Since the Charlie Hebdo massacre two weeks ago political leaders from various countries have gone to great lengths to state that the attacks have “nothing to do with Islam,” or, more implausibly, that the attackers are, “not Muslim.” Germany’s Angela Merkel, the French President Hollande and lately the Democrat politician Howard Dean have all made such comments.
It is puzzling to wonder why such people – who have probably never read the Quran, the Hadith or understood the Fiqh – can speak with absolute certainty about with Islam is and what it is not. If they don’t know anything about Islam then surely they cannot say what its true character is?
I suspect the puzzling statements might be part of a subtle strategy not to antagonize Muslim communities. By leaving Islam out of the equation, political leaders may think that they soothe local Muslim tempers and prevent further radicalization.
That may make sense in the short run. But in the long run it’s a very harmful strategy. Society will never defeat a problem if it does not recognize and name it.
Denying the existence of violent followers of Islam makes it possible for Muslims to still relate to their religion as perfect, untouchable and absolutely true. As a result, the social phenomena that produces fundamentalist believers is allowed to proliferate: Any Muslim who criticizes Islam can be written off as an apostate, while those with a fundamentalist interpretation can claim to occupy a moral high ground.
In contrast to Islam, Christianity today does not produce many religiously motivated terrorists. That’s because Western societies have long since progressed to a point where religion is not untouchable; Christianity can indeed be criticized, questioned and even ridiculed. In most social circles in the West you don’t get any points by professing to be a devout Christian. The religion has lost its political and moral edge, and as a result its fundamentalism has been greatly reduced.
For Islam it is different. It’s perhaps safe to say that most Muslims have a more strict belief in their religion than contemporary non-Muslim Westerners do. You don’t go out and criticize Islam without experiencing some sort of repercussions. Coming out as a former Muslim-turned-atheist is not without its dangers, even in Western countries. To many Muslims, Islam is still perfect, untouchable and beyond criticism. As a result, orthodox believers can always occupy a moral high ground because they can profess to be ”more Muslim” than others.
In fact this very challenge is often cited as a central one in contemporary Islam: The present nature of the religion simply allows for very little internal criticism. By insisting that Islamic terrorists are ”not Muslim” our leaders only cement this belief — instead of initiating the long process of critique that may eventually change it.
Of course Islamic terrorists are Muslims. Just as the crusaders were Christians, the Soviet Union was socialist, and fundamentalists Hindus are Hindus. People who profess to a faith or ideology are part of that ideology, whether we like it or not. That doesn’t mean that they represent the only version of that ideology, but they surely are part of the phenomenon that the ideology is.
The Western world would never have made it to the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution if we insisted on the perfection and absolute truth of Christianity. It was exactly because we realized the imperfection of our religion that we managed to progress beyond its fundamentalist version: “remember the cruelties” the Enlightenment philosophers cried, and pointed towards the persecution of ”witches” and religious wars in 17th-Century Europe.
If we denied that the people who participated in religious cruelties were ”not Christians” we would still be stuck in a world where true Christians were perfect, everything else was imperfect, and modern democracy as we know it would be unthinkable. Because achieving a secular society involves realizing that your religion isn’t always perfect and that it should have no political power whatsoever.
That’s why I believe it’s wrong to insist that Islamic terrorists are not Muslims. Because it effectively silences any critique of Islam, and makes it impossible for true secularism to get a strong foothold among Muslims. By denying the problems of Islam, political leaders sabotage its eventual progression to a modern and democratic religion.
Morten Overgaard is a writer. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.