If A Muslim Denounces Extremism in Islam, Does Anybody Hear?

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Ever since the Twin Towers fell there has been a daft proclamation permeating from the media and pseudo-intellectuals like Sam Harris, Ringo of the “New Atheists,” that the Muslim world doesn’t speak out against extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS when they commit atrocious acts in the name of Islam. This isn't just Fox News, though they're still the best at it. The implication is that the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are thus accepting of – or even in cahoots with – the most violent people who claim to speak on behalf of their faith. Despite Pew Forum studies signifying otherwise, Harris has gone further, reiterating over the past several years his view in “Letter to a Christian Nation” that, “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.” The use of ‘hijacked’ stands out.  It's as if he’s saying, Extremists (by which he means all Muslims) may be capable of hijacking planes, half of Iraq and Syria, even your scrumptious Eggo waffle – but they can’t takeover an ideology and bend it to their means because it's already why they hijack things in the first place. To the chagrin of those making such remarks, what they’re exhibiting is not a pristine argument for the advancement of reason but a staggering deficit of knowledge. The basic tenets of international relations, history of the Middle East, the contemporary Muslim community and even the formation of national, social and personal identities, are never even considered. Instead, the Sam Harrises and Sean Hannities of the world construct a straw man. Once they burn it down like naked hippies on a weekend drug binge in the desert, they ignore the fact that the problem persists no matter the pile of ash in front of them and the encircling trolls ready to mindlessly talk smack in comment threads far and near.

Meanwhile, back in reality, the vast majority of Muslim leaders across the world are speaking out against ISIS and the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Last week Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest civil liberties organization for the Muslim community in the US, held press conferences to publicly denounce ISIS. In Los Angeles Executive Director of CAIR-LA, Hussam Ayloush, stated that, “The barbaric conduct of ISIS is an outright violation of Islam and its teachings. It’s morally repellent and it’s cruel.” Of course this rarely makes national news. Instead we get fed Ayman al-Zawahiri’s denunciation of ISIS and his whining about their fledging popularity over al-Qaeda because ISIS is more savvy with Ableton Live.

Whenever a Muslim makes the claim that Islam is a religion of peace, hardline opponents usually retort in two ways. They ask, "where were the Muslims denouncing the fatwa on Salmon Rushdie’s head or the one on the Dutch cartoonists who drew the caricature of Mohammad?" Or they quote Quranic verses calling for violence against non-Muslims, such as Sura 47’s opening line, "O true believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads."

Anyone calling for the death of another person for saying, writing, or drawing something they disagree with is vile and misguided. They should be called out on it. Freedom of speech is essential for a free civil society. With that in mind, major news outlets claiming that no Muslims have denounced such acts of violence – simply because they weren’t given airtime – is no way to advance the cause of free speech; it’s a direct suppression of it.

What’s even more baffling is that if for the sake of argument we presume both statements are true, each still fails to address a key component of religion – it changes. As an atheist I have my fair grievances with religion. But mine come from seeking truth, not manufacturing it like a Hello Kitty sippy cup fit for Walmart shelves.

If we give fundamentalists the extremely lenient supposition that their holy book is divinely inspired, it still cannot be denied that the reader interprets the written word. As we all know, or at least those of us trying to cram our thoughts into 140 characters or less on Twitter, interpretations are as varied as species of insects. That’s why there are over 32,000 denominations of Christianity. And like insects, the biggest and most terrifying ones get our attention more than the stick bugs that blend into their environments. But interpretations are not formed in a vacuum. Like food and fashion, they are informed by the geography, economics, politics, history and the pervading culture one lives in.

For centuries Christianity was the most barbarous and hostile social movement on the planet. If you haven’t dusted off that Bible and thumbed through it in a while, you should. Give Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1st Samuel, a little gander. Once you do it’s clear, and even Sam Harris would agree, that the God of the Old Testament is – without question— the most violent, vindictive and genocidal God in the Abrahamic traditions. Yet today Christianity has traded burning witches and stretching infidels on the rack for giant projection screens and obnoxious pamphlets. The questions we need to ask are how and why. So if Islam is inherently violent but Christianity is not, or at least seemingly so, why does Indonesia have more Muslims than Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States combined, but it isn’t a hotbed of Islamic extremism? The answer has more to do with geography, politics and the Internet than religion.

When people don’t have anything else to identify with, they often lead with older identities such as their tribal and religious affiliations. They also found or identify with sub-cultures, which are often in opposition to a mainline culture they view as flawed or irrelevant. Arabs did just that over the last few decades. Economic stagnation and the inability to form national identities – all while under the thumb of oppressive westernized and secular dictators –led many people to think the answer to their political struggles was in Islam. As people organized socially around Islam, and dictators continued to grow more violent, oppositional movements also grew more violent. Some then turned towards a particular interpretation of Islam solely to justify the actions they wanted to take. Thus the surrounding political environment, culture, as well as the forging of identity, incensed what has become radical Islam.

To reiterate this point, over 20% of ISIS is made up of foreign fighters. Their number one purchase on Amazon before heading out to join ISIS? Islam for Dummies. Really. What else they have in common is striking. Many are college educated, from poor backgrounds, and feel a general lack of purpose in life. They find the Islamic State to be an exciting option because they've come to believe the western world is not giving them any other opportunities but to dawn a red polo shirt and run people’s toilet paper purchases over a scanner at Target.

Islam is undergoing change Worldwide. Reza Aslan articulated the shifting tides of Islam rather well when he noted that the Internet is to Islam what the printing press was to Christianity. The Internet has greatly contributed to globalization. It has put more people in contact with Islam while also granting Muslims living under oppressive regimes greater contact with the rest of the world. The Internet has also enhanced polarization and self-expression through one of its most positive and horrific features – giving likeminded people, no matter how few in numbers or extreme their ideology may be, a path towards finding each other. If you're into object sexuality, as in you desire to fall in love and have sex with buildings and other inanimate objects, there are people on social media who share your fetish. Perhaps it’s only a handful of people, but enough for you to convince yourself that you're normal. That's great. A little bizarre. Perhaps a tad chafing. But fine, as long as no one else gets hurt. The interment is a brilliant way for minorities to harness their collective voice to fight for equality. However, the Internet can also amplify delusions of solidarity, among other things, in ways that are destructive.

Today roughly 70% of people living in the Middle East are under the age of 30. The Internet is integral to their social life. It was integral to the Arab Spring. But even before that the Internet was key to extremism in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda means the base, but more specifically it means the database. It was a list and method for funders from Saudi Arabia and around the globe to aid the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. It's interestingly western techno-culture that has given extremists the platform to launch their attacks on the very culture for which they depend to launch their attacks! It’s shouldn't then be a surprise that the relative success of ISIS is due to their adept use of social media.

To say Islam is inherently violent is like saying all teenagers hate their parents because one time little Jimmy told his mother he hated her when she made him turn off the Xbox and do his homework, or that everyone alive in America during the late 70s was punk. Religion can be both violent and peaceful. So if we really want to combat extremism, it’s time to fix the surrounding problems that feed it and stop ignoring the Muslims who speak out against it.