Hate the idea, love the reformer

I stand in solidarity with Belgium following the terror attacks which claimed over thirty lives this morning. My thoughts go out to all those who have been affected, and I hope nobody else must go through such terror, although I know my hopes are for naught. At least for now. The terror attacks which took place in Brussels and for which ISIS has claimed responsibility follow the recent terror attacks in Turkey, the Paris attacks late last year, andI am certainmany other gruesome attacks of which we may not even have heard. Obviously, opinions will fly like bullets.

The mainstream opinions can likely be divided up into two categories: the apologists and the xenophobes. These groups are polar opposites, but are, nonetheless, both wrong as their views tend to be much too simplistic. The apologists, including non-Muslims with good intentions as well as defensive Muslims, will claim the terror attacks have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and will worry more about Islam taking criticism than the fact that the religion just inspired yet another terror attack. The xenophobes will make greatly exaggerated claims about Islam being a death cult and all Muslims being dangerous degenerates who cannot be trusted; the xenophobes do not have good intentions and are a greater threat to western society than Islamists and apologists, in my opinion.

The apologists

As with every terror attack committed by Islamic extremists, there are apologistsMuslims and non-Muslims alikewho brush off the terrorists and the underlying causes found in their religion in order to shift the focus fully to the persecution of Muslims and the evils of the west. They essentially deny that a 1400-year-old, Abrahamic religion could possibly inspire archaic values or even violence; it boggles my mind that they are capable of doing this, and because they do so, they miss half the picture.

Apologists bend over backward to justify the simplistic view that western imperialism is the sole cause of Islamic extremism and that the west has only itself to blame. First of all, this is victim-blaming rhetoric for which they should be ashamed. Second, hatred for the west does not explain regressive views regarding homosexuality, women, and so on. Nor does it explain why Islamists murder those Muslims who are deemed the "wrong kind" of Musliminfidels, like the rest of us. Islamic texts and prevailing Islamic doctrines are one clear underlying cause of Islamic extremism.

Reality is seldom simple, though. It is, indeed, true that the doctrine of Islam is not the only cause, or all Muslims would be extremists, which they are not. Islam, like any religion, is a complicated, overarching set of ideas which has inspired many interpretations and thus variations. I maintain that the dogmatic, fundamentalist nature of most religionsand certainly the Abrahamic religions—make radicalization a possibility. Basically, any ideology, secular or religious, can cause extremism, but some are radicalized more easily than others and the doctrine certainly does matter in determining what the radicalized version is like.

It is worth pointing out that there are many underlying factors which create Islamic extremists. I have briefly discussed one of them above, but western imperialism, education, segregation, cultural influences, living standard, friends and family, authority figures, and much more also matter to quite a significant extent. Above all, it is important to approach criticism of religions with a fair and nuanced mind. It is important not to fall prey to the politics of hatred and fear, for Muslims are human beings, as well. Demonizing Muslims, rather than discussing Islam as a religion and promoting secularists, feminists, and progressives in Muslim communities, has terrible consequences. One such consequence is the fear and hatred of refugees, whose lives may very well be in our hands; it is our duty as human beings to help them, because they are also human beings. Another terrible consequence is further radicalization and thus merely making the problem worse.

While I think apologists often miss the point of rational criticism of Islam, I also believe they raise some valid points. Unfortunately, these valid points are drowned in the irrational apologetics and mental gymnastics employed to defend a set of ideas as if they were human beings. I know some readers may not be comfortable with the idea that the so-called regressive left is right about something, but there is an element of truth to what they say. The element of truth is that there is a real threat of far-right xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry, which brings us to the next section.

(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 among other beliefs has claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre, in fact, never occurred. Crazy people attract crazy people, I suppose.)

The xenophobes

Apologists for Islamists at least have good intentions on their side; xenophobes do not. These are the kind of people who think Islam should be banned, as if that in and of itself is not an attack on western valuesfreedom of religion. They argue that they do not hate all Muslims, but whenever there is a progressive Muslim, they are quick to suggest s/he is just pretending to be nice while secretly being an Islamist. The xenophobes oversimplify the issue like the apologists, and they not only condemn Islam as pure and complete evil, but they think Muslims as people cannot be trusted and are collectively to blame for terrorist attacks.

There is also an element of truth in what the xenophobes say, which is that Islam has a problem with extremism. But this little bit of truth is drowned in the hatred and paranoia. While the xenophobes may genuinely believe Islam is an irredeemable death cult whose members are all evil, the underlying 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.

In addition, 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 he talks quite a bit about Islamic extremism, but he does not condemn domestic, right-wing terrorism as easily. It did not 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 tweeted that I hope he plans on fighting domestic terrorists, too, which would include quite a few of his own supporters.

Back to the issue of Islamism and Islam, I find it ironic that the conservatives who hate Muslims with a passion share many values with conservative Muslims. If only they could get past the fact that they worship different versions of the same silly god, wear different clothing, and speak differently, they might actually be united in their hatred for minorities.

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, or in other words, someone who does not want change). The religion itself is fundamentally conservative and extreme and can quite easily cause extremism, but Muslims and their interpretations of Islam are not all the same and quite a few are progressive.


In conclusion, Islamic extremism is not the simple issue the regressive left and far right portray it as. Rather, like reality, it is quite complicated and requires nuance. What is most important is that we do not surrender to hatred and fear. As I wrote on Facebook (and Twitter) about the terror attacks in Brussels:

Let's work toward a future in which this does not happen. Also, let's not give in to hatred and fear: Muslims as people are not to blame for one (possible) interpretation of Islam; we certainly cannot hate or condemn all Muslims as we'd 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, like Maajid Nawaz. It is conservative and extreme ideas we must condemn. (Patrick Hall on Facebook, March 22, 2016)

This is what is the most important. We must not focus on hating people 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 do something instead of talking to gods which do not exist or do not care.) In short, we must work toward a brighter future for all of humankind.