Imaginary Islamophobic strawmen: Islamic extremism

Welcome back to conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, in which I address some of the common underlying assumptions I see arising in how we as Westerns talk about Islam.  I call these strawman arguments because I am essentially claiming that these concepts are common and exist beyond the few examples I’m going to cite below, but I’m not going to pull a thousand citations to prove their widespread penetration in Western thought because, well, because I’m lazy and not getting paid to do this.

In this edition, following on from my last post responding to missionizing atheism, I want to talk about a particular form of casual Islamophobia, namely, the tendency by Western authors to reference “Islamic extremism” “jihadism” or “al-Qaeda/the Taliban/ISIS” as a shorthand for dangerous, extreme, and violent beliefs.

I’ve talked before about how we in the West have adopted “al-Qadea” or “mullahs” as a kind of metonymy for repressive or oppressive beliefs, and how problematic this tendency is given that most people in the West know little else about Islam, and so it’s easy for the metonymic reference to bleed over into the massively broad realm of ‘literally anything to do with Islam.’  At its core, I think the use of “Islamic extremism” as a shorthand is one example of this, an expression of our own internal association of “repressive thought” and “literally anything to do with Islam.”  I think it’s worth discussing on its own, however, because in how it’s used, it seems to come up most often in defense of ‘Western’ ideals, either as a justification for Islamophobia (particular in defense of pre-emptive Islamophobia, as if hating people will somehow prevent them from joining an extreme, rather than promote it), or, rather contradictory, in defense of freedom of speech as essentially a Western ideal not found elsewhere in the world.

For examples of the first trope, that Islamic extremism is such a serious problem that we as Westerns need to be pre-emptively Islamophobic, pretty much any article from Britain’s Daily Mail would suffice.  Most recently, there’s also this gem from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, that, “’for too long, we’ve been so frightened of causing offence that we haven’t looked hard enough at what is going on in our communities.  This passive tolerance has turned us into a less integrated country; it’s put our children in danger. It is unforgiveable.”

On the one hand, the idea that we can out-prejudice someone is simply ridiculous.  There is absolutely no reason to think that extremism happens because we as society “go easy” on people.  In fact, the opposite may be true – certainly marginalization is a powerful tool for creating enemies of the state.  If people feel like they’re being expected to adhere to society’s laws while failing to be protected or being unfairly targeted by those laws, it makes sense that they might turn against that society (a fact that America’s Founding Fathers might be better able to explain).  On the other hand, that prejudice is necessary in order to resist extremism has been a trope of nearly every conservative cultural movement, from claims that counter-cultural movements ‘support’ Soviet communism during the Red Scare to the modern use of ‘political correctness’ as a shorthand for ‘excessive’ attention to diversity and multiculturalism.

As I said before, the second trope, that the continuation of Islamic extremism says something about how committed we in the West are to freedom of expression would seem, at first, contradictory with this first trope.  However, I think in reality they’re more complimentary.  The continued emphasis on Islamic extremism as why it’s okay to hate Muslims also makes it easy to use Islamic extremism as an analogy for, effectively, the worst thing anyone can believe.  This analogy, in turn, allows Westerns to frame arguments about freedom of speech around Islamic extremism, essentially using it as a shorthand for ‘the most extreme thing ever.’

As it happens, the subject of my last post offers a great example of the second trope: “Imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women.”

In order to understand how this metaphor works, it’s important to stress that none of these things have actually happened.  The extremism the author wants to address is being carried about by a Christian evangelical, but her actions are somehow not extreme enough to make his point, and so the author feels the need to step things up by inventing a challenge to religious freedom coming from a Muslim, instead.  In fact, his examples make very little sense from the point of view of real Islamic practice – a county clerk couldn’t claim religious exclusion to behead people because that’s not how the criminal justice system works, and the ‘less extreme cases’ are just illogical – to start with, Islam doesn’t have a tradition of issuing marriage licenses, so there’s no ‘Islamic’ principle a Muslim county clerk could violate, and also there’s no law against men and women entering public buildings together (can you imagine the constant delays if there were?!) and Muslim leaders routinely married unveiled women, both because there’s no universal agreement about wearing veils and because Muslim men can legally marry non-Muslim women.  Yet all of these claims should Islamic-ish enough for the author to make his point, that Islamic belief is the very limit of religious freedom and free speech that we would ever encounter.

The problems with this trope are two-fold.  First, by setting up the West as the defenders of freedom EVEN FOR ISLAMIC THOUGHT, we’re creating a powerful myth that actually stands exactly against the reality of the situation.  As I talked about before with the rise of ‘foreign law’ laws, Muslims are constantly being told that their beliefs have no place in the public sphere in the West.  Indeed, in one of the rare cases where Islamic extremism actually did get a considerable public voice in the West, concerns of ‘public safety’ and ‘national security’ pretty much always trump free expression – for example, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebo murders in France, when France investigated and jailed people for expressing support of the killers as “defending terrorism,” including a 16-year-old boy who posted a Charlie Hebo-style cartoon of the cartoonist full of bullet holes.  Freedom of speech should be measured by how a society balances freedom versus security, but the reality of the Western conception of ‘Islamic extremism,’ security remains almost exclusively the primary concern.

This claim to defend beliefs EVEN AS EXTREME as Islam while actually completely failing to do so also leads to the second problem with this trope, that by marking ‘Islamic extremism’ out as ‘the most extreme beliefs ever,’ we set ourselves up to both massively over-estimate the danger posed by anything vaguely Islamic and under-estimate the danger from other extremist organization.  The resistance to ‘Islamic extremism’ is particularly surprising in the American context given our genuine liberality in extending legal protection to extremist organizations like the KKK and the Arian Nation.  Investigations into the white supremacist movement have consistently demonstrated that these organizations actively recruit new members to expand their ranks, and that at least some people within these organizations defend and even encourage acts of violence against American citizens, exactly the same conditions that make us willing to limit the freedom of Muslims, and yet white supremacism has consistently received legal protection on the basis that the net benefit of preserving truly free speech in this country trumps the danger posed by their organizations and their recruitment.

Thus, by relying on the idea that ‘Islamic extremism’ is the most extreme extremism, in order to justify our own Islamophobia, we’re also setting ourselves and our community up for serious danger by essentially all extremism that is not Islamic as not that extreme.  

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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One Response to Imaginary Islamophobic strawmen: Islamic extremism

  1. siednon says:

    I don’t know if there is much of a point in discussing whether islamic extremism or say nazism is the most extreme extremism. Its anyway for those who don’t meet their criteria of what people should be like a choice between fight, flight, slavery and death.

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