Why is it that Muslims are called upon to condemn the acts of extremists of the same faith publicly, not in solidarity with the victims, but rather to prove their own worth and innocence?
The news of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine that left 12 dead horrified and upset me. My response was, and still is, immense disgust and anger at the perpetrators. But the subsequent response by social media, and the international press, has slowly started shifting gears in my mind.
Maybe it started when I read the comments on the articles on this very website. Suddenly I, as a mother-of-two (concerned about what to make for dinner and whether I’ll meet my research deadline) was just as guilty as those who actually pulled the trigger.
“I am beginning to believe that the world should treat every Muslim as a threat, whether they claim to be peace-loving or not…Moderate Muslims must realise that attacks like this are rendering their points of view irrelevant. They can no longer claim immunity or wash their hands,” said one.
Another announced: “I will never, ever trust a Muslim again after this attack…they can say whatever they want…never, ever, all of them, good or bad…because I don’t know when they will become extremist…and kill my family or friends.”
Is the moon and star on the chest, so that these “Muslim threats” can be identified, coming next?
Maybe it began when the demands for us South African Muslims to condemn this violence started flooding in. Now, I have no issue with condemning the attack. I did as soon as I heard of it. I cursed and swore and wondered what the world was coming to. But I did because I was outraged on a personal level.
However, I refuse to “condemn it” publicly just because a group of my fellow citizens demand it. It makes a farce of the whole issue of condemnation when a group of people are supposed to trot out a ready-prepared press release every time one of their more than one-billion co-religionists do something they don’t agree with, simply to check the box and rubber-stamp a test to show they aren’t a threat to a society in which they peacefully coexist.
In the past I did initiate a campaign taking issue with terrorism and violence in the name of religion, particularly with regard to ISIS. I did not run it to satisfy my fellow citizens’ need to hear a “condemnation”. I did it because it was a visceral reaction to crimes that I found untenable, and I needed to express my horror and show solidarity with the victims.
I did feel disgusted yesterday. With the Charlie Hebdo attack, but also with the fact that Boko Haram killed hundreds of people in villages it seized, and that 35 people were killed in a bomb explosion in Yemen. I was also disgusted that in a day when so much of the world is characterised by excess, children are freezing to death in refugee camps in Syria.
The response to my campaign rejecting violence in the name of Islam was interesting. Firstly, I was told by those outside the Muslim community that I was a fringe voice and that most Muslims didn’t agree with me – despite having shown that most major Muslim organisations supported the campaign or had run similar statements against ISIS. Secondly, I was told that the MJC didn’t share the condemnation, despite all articles on the campaign highlighting that they did. This fixation with the MJC condemning violence is a fairly curious obsession of South African internet trolls. Thirdly, I was told that what I thought didn’t matter, because various anonymous commentators read the ‘Koran’ and decided that violence was part of Islam, so my condemnation meant that I could not be a real Muslim. I had the binary choice of being Muslim and accepting violence, or not being Muslim. There was no room for my own choice in interpretation of faith. This response provided vindication to the other set of critics who argued that we should not be forced to publicly condemn actions that are outside of our practiced faith in any case and that doing so plays into the hands of those who fail to acknowledge the variation in the faith anyway.
So basically, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Now, I do find free speech important, particularly in climates in which free speech is essential to accountability and transparency. But I also find the right to life and the right to dignity important. So now I’m wondering about the double standard of it all. When did those supporters of the West make their statements ‘condemning’ the torture that the United States unleashed on detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions? The anal feedings? The threats to sexually abuse and cut the throats of their mothers? Where was the hashtag #IamNabila when nine-year-old Nabila Rehman gave a testimony to the US congress about a drone that killed her grandmother and nearly killed her on an open field in which they were gathering okra, far away from any militants? In a session that was only attended by five (only five!) members of Congress?
I don’t go out demanding that every person that self-identifies with Western Civilisation condemn the behaviour of Western government agents every time these activities occur. In fact, the lives of the ‘Other’ are worth so little to many of the loudest critics of Muslims that I would bet that they barely are aware of these stories in any case. A few more dead or miserable brown people are business as usual. Collateral damage.
Furthermore, I don’t demand that white South Africans condemn any racist attack, or condemn Apartheid apologists, simply to prove that they are not racist and that we are safe with them in society. That would be ridiculous. I don’t call on big business to all stand up and condemn collusion if it is found that some big businesses have been exploiting the public just because they subscribe to free market principles. In our society individuals are usually held to account for their own crimes. Unless you are Muslim.
Then, it seems, you are responsible for the actions of one billion people. DM
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Sha'ista Goga is an economist and director at an economic consultancy. A Rhodes Scholar, she was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand and Oxford. She has spent the last ten years working across the private and NGO sector. She is passionate about healthcare reform, improving educational outcomes and public policy.
Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.