Writers need to learn to write differently about terrorists who happen to be Muslim.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/63/Salat_Salah_%22Muslim_Prayer%22.jpg

How to pray as a Muslim.

The first thing I read on the morning after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a well-written, well-constructed, and very informative piece about Chechnya, Chechens, and the Tsarnaev brothers written by David Remnick (a hell of a writer) in The New Yorker (a hell of a publication).

Yet in the midst of all this quality, Remnick fell into a particularly pedestrian, non-quality trap: He used simplistic conventional wisdom as shorthand, and in so doing, conflated (whether intentionally or not) two very different things that simply are not conflatable.

Throughout the piece, wherever there is reference to the Tsarnaevs’ religion, there is an unspoken assumption that the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior. For instance:

The Caucasus region is multicultural in the extreme, but the predominant religion in the north is Islam…. In 1991, nationalist rebels fought two horrific wars with the Russian Army for Chechen independence. In the end, the rebel groups were either decimated or came over to the Russian side. But rebellion persists, in Chechnya and in the surrounding regions—Dagestan and Ingushetia—and it is now fundamentalist in character. The slogan is “global jihad.” The tactics are kidnappings, assassinations, bombings.

…Members of the [Tsarnaev] family occasionally attended a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge, but there seemed nothing fundamentalist about their outlook.

…[Tamerlan, the older brother,] described himself as “very religious”; he didn’t smoke or drink…. Three years ago, he was arrested for domestic assault and battery. 

“He was a cool guy,” Ashraful Rahman said [of the younger brother, Dzhokhar]. “I never got any bad vibes from him…. Dzhokhar went to the mosque more than I did, but he wasn’t completely devoted.”

The problem here is how much is left unsaid, and it’s very hard to quantify or sketch an absence. Nowhere does Remnick (who is, as I say, a hell of a writer, and I believe an unusually honest and careful one) say anything even remotely like “the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior.”

But when you’re writing in a society which everywhere makes just that assumption; a society in which the faith, Scripture, habits, and even clothing choices of Muslims are frequently treated as signs of a violent pathology, you must be particularly careful not to further a conventional wisdom that is not only wildly inaccurate, but physically dangerous to Muslims. Remnick doesn’t need to write “the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior” — far too many of his readers will make the leap on their own.

There is one sentence in the piece in which Islam is mentioned in a context that does not, somehow, end up in violence. Dzhokhar’s friend Essah Chisholm says this:

“Tamerlan maybe felt like he didn’t belong, and he might have brainwashed Dzhokhar into some radical view that twisted things in the Koran.”

“Some radical view that twisted things in the Koran” – nine short words that open a door to the possibility that in order to descend into pathological violence, a Muslim must, in fact, twist the Qur’an, twist his or her faith, leave actual Islam behind and create something awful and new onto which he or she slaps the word “Islam” — just as the KKK, and Westboro, and Scott Roeder call themselves Christians; just as Yigal Amir, and Baruch Goldstein, and the West Bank’s Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva call themselves Jews.

But that door is small, so small as to be missed entirely. In the very next paragraph we read:

Tamerlan’s YouTube channel features a series of videos in support of fundamentalism and violent jihad… [one] provides a dramatization of the Armageddon prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, an all-powerful Islamic military force that will rise up from Central Asia and defeat the infidels; it is a martial-religious prophecy favored by Al Qaeda.

Writers use shorthand all the time, often in order to create space to tell a complicated and complex story. In 21st century America, “he started to pray more frequently” is often shorthand for “this was a Muslim about to descend into pathological violence” — but when we use that shorthand, we are, in fact, denying the complexity of the very story we’re telling.

We can no longer write this way. If our goal is to tell the truth, we can’t let dangerous inaccuracies fill the spaces between our words. We have to seek out sources who can help us clarify to readers that what terrorists call “Islam” is not accepted as such by the vast majority of the faithful; that increased devotion is almost never a sign of hatred but rather a sign of love of God; that 99.999% of Muslims who pray five times a day would no sooner launch a terrorist attack than would 99.999% of faithful Christians or Jews. That terrorists who happen to be Muslim represent not Muslims, but pathology.

Remnick serves as my example here, but as anyone who has spent any time reading about the events at the Boston Marathon can attest, he is far, far from the only writer who has fallen into this trap.

The story of terrorism, and fear, and those who would harm innocent people, and the innocent people they harm is far too important a story for us to get wrong by means of shortcuts. We need to write better.

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6 Comments

  1. I think the trap exists because people think they know what Islam represents without actually exploring it. This is true across many religions; it’s far easier to take more visible elements of a religion and assume that the whole religion flows along that line. So, Muslim extremists paint the wrong portrait of Islam, and now what is routine behavior for a Muslim is painted as fanatical. If a Muslim begins “praying more,” it may simply be that they are finding their way in their faith.

    I find that most people who speak of a religion other than their own A) have made very little effort to understand that religion beyond superficiality and B) do not necessarily understand the full tenets of their own religion with great clarity. I appreciate those who can write of a religion, especially theirs, with less judgment and more fact, which is why I appreciate your writing, Emily, because it has filled in many of the gaps in my own knowledge of Judaism. Even as such, I do not find it proper to write about issues of Jewish faith, any more than Muslim faith, save to say each has a similar set of core tenets, shared by many other faiths, that trend along the lines of faith in God, faith in humanity, and the injunction to be good to others.

    It comes down to an inherent problem, as I noted on Twitter over the weekend, of trying to apply a one-size-fits-all definition of terrorism to every act of it, even though those who perpetrate the crime cannot be fitted to it without great leaps of imagination. I say again: no matter what an individual may say in the commission of their crime, what faith or belief system they work from, their actions are their own. We cannot simply smear all who share those beliefs simply because of the actions of malcontents and fanatics.

    Reply
  2. salaam/shalom,

    This is a brilliant piece. If I had even tried to write about this, it would have come across as splitting hairs instead of a valid criticism.

    Reply
  3. Doug

     /  April 23, 2013

    I try to be fair and open-minded, I don’t want to smear the many of any group for the acts of a few, and I know that I don’t have a deep knowledge of Islam, but I’m struggling with this post, especially with what seems to be the logical fallacy of explaining away something bad – in this case violence done in the name of Islam – by simply dismissing it as not being truly Islamic.

    There are fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews, but isn’t Islam as a whole essentially fundamentalist? The Qur’an, all of it, is the inerrant word of God. There are many ‘peaceful’ suras, but there are also many violent ones. The Hebrew Bible is also laced with violence, but there are precious few Christian and Jewish jihadists. It just seems to me that ‘official’ Islam is predisposed to intolerance and violence; that it’s just too easy to justify violence based on the holy word.

    It makes me think of Communism, which looks great on paper, but the actual practice of which has been pretty awful. How can we explain away the actual practice that virtually all suicide bombings throughout the world, most against other Muslims, is committed by actual Muslims acting in the name of Islam?

    What am I missing?

    Reply
    • Doug,

      “There are fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews, but isn’t Islam as a whole essentially fundamentalist? The Qur’an, all of it, is the inerrant word of God. There are many ‘peaceful’ suras, but there are also many violent ones. The Hebrew Bible is also laced with violence, but there are precious few Christian and Jewish jihadists. It just seems to me that ‘official’ Islam is predisposed to intolerance and violence; that it’s just too easy to justify violence based on the holy word.”

      Perspective, that’s all. During the years of the Bush administration, I believe that many in the middle east saw a form of Christian fundamentalism in Iraq. The word Crusade, unfortunately, was used early on, in error. I’m sure West Bank Palestinians see fundamentalism in the treatment they receive from Israeli authority.

      One shouldn’t forget the fundamentalists here in the US that murder doctors that perform legal abortions and bomb clinics. I don’t recall anyone talking about their faith in relation to those terrorist acts.

      Any and all religion can be twisted, corrupted and used. So, with all the evil that is done, why is it so important to find out if the perpetrator is Muslim? And why is it more insidious and frightening? Too many people have bought the narrative – to the detriment of over 3 Billion people.

      Reply
  4. BJonthegrid

     /  April 23, 2013

    I definitely think we need to figure out how to talk about people of all faiths and soon. As our Country becomes more secular, I think lots of religious people of all faiths will be considered weird and maybe even crazy, which in turn will probably create more crazy religious people. (Jihadist Muslims, Christians who kill abortion providers, Jim Jones copy cats, etc etc) We now have celebrities (Bill Maher is the first that comes to mind) who openly mock all people of faith. I think the biggest problem is that many religions are in the “winning of souls” race so it’s hard speak of religions without it turning into “We’re right, join us”. So we remain ignorant, and suspicious.

    Reply
  1. Writers need to learn to write differently about terrorists who happen to be Muslim. - This Week in Blackness

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