Recent events in Paris have renewed the call for Muslims to speak out against radical, fundamentalist forms of Islam and publicly express their support for free speech. Such calls have sparked debate. Some, including Muslim scholars and thinkers, believe it is their responsibility to publicly denounce the barbarism in Paris and other attacks that have been carried out by radical Muslim individuals. Others, find such an obligation to be an unfair burden that serves to further marginalize and stereotype Muslims living in Western society. Why are they responsible for the actions of others speak in the name of Islam? Why are Christians, Jews, and others not called to do the same when members of their traditions commit acts of violence or discrimination?
To me, it seems that the problem lies in that Westerners want to have their cake and eat it too. We want Muslims to condemn radical Islam, but on our terms. Violence is tragic and its aftermath creates a state of panic and fear. It is comforting to think that radical Islam is the only problem, that condemnation of its fundamentalist branches will bring about a peaceful society.
In Fordham theologian Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s most recent article “Constructing Religious Identity in a Cosmopolitan World: The Theo-Politics of Interfaith Work,” she calls for the formation of a “cosmopolitan religious identity” as defined by sociologist Ulrich Beck. This is an identity in which people see their own past and history as being tied up with the concerns of those who are outside of our particular community. Hill Fletcher asserts that in the context of white, Christian dominance in US society, “my call as a White Christian theologian is to learn about the material and social struggles of my neighbors and to mobilize my tradition’s resources in a project that combats white supremacy and Christian hegemony.” This quote struck me as significant in the current debates about Muslim responsibility. If Christians are responsible for speaking out about the violence and oppression that occurs in the name of Christianity, then surely it would seem hypocritical to say that members of other traditions are off the hook. Both Muslims and Christians profess belief in a personal, loving, and merciful God, surely it is incumbent upon Muslims and Christians to protest injustice whenever and wherever it occurs.
However, that being said, if Christians want Muslims to vocally condemn acts of terror perpetrated by persons who call themselves Muslim, then we must be willing to listen! We have to let them use their own words and express their true feelings. In other words, the burden is not on them alone. Us Christians have to look inward and critique our own biases. We cannot tell Muslims to condemn terror, but continue to look negatively upon women who wear a hijab. We cannot tell Muslims to condemn terror, but forcefully fight against the building of a mosque in our town and cities. We must come to terms with our own imperfections and avoid the tendency to think that Western Christianity has a monopoly on truth or on solutions to contemporary social issues.
In closing this essay, I want to mention a Muslim hero, Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting the office of Charlie Hebdo. As the novelist Teju Cole has observed, “It is possible to defend the right to obscene… speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.” We can condemn the murder of the workers at Charlie Hebdo, while also condemning cartoons that are hurtful to the Muslim community, a community that has been subject to much violence and discrimination in the West post-9/11. I try to put myself in the shoes of devout Muslims, remembering how hurt I felt when a Satanic black mass was scheduled to take place in Harvard Yard and the beloved school where I received my masters degree, was going to do nothing to stop it. However, if those taking part in the Satanic mass had been violently attack, I would have been one of the first people upset and angry about it.*** The fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo can never be justified does not mean we do not have an obligation to better friends to our Muslim neighbors.
So, yes, I do support calling on Muslims to condemn violence but when Muslims speak, we better listen and be willing to do our share.
*** Please note: I do not mean to imply that the situation that occurred at Harvard last year compares in any way to what happened in Paris. Nor do I mean to say that my experience as a Christian in the United States has been just as difficult as the experience of Muslims in the US and Europe (it most certainly hasn’t, and I must recognize my own white Christian privilege). I chose to mention this example in order to demonstrate how we can have empathy for those who are members of a tradition other than our own, and that if we believe our religion is worthy of respect, then we must believe the same about the traditions of others.