Assuming Collective Guilt

“Why have Muslims not condemned terrorism?” This question is a seemingly permanent fixture in the question-and-answer sessions I address after public forums. After responding to this query for more than a decade, I am torn between bewilderment and grief: bewilderment at the willful ignorance required to miss the thousands of official Muslim statements, opinion editorials, and formal religious edicts denouncing terrorism that have been issued regularly since the horrendous attacks of 9/11; grief at the prejudice that makes these pronouncements necessary.

Even before the identity of the perpetrators was known in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, Muslim Americans felt impelled to denounce – and therefore pre-emptively distance themselves from – this act of domestic terrorism.

Interestingly, some commentators initially speculated that the bombings might have been the work of right-wing, anti-government extremists. Yet, we didn’t hear right-leaning groups who advocate for small government – or the Republican Party, for that matter – condemning the violence or trying to distance themselves from it the way Muslim groups apparently believed they had to.

Nor did similar groups feel the need to issue strong statements denouncing Timothy McVeigh after he was found guilty of carrying out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – the worst domestic terrorism act in United States history. McVeigh’s extremist violence was rightly cast as a product of his individual criminality, not the responsibility of all who share his religious, political, and ethnic identity. We don’t need to hear conservative groups denounce his act of violence, because we assume they do – as well we should.

McVeigh is to mainstream conservatives what the Tsarnaev brothers are to mainstream Muslims, yet the Muslim American community is not afforded the same assumption of innocence.

This is especially striking considering that, in the U.S., threats from white supremacist, anti-government, right-wing violent radicals far outweigh those from Muslim extremists: Since 1995, 56 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists, 30 percent by eco-terrorists, and 12 percent by Muslim radicals.

Moreover, the majority of Muslims oppose terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. A 2011 Gallup study I was involved in clearly demonstrated this. The study, Views of Violence: What drives public acceptance and rejection of attacks on civilians 10 years after 9/11, covered more than 100 countries and determined that, contrary to popular misperceptions, Muslim majority countries were at least as likely as other societies to denounce attacks on civilians. In the Middle East, religious devotion was linked to a greater rejection of these attacks.

So, what do we make of terrorists employing religious symbolism and rhetoric?

First, if we listen more carefully, what we hear beneath the religious veneer is a fundamentally political, not religious, argument. From the Boston bombings to the recent gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, southeast London, we have seen terrorists justify their violence by citing modern grievances.

We can say the same about terrorists of every stripe, actually. The symbols and language they employ depend on their cultural background, but their core message is the same:  Perceived wrongs require violence to correct.

One of the most extreme examples of this was two years ago in Norway, when Anders Breivik, who advocated the violent annihilation of “Eurabia,” bombed government buildings, killing eight people, and struck a youth summer camp in Oslo, shooting 69 people dead, many of them teenagers.

Second, whether terrorists claim to defend Islam or Europe’s white Christian majority, their identity provides the context, not the cause, of their radicalization.

Take the August 2012 case of right-wing white supremacist Wade Michael Page, and his lethal attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. According to a man who described himself as one of Page’s old Army buddies, the attacker often talked about “racial holy war.” His white conservative background didn’t cause his radicalization any more than being Muslim or Chechen caused the Boston bombers to turn to violence. In both cases, the radicalization occurred within the criminal’s cultural context and therefore took on the symbols, online space, and rhetoric of this sub-culture.

The mainstream Muslim American community is no more responsible for deviant Muslims who turn to terrorism than the Republican Party is responsible for right-wing radicals who do the same. In fact, according to Gallup’s 2011 report on U.S. religious communities, far from acquiescing to this violence, Muslim Americans are more likely than members of any other U.S. faith community to unequivocally denounce attacks on civilians – whether by an individual or a military – as morally wrong.

According to the best research, Muslim radicalizing in the West occurs outside the community, despite the community, and in defiance of the community. Consider the fact that Muslim Americans have helped thwart the majority of foiled Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist plots in America. Rather than bearing collective guilt for Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism, the Muslim American community is its most formidable adversary.

So I wait for the day when we no longer ask if Muslims have denounced terrorism, not because we’ve heard they have, but because we no longer have to.

Cairo-born American Dalia Mogahed is Chairman and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Mogahed Consulting, an executive coaching and consulting firm specializing in Muslim societies and the Middle East. She is former Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and served on U.S. President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She is co-author, with John L. Esposito, of the groundbreaking book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

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