I want to highlight three points in this article. First, I want to underscore the obvious fact that killing of innocents or terrorism is a universal problem and not a “Muslim problem”. Second, I want to present data from official sources to show that things are not always what they appear to be and that perception may not always reflect reality. Despite appearances, non-Muslims have been committing the majority of terror acts (at least in US and Europe) and that homicide rates in Muslim societies are significantly less than in non-Muslim societies. In the third part, I want to discuss who or what is responsible for creating and perpetuating this biased portrayal of Muslims as violent and homicidal.
Violence as universal affliction of humanity
George Santayana once lamented that “only the dead have seen the end of war”. The same can be said about killing, murder, terror, and violence. There is no simple way of explaining violence or terrorism – indeed any collective human behavior – but from what we know of humanity and human nature, the conclusion seems inescapable: violence and terrorism are endemic to all human societies. From the beginning of humanity in the dim twilight of man’s early sojourn on earth through all of history and in all places and periods, the killing of innocents (terrorism) has been, is, and perhaps will forever remain a constant feature of humanity.
There is no period in history where innocents were kept safe. No continent on earth and no human society or civilization can claim to have never suffered from homicide, destruction, or the killing of innocents. Hypocrisy aside, murder, conquest, and destruction still occur everywhere in our contemporary world. Surrounded as we are with slogans of human rights, equality, and freedom, we tend to overlook the fact that even in the modern world and despite the myriads of institutionalized international bodies to oversee and prevent conflicts, human beings are still killing innocents; still occupying each other’s countries; and still oppressing one another.
Attempts to eradicate this perennial problem through the League of Nations, the United Nations, and other similar institutions all ended up in failure. The war to end all wars gave birth to a bigger and more horrible war within a couple of decades. 21st century is not different. The world is still mired in wars, conflicts, conquests, oppression, and a host of other cruelties which all goes to show that deep down our human nature has seen no significant change despite our great advances in civilization. We are just as capable of savagery as our hunter-gatherer ancestors; as prone to rivalry and xenophobia today as we were then.
What triggers violence? No one really knows for sure except that in general different passions and thoughts drive people to commit atrocities. People have killed innocents in the name of every conceivable belief, slogan, or ideal. If you find yourself unable to fathom people who kill in the name of religion, reflect back to the colonial era and ask yourself if it is any less strange or shocking to ravage much of Africa, Asia, and Latin American chanting “liberty, democracy, equality, and fraternity.” This is what drove an appalled Gandhi to cry:
The horrible crimes of colonialism (which are in essence terrorism on a grand scale) were committed, as we all know, by Europeans. Are we then to conclude that Caucasians are more prone to violence than other races? No. Of course not.
If murderous tendencies are to be blamed on any group at all, therefore, it will have to be on humanity as a whole because at one time or another, every societal group has produced villains that besmirch the name of the group. The Nazis did it to Germans; Fascism and Mafia to the Italians; the KKK to American whites and Christians; colonialism and imperialism to the western people; drug dealers and violent gangs to blacks and Hispanics; the papal and Spanish inquisitions to Christians; Stalinism to Russians …and we can go on and on indefinitely doing the same for every major social group. The question is: If it is wrong to associate any of those crimes or failings to their respective societies (and it is), what right do we have to do it to Muslims?
To generalize about any group is bad enough but to stigmatize 1.6 billion Muslims who crisscross the globe from east to west, north and south and comprising of all races, cultures, and nationalities solely on the actions of a tiny minority among them is simply moronic. That is why to even pose the question in the title of this article smacks of prejudice and stereotyping but I understand why Saleh in his article, New Wave of Muslim preachers, considered the topic worth exploring. Justifiably or not, Islam and Muslims have become synonymous with violence and terrorism. So the topic can no longer be ignored particularly since some Eritreans are joining the chorus of bigots but before I delve into the topic, I want to express my slight disagreement with Saleh on two minor points.
First, I do not consider disputes over prophetic traditions (Ahadith) to be the primary drivers of violence, terrorism, or chaos in the region. In fact, I believe the opposite to be the case. It is mostly the irreligious leaders like Sadaam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, his father before him, the Mubarak of Egypt (and now Sisi) and other brutal dictators who were mostly “secular” that are responsible for much of the havoc in the region. These leaders have never given a hoot about the Quran or Hadith except to use them as tools to bamboozle the masses. It is such dictators, foreign interference, and also terrorists like Bin Laden (who are not scholars and who intentionally misinterpret religious scriptures to justify their murderous escapades) that have caused and continue to cause much of the chaos in those countries. Traditional Ulemas (Islamic religious scholars), whatever their views, were/are as helpless under a dictatorship as the rest of the population in the region. They fared well when they did the dictators’ bidding and suffered or died when they resisted.
My second disagreement with Saleh is about the new crop of preachers. Saleh seems to believe that these new preachers that have sprung up in the Muslim world to challenge the status quo are a boon for Muslims. Are they? I don’t know but if disputes over prophetic sayings/traditions are the cause of many problems that plague Muslims (as Saleh contends), how are these new preachers with their “rebel” views going to help ? Wouldn’t their maverick opinions add fuel to the already raging fire by generating a fierce reaction from the vast body of traditionalists? Or are we assuming that they are so persuasive that the vast majority of the masses in the Muslim world will flock to them?
I fully agree with Saleh that vigorous intellectual engagement and debate is good for the Muslim world and that traditional interpretations of scriptures should not be taken for granted but this is a provision that already finds full expression within Islamic theology. From its very inception, Islam has encouraged differences of opinions. The prophet (pbuh) said that “the disagreement of my people is a mercy.” The Imams of the four Sunni schools of thought and their followers have coexisted for generations with mutual respect despite their differences. They understood that interpretation differences were inevitable and never belittled or condemned each other over differences.
Revivalism, restoration, and Ijtihad (independent reasoning to find a solution to a legal question) have always been part of Islam. The new preachers are hardly a novelty in this regard. The medium they use to spread their teachings is certainly new but they should not be viewed as a new phenomenon in Islamic societies. Furthermore, our assessment of the merit or value of these new preachers should not be based on how “rebellious” or how popular they are at a given point of time but on how sincerely they approach the task of interpretation. Thinkers of the caliber of Dr. Adnan Ibrahim should be welcome and encouraged provided they remain true to the central (core) precepts of the religion they profess to follow and as long as their preaching is not an attempt to make Islam palatable to modern sensibilities or conceptions of reality. I am just cautioning here and this is meant as a general observation and not meant to refer to any particular preacher. I must also note here that it is entirely possible that I may have misunderstood Saleh. If so, my apologies to him.
Going back to the issue at hand, are Muslims or Muslim societies more prone to violence than others? We have seen how ubiquitous violence has been throughout history (and still is) among all people. If this is a common legacy of humanity how did Muslims become associated with violence in the public mind? How much of this perception is deserved and how much of it can be blamed on external factors? In my view, three different entities are to blame for this widely held association.
First of course are the culprits themselves (the terrorists) who commit terror and mayhem in the name of Islam. They are so tiny a minority that by themselves and without the aid of mass media, they have no power to mold our perception which brings us to the 2nd source of this perception: the media.
The complicity of Media and the Islamophobia industry in perpetuating the myth of Muslim Violence
An essential tool for both democracies and dictatorships alike, media’s staggering ability to shape our opinions and thoughts is truly phenomenal. As Chomsky famously put it “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state””. The pivotal role played by media in today’s world and its ability to sway our thoughts is now an incontrovertible fact. With so much power in its hands, the impact of global media can be devastating when it fails to discharge its duties responsibly and evenhandedly. Nowhere is this neglect as starkly manifest as in its coverage of Muslim violence. The media employs a clear double standard when it comes to Muslims. It spends a disproportionate amount of time covering terror acts committed by Muslims while it glosses over terror acts committed by all others thereby creating the impression that only Muslims are committing terror acts. As we shall see later, this impression is not supported by facts. Examples of media double standard are many but here are a few examples to show how terror acts committed by non-Muslims are never dwelled upon.
Robert Dear, for example, who told the police “he dreamed he’ll be met in Heaven by aborted fetuses wanting to thank him” was never called a terrorist. Timothy McVeigh, a racist Christian identity sect who killed 168 people was never described as a Christian terrorist. Similar were the cases of Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who killed several blacks in church; Craig Hicks, a Muslim hater who killed 3 young Muslims in Chapel Hill; Joseph Stack who flew an airplane into IRS building; Robert Duggart who plotted to kill Muslims in New York; and Baruch Goldstein, the Jew who killed 29 and wounded 125 Muslim worshippers. The perpetrators in all of these cases (and many more) were variously described as lone gunmen, unhinged, mentally disturbed etc… but they were never associated with any religion nor were they called terrorists.
When a “Muslim” commits a violent act, the reaction is completely different. The media goes into apocalyptic frenzy and the perpetrator is immediately branded as an “Islamic terrorist” or a “Muslim terrorist” even if he never set foot in a mosque or never seriously took his religion. Far from representing the faith, many of the so-called “Islamic terrorists” were in fact petty criminals who didn’t care much about their religion except as a cover. According to FBI, the 9-11 hijackers went to strip clubs and drank alcohol before committing their horrible act. Similarly, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the perpetrator of Bastille Day massacre in Paris was a wife beater who drank alcohol and ate pork and according to his close family members including his ex-wife, he was an atheist who never attended a mosque. The same is true of Khalid Masood who recently killed four people in London. We are told that “he had a 20-year history of offending that saw him jailed at least twice.” These are thus individuals who were already predisposed to commit crime.
Media double standard is partly due to the profit imperative. Media is primarily driven by a desire for earnings and nothing increases ratings (profits) than the sensationalism produced by ‘odd looking and strange sounding foreigners’ that shout the name of their God as they butcher innocents. It is a perfect Hollywood material that is guaranteed to mesmerize audiences into staying glued to their TV for hours. All this should not come as a surprise however. After all, this is the same media that has been doing it to blacks for years portraying them as inferior, violent, and incorrigible trouble makers. It has simply added Muslims to the mix.
Third and by far the greatest source of deliberate misinformation about Islam and Muslims comes from the multi-million dollar industry of Islamophobia. This huge network of haters include elected representatives, Neo-Nazis, evangelical Christians, Zionists, radio/TV talk shows, pundits, bloggers, and many others. For years, they have been hard at work producing voluminous anti-Muslim literature and films, conducting conferences, and spewing their hatred wherever and whenever they can – all for the single purpose of denigrating Islam and Muslims. Besides possessing their own media prowess, they have also been manipulating mainstream media into adapting their sordid agenda. Please refer to american progress.org for an exposé on this group.
The above three major sources of misinformation are responsible for the myth that Muslims are more violent than others. Imagine how different things would be if the roles were reversed and Muslims controlled the global media. Here is a sample of how they may have gone about covering events assuming that they will also suffer from a bias similar to the one that is now directed at them.
- A) The crimes and terror acts of non-Muslims would receive prominent coverage in all major news networks and will be repeated for days, weeks, and even months. Every act committed by a non-Muslim would be associated with his/her religion. The actions of “Muslim” terrorists would either receive no coverage at all or would be explained away as the acts of a lone wolf or of a person suffering from some mental ailment. If the perpetrator happened to be a Christian, a panel of experts would quickly assemble to expound energetically on how this behavior is a hallmark of age-old Christian militancy and how this in turn can be traced back to biblical passages. Media pundits would remind viewers of the many wars of religion Europe went through and would cherry pick from history every atrocity committed by Christians to infer that there is something fundamentally wrong with Christianity. They would then loudly wonder whether Christianity should go through a yet another reformation to redeem itself.
Muslim media would feign utter shock at the rape and homicide rates in countries like US and dwell at length at what cultural weaknesses are to account for this. In Africa, the killings and kidnapping of thousands of innocents by the Christian extremists LRA (Lord’s resistance army) would receive ample coverage. Comparable atrocities committed by Boko Haram would be glossed over. Muslim experts on Christianity would also discuss the horrors of Rwandan massacre of Tutsis and will speculate learnedly if it can be attributed to innate Christian propensity to violence. If they decide to cover the plight of Eritrean youth, it will be to present it as a flight of innocent Muslim youth from a brutal Christian dictator.
Brutal dictators will be propped up and installed in several Christian lands and in some cases a budding democracy toppled in favor of a dictatorship. The next day, this connivance will be totally forgotten and experts will begin to ponder whether democracy can ever thrive in Christian nations. Advisors will be sent to further explore options for democracy if at all feasible. At other times, they will tacitly encourage a dictator they have been supporting for years to invade a neighboring country and when he does, they will pounce upon him with a vengeance. New corrupt leaders will be hand-picked to replace him and to lead the country towards democracy. Any signs of failure of the new regime will not be blamed on the corrupt system. Instead, it will count as further evidence of the impossibility of democratizing Christian nations.
As you can see, it is a game of selective counting. That is how Muslims are being played by the media and the so-called experts on Islam and the charade has been going on for years. In today’s information intensive world, it is the owners of mass media and those with rhetoric muscle that define perception not evidence The seat of global media and dissemination as we all know resides in the west where Muslims are a small minority with little influence to correct the exaggerations or lies that are spread about them. Unlike the Jews, who are also a minority but with vast resources and expertise in the media, Muslims are still a neophyte when it comes to navigating the media outlets. So we have to go beyond headline and look at some relevant data if we are to arrive at a balanced picture. Here is a small sample:
Perception vs Reality: how headlines can obscure the truth
- It may come as a shock to many of us but the majority of terrorist acts in US were committed by non-Muslims. Citing New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, Newsweek states that since 9/11, “the right-wing militants …have killed more people in the United States than jihadis have.” How many terror acts by non-Muslims can you recall? Interestingly, the study also found that the criminal justice system is biased against “Muslim” offenders treating them more harshly and indicting them more frequently than their non-Muslim counterparts. [i]
- According to FBI’s chronological list of terror acts from 1980-2005, only 6% were “Islamic”.[ii]
- The majority of terror acts in Europe were committed by non-Muslims. According to Europol (European Police Office), “the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the EU between 2006 and 2013 are affiliated” not with Muslims but “with ethno-national or separatist motives, followed by left-wing attacks”.[iii]
- According to ADL, “from 2007 to 2016, a range of domestic extremists of all kinds were responsible for the deaths of at least 372 people in the United States. Seventy-four percent of these murders came at the hands of right-wing extremists such as white supremacists, sovereign citizens and militia adherents.” It further asserts that “of the 45 police officers killed by domestic extremists since 2001, 10 were killed by left wing extremists, 34 by right wing extremists and one by domestic Islamic extremists.“ [iv]
- Murder kills far more innocents than terrorism or even wars. That is why some experts believe it is a better metric for measuring the rate of violence in societies. Judged by such criteria, Muslim majority countries have significantly lower rates of homicide than non-Muslim countries according to a study by Steven Fish, a political scientist. “If there really is an inherent—Islam-driven—propensity for deadly violence in Muslim societies,” writes Andrew Mack of Slate magazine, “we should expect to find that the greater the percentage of Muslims in society, the greater would be the numbers of homicides. In fact, the reverse is the case: The higher the percentage of Muslims in a society, the lower the homicide rate.”[v]
I hope you can see from the discussion above that the stereotype about Muslim proneness to violence is an exaggerated media induced sensationalism that has no factual basis. Violence, terrorism or the killing of innocents is a sad aspect of human nature that has bedeviled humanity since time immemorial and will likely continue to thwart our best efforts to totally eradicate it. It has nothing to do with Islam, religion, race, or nationality and everything to do with human nature or its aberration. Only those with shallow grasp of history or current affairs and are also ignorant of the universality of human nature would typecast any group or people. The fact that the vast majority of those that believe in a certain religion or philosophy never engage in terrorism or homicide is a standing refutation to all attempts to stereotype religion particularly Islam.
True, we witness a lot of problems in Muslim lands but this is no different from the phenomenon we see elsewhere in many developing nations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas that are caused by dictatorships, semi-dictatorships, and the collective neurosis of post-colonial cultural confusion. If you add to this the volatile elements of ongoing foreign interference, occupation, and the lure of oil, the product you get is what you see in the Middle East.
[i] Eichenwald, K. (2016, February 4). Right-Wing Extremists Are A Bigger Threat To America Than Isis. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/2016/02/12/right-wing-extremists-militants-bigger-threat-america-isis-jihadists-422743.html [ii] U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (2002-2005). Terrorism 2002-2005. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terrorism-2002-2005#terror_05sum [iii] EU Terrorism Situation & Trend Report (TE-SAT 2014), Reviewing the Terrorism Phenomenon. Retrieved from https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/eu-terrorism-situation-and-trend-report [iv] ADL, Anti-Defamation League ((2017, February 16)). Report Says U.S. Deaths Linked to Domestic Extremists Second Only to Year of Oklahoma City Bombing. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-report-says-us-deaths-linked-to-domestic-extremists-second-only-to-year-of [v] Mack, A. (2016, January 21). Of course it isn’t a religion of violence. If it were, why would so many Muslim societies be so peaceful? Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/01/islam_isn_t_inherently_violent_or_peaceful.html