Days after Paris terrorist attacks, in which 130 people killed; a mob of extreme rightists beat a 17-year-old Muslim boy to death in the southern French city of Lyon. Violence begets more violence. Today in the United States after the San Bernardino shootings, in which Islamist extremists killed 24 people; anti-Muslim rhetoric is as virulent as had never been before. Are we stuck in a vicious cycle?
Religious extremists use pre-existing societal fears and divisions to recruit others into their fold. But the kinds of terrorist attacks they carry out also exacerbate these same social divisions, and western policies have been throwing oil on the flames. Bombing the Middle East while at the same time rejecting millions of refugees – because there might be Islamist individuals among them – plays more into the hands of those trying to radicalize these people.
How do we break this cycle? As others have remarked before, nothing scares extremists as much as our unity.
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Muslims around the world have publicly denounced the mass murder committed by organisations calling themselves Islamic. Muslims often argue that those who perpetrate terrorist attacks cannot be considered Muslims. An atheist myself, I think it is too easy to postulate that these extremists have nothing to do with religion. Extremism is an inherent danger of every religion.
And to be completely honest, I have to admit that this potential for extremism may well extend to each set of ideas to form an ideology. That certainly doesn’t exclude atheism. Anti-religious bigotry is rife among atheists. An atheist sense of superiority is very widespread even though it has already been used to justify terrorist acts like torching of churches and other murders. One example for the latter can be the shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill in California at the beginning of this year.
Realizing that our atheist “ideology” is possibly as flawed as the religious ones we are attacking, it is important to be able to take a step back from the fray. While the separation between state and religion can “certainly” be achieved, atheists’ aim cannot be to convince everyone of the rational invalidity of religions. This would be an impossible task. Atheist criticism of religions is valid, but it should be noted that atheists could sometimes have very strong emotions about religions. What atheists have to acknowledge though is that many people all over the world feel spirituality. To many believers, atheists’ opinions don’t sound much different from a Muslim chiding a Hindu for believing the wrong thing or a Hindu belittling a Christian for their faith and so on.
Communist regimes around the world have tried to enforce atheism in societies from top down. Although they had some success, they have never fully extirpated religion anywhere. While many atheists feel absolutely no religiosity, it is one of the recurrent and fundamental truths about humanity across all societies – on all continents and in all epochs – that a segment of any population will avow a sense of spirituality. That includes some modern and highly educated societies, in which atheism has become the norm. Moreover, there are simple psychological reasons for why people will again and again turn to the concept of gods or a god, such as having to deal with death and grief.
When having encountered extreme violence, it is a natural and intuitive reaction for many to withdraw into their shell – their religious or ethnic community. By implication this often means differences with others are accentuated. Yet as it has often been affirmed by the more perspicacious commentators, the only way we can truly fight terrorism is by embracing each other across all segments of society.
In a situation when some label themselves Muslims and then inflict the worst kind of violence against others under that name, we should give more space to progressive Islamic thinkers to express themselves publicly. Constantly demanding of ordinary Muslim citizens to express disdain for these terrorist acts and distance themselves from the penetrators is merely humiliating. Instead, we need to highlight the efforts others are making anyway. We need to point to the scholars stressing the peaceful and enlightened sides of Islam in their writings.
On the one hand these progressive Muslim thinkers are doing important work for the Ummah (the Islamic community), constituting a rallying point for Muslims to turn to when looking for broad-minded interpretations of their faith. On the other hand these intellectuals act as representatives of their faith to non-Muslims. The female figureheads are important since they go against the stereotypical picture of the oppressed Muslim woman, which is so often manipulated in the West.
In violent times like ours Muslim feminists and queer Muslim thinkers should be regarded as essential links in our society. Some excellent reformist Islamic scholars I can think of are Rafia Zakaria, Ayesha Chaudhry, Leyla Ahmed, Asifa Quraishi and Amina Wadud. We should accord these women as much limelight as possible.