Islam, “The Silence Libel,” and Me


Located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this is the longest-standing mosque in the United States.
(Click to enlarge.)


My Patheos colleague Aziz Poonawalla has responded to my “Brief Open Letter to American and Other Muslims” of a few days ago with a post of his own, entitled “The Silence Libel: Do Muslims Condemn?”


I appreciate its friendly and irenic tone, but I also feel that I need to comment on it, if only for the sake of clarity.


Referring to me, Dr. Poonawalla writes that


He has unwittingly recycled what I call “the silence libel,” which has 3 parts:


.    the assertion that Muslims do not sufficiently condemn the abuses of terrorism in the name of Islam,

.    the implication that Muslims have a greater responsibility for the acts of their co-religionists than do members of other religions,

.    the idea that Islam is particularly unique in history as a faith which drives people to commit acts of evil.

All three of these are false.


“I am not inclined to begin a debate on points 2 and 3,” Dr. Poonawalla continues, “as I think that they are outside the scope of the conversation that Dan is trying to begin, though I do think that anyone invoking the silence libel needs to be aware of the context they are (willingly or unwittingly) imposing by their assertion of point 1.”


I am, as a matter of fact, very familiar with points 2 and 3, and, though they are indeed beyond the scope of what I had in mind with my recent blog post, I want, before proceeding further, to make my position unmistakably clear on both of them:  I agree that they are false.  I reject them.  And I’ve been at pains for many years, in lectures, in my writing (including newspaper columns), on my blog, and elsewhere, to combat them.


But back to the first point, which is the most directly relevant one here:


I’m well aware that many Muslims and many Muslim organizations have condemned extremist violence.  I don’t dispute that for a moment.  And I’m grateful for Dr. Poonawalla’s links to places where such condemnations have been compiled and/or listed.  These are very useful, and I hope that my readers (and his) will consult them.


I’m fully aware, too, that the large majority of American Muslims are good citizens — even model citizens, in some cases.  I don’t deny for a moment that they are productive, good people, contributing to the wider communities in which they live.  And I certainly have not the slightest desire to impose some sort of special “loyalty test” (as Dr. Poonawalla calls it) on America’s Muslims.  I understand that, in many cases, Muslims themselves have helped law enforcement officials to thwart planned terrorist attacks.


And I’m not accusing the Muslim community of “doing nothing.”


What I am saying, though, is that, thus far, the Muslim community hasn’t done enough.


But I want that assertion to be properly understood.  It has at least two parts:


First, there are still too many young Muslims—including, as the identities of those who committed the recent barbarism in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall may have illustrated and as their participation in other comparable atrocities most certainly has, young American-born Muslims—who have been, and continue to be, seduced by the extremists.  Their number can probably never be reduced to zero.  That would be unrealistic.  Humans are flawed creatures, and there will always be a certain percentage of thugs, crazies, unbalanced fanatics, dupes, fools, and the like.  In every community, mine included.  But just as the rest of us can’t simply say that “enough” has been done as long as murders and poverty and child abuse  and drug addiction and infant malnutrition exist, so the Muslim community shouldn’t tell itself that it has “done enough” as long as even a small number of its youth are being radicalized and recruited for nihilistic violence.


But I’ve already likely said too much on that score, and it isn’t for me to lecture Muslims.  They must deal with this problem.  I cannot solve it, just as they cannot solve the problems internal to my own Mormon community.  Finding and implementing such solutions for their respective communities is the responsibility of, respectively, Mormons and Muslims, and they alone are competent to do so.


The second part, though, is what I most want to discuss here:


Dr. Poonawala says that “the assertion that Muslims do not sufficiently condemn the abuses of terrorism in the name of Islam” is “false”—and, in several respects, I agree with him.


In a very important way, though, I do not.  (Perhaps, of course, we’re simply talking past one another.)


When I suggest that the Muslim community hasn’t done enough to distance itself in the general public mind from these acts of violence, it’s important to know what specific standard I have in mind. In what sense am I saying that their efforts, thus far, have been insufficient?


In fact, I have a very particular and very simple standard in view.


It isn’t some sort of objective standard—meaning, for example, that they should have done 967 things but have only done, say, 802.  And it isn’t some sort of standard by which I propose to measure their sincerity or the fervor with which they repudiate extremist violence.  It’s not a cosmic standard of justice, but a realistic, practical measurement.


No, my standard is simply that, for whatever reasons, good or bad, fair or unfair, the message that American Muslims overwhelming reject and repudiate extremist violence hasn’t reached enough of the broader public.  Therefore, the effort to get the message out has been, in that sense, insufficient.


I give scores of public lectures to large and small non-specialist audiences regarding Islam in any given year.  Accordingly, I think I can plausibly say that I have a pretty accurate finger on the public pulse in this respect.  And I can’t remember a single one of them over the past ten years or so in which, during the question-and-answer session that follows, I haven’t been asked “Why don’t Muslims speak up to denounce all of this terrorist violence?”


There is the occasional crank, bigot, or loon, of course.  But, overwhelmingly, the question is asked by good, earnest, decent, sincere people who really want to know.  They want to be reassured.  They want to feel good about their Muslim neighbors and co-workers.  They’re not hostile.  They want to understand.


Dr. Poonawalla himself is plainly aware of the image problem that Islam has in America and in the West — his post is obviously intended to address it — and one scarcely needs to search very far before finding evidence of it.  (See here and here and here, for example.)


My simple point to the American Muslim community, therefore, is that, no matter how many thousands of press releases have gone out, no matter how many meetings are held, the message hasn’t been conveyed loudly and clearly enough until such people have heard and understood it.


I’m not an enemy of the Muslim community.  I’m a friend.  I sincerely wish it and my Muslim friends well.  I’m simply trying to give some good—or, even if not good, some sincere and heartfelt—advice.



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  • Michael De Groote

    I direct you to an article by Matt Brown at the Deseret News, “Muslim leaders in U.S. facing challenges inside and outside the faith”

    A few things from the article: “42 percent of Americans said Islam was more likely than other faiths to encourage violence — nearly the same proportion as 10 years earlier, when 44 percent held the same view.”

    “Muslim advocacy groups have focused their efforts on countering a non-Muslim campaign of Islamaphobia. But some scholars and followers of Islam say leaders need to turn more attention internally to eradicating a strain of extremism that exploits the faith and undermines their public relations efforts.”

    “‘It’s nice to have some high-level thing that might make people feel good about Islam, but that can be reversed any given day by two guys with backpacks,’ said Richard Bulliet, a Columbia University history professor with an expertise in Middle East studies and experience analyzing terrorist recruitment material.””

    • DanielPeterson

      Thank you, Michael, for the useful reference.

  • Ryan

    I’d be interested to know why you and Dr. Poonawalla reject as false the “implication that Muslims have a greater responsibility for the acts of their co-religionists than do members of other religions.”

    edit: Okay, I’m pretty sure I misread that. For a second I thought that was saying that Muslims have no greater responsibility for the acts of their fellow Muslims than members of other religions have for the acts of those Muslims. I was like, “whaaat?”

    • DanielPeterson

      The way I read it, Muslims have no more responsibility for the misdeeds of fellow Muslims than Mormons have for the misdeeds of their fellow Mormons.

      • Ryan

        I believe you’re right as to the meaning, though I would still disagree that members of a particular religion are necessarily no more responsible for the misdeeds of their co-religionists than members of other religions are for theirs.

        If one subscribes to, lives, and supports, a religious tradition that is known to, either intentionally or unintentionally, breed an increase in violent world views, then yes, I do think members of that religion are more responsible for their fellows’ acts of violence than the members of other, less violence-inducing, religions are for theirs.

    • UWIR

      I think that your original reading is the natural reading, and if Poonawalla intended otherwise, he should have done a better job of properly eliminating ambiguity. Even with Perterson’s reading, I agree that it is not full correct. The level of responsibility varies according to many factors, such as how loosely or tightly organized the religion is, to what extent the issue involves official religious doctrine, and so on. In the case of Muslims attacking gay people, for instance, Muslims in general are strongly responsible because anti-homosexual doctrines are part of official Islamic beliefs. Catholics in general aren’t responsible for individual priests’ sexual abuses, but they are highly responsible for how the Church hierarchy responded to the scandal; the RCC isn’t just some loose collection of co-religionists, it’s a highly regimented organization that can be held responsible for the acts of its subdivisions.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Recently, Bill O’Reilly began his talking point program regarding “Muslim terrorism” by stating that Muslim jihadists want to kill Christians and Jews, saying “that’s what this is all about, nothing more. The Muslim jihad believe that infidels do not deserve to live”. He goes on. The O’Reilly Factor has a viewership iof millions.

    So long as the majority of Americans obtain news from sources such as this, which often offer little more than shock value talking points, there will continue to be a distrust of Muslims.

    Rupert Murdoch grew his media empire with his “News of the World”, a successful tabloid paper which concentrated on sex scandals of celebrities and was shut down in 2011 after a long series of phone hacking scandals.

    There are a many voices reporting on terrorism. Some actually offer history and context. In my opinion, it should be incumbent on news organizations to put these horrific acts into perspective, so that those in the first world can gain an understanding of why these people do what they do. Chris Hedges on truthdig, offers an analysis, having spent decades reporting from the war torn Middle East and Bosnia.

    It is a very sad story.

    • DanielPeterson

      I like Bill O’Reilly, and I watch Fox News daily.

      But I don’t form my entire worldview based on Fox News, and wouldn’t do it based on CNN, either — let alone on MSNBC (which, I hear, is still broadcasting).

      • Lucy Mcgee

        Not really a fan of any of them.

    • RaymondSwenson

      Muslim jihadists are a small subset of Muslims. That is why they are referred to using the modifier “jihadist”. I know that “jihad” has a broader meaning both.historically and theologically than the campaign of violent intimidation of non-Muslims, but the the people who preach that murder is a legitimate action within Islam identify themselves as pursuing jihad against the West, against America, and against Christianity and Judaism. They claim that the same Koran and haditha that lead most Muslims to act justly toward people of all religions have directed their campaign of mayhem. They clearly implement a violent minority view of Islam, which in many ways is more distinct than the differences among traditional Muslim sects, such as Sunni and Shia. But to deny they are real and a real threat to the ability of Western nations to incorporate Muslims into our communities, is to deny reality.

      Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists in America want to include our Muslim neighbors as trusted members of our neighborhoods, cities and states. We all want to believe that they mirror the condemnation we would issue if anyone in our own religious families were to injure us by claiming that their pathologies are normative for Christians, Jews, etc. But we don’t see that kind of policing of their own community in any of the news stories we read.

      During World War II, there was terrible hatred by many Americans toward permanent residents of Japanese citizenship, and their American-born children. President Roosevelt, who had supported exclusion of new immigrants who were Japanese or Jewish since the 1920s, was all too casual in issuing an executive order that deprived over 100,000 people of due process of law and imprisoned them, without even an accusation of specific crimes, for three years. That gross violation of the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of citizens was combatted in the minds and hearts of their fellow Americans by thousands of young men volunteering to serve as Europe and as interrogators and interpreters in the Pacific. The 442 Regimental Combat Team had one of the highest rates of military decorations, and of casualties, in the European Theater. Sadly, news stories about Muslim participation in the US military since 9/11 has been dominated by the few but horrific instances of Muslim soldiers betraying their oaths and murdering their fellow American soldiers. There was never a single instance during WWII when a Japanese American turned traitor. If the Muslim community in America were to encourage military service and loyalty to the US among its youth, combined with condemnation of the oath-breakers like Nidal Hasan, it would go far toward reassuring their American neighbors that they are on our side in the fight against violent jihadists.

      • Lucy Mcgee

        How does one police people who are willing to die? Could it be that these people are blowing themselves up as they kill others as a form of revenge or to defend their tribal honor?

        Akbar Ahmed, in his book “The Thistle and the Drone”, makes this point. He asserts that suicide attacks have less to do with religion and more to do with revenge as ancient tribal societies, heavily steeped in tradition, meet western occupiers and corrupt regimes.

  • Ryan

    Apparently Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far
    decided not to speak out against the Nairobi Massacre, even though he
    has since condemned a wide range of other current world events and
    affairs, including having condemned the world for turning their backs on
    hungry Somalians.

    Is this a simple case of the message not “getting out” or not being spoken “loudly” enough? Or is, in fact, the Prime Minister playing to a base of Muslim-extremist sympathizers(?)

    Why is it that Egyptian, Pakistani, Afghan, etc, Christian denunciations of Islamic violence seem, at least to me, more pronounced and commonly heard than the Islamic denunciations? Muslim condemnations seem, in comparison, wispy and token.

    I’d like to believe that the broader Islamic community is, as you claim they are, overwhelmingly opposed to extremists, but I suspect that if they truly were then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    If Muslims were to condemn (and battle) general Islamic extremists as exuberantly as they do the extremists of opposing sects, then I think we’d see real progress.

    • DanielPeterson

      Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an Islamist, and I’m less and less positively impressed by him.