people.

While the xenophobes may genuinely believe Islam is an irredeemable “death cult” whose members are all evil, the agenda of those pushing this rhetoric is simply the xenophobic pursuit of monoculturalism: they do not want another culture in "their" country. For example, are right-wingers who wish to dictate how women can or cannot dress truly worried about the misogyny behind Islamic dress code? Probably not, but the clothes Muslims wear are quite unlike what westerners wear; it sticks out and it does not belong in their monocultural utopia. The far right is unsurprisingly unconcerned with domestic terrorism, which poses just as big a threat (at least) as Islamic extremism. Trump is supported by the xenophobic far-right and talks quite a bit about Islamic extremism, but he does not condemn domestic, right-wing terrorism as readily. It didn’t take long for him to tweet about the Brussels attack, but it did take him quite some time to decide whether or not to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. He tweeted, "Do you all remember how beautiful and safe a place Brussels was. Not anymore, it is from a different world! U.S. must be vigilant and smart!" I simply replied that I hope he also plans on fighting domestic terrorists, which would include quite a few of his own supporters.

The correct course of action is to discuss Islam as the nuanced religion it is and try to address its fundamental issues as well as the geopolitics of the Middle East and the west’s part in it. Like any religion, Islam is comprised of a complicated, overarching set of ideas which has inspired many different interpretations, good and bad. I maintain that the dogmatic, fundamentalist nature of most religions — certainly the Abrahamic ones — make radicalization a possibility, if not a probability. Basically, any ideology — secular or religious — can cause extremism, but some are radicalized more easily than others and the doctrine certainly does matter in deciding which shape extremism takes.

The fundamental doctrine of Islam is only half the picture. The other half is geopolitics, cultural attitudes, poverty, education, and such things. Guns and bullets can only get you so far in defeating terrorism. What needs to happen is a cataclysmic shift in cultural attitudes. I believe the way to do this is the same way we should deal with crime: lifting people out of poverty, offering an education for them, and perhaps above all, providing stability. To help foster such an environment, the west would have to shoulder its portion of the blame for its disastrous wars and regime changes in the Middle East — destabilizing the region. Mainly, change has to come from within, however; promoting secularists, feminists, and progressives in Muslim communities should be priority number one. They do not hold any of the blame for what extremists do, as the far right suggests, but they are the ones who have the power to bring about real and lasting change.

Ultimately, despite their flaws, it is the apologists who offer more substantive solutions to the problem — not the xenophobes and the far right, who excacerbate the problem. Solving geopolitical and economic struggles will go a long way. And you do catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Unfortunately, any valid points are often drowned in the irrational apologetics and mental gymnastics employed to defend a set of ideas as if it were a human being. In order to solve a problem, you have to admit there is one.

What is most important is that we do not surrender to fear and hatred: Muslims as people are not to blame for one (possible) interpretation of Islam; we certainly cannot hate or condemn all Muslims as we would be hating and condemning innocent people, many of whom share our values. Like any religion, Islam is quite capable of producing extremists, but there are also conservatives, moderates, and progressives. We must support secular, progressive reformers. It is conservative and extreme ideas we must condemn. So let's instead work together toward a future in which terror attacks do not happen, in which there is no extremism — Islamic, white nationalist, or anything else. This is what is the most important. We must not focus on hating as hatred will not help with anything. We must condemn conservative and extreme ideas, while supporting the progressives who truly want change — hate the idea, love the reformer.

(We should also cut back on the pray-for-this and pray-for-that hashtags and actually do something rather than talking to gods which don’t exist or don’t care.)

(Bonus round: I encountered a rare kind of apologist — the conspiracy theorist. I think he postulated, poorly, that the Zionist illuminati has orchestrated pretty much all attacks by Islamic extremists. So, really, it is the Jewish masters we should be worried about, apparently. To provide some more context, he also seems to be an anti-vaxxer and a follower of James Tracy, who has claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre, in fact, never occurred. Crazy people attract crazy people, I suppose.)