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


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.

Hey, Louie Gohmert: Stop using Israeli blood to score political points.

Louie_Gohmert_PortraitWhen dealing with certain politicians, to borrow a phrase from comic Patton Oswalt, I don’t always know where to start or where to begin. Take Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).

Gohmert appeared on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Wednesday to discuss immigration reform, but he and host Greta Brawner understandably opened with the Boston Marathon bombings. Gohmert led by singing the praises of 9/12—that is, the day after 9/11: “There were no hyphenated Americans that day, there were no Euro-Americans, African-Americans, everybody was an American, and it was just such a warm time,” he said.

Ok, first of all: I have the sneaking suspicion that hyphenated Americans who have the words “Arab,” “Muslim,” “South Asian,” “Iranian,” “Sikh,” or, in some cases, “Latino” to the left of their hyphen would beg to differ regarding the warmth of 9/12. These Americans surely suffered alongside the rest of us (indeed, some were among the dead), but pretty much no one let them forget that hyphen—not for a day, not for a minute.

Then the good Congressman managed to link this week’s bombings to his opposition to immigration reform, using Israeli blood to make his point:

We’ve seen this in Israel, and after Israel had to suffer the slings and arrows, and deaths and the maimings for so long—I’ve been in the coffee shops over there: ‘Oh this was a coffee shop where a bomber killed a bunch of people, oh this is a park bench area where people were killed, that’s where that bus blew up that killed a bunch of people’….

Finally the Israeli people said, you know what: Enough. They built [the Security Barrier] to prevent snipers from knocking off their kids and they finally stopped the domestic violence from people that wanted to destroy them, and I am concerned we need to do that as well.

Where to start? Where to begin?

I know the  bombing sites of which Gohmert speaks—at least, I think I do. There was a coffee shop/park bench bombing about two half blocks from my Tel Aviv apartment; the bus I rode nearly every day was bombed at least twice. I covered these stories and others like them for the foreign press, so unlike Gohmert, I actually saw the blood when it was still on the ground.

And yes, the Israeli government said “Enough” and built a massive wall, one which snakes throught the Palestinian West Bank at its leisure and at the Palestinian people’s expense. The wall (along with the Israeli- and American-acknowledged help of the Palestinian security services) did put a halt to most terrorism—a fact which must not be discounted—but in the meantime there have also been three official wars, a war-in-all-but-name (2006’s Operation Summer Rains) and endless skirmishes. “Security,” it would seem, remains an elusive goal.

But there’s more: “snipers” never really entered into it, the violence is not “domestic” (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, after all, a clash of two nationalisms), and whatever threat illegal immigration might pose to the U.S., to suggest that it’s on the level of actual terrorism is grossly inaccurate. But Gohmert would probably disagree. As he told Brawner:

We know al-Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border. We know that people are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic when they’re radical Islamists.

We do? We know that? We know that “radical Islamists” are being  trained to “act like Hispanic” so that they can—what now? “Knock off” American children in coffee shops? And we know that a wall like Israel’s (which, by the way, Palestinians by the score regularly get around in order to work inside Israel) is what’s going to stop those al-Qaeda snipers? And I presume we likewise know that violent resistance to foreign occupation is just like al-Qaeda’s pan-national nihilism?

Look, Gohmert’s a kook with a Washington office. This is the man who once said that terrorists are coming to America and having “anchor babies” in order to destroy us from within—I don’t expect a lot of sense from his corner of the Capitol Building. I’d ask for verifiable proof of these outrageous allegations, but as I rather suspect he doesn’t have any, I won’t hold my breath.

But here’s the thing: I am so, so tired of American politicians using Israeli blood to score cheap, xenophobic political points on U.S. soil. You hate immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, and/or babies? You go on with your bad self. You spread whatever wild fantasies you want to spread about people acting all “Hispanic” and we’ll leave it to the voters to decide whether or not they want to believe you.

But my people actually bled and died. Again and again and again. Israelis have often lived with a kind of numb, daily fear about which Louie Gohmert knows nothing. It’s a kind of fear that the people of Boston have now come to feel, too—and neither Israel’s blood, nor Boston’s, should ever be used as a tool for political gain.

Louie Gohmert should be ashamed of himself. Lord knows he’s an embarrassment to the rest of us.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Boston Marathon placeholder: On Islam and terrorism.

UPDATE – You might also be interested in this post: Muslim American Heroes

(This this is a re-up – given the explosions in Boston, I felt it was important to share the information again, but I’m posting from my phone, so please excuse any wonky formatting). UPDATE: I’ve corrected the formatting and inserted the links that didn’t copy-paste when I posted this from my phone earlier.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the world’s Muslims have been called upon to address the issue of violence perpetrated by other Muslims. On the one hand, this strikes me as unfair — why on earth should person A have to explain person B’s behavior? — but on the other, it also strikes me as pretty human. That day of horror seared us all, and for non-Muslims, the question seems to boil down to: “Hey Muslim person, why I shouldn’t fear you?” Unfair, perhaps, but human.

So, I often write, here and elsewhere, in defense of Islam and Muslims — or, as I see it, in defense of the American values of equality, liberty, freedom of religion, and so on. I have a Masters Degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and have read and reviewed several shelves-worth of books about the faith and the lands in which Islam is the majority religion, and all this provides me with some useful background. But bottom line: I’m not Muslim, and can’t represent the faith.

Actually, even if I were a Muslim, I doubt that I could “represent the faith” — I don’t imagine, for instance, that I can represent Judaism, Jew though I may be. But of one thing I am certain: As I don’t represent Islam, neither do al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

The voices of extremists may be the loudest emerging from the Muslim people, the ummah, right now — or: these voices may be the best amplified by our fears and the people who have reason to feed them — but they don’t represent the ummah.

And here we arrive at my point: Don’t trust me — trust the Muslims who say so in their own words.

Consider first this passage from Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed:

Only 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “never justified”…. Contrast this with data taken the same year [2007] from some of the largest majority Muslim nations, in which 74% of respondents in Indonesia agree that terrorist attacks are “never justified”; in Pakistan, that figure is 86%; in Bangladesh, 81%; and in Iran, 80%.

And then consider the following, a small (very small) compendium of Muslim responses to extremism that I have found. You’ll note that some are recent, and some date back — because even though we don’t hear much about it, the world’s Muslims have been continuously condemning extremist violence for some time:

  • In March 2010, a leading Pakistani theologian, known and revered around the world, issued a positively scathing fatwa against terrorism: “Terrorism is terrorism,” Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri wrote, “violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses or ifs and buts.” I posted about this fatwa at the time; you can read about it here.
  • Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Shaykh Muhammed Sayyid al-Tantawi, the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo (one of the Muslim world’s oldest and most influential institutions) said: “Attacking innocent people is not courageous, it is stupid and will be punished on the day of judgment. … It’s not courageous to attack innocent children, women and civilians. It is courageous to protect freedom, it is courageous to defend oneself and not to attack.”
  • Twenty North American imams issued a fatwa against terrorists in January 2010, equating attacks on North American targets with attacks on Muslims themselves: “These attacks are evil and Islam requires from Muslims to stand up against this evil…. Muslims in Canada and the United States have complete freedom to practice Islam…. In many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice Islam here in Canada and the United States than many Muslim countries…. There is no conflict between the Islamic values of freedom and justice and the Canadian/US values of freedom and justice. Therefore, any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on the freedom of Canadian and American Muslims. Any attack on Canada and the United States is an attack on thousands of mosques across North America. It is a duty of every Canadian and American Muslim to safeguard Canada and the USA.”
  • In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, British-Muslim author Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad published an essay called “Recapturing Islam from the terrorists,” in which he wrote “Terrorists are not Muslims. Targeting civilians is a negation of every possible school of Sunni Islam. Suicide bombing is so foreign to the Quranic ethos that the Prophet Samson is entirely absent from our scriptures.”
  • Professor of Islamic Law Khaled Abou El Fadl wrote in late 2001: “It would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur’an and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation. Clearly these possibilities are exploited by the contemporary puritans and supremacists. But the text does not command such intolerant readings. Historically, Islamic civilization has displayed a remarkable ability to recognize possibilities of tolerance, and to act upon these possibilities…. [T]he burden and blessing of sustaining that moral trajectory—of accentuating the Qur’anic message of tolerance and openness to the other—falls squarely on the shoulders of contemporary Muslim interpreters of the tradition.”
  • In response to an al-Qaeda bombing of a centuries’ old synagogue in Tunis in 2002, Islamic scholar Dr.Youssef Al Qaradawi told the press: “Anyone who commits these crimes is punishable by Islamic Sharia and have committed the sin of killing a soul which God has prohibited to kill and of spreading corruption on earth.”
  • In 2005, Muslim scholar Shaykh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti issued a fatwa against the targeting of civilians, pointing out, among other things that “there are more than 100 Verses in the Qur’an commanding us at all times to be patient in the face of humiliation and to turn away from violence, while there is only one famous Verse in which war (which does not last forever) becomes an option.”
  • And this, my personal favorite: American Muslims speaking directly to American Muslims, rejecting extremism of all kinds: “Injustice cannot defeat injustice.”


For many, many more sources on Muslims speaking out against violence and extremism, I highly recommend this site, The American Muslim, starting in particular with this post, “Selective Hearing of Muslim Voices Against Extremism and Terrorism.”

We have collected 105 fatwas from Islamic scholars, 75 statements by Islamic Organizations (many of these signed by anywhere from 50 to 500 scholars from around the world), and 142 statements by individual Muslims.  These are from 30 countries including:  Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Britain, Chechnya, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, New Zealand,  Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, U.S., Yemen.

They speak clearly against terrorism, suicide bombing, kidnapping, harming civilians, harming places of worship, weapons of mass destruction.  They clarify the Islamic position on minority rights and apostasy.  Some directly condemn al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and specific acts like 9/11 or the Madrid bombing.

Finally, it seems I should spare some space for the Qur’an itself, and for the Prophet Muhammad:

By God, he is not a true believer, from whose mischief his neighbors do not feel secure. (from the Hadith [sayings] of the Prophet Muhammad, transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)

Goodness and evil are not equal.  Repel evil with what is better.  Then that person with whom there was hatred, may become your intimate friend!  And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but people of the greatest good fortune. (Qur’an 41:34-35)

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)

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