Islam, terrorism, and the Westboro Baptists

I’ve been trying to steer clear of references to the Westboro Baptist Church because it does get dragged out as the half-baked Christian equivalent of “Islamic extremism”. But in replying to comments on my latest article at MercatorNet, I think the comparison is apt:

Why have Muslims not spoken out in criticism of terrorists who give Islam a bad name? That’s a very good question, and a very complicated question, because – as I’ve been suggesting – Islam is diverse and complicated.

I’m sure we can agree that some Muslims have criticised the terrorists. You don’t have to search far on the web to find examples. Why do these criticisms not seem sufficient? Perhaps because we do not understand the situation well enough? Perhaps we imagine that if all the Muslims stood up and protested against terrorism, it would end?

And I can appreciate your point, given that we have never seen worldwide protests by Muslims against the Jihadists. Hence the suspicion that they are secretly sympathetic to the Jihadists’ aims.

However, my suspicion is that for the majority of Muslims, Western perceptions of Islam are not as salient as they are for us. Let me offer an analogy: when the Westboro Baptist Church appears on the tv news in Australia, I find that people without much understanding of Christianity interpret it as merely the worst instance of fundamentalist Christian insanity in the US, and the onus is on other Christians to disavow them and their declarations of animosity toward homosexuality.

Actual Christians tend to respond differently – not with expressions of contempt and criticism for the WBC, but with criticism and contempt for the media, for presenting the WBC as though they are anything more than a bizarre little fringe group. In other words, they don’t blame the WBC for giving Christians a bad name, they blame the media for being so ignorant as to portray the WBC as Christians. They actually think the media reports of the WBC are indicative of deeper anti-Christian sentiment.

So when someone asks a Catholic, for example, “do you think ‘God hates fags'”? The answer is of course “no.” But then the follow-up question is something like “so you’re in favour of same-sex marriage then?” and the answer is “no” again; leaving some people with the impression that Catholics really do think that God hates homosexuals, they just don’t have the guts or the brazenness to admit it openly like the WBC and other such groups.

Very few people are willing or able to get involved in the more complex philosophical or theological discussion that goes to the heart of distinctions between different Christian denominations and their attitudes to homosexuality.

What I’m interested in is the detailed and complex discussions that take place within Islam; because I’m not content to persist with superficial dichotomies that don’t reward us with real understanding of the situation.

I suspect, but am yet to verify, that for many Muslims the equation of terrorism with Islam is primarily the preoccupation of Westerners who have from the outset only a dim understanding of Islam, and who view Jihadism as only the most extreme reflection of ubiquitous Islamic sentiments. We’re effectively saying “I think you’re all terrorists at heart; can you prove you’re not?”

The fact is that like the Catholic/WBC example, we may find the truth is not to our liking anyway. We probably don’t want to hear from various branches of Islam that: no, they do not support terrorism, but at the same time they do view our society as godless, decadent, and ultimately destined to convert or collapse. How well do you think that would go over?

Most Islamic nations have far bigger problems on their hands than bad press in the West. In that sense I’m not surprised that ordinary Muslims around the globe do not try harder to reassure us they do not support Salafi Jihadists.

5 thoughts on “Islam, terrorism, and the Westboro Baptists

    • Hi Faz,
      I wrote that in the context of some fairly critical comments on my article at MercatorNet, where some readers were complaining that it ought to be the responsibility of Muslims generally to ‘do something’ to fix the problem of terrorists acting in the name of Islam.

      Having reread my post, I think the final line fits in with the general theme of pointing out that Muslims around the world probably are not deeply concerned by Western impressions of Islam. In that sense I think the line is very mildly ironic in tone.

      I’m sorry if that wasn’t very clear…it seemed clear to me, but I have been arguing with people for a number of hours on this issue and that tends to alter one’s perception a little.

  1. Hi Zac,

    Interesting piece. Obviously there is quite a lot at stake for either the broader Muslim community or the broader Christian community being too outspoken in their criticisms of their “extremist” or “fundamentalist” counterparts (versions; aberrations?). Perhaps the rest of the world are ignorant of those stakes or perhaps simply insensitive to them. I think it’s a combination of both. I like to think that I fall into the latter category. I do get easily tired of listening to politicians speak or answer around questions, therefore, I tend to look beyond politics, political correctness, nuance, sensitivity, and apologetics, particularly because I am neither of Islamic or Christian persuasion. Hence I find it almost useless to ask particular questions (or to watch them being asked by reporters for example) pertaining to ISIS or American Christian fundamentalists. Thus my insensitivity for nuance when it comes to these issues.

    Whilst I don’t think there is any form of apologetics that can justify the actions of Islamic fundamentalists like ISIS or other individuals (such as the ones who violently respond to pictorial “blasphemy”), there seems to be a political correctness requirement on the part of members of the more “moderate” branches of Islam when it comes to answering questions that the rest of the world want to ask of them. Particularly of their senior clerical figures who arguably have a crucial responsibility when it comes to educating and representing their respective religious communities in public discourse.

    Whilst I don’t read or watch the news much in general, on those occasions that I do, there is a consistent theme of what I might call “apologetics by omission”. That is to say, that when confronted with the opportunity to publicly and explicitly denounce acts of violence by Islamic fundamentalists (or those who subjectively act in the name of Islam), Islamic representatives consistently offer arguments about the broader context in which US foreign policy (and those of Australia’s amongst other nations) is attributed as a causal factor for actions of ISIS and other perpetrators of violence (such as those who protested against the Danish cartoons and the satirical film depicting Alah unfavourably and of course more recently the Charlie Hebdo killers).

    I think the persistent refusal of senior Muslim clerics to admonish and denounce Islamic fundamentalism when they are offered the opportunity to do so on a public stage is the bane of their existence. What purpose do they serve if they cannot lead their followers towards peaceful co-existence with the rest of the myriad of cultures and religions that Australia and much of the western world now consists of? It’s as though secularism is a “frenemy” that must never be endorsed by them. Or are the Clerics themselves afraid of being condemned by their fundamentalist counterparts? This seems to me to be a frustrating game of them playing both sides.

    Of course it could be the job of the media to silence those who are prepared to criticise, perhaps as a means to engineer anti-islamic sentiment (we can speculate as to the political capital this might help to raise). Perhaps senior Muslim clerics who want to explicitly condemn their fundamentalist counterparts are just not newsworthy? I don’t know for sure. But what I do know is that in the last decade we have heard quite a bit of denouncement of religion in general thanks in large part to the very public nature of what the “new atheists” (and the people they represent) have been saying. This has unfortunately created an climate of distrust and fear of religion and thus exacerbates the problems for secular societies by creating further divisions and disharmony. Conversely it has also put all major religions on the defensive which means that self critique of a religion is perceived as playing into the hands of those atheist “extremists” who sometimes give the impression of wanting to completely rid the world of religion.

    Therefore in the case of Islam, I fear that self critique of the fundamentalist streams of Islam (or even of their own denomination) is perceived by the Muslim community as playing into the hands atheists, “Zionists”, and of course Evangelical Christians in the USA and around the world.

    So when I see an interview like the one below, it’s hard for me to sympathize with the broader socio-political issues at stake. It’s hard for me to feel any urgency to grapple with the nuances or take seriously the overly intellectualised way in which apologists want to debate these issues. This is especially the case when a fundamental tenet of secular democracy is at stake, namely freedom of expression. Every Muslim cleric is focusing on finding a cure for ISIS and the like (which of course is good and necessary) but none of them seem to want to stop the bleeding.

    Or am I being brainwashed by an anti-islamic, anti-religious, left-leaning, secular humanist, liberal biased media? (mentality?)

    • Hi Matthew,
      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to have a fresh perspective on all this.

      I’m glad you linked the video because it’s hard to comment generally on the statements of various Islamic groups/spokesmen/clerics. In this case the speaker is from Hizb ut Tahrir which is a relatively modern political party that seeks to establish a Caliphate or Islamic state in predominantly Muslim areas (maybe further, I’m not sure).

      They’re deeply anti-Western and anti-imperialist. Their founder was a Pakistani Islamic scholar who blamed Western influences for the weakness of Islamic nations. That’s why the organisation consistently tries to reframe the debate in terms of Western aggression, interference, and hypocrisy.

      Unlike al Qaeda and ISIS, they are not Salafis. They have their own provenance, and are even competitors in a sense. For example, they issued a statement rejecting ISIS’ attempt to establish the Caliphate, pointing out that it hadn’t met the correct criteria and that it was in fact damaging the reputation of the Caliphate in world opinion through their inadequate efforts.

      The spokesman’s refusal to condemn ISIS’ methods is nonetheless intriguing. On the one hand it appears he is indeed extremely eager to blame everything on the West; elsewhere they have likewise argued that it is hypocritical for the West to seize on ISIS as a ‘bogeyman’ given Western and imperialist interference and complicity in the Middle East generally, etc., etc.

      On the other hand, it’s possible they are mindful of wanting to discredit their competitors without alienating part of their support base. I don’t know what kind of internal gossip goes on in their circles, but if they are indeed committed to a non-violent approach, it’s possible they cop a bit of flack for it from more radical quarters?

      All in all, it’s worth analysing individual instances of this sort of thing. This guy would by no means be representative of Australian Muslims generally, though their organisation has quite a large global presence for a political party. It’s no coincidence that he sounds like a politician…

      So I think you’re quite right to find something off-putting in interviews like that one. Yet I would argue that greater understanding is a remedy, even if a burdensome one at times. There’s something very satisfying for me in being able to cross out “Australian Muslim refuses to condemn IS” and mentally replacing it with “Spokesman for anti-Western Islamic political party seeking to restore the Caliphate refuses to miss an opportunity to condemn the West during interview, no matter how bad it makes him look.”

      • Well I was more worried that the clip was posted by someone who calls themselves “AustralianNeoCon1” which in itself is telling! However, I had not noticed the title of the clip itself which does demonstrate how easily various denominations of Islam are conflated into one category called “Muslim”. By the way, I refer to them as denominations because Islam is essentially a theocratic religion and hence the distinction between religious denomination versus Islamic political group is at least somewhat diminished.

        However, once we have clarified the denominational distinctions and avoided conflation or misrepresentation, then we still have the task of cleaning up the mess. I assume we can all agree that the responsibility to criticise or perhaps condemn the extremists (whether it is ISIS or WBC) rests on all.

        It’s interesting that you point out how one denomination is trying to assume the authority to establish a Caliphate whilst they argue that some other denomination (IS and Al Qaeda) doesn’t have the authority or is “inadequate” in their efforts (in what sense where they inadequate one reluctantly might ask!). For me this raises two question: 1). Could the real Islam please stand up? 2). Is there any significant inter-denominational dialog that takes place within the broader Islamic population assuming the various denominations can come together at a forum to conduct this dialog in a fruitful meaningful and respectful way? The former cannot be answered yet and the latter is yet to be realised and this is a significant hurdle in the way of peace.

        As you point out it is likely that the interviewee in the clip above will have to wrestle with a significant dilemma, but I think he did himself no favors in his dogged persistence. As I said in my previous reply, no one wants to shoot themselves in the foot and play into the hands of their detractors, nor do they want to be perceived as implicitly condoning the actions of their extremist counterparts. So they inevitably gravitate towards one perspective, particularly when given the opportunity to present it publicly. Most people don’t appreciate how much there is at stake in relation to how various denominations of Muslims/Christians deal with this dilemma.

        But from this dilemma, there emerges another dilemma due to the way in which the media operates, for which the corollary is the gullibility and ignorance of the masses (which was your point). That is, Muslims and Christians are faced with having to explicitly distinguishing themselves from denominations that they do not belong to and thereby cause tensions with their denominational counterparts, in order that they are not conflated with their denominational counterparts. I suppose they could just “palm-face” or “SMH” (I learned that one recently!) instead, but nevertheless one would hope that this is not used as an excuse to avoid confronting the challenge of criticising a group that happens to be a denominational counterpart.

        From a secular point of view, these dilemmas have the effect of making it practically impossible to have honest and open non-politicised dialog, which subsequently diminishes the force of resistance against religious extremists who perpetrate acts of violence. If we are to prevent religious extremism then something has to give. Sacred cows may need to be sacrificed. Someone has to bite the bullet because it is everyone’s responsibility to prevent it from happening. US foreign policy must change and there are indeed many within the USA who agree. The media needs to be held to account. People have to be better educated and informed so as to not fall into the trap of stereotypes and conflation. Muslims (and Christians) must at least distinguish themselves from their extremist counterparts which may require more than just clarifying the denominational distinctions by way of pointing out that the media are misrepresenting them (sorry Zac!).

        I suppose secularists will also need to consider what they can sacrifice. So for example we might be able to stop religious extremism by sacrificing freedom of expression (or at least freedom to satirize or mock religious belief). We could stop the antics of the WBC by sacrificing tolerance of homosexuality and pandering to their subsequent demands I guess. Perhaps we could just let the denomination with the biggest stick rule over us! Sarcasm aside, I believe the secularists (which is essentially everyone other than the religious separatists) have a responsibility to help with all of the above, in particular the critique of US foreign policy.

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