by Will T.G. Miller
As an immigrant from the United States to sunny little Britain, I never went through the American education system. It must have changed a lot, though, because apparently Americans are now being taught that “Muslims are murderers.” That’s what I learned reading a recent Vanguard article by Jennee Martinez.
Don’t get me wrong—I may have the passport, but my adoptive cultural milieu is one very different than most of you. Britain is a country that shares much of its culture, many of its values, with America—but we have our differences, too, shaped by geography and the divergent nature of our societies.
Because of its past of slavery and racial exclusion laws, America has developed a commendable aversion to racism, like most of the rest of the world has now. Unique perhaps in the U.S. is this aversion extends to any characteristic that could be used to categorize or group people together. Martinez shows this in her article when she talks about not blaming “an entire race or religion” after massacres by white or Asian shooters.
The crucial point lost to Martinez here is that one’s race and religion are incomparable referents on the topic of catalysts to action. They are, so to speak, apples and oranges.
My own understanding is that race simply reflects human biodiversity and little more—minute adaptations to our environment that emerged over tens of thousands of years spent apart. While the U.S. is unique in that “race” is often understood in the sense of “culture” (such as how “black American” represents a cultural group as well as a racial one), I have not seen in America or anywhere else that biological race alone is sufficient to drive individuals to certain courses of action.
Religion is different. Religion is a learned system of belief that comes as a diverse package filled with norms and values of its own. The Abrahamic religions all feature commandments to their adherents, specifically instructing them to behave in certain ways under specific sets of circumstances and condemning them if they do not.
Martinez notes we didn’t blame all white people after the numerous mass shootings initiated by white shooters that she lists—or how we didn’t blame Korean shooters after the Virginia Tech shooting.
This is for good reason; CNN showed that white shooters have been responsible for 64 percent of mass shootings since 1982, making them underrepresented in incidences of mass shooting given the 72.4 percent of the total population they occupy. The real correlation to look for here is not race, but in fact mental health status, which research shows to be far more salient in mass shooting cases.
Speaking of correlations, Martinez may not be aware of the extremely strong correlation between acts of violent terrorism and religion across the globe—one religion standing out quite a lot above the others. This is because as we’ve already seen, religions are unlike race in that they mandate that individuals take certain actions.
Your own personal views on Islam, and whether or not it is a peaceful religion or ever can be, is irrelevant on this; the point is that we are being intellectually dishonest if we pretend that this correlation isn’t there. We can be adults and acknowledge that both extremes exist in the world—the self-identifying Muslim-American woman who refuses to don the hijab and the ISIS foot soldier who captures Yazidi women for the purpose of sexual enslavement. Both people are indeed Muslims who sincerely believe themselves to be following their faith.
Just pretending that person B doesn’t exist will not make him go away. Simply stating that “they are not taught to hate and their religion does not preach violence” does not change the fact that some indeed are, and that in some contexts the religion indeed does. You will not stop ISIS by pretending it isn’t there.
And if discussing how some of these problematic religious commandments can be understood as condoning violence (as they indeed are by some Muslims) is now seen as “Islamophobia” then I think this is the greatest tragedy of all, as our refusal to bring these verses up as suitable topics for debate means that we are turning our backs on the Muslim reformers who would like to see these reinterpreted or in some cases even removed.
What we should be doing instead is promoting progressive Muslims. By highlighting the cases of progressive Muslims trying to tackle the medievalist elements within the faith, we enable them as a vehicle for change inside the Islamic world. If we instead refuse to address these obvious problematic elements, saying that there are no problems with Islam, then we are disabling progressive Muslims trying to actually fix those very real problems.
Don’t turn your back on Muslim progressives and reformers. Listen to their stories, give them a voice and give them a platform. Pretending, as Martinez does, that they have no reason to exist only strips them of legitimacy and weakens them in their struggle for a moderate and peaceful Islam.
Will T.G. Miller is a current student of Cambridge University and a researcher at the Center for Kurdish Progress in London.
Editor’s note: Miller’s response refers to a paragraph by Vanguard contributor Jennee Martinez which states, “We didn’t hate all white people. We didn’t blame their entire race or religion.” Martinez’s initial submission simply specified race. “Or religion” was added in final edits to address an unclear equivalency between race and religion in the column’s content.