Why should Muslims take responsibility for the extremists?

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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“In the aftermath of yet another atrocity carried out by vigilante violent fanatics in the name of religion…”

In any article beginning with those words one has to be referring, of course, to Islam. Because it couldn’t be the case that one would be talking about the recent mass shooting in Colorado, by a radical fanatic who claimed to be a committed Christian. Indeed, he justified those who attacked abortion clinics, claiming they were doing “God’s work”, and gave the appellation of “heroes” to members of the “Army of God”, a radical group that claimed responsibility for bombings and killings.

When we compare the way in which some parts of the media establishment treated the Colorado attack, with another atrocity carried out in California by other radical fanatics who claimed to be committed Muslims, the comparison could not be more stark. Critically, there was a call for “taking responsibility” – a call that invariably falls upon Muslim communities, but seldom upon Christian communities.

That call is not limited to far-right sectors of American society or across the European continent. It’s far more prevalent than that – it’s been mainstreamed tremendously. So much so that one can find the insistence that Muslims should “take responsibility” for such extremists, even within some sections of Muslim-majority societies themselves. The ease in which the logic of collective responsibility is accepted as normal is worrying indeed.

We should encourage Muslim communities to build up resilience. But to claim they are somehow culpable for the extremism of a tiny minority is rather bizarre.

H.A. Hellyer

But it is a dangerous logic indeed. It is the logic that led, for example, a radical extremist to stab someone on the London Underground a few days ago – declaring his action was “for Syria”, even though that Londoner had probably never been there or engaged in any way on Syria. But the victim was British, and the perpetrator deemed all Britons culpable for the decisions of their government, which he took such umbrage against – and behaved accordingly.

It is the logic that would mean, for example, that due to the actions of the Colorado shootings, Christian Americans en masse would be expected to denounce terrorism. Or, indeed, that Egyptian or Lebanese Christians would be required to condemn the killings in the United States at the hand of their supposed co-religionist in the name of their religion. Rightly so, no such call is really taken seriously – because the Colorado shooter is not seen as speaking for his community, nor his religion.

Still a role to play

No one should imagine, nevertheless, that there are no roles for Muslim communities in tackling radicalization and extremism. After all, there should be roles for American Congressmen to pass gun control laws that would make the United States a country that didn’t have more guns than citizens, making the Colorado killings and other mass shootings that much easier to carry out. (Actually, there are such roles – it’s just that American Congressmen don’t want to play them.)

Of course, roles for Muslim communities in these debates and discussions exist. Muslim religious authorities have a responsibility, as religious authorities, to teach their religion to those who want to learn it, so that they might be better informed about their faith, and also so they might recognize when someone is trying to preach them a dud version. But that’s a far cry from the culpability that so many seem to implicitly – and explicitly – claim.

In the aftermath of the July 7 attacks in London in 2005, I was asked by the UK government to participate in a working group on tackling radicalization and extremism. In those days, the public debate was all about “why haven’t the Muslims done more to tackle the wacky preachers in their community”, which were presumably taking young Muslims onwards to blow themselves up.

But nearly all studies showed that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Britons who were recruited into radical, extremist groups did not do so by way of engaging in Muslim British institutions. They weren’t recruited in mosques or Muslim community centers. On the contrary, the recruitment had to take place outside of those institutions.

Muslim communities across Europe suffer from a broad variety of socio-economic problems, which makes recruitment more possible in certain cases – most certainly. In others, the ideological component completely overrides. But in either case, we’re asking Muslim communities to do more than they are capable of. When it comes to addressing the social and economic disparities in their communities, Muslim religious authorities and Muslim lobby groups have little ability of their own to act – they can only do so in conjunction with society at large. When it comes to addressing radical recruitment, they are even less able to effect direct change – that’s something the security services are responsible for.

We can and should encourage Muslim communities to build up resilience – true enough. But to claim they are somehow culpable for the extremism that a tiny minority of them partakes of is rather bizarre. It is also something we wouldn’t presume to do on other communities, and nor should we.

If collective responsibility exists, it is the collective responsibility of societies to find solutions that they all partake in building together. As for apportioning blame for crimes and hatred, that should be rather easy – it ought to be apportioned to those who carry out the crime and those who inspire the hatred. No one else – regardless of whether the crime was carried out by a Caucasian Christian in Colorado, or a Pakistani Muslim in California.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is Senior nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in DC, and Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Before joining the Council, he was appointed nonresident Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in DC, and Research Associate at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. During his tenure at the University of Warwick (UK) as Fellow & then Senior Research Fellow, Dr Hellyer was appointed as Deputy Convenor of the UK Government's Taskforce for the 2005 London bombings, and served as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) first ESRC Fellow as part of the "Islam & Counter-Terrorism" teams with FCO security clearance, as a non-civil servant.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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