I am a Muslim. I am also a black, immigrant, heterosexual male, who was born in rural Ethiopia and raised in a quintessential New England city. I've experienced adversity and opportunity, prejudice and privilege. I've navigated cultures and social classes, in the process, coming into contact with diverse individuals and ideas that have shaped who I am.
These various identities, environments and experiences interact in complex ways to inform my worldview. Unfortunately, however, like many Muslims around the world, I am often expected to apologize for other people's crimes, prove my innocence and educate my colleagues. This shouldn't be my job. It's tiring, infuriating and frankly unfair.
So in light of this past weekend's horrific attacks in Paris that have left at least 129 people dead and the inevitable demonization of Muslims, I would like to take the liberty to address three of the most common misconceptions about Islam and its followers.
1. Islam makes people violent
Islam doesn't inherently make people violent or peaceful. Like virtually all religions, it depends on the meaning it's given by individuals or societies. Whether it's by radical Jewish settlers, Christian fundamentalists or extremist Buddhists, many religions can be manipulated to achieve sinister objectives. Muslims are not the only people committing violence but the distorted narrative perpetuated by the mainstream media, illustrated in this CNN interview with Reza Aslan, would make you think otherwise.
2. Maybe not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims
Speaking of media bias, perhaps nowhere is it more evident than the inconsistent application of the term "terrorist." Muslims, particularly those from the Middle East, are so often associated with "terrorist" that our collective consciousness has come to render the two inseparable. This portrayal of Muslims is grossly inaccurate. In fact, New America, a Washington Research Center, has found that, since "Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims."
The term "terrorist" is nothing short of meaningless propaganda. As Glenn Greenwald, one of the leading investigative journalists of our time, writes in his article for the Intercept:
Ample scholarship proves that the term "terrorism" is empty, definition-free and invariably manipulated. Harvard's Lisa Stampnitzky has documented "the inability of researchers to establish a suitable definition of the concept of 'terrorism' itself." The concept of "terrorism" is fundamentally plagued by ideological agendas and self-interested manipulation, as Professor Richard Jackson at the the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Zealand has explained: "most of what is accepted as well-founded 'knowledge' in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable" and is "biased towards Western state priorities."
3. They hate us
The "us vs. them" mentality, when referring to any group of people, often limits one's capacity to understand issues within a particular context. For instance, when groups like ISIS commit heinous crimes, many automatically blame religion. When trying to understand what motivated these senseless attacks, however, it's important to consider the various factors at play such the instability created by the West's continual interventions in the Middle East, the coalition's arming of sectarian groups and the lack of opportunities brought in part by the "War on Terror."
In a recent interview, VICE founder Shane Smith asked President Obama about the popularity of ISIL and how to defeat them to which the POTUS responded, "ISIL is a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq, that grew out of our invasion, which is an example of unintended consequences." Obama added:
I'm worried about how, even if ISIL is defeated, the underlying problem of disaffected Sunnis around the world -- but particularly in some of these areas including Libya, including Yemen -- where a young man who's growing up has no education, has no prospects for the future, is looking around and the one way he can get validation, power, respect is if he's a fighter. 'And this looks like the toughest gang around, so let me affiliate with them, and now you're giving me a religious rationale for doing this.' That's a problem we're going to have, generally. And we can't keep thinking about counterterrorism and security as entirely separate from diplomacy, development, education.
There are many underlying social and political issues that drive young men, often with very few alternatives, to join groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. To solely blame Islam for the recent atrocities is disingenuous at best.
This past weekend's senseless attacks in Paris and Beirut have left us in shock and searching for answers. Some will undoubtedly respond irrationally. As the bigots stereotype and smear all Muslims, we must resist the urge of blaming innocent people.
Islam is a religion made up of 1.6 billon people and each one of us is unique, with complex identities and experiences that shape us. No Muslim should be expected to apologize for a crime he/she didn't commit. We deserve nuance.