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.

Provocation is no defence for the Jihadi murderers

My latest article on MercatorNet looks at the issue of provocation and appeasement in relation to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Inspired by Throwcase’s post:

Common sense, like bush-fire preparedness or avoiding dangerous wild animals, implies a kind of natural law or cause-and-effect sequence over which we are the master. To put Jihadists in the same category as dangerous animals and natural disasters is understandable, yet hardly an inspiring or reassuring response to such violence. These commentators are not quite saying, “Don’t like being murdered for insulting Mohammed? Don’t insult Mohammed!” but the logic plays dangerously close to such a conclusion; a conclusion for which the murderers themselves are striving.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/provocation_is_no_defence_for_the_jihadi_murderers

Blame and provocation

Embed from Getty Images

Throwcase in fully-serious mode has published a thoughtful and important reflection on the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

http://throwcase.com/2015/01/08/the-extremist-tail-wagging-the-whole-pig/

In some sense it is thoughtful where it shouldn’t have to be; ideally we wouldn’t have to think through exactly what is wrong with a situation where people are being murdered for drawing offensive cartoons – or more to the point, where murdered cartoonists are being blamed for bringing it on themselves.

The ‘blame the victim’ attitudes are indeed shameful. At the same time I can’t help but feel we’re missing the greater significance of this event. Or maybe I’m the only one who’s missing it?

From what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo satire, it was pretty crude and intentionally provocative. Islam aside, I think many Catholics would find the cartoon of Pope Benedict holding aloft a condom and uttering the words of consecration deeply offensive or simply puerile and contemptible.

Whether the publishers were trying to make a greater point about Islam through their satire, or simply carving out a niche and hoping to sell more issues (though this may be unlikely given the nature of the threat), the greater point is significant: when there exists a subset of Muslims who will respond to crude satire with murder, it is not enough to say “don’t provoke them”.

‘Provoke’ comes from the Latin provocare meaning ‘to challenge, to call forth’. In that sense it is true, their satire did call forth the violence; but more importantly I think their work was a challenge to the state and their compatriots to recognise that the existence of such a murderous ideology in the heart of a liberal nation is ultimately untenable.

In that sense “don’t provoke them” is a response that shamefully sees some measure of justice or natural law in these attacks, as though violent Islamic sects are just a part of life, like wild animals or bushfires.

Our focus should not be on the actions of the victims, but on the disturbing fact that the members of certain Islamic sects are willing to kill (and often to be killed) for the sake of offences that the vast majority of people would deem at most upsetting, and at least completely trivial.