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.