USA: A Misguided Policy Promotes Denial, Not Reform
By Aaron Rhodes
WASHINGTON, 02.03.2015 (FOREF Europe) – The U.S. administration’s efforts to detach the brutal terrorism of the Islamic State (IS) from Islam are clearly meant to counter the tendency to find all Muslims guilty for the acts of a few, a tendency which, it is feared, could drive masses of hitherto peaceful people into the ranks of international jihadism. To use only anodyne terminology like “violent extremism” to describe what the IS does is a political strategy to avoid offending Muslims, and to preserve ties with some moderate Muslim leaders.
The strategy may have worthy aims, but it is counterproductive in the long term. The administration’s transparently political and manipulative statements lack credulity. And neither President Obama, nor any other political leader, has any standing to hold forth on what is or is not “true Islam.” The intellectual and verbal gymnastics of the President and his staff confuse the public, especially as more expert analyses appear that confirm the Islamic qualities of the Islamic state, and opinion polls show that significant proportions of Muslims worldwide sympathize with jihadist violence on religious grounds. The application of political messaging, as opposed to offering intellectual and moral clarity–which is what leaders are supposed to do–is resulting in cynicism and anti-Muslim bigotry.
The assertions also interfere with the process by which Muslim communities could come to terms with difficult problems in the interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship of those communities to secular authorities and members of other faiths in increasingly pluralistic societies. Acts of Islamist terrorism are often followed by loud complaints from members of the Muslim community about Islamophobia and persecution; discrimination does occur, but some of the complaints are just about associating the terrorism with Islam. The victimization process is reinforced by human rights NGOs and institutions like the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, which conducts surveys about subjective, “perceived” discrimination.
It is a ubiquitous fact of history that communities are associated with acts of their individual members, whether good or bad. Indeed, other members of communities are in a sense at least indirectly responsible for those acts, which reflect shared values and impulses. Communities can and should take pride in virtuous and worthy achievements by their individual members; in the same way, communities are the sources of values that drive acts of terrorism, war crimes, and other horrors, and communities need to help stop them.
Would any thoughtful person deny that negative elements in American culture and society, like a failure of moral education, had something to do with the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib? Or that sexual exploitation by Catholic priests has anything to do with Catholicism? Would anyone suggest that the great achievements of Muslim, Jewish or Christian philosophers and scientists had nothing to do with the religious and cultural contexts that nurtured them?
While gratuitously rejecting the obvious influence of literal Islamic interpretations on terrorists, the official US government line has strongly suggested that Islamist terrorism is the result of social and economic grievances, coming close to legitimating violence while diverting attention from strong and widely embraced currents of thought in Islamic doctrine.
The recognition of collective responsibility, as opposed to assigning collective guilt, could be constructive in this situation. Guilt in the legal sense is always individual, but assuming collective responsibility can help communities root out terrorism. The sense of collective responsibility is what has allowed the German people to emerge from the shadows of the greatest crimes in human history, and decades later, the theme of collective responsibility for the Holocaust is a vivid part of German discourse. The failure to embrace a sense of collective responsibility for the racist crimes committed by the Milosevic regime in Serbia keeps the society frozen in a state of denial, unable to move beyond its past.
To deny that Islamist terrorism has anything to do with Islam is to contribute to a pronounced tendency to deny collective responsibility. There are encouraging signs, including reflection by Muslim leaders about the Islamic sources of Islamic extremism; parents of Western-born jihadists are now taking the lead in the fight against the religious radicalization of their children. The proper way to support them is not to pretend that the main solution to Islamic terrorism does not lie inside their communities. Ultimately, that degradingly suggests that those communities lack the moral strength to address their internal problems.
Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.