American Muslims and terrorism: silence or deafness?

Several years ago I decided for a number of reasons to try to cut back on the amount of television appearances I was making to concentrate on writing and other activities that allow for more thoughtful development of ideas and the communication of more serious concepts, most recently through the development of this blog. However, following the failed Times Square car bombing incident I accepted a couple of invitations because of the gravity of the situation, including from my old interlocutors at the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. An appearance on the program invariably generates considerable response, and this time was no exception, including the following question posed to me through the Ibishblog:
"Why is it that leaders of Islam do not speak out against such anti-Koran acts as suicide and murdering innocent people?"

Indeed, the very next morning on a return visit to Fox News I got the very same question from another interviewer who also asked me whether my organization would condemn the failed Times Square car bombing or not! One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry, and also where to begin with such kind of silliness, so my answer was simply to aver that no organization I was with had condemned the act because it goes without saying and it’s a silly question. And yet it persists.

The idea that Muslims, especially Muslim leaders, in the United States and around the world, do not condemn terrorism has been one of the most persistent accusations in the post-9/11 era. Perhaps the most prominent and early of these attacks came from Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer who, in November 2001, asked
"after Sept. 11, where were the Muslim theologians and clergy, the imams and mullahs, rising around the world to declare that Sept. 11 was a crime against Islam? Where were the fatwas against Osama bin Laden? The voices of high religious authority have been scandalously still. And what of Muslim religious leaders in America?"

This alleged silence, it is implicitly or explicitly suggested, is in order to hide actual support for terrorism, and is a feature of the extremism and/or simply the lying inherent to Arab culture or built into Islam as a faith, according to Islamophobic discourse. Krauthammer‘s false accusation severed as a model for hundreds of similar tendentious questions over the following years, which remain impervious to all efforts to answer or address them, as my recent TV appearances again demonstrated.

In fact, of course, there had been a considerable outcry of condemnation around the Muslim world and particularly in the United States from the Muslim community, not only of the most recent outrage and 9/11, but of almost all the major terrorist acts in between. Yet once alleged, the question has persisted and never been resolved. The question continues to be routinely posed to Muslim-Americans: “why is your community silent about terrorism?” It has all the qualities of a trap question, in which answering invites one to accept self-defeating premises, a little like a politician being asked when he intends to stop beating his wife.

The answer, of course, is that the Muslim-American community is not silent about terrorism. Many public figures in this community, and all prominent national Muslim and Arab-American organizations, have been at great pains for many years to make this clear. All have continued to denounce terrorism, even to the point of organizing fatawa condemning terrorism in all its forms. Various websites including University of Michigan professor Juan Cole’s blog "Informed Comment” and various other websites (here, here, here and here, for example) have long ago posted lists of condemnations from Muslim religious and other institutions around the world against terrorism, and specifically the 9/11 attacks. Yet all of this has been, in some quarters at least, to little or no avail, since the myth of silence still carries tremendous weight in American political culture and is widely believed.

Many of the more hostile critics of the Muslim community, for example, rejected a fatwa organized and promoted in 2005 by numerous leading American Muslim organizations that condemned terrorism in the name of Islam on the spurious grounds that its rejection of attacks on innocent civilians was a ruse. These rejections generally claim that, “the fatwa never defines ‘innocent lives’ and condemns killing someone “unjustly,’” suggesting that the condemnation was a linguistic game and did not represent any serious effort to reject terrorism on religious grounds. Steven Emerson dismissed it as, “it is a fake fatwa designed merely to deceive the American public into believing that these groups are moderate.” Similarly, Walid Phares, among many others, critiqued a fatwa rejecting terrorism issued in 2008 by the Darool-Uloom Deoband on the grounds that, “Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and to some extent Hassan Nasrallah, all claim that innocence is relative.” Robert Spencer dismissed the universal condemnation by American Muslim organizations of extremist converts arrested in New York City for planning violent attacks in 2009 as little more than “a tried-and-true tactic.”

Obviously, more needs to be said and done to combat violent tendencies among Muslim extremists by religious authorities, but the refusal to acknowledge worthy efforts in this regard and dismiss positive developments as meaningless and disingenuous suggests a political and emotional investment in the idea that mainstream Muslims do not or even cannot oppose terrorism and violence. That said, I do think more could and needs to be done, especially by religious leaders. But there are very positive signs. The senior-most Saudi Ulema Council of clerics last month adopted a thoroughgoing decision descriptively defining terrorism and criminalizing its financing. Interestingly, its definition of "terrorism" was broad in a manner very reminiscent of the FBI definition, which encompasses everything from 9/11 style acts to vandalism. And in March a highly respected British Imam, Sheikh Tahir ul-Qadr, issued the longest, most detailed and most thoroughgoing fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing yet written. So the trend is most certainly in the right direction.

What has, however, troubled me for a long time and as I have continuously been complaining since at least 2004 is that while the mainstream Muslim clergy around the world has been quite good at taking a stand against terrorism generally, although not at communicating that to the non-Muslim world, there has been a most unfortunate tendency to try to make an exception for the Palestinian case on the grounds of self-defense and lack of any other options in combating occupation. Obviously, I reject any idea that combating occupation or having limited other options for armed combat can suddenly make illegitimate tactics legitimate. This point of view is, I think, less widespread than it used to be, but making moral exceptions for one’s friends or certain exigent circumstances is, at best, a cynical political gesture and not a moral or religious position.

It’s really very similar to those liberals, neoconservatives and other moralists who will wax eloquent about human rights and democracy in all contexts except the Israeli occupation and will give Israel a pass on whatever they think it needs to do in the occupied territories, or in Lebanon for that matter, in the name of "self-defense." It may be a natural human tendency to give our friends who we perceive to be in mortal peril a carte blanche to violate otherwise strictly universal moral principles, but it’s not intellectually, morally or politically respectable or legitimate. But this rationalization is increasingly less common among Muslims globally, and by now (though this certainly wasn’t true in the past) is very hard to locate among American Muslims here in the United States where I think the point about the illegitimacy and dangers of terrorist activity, including by Palestinians in the occupied territories, has been thoroughly assimilated and understood.

What is truly puzzling is not the “silence” of Muslim-Americans on the subject of terrorism, since there has been no such silence, but the inability or unwillingness of so many of their fellow citizens to hear their voices on this issue. The subtext to this discourse about an imaginary “silence” is the suggestion, implicit or explicit, that Muslim-Americans generally are supportive of certain terrorist groups or ambivalent about the morality of political murder. But when nothing the community organizations and leadership says on the subject registers and the message that Muslim-Americans are not only opposed to terrorism but have the same reactions to it that most Americans do, then “silence” can never be replaced with moral clarity, and nothing could dispel the clouds of suspicion, since the problem is not those who are supposedly mute but those who are deliberately deaf.

It is a common occurrence for Arab and Muslim Americans who engage with the media or other public figures within the community to be confronted with an atrocity, terrorist act or other misdeed by some Muslims somewhere in the world (the victims usually themselves being also Arabs and/or Muslims), and asked why the community in general has not specifically condemned that specific act. This is, of course, a preposterous question. There are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, one out of every five people (I got an Ibishblog question the other day questioning this statistic, but of course without any research on the part of the ignorant individual who simply expressed doubts because it didn’t fit with her unresearched conceptualization of global demographics).

During the Iraq war, for example, Muslim-Americans have been frequently held to account, at least rhetorically, for crimes committed in Iraq by insurgents or terrorists opposed to the coalition or the new Iraqi governments. However, in reality every day in Iraq brings fresh horrors, and it is extremely unreasonable to expect organizations with a broad remit to react to every atrocity in a war made up mainly of atrocities. The question about why Muslim-Americans did not rush every day to condemn the daily outrages in that war – or other atrocities, especially those taking place in the Islamic world aimed at victims who are themselves Arabs and Muslims – only makes sense if one somehow identifies the community here with the killers and not with the victims, the implication being that the lack of denunciation implies sympathy with the terrorists. Why would Muslim-Americans be presumed to have a link to the Muslim killers because of presumed ethnicity or religious affiliation, but not to the Muslim victims? Condolences would seem more in order and than accusatory questions.

The discourse about denunciations and silence implicitly makes the 3-6 million or so Muslim-Americans (no one has any real clue as to the actual statistic) in some way responsible for every major crime or atrocity committed by one in five people in the entire world – at least until they say they are against it in each and every specific case. To forestall this kind of silly criticism, the community would have to hire a small team of professional denouncers, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, to issue the daily condemnations of everything vile done by anyone of Muslim background anywhere in the world.

Sometimes silence reflects what should and must be taken for granted, not what is secretly believed. It goes without saying — and it is going to have to increasingly go without saying — that the overwhelming majority of Muslim-Americans oppose murder and terrorism in all their forms, and that they have the same values as most other Americans. Perhaps it was inevitable following a national trauma of scale of the 9/11 attacks, perpetrated by fanatics falsely claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, that Muslim-Americans would have to endure a period of undue suspicion, unfair questions and being asked to produce ritualized denunciations of horrors virtually every American opposes. But such a period cannot be open-ended and, more than eight years after the September 11 attacks, such questions and suspicions are no longer understandable. There is no excuse for being deaf to Muslim-American condemnations of terrorism, no justification for broad-based suspicion that Muslim-Americans are secretly supportive of extremism, and no need for any more rituals of denunciation on demand.