Against Collective Blame: A Response to Haroon Moghul

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In the aftermath of the horrific mass murder of 49 people, primarily Latinx, in Orlando, we hear the usual Islamophobic rhetoric, language (e.g. using “terrorist/terrorism” as code for “Muslim/Islam”), and commentaries from U.S. politicians, mainstream media outlets, and Islamophobes. In contrast to these simplistic, racist, and Islamophobic narratives, several articles have emphasized on solidarity between LGBTQIA Latinx and LGBTQIA Muslim communities. Additionally, queer Muslims continue to highlight on the intersections of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia, and many activists and organizations have called for the rejection of Islamophobia in response to Orlando.

Then I read Haroon Moghul’s latest article on CNN’s website.

Titled “How Muslims can fight extremism,” the article is filled with many of the issues I had with Fareed Zakaria’s CNN segment about how Muslims “need to take more active measures” against extremism. Moghul makes a similar argument, stating that “condemning terrorism is a woefully inadequate response to a persistent menace.” Reinforced throughout the piece is the harmful and dangerous notion that Muslims have not been “doing enough” to confront extremism and are therefore collectively complicit in violence carried out by other Muslims. Let’s go through his article point by point.

1. “How else is it that a small band of vile extremists have come to dominate the conversation about Islam, except that we have let this happen to us? Let’s take a long, hard, awkward look in the mirror.”

It’s hard to read these sentences without being appalled. They essentially assert that the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims — 1.5 billion of us — are to blame for “letting” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” It is not the fault of Islamophobes, it is not the fault of Hollywood’s 100+ years of demonizing and vilifying Muslims, it is not the fault of the mainstream media very rarely providing platforms for Muslims to speak (and if they do, the Muslim guests are often bullied and vilified), and it’s certainly not the fault of U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries. No, it’s our fault, the 1.5 billion Muslims who “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam.” Exactly how Muslims “let” this happen is never discussed or articulated in the article.

It’s disturbing how Moghul erases the voices of countless Muslims, who have not only been speaking out against crimes committed by other Muslim-identified individuals, but have also been working tirelessly against Islamophobia, anti-black racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. I’m not just talking about protests or community activism, but also about individual people who have to fight these oppressive forces every day in their workplaces, schools, and even in their own families. When Muslim youth are bullied and harassed in schools by both classmates and teachers, are we to say to them, “Sorry, but the bullies only think your religion is violent because you haven’t done enough to stop extremists from speaking for you, so there’s nothing we can do to help you”? When my parents worked multiple jobs and faced workplace discrimination, such as dealing with racist bosses and co-workers who would make fun of their accents and refer to them as “camel jockeys,” should I have turned to them and asked, “Why haven’t you done anything to stop these extremists from dominating the conversation about Islam”? See how ridiculous all of this sounds?

As my readers know, I don’t believe Muslims should have to publicly condemn crimes committed by other people. The same is never expected nor demanded of White Christians when a White Christian man carries out violence, so why should the burden be placed on Muslims? This position is often mistaken as being stubborn and close-minded, but it is really about equality and justice. If we really believe in equality, then we should not be treating one group of people different than another. 

Despite my position on this, Muslim community leaders and organizations in the U.S. and around the world have always condemned violent acts committed by other Muslims. Moghul, like Zakaria, acknowledges this, but insists that condemnations are “not enough” and that Muslims need to “do more.”

2. “The hundreds of millions of Muslims who reject extremism must start building out real, institutional alternatives to extremism, with serious funding, talent and commitment behind them. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars in the United States, for example, and on what? We have some nice mosques. Most of them are empty most of the week, except for a few hours every Friday afternoon. We built some Islamic schools. I guess that’s cool. But on the major metric, we’ve failed. It feels as if we are more unpopular than ever.”

There is a lot to unpack here. First, let’s contextualize who the “hundreds of millions of Muslims” are. This is something that should stick in people’s minds: Whenever we talk about the “Muslim community” or the global Muslim population, we should remember that we are talking about a population that spans from Morocco to the borders of China, with significant Muslim populations in non-Muslim majority countries in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world. In other words, Muslims are not a monolith, and the global Muslim community is incredibly diverse and complex. In addition to ethnic and racial diversity, there is also spiritual diversity: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and so on.

Moghul proposes that these very Muslims, the ones who make up the racially, culturally, spiritually, and politically diverse majority, should invest in building “alternatives to extremism.” The implication here seems to be that “alternatives to extremism” don’t already exist in Muslim communities. The other, and perhaps more disturbing, implication is that the majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists,” and if we don’t listen to Moghul’s ideas about investing in “alternatives to extremism,” then more Muslims will become violent. The “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability, according to this logic.  Whether Moghul realizes that he is implicitly furthering the norm that Muslims should be treated as a suspect community, I’m not sure, but the erasure of Muslim organizing here is dangerous.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I have seen Muslims organizing and actively participating in events, protests, fundraisers, and talks that address a wide range of issues, including interfaith dialogue, Muslim feminism, Islamophobia, solidarity with Black Lives Matter, justice for Palestine, etc. In Philadelphia, I see so many amazing events and initiatives organized by Muslims, many of which I have not been able to attend. Just last weekend, there was a panel workshop on “(Re)imagining Queer Unions in Islam.” Next month, the Philadelphia-based Muslim Wellness Foundation will be hosting its 2nd annual Black Muslim Psychology conference. The Muslim Life Program at Princeton University has also hosted countless events highlighting on issues that are often marginalized, such as Muslim women in the arts, narratives of the Black Muslim experience, Muslim masculinities, Muslim mental health, and so on (all of these events are open to the public, not just for Princeton students). The Muslim Anti-Racism Collective (or MuslimARC) focuses on racial justice education, outreach, and advocacy, often addressing intracommunity racism, particularly anti-Black racism in the Muslim community.

Are these groups and programs not “doing enough”?  Have these groups “let” the extremists “dominate the conversation about Islam”? If mainstream media does not provide any coverage of the work Muslims are doing on the ground, is it their fault that the media depicts Islam/Muslims as violent? Is it their fault that Muslims are now “more unpopular than ever”? Moghul does not seem to understand how white supremacy operates as a system, especially in the way it socializes people to view White people as individuals and treat people of color as representatives of the entire groups they belong to. This is the reason why we don’t see laws and policies target White people after a White terrorist commits an atrocious act of violence (even though White males represent more than half of the perpetrators responsible for mass shootings). Rather than blaming Muslims for how negatively we’re viewed, we should be working in solidarity against a racist system that has always privileged White people over communities of color.

I don’t present the examples of Muslim organizations above to suggest that the Muslim community is perfect. Not at all. Muslim communities, just like any other community, have the responsibility of challenging problems within, such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, anti-black racism, and other oppressive practices. However, acknowledging these problems within our communities is very different from collectively blaming Muslims for the violent actions of people like Omar Mateen. I also mention the Muslim organizations above because Moghul creates the impression that all Muslims seem to do is build mosques and Islamic schools (as if there isn’t anything significant about investing in these projects). After reading Moghul’s article, one would think that Muslims are an isolationist group that doesn’t do any outreach, advocacy, or educational work.

3. Many Americans want us banned from the country. In the battle for hearts and minds, we’re losing. Badly.”

Yes, it’s true that many in the U.S. want Muslims banned. Moghul is not wrong, but the implication here is that Muslims are to blame. It is our fault that people want to ban us. This is a disturbing victim-blaming mentality that leads to increasing more suspicion about Muslims. It is difficult not to see Moghul’s comments as a harsh accusation against the Muslim community. It reminds me of how Zakaria said that Muslims should be more “active” against extremism because it would make a more “persuasive case” against Islamophobia. I cannot say Moghul agrees with Zakaria or not, but his comments about how we are “losing” the “battle for hearts and minds” seems to suggest that Muslims have an obligation to prove to non-Muslims — mostly White non-Muslims — that we oppose extremism.

4. “We need to turn this around. We need to fight back against extremism. We need to take ownership of the problems, because it’s the only way we’re going to take ownership of the solution. If you can’t criticize yourself, you can’t better yourself. If you can’t lay out a vision of the future, you’re going to live someone else’s future.”

In addition to talking down to Muslims, Moghul reiterates that Muslims are responsible for violent extremism. There is a lot to address here when it comes to an entire community taking “ownership” of Omar Mateen’s actions. When I discussed Moghul’s article with a friend, she said, “What is it that we could have done to stop him?” She pointed out that the FBI not only investigated and questioned Mateen on two occasions, but also determined that he did not pose a security threat, probably because they saw him sharing similar politics since he worked for G4S, the largest private security firm in the world (which supports Israeli apartheid and is complicit in human rights violations around the world). Furthermore, new information has been released about how the FBI tried to entrap Mateen. Is this, too, the fault of Muslims?

Dispatching informants to spy on or entrap Muslims is nothing new. I would hope that Moghul is aware of the NYPD surveillance program that spied on Muslim communities and sent “mosque-crawlers” into our houses of worship. What does it mean to “fight back against extremism” when we already see Muslims spying on one another and/or reporting each other to the FBI? In fact, it has been revealed that a Muslim man did report Mateen to the FBI, contradicting Donald Trump’s claim that Muslims don’t report fellow Muslims. I don’t point this out to advocate continued surveillance of Muslims or having Muslims become suspicious of one another. Research has found that the impact of the NYPD spy program was traumatizing for Muslims. But when Moghul says he wants Muslims to “fight back against extremism,” what else is he looking for? Our mosques are already monitored and many Muslims, including myself, are careful and cautious about what we say at community events or social gatherings with other Muslims — to the point where we see “self-censorship and decreased involvement in community groups.” Making a criticism of U.S. imperialism, for example, could get you put on a “terrorist watch list,” if you’re not on it already for the mere fact that you exist as a Muslim.

I wrote this in my critique of Zakaria’s CNN video, but it applies to Moghul’s article as well: Does “fighting back against extremism” mean increasing the suspicion that already exists for Muslims? Does it mean permitting raids on Muslim homes like the ones that occurred in Australia? Does it mean working as an informant for the NYPD and getting paid $100,000 per assignment to take pictures, collect names, and monitor study groups of people in our community? Does it mean endorsing FBI informants who are authorized to engage in sexual relationships with Muslim women?

5. “I’m calling for the chaotic Muslim middle — too long unrepresented or underrepresented — not to stand up and speak out, but to stand up and build out. We must design, fund, sustain and expand programs that target the very people extremists are going after.”

The “chaotic Muslim middle”? Given the context of how Moghul is accusing the Muslim community of not doing enough to “fight extremism,” his characterization of us as “chaotic” is nauseating and Orientalist. Again, Moghul speaks as if the “Violent Muslim” is an inevitability. Also, as mentioned earlier, the implication is that the vast majority of Muslims are “potential terrorists.” What I found troubling about the second sentence is that Moghul talks about targeting “the very people extremists are going after.” Who these people are is never mentioned in the article. How does one determine who the extremists are targeting? What Moghul seems to be calling for sounds a lot like a counter-terrorist program within the Muslim community (because we know how effective and wonderful U.S. counter-terrorist programs are, right?). Can you imagine being a teacher at an Islamic school and being trained to view all of your students as “potential terrorists”? If a student voices a opinion that sounds “too radical,” what is to be done with that student? Again, are we to police our communities more than they are already are?

6. Imagine if we could send significant numbers of young Muslims to meet their co-religionists and offer them aid and assistance, or to meet people they’ve never been exposed to, to be taught and to teach. Imagine if we leveraged our resources and our numbers to fight hate, intolerance and extremism. Imagine if young people saw they could help their co-religionists by working with mainstream institutions.”

On the surface, I don’t have any objection to Muslims meeting and working with other Muslims in different parts of the world, but Moghul is talking about this within a framework that collectively blames Muslims for “violent extremism.” The primary objective of the programs that Moghul describes seems more concerned with catering to a Western non-Muslim gaze that desires to the see the “Good Muslim” — i.e. the Muslim who fights against other Muslims that “threaten Western civilization” — than building transnational solidarity with other Muslims and communities across the world.

I don’t believe the “counter-extremist” approach is effective. In fact, I think it leads to more profiling, surveillance, and civil rights violations against Muslims. Yes, it would be great to see more Muslim organizations that work towards building more solidarity internationally, but we also need to resist this “helping” narrative. It carries connotations of an arrogant savior complex that assumes U.S.-based Muslims “know what’s best” for people in Muslim-majority countries. What we need to focus on instead is solidarity, i.e. working with the groups and organizations that are already fighting against oppression in Muslim-majority countries. Solidarity is a better practice because it does not arrogantly assume that Muslims in other parts of the world need “saving” or don’t have a conscious for social justice.

7. “I am tired of simply saying terrorism is wrong. We should know that already. We should be known for that. I’d rather build up an alternative, a Muslim world that doesn’t just reject extremism in word, but defeats it in deed, that does more than acknowledge homophobia, and intolerance (and the many other ills we see rampant in some Muslim communities, like anti-Semitism and racism), but actively fights them.” 

It is concerning these attitudes about Muslims “not doing enough” are dangerously similar to what Donald Trump and Islamophobes say about us. That we “know” who the violent extremists are in our community and that we don’t do anything about it. As Moghul makes clear in his article, Muslims are speaking out and condemning horrible acts of violence, and yet he interprets Islamophobic hatred of us as being a result of Muslims apparently “not doing enough” against extremism. How does this not call upon non-Muslims, especially those who are racist and Islamophobic, to support more profiling, surveillance, and deportations of Muslims? How do these attitudes not depict every Muslim on the planet as a suspect who should be treated guilty until proven innocent?

In Moghul’s article, there is no mentioning of white supremacy, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, settler-colonialism, and other interlocking systems of oppression that have caused so much violence in the world. By decontextualizing the ways in which Muslims are vilified, Moghul is able to depict Muslims as being responsible for Islamophobic sentiments, rhetoric, and policies. It astonishes me that people still have to say this, but nothing happens in a vacuum. How can we talk about ISIS without also talking about the impact of U.S. imperialism, which has killed over 1 million Iraqis that we’ll probably never know the names of? How can we talk about Omar Mateen without also talking about the violent, homophobic (whether internalized or not), transphobic, and pro-gun culture that he is a product of in the United States? As Tanzila Ahmed writes: “Too often, we blame these hate-fueled attacks on the individuals who perpetrate them. We forget that there is a system of oppression in place that led them there.”

What concerns me probably the most about Moghul’s article is how it is reflective of the victim-blaming culture in which we live. I have lost count of conversations I’ve had with fellow Muslims who have said to me, “Yeah, the media is a problem, but we are also to blame for Islamophobia because we don’t do enough.” I’ve seen Muslims at my local mosque tell police officers, “Give this person a ticket” because a fellow Muslim’s car was double-parked in an over-filled parking lot for Eid-ul-Fitr. I have heard countless khutbahs in mosques telling predominately Black and Brown congregations that we must buy into a racist color-blind ideology because “there is no race in Islam” (clearly forgetting 30:22 and 49:13 in the Holy Qur’an). While these examples may seem small and trivial to some, I believe they reflect how disconnected and fragmented our communities are. We don’t just see Muslims blaming each other, but also turning on one another.

I point out the examples above to challenge the harmful framework that Moghul uses. That is, we do not need fellow Muslims — especially those who claim to speak for us on CNN or other mainstream news outlets – to scold us, talk down to us, or tell us that we are responsible for the negative and Islamophobic attitudes that people have towards us. At a time when Muslims report “decreased self-esteem and increased psychological stress” as a result of Islamophobia; when nearly 50% of Muslim youth experience some sort of bias-based bullying in high schools; and when Muslims frequently experience microaggressions, covert, and overt forms of discrimination, accusing Muslims of “letting” violent extremists speak for them does nothing to uplift our communities. It is cruel condemnation, not compassion.

I agree with Moghul that heterosexual Muslims must do more to challenge homophobia, but the “fighting back against extremism” framework only calls for increased policing and profiling of people in our community. While I don’t agree with everything Linda Sarsour says, I think her call for Muslims to be unapologetically Muslim is a message that all Muslims need to hear, especially Muslim youth. The message is important because it not only tells Muslims to be proud of who they are, not ashamed, but it also carries the potential to encourage Muslims to be pro-active against oppressive practices both within and outside their communities. Rather than implying that all Muslims carry the burden of “doing more” against violent extremism and are somehow responsible, we need to be promoting more courageous stances, as Sarsour does, in teaching Muslims to be unapologetic about their faith, and to work in solidarity with each other — as well as other marginalized communities — against the systems of oppression that seek to divide us all.