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Are we helping to 'radicalise' Muslim youth with our collective ignorance of Islam?

Could white, educated, privileged, liberal, non-Muslims have a hand in their fate and one of the keys to their redemption in our hands?  

In the West, ‘we’ (the white, non-Muslim majority) are generally much more ignorant of Islam than we like to think. ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ are typically treated as more or less synonymous and we have a tendency to think that Islam comes in either of the two familiar forms; ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’, or else on some imaginary sliding scale from ‘nice peaceful Islam’ to ‘nasty violent Islam’. Many would agree with this, though having done some reading to raise our awareness we, as an educated citizen, may exclude ourselves personally and no doubt object to the idea that despite our liberal tendencies, we continue to contribute to the problem.   

Recognising the Aberrant 

When we look at our own Christian culture it is self evident to us what ‘Christian’ behaviour is. We understand that most people are Christian only in name and that the faith comes in many, many different flavours. So when someone like Anders Breivik claims to be murdering dozens of children to ‘preserve a Christian Europe’, it is easy to disassociate him from Christianity and to disassociate Christianity from the horror of the event, in fact it goes without saying. It is obvious to us that his actions have nothing whatsoever to do with the teachings of Christ and nothing to do with the values of our Christian European culture. Moreover, it wouldn’t occur to us because we are, even if just nominally or by association, ‘Christian’, while we of course do not identify with Breivik in any way.  

We do this almost without thinking as we are surrounded by a rich tapestry of culture that does belong and Breiviks actions and beliefs are clearly alien. The common narrative of the deranged individual, working alone is easy and natural to accept. Regardless of his claims, his personal affiliations or his political agenda we have a tendency to accept that his misguided beliefs are his own and are not a manifestation of some dangerous intrinsic component of ‘our’ culture.

On the other hand, if a Muslim kill’s people in the name of Islam, the more liberal minded among us are suddenly faced with a dilemma. We don’t want to tar every Muslim with the same brush, but because the perpetrator claims to act for a group we do not identify with, we tend to think that ‘our’ religion, or ‘our’ society is being attacked, which implicitly excludes all Muslims. We exclude Muslims from the group being attacked and we include ourselves. Even though we may not be French, or Cartoonists or Satirists, we feel that we belong to the attacked group more than say; a French Cartoonist Satirist that is nominally Muslim. ‘We’ have automatic inclusion whilst ‘they’, though not necessarily ‘guilty by association’, remain a member of the offending group.

This is a more sinister tendency than at first it seems because it means that regardless of how vociferously the Muslim community object to the behaviour of these murderers, and regardless of the veracity of the argument that the killers and their actions do not represent Islam, ‘they’ are, and will forever be, at best, a sympathetic member of the other side.  

The Limits of Care

Many of you will still disagree, and it would seem from just a cursory overview of the more ‘serious’ press that you would be correct. After all, our liberal values find us devoted more or less exclusively to classifying the guilty parties and circumscribing them from the extant Muslim community. However, I would argue that for the most part, the motivations for this are not purely altruistic and are certainly not based on a detailed cultural education or on personal knowledge. Rather it seems to be done in order that we distinguish ourselves in a manner appropriate to our values, distance ourselves from the xenophobes amongst us, and perhaps through fear, stave off the imminent threat of the abhorrent bigotry that looms large at such moments, a tendency which the xenophobic elements in western society pick up on and classify as misplaced and cowardly political correctness in the face of an obvious attack by ‘them’ on ‘us’.  

I am not suggesting for one moment that we do not care for the innocent people in the Muslim community who might be victimised by ‘revenge attacks’. Some of us might even recognise and empathise with the discomfort ordinary Muslims feel due to their unfortunate condition of accidental association. I am simply suggesting that we can only care for them as a bland and faceless whole, and that this is a problem.  

For the most part we can only differentiate the ‘innocent Muslims’ as a homogenous conceptual category that is delimited in the abstract because we lack the language to view that group in the subtly variegated way in which we naturally see our own. It is in this paucity of cultural understanding that the problem arises and I would hazard that it is caused by a basic lack of interest. This is not at all surprising, after all, in the busy modern world our attention is taken up with insistent streams of distraction from technology, information and entertainment and our society is characterised by increasingly many and shallow relationships. Nevertheless, herein does lie the problem; because the deficiency of language and images with which to understand the rich tapestry of Islamic culture functions to perpetuate the conditions in which people are alienated by the gaze of the dominant culture upon them.

The Othering Function of the Gaze

I have no doubt that French Muslims feel just as horrified by the recent attacks as every other French person. However, in the plethora of condemnations from Muslims in papers and on social media, the excruciating discomfort of that gaze is palpable. One can only guess at the torment felt when the analysis starts and inevitable questions are aired about the origin of such hateful ideas ‘in Islam’. It is here that the hollowness of our liberal dilemma (to circumscribe the bad Muslims) becomes so clear.  

As non Muslims, the dilemma we face is due entirely to the otherness of Islam and the totally erroneous conflation of ‘Islam’ the faith and ‘Muslim’ as personal identity. Islam is of course very diverse and many people recognise this. Our educated citizen might be aware that the religion has 1400 years of history with religious, scientific and philosophical ideas that are now intertwined with those of almost every country of the world and has developed one of the richest and most varied cultures ever seen on Earth.  However, this overview is completely inadequate to deal with the identity politics at hand. Even if our informed citizen believes that perhaps the majority of Muslims, including the ones going out to Syria and Iraq, are Muslim only in name and haven’t the first clue about the faith, they will most likely still overlook the significance of that person’s personal identity, of being Muslim.  

The problem is that when we ask such questions of the collective Muslim community, when we assume the relation between the Islamic faith and the actions of someone who is Muslim, we are distancing and alienating people that then increasingly identify themselves as part of a single homogenous group only because they are treated as such. The lack of sophistication in our understanding is reified as a lack of subtlety in their identity.  

When we consider more everyday social issues it becomes clear how this otherness is re-enforced. Social problems in our society are treated as such, they are ‘problems’, they are challenges for those who would improve our society and the lives of people in it. They are not seen as an indictment of our fundamental principles, our Judeo- Christian heritage or our ‘way of life’ in the way that is implied when we question Islam about social issues that become evident in Muslim society, or indeed, within Muslim communities in European countries.  

How then is the Muslim community to open itself to our accusatory gaze. And in what way does this situation reflect the open and accepting cultural values we claim to cherish? When Muslims feel secure enough to open the particular issues faced in their communities without fear of having ‘Islam’ judged, then we will have succeeded in the openness which we profess.  

Knowing ourselves

It would seem that in order to achieve this it is imperative that we broaden and enrich our understanding of Muslim culture and the Islamic faith, that we bring into the light and explore the diversity of Muslim cultures and the multiple histories and identities therein. We must give a forum to those Muslim intellectuals that strive to communicate the complexities of Islam to Western audiences and shake off the shackles of ancient perspectives about Islam. We must give character to the bland and faceless whole that is the multiplicity of Islamic societies, histories and ideas and more than anything else, we must want to. This would be, after all, only the natural enactment of our own ideals. It is not enough to ‘tolerate’. It is only through familiarity with these many textured cultures that we will recognise the obviously alien actions and beliefs of extremists, and only then will Muslim youth be saved from the gaze which drives them from the fold of our shared culture. 

David is currently on hiatus from a Masters in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He is director of 'Fresh Analysis'; a Business Services start up working in the third sector in Scotland.