Monday, December 7, 2015

When Your Muslim Neighbor Preaches Peace, How Will You Respond?

Today I saw a video of a Muslim poet expressing his distress at the appropriation of Islam by extremists. It highlights in a helpful way the points I was making in my previous post, and so I want to share it here. Take a couple of minutes to watch the video.

Religious traditions, Islam included, are complex phenomena with rich histories and sources of authority. Depending on what one identifies as essential, these complex traditions can be used to underwrite extremism or to support peace and justice.

So how should we respond to those who endorse the message (shared by the Muslim majority) that is expressed by the poet in this video? Should we support and encourage them in their fight to reclaim Islam from the extremists? Or should we say, as some do, that the truth about Islam is what the extremists teach, and this poet is an inauthentic sellout?

Every time Islamist extremists perpetrate a new horror, there are those in the West who call for moderate Muslims to denounce them (as if they aren't already doing so). Here we have a poet who is denouncing them with passion and eloquence. Should we respond to him by sifting through the complex tradition of Islam to find every element that is at odds with his peaceful vision? Shall we make certain that there is no way for moderate Muslims to win, nothing our Muslim neighbors can do that will not spark our hostility?

Or should we, perhaps, reach out to him and those like him in a spirit of love and say, "You are my brother"?

I know which choice will do the most to disempower the extremists. And I know which choice the extremists most want us to make.


  1. Coming from the Muslim world and being a Muslim myself, I personally know a lot of Muslims who are just like this man. Yes, they abhor terrorism. And yes, they are telling the truth when they say that it has "nothing to do with my Prophet." But they also believe that there is nothing even remotely extremist about the idea that gay people deserve to be put to death, to name but one example. And that distinction between the radical and the illiberal is precisely what is often lost in much of contemporary Western discourse on Islam. The former may be peripheral, but the latter is very much central. It can be heard everywhere for it is preached everywhere, from mainstream Muslim gatherings in the West ( to the Prophet's own mosque in Medina ( By all means, stand with your Muslim neighbors when they denounce the former, but do also stand with their critics when they embrace the latter. Which they do. A lot.

    1. This is an important distinction. To refuse to paint all Muslims as violent or potentially violent extremists is not the same as refusing to be critical of mainstream Muslim beliefs. I am very critical of the conservative Christian stance towards gays and lesbians; but taking that stance does not require that I view all conservative Christians as potential terrorists.

  2. According to the Holy Bible, I am to try lovingly to correct my brother in his/her error, twice. And when they refuse the truth leave them alone.

  3. Hi, Eric-

    What we outside the Muslim community make of such protestations of innocence or expressions of extremism is immaterial. The real audience is the Muslim community itself. While the majority of Islam is not extremist, there is clearly a lot of support for extremism. Terrorists and extremists do not operate in a vacuum. They are getting recruits by the thousands, and money by the millions. They get social and theological support from many quarters, and particularly heavily from the Gulf states. We are even sending arms to support an alliance of Saudis and ISIS that is attacking the Shia in Yemen. Extremism flows unceasingly from the central Wahabi clerics of Saudi Arabia, infecting Muslims worldwide who are being "educated" in Saudi-sponsored madrassas and mosques. This is evident in Indonesia, Pakistan, France, and sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond the active propaganda, there is a deep-seated bitterness about the poor cultural position of Muslim peoples, which finds expression in anti-Westernism and fundamentalism, instead of, say, constitutional conventions, imrpoved education, and yes, even critical philosophy.

    So yes, we should and do support liberal, benign formulations of Islam. I wish this poet the very best in turining the tide of his community, whatever his theological credibility. But our role in this is minuscule. Perhaps the best single thing we can do, actually, is ending the use fossil fuels.

  4. I would be wary, since the prophet counsels something called "taqqiya". Look it up.