The Question That Won't Go Away About Muslims and Terrorism

Why don't more Muslims denounce extremism and terrorism?

I can still count on that question to surface whenever I teach about Islam in various Christian contexts. For the most part, it is asked by sincere, thoughtful people who are concerned about the world and sometimes confused about Islam. It reflects the fact that many people consider Muslim responses to extremism inadequate. Some--including both marginal voices and respected commentators--even talk of "deafening silence."

Answers to the question have been offered by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. So much so, in fact, that the question is a bit like a pesky fly at a picnic. No matter how many times you swipe, it keeps circling back. The responses offered, it seems, are either ignored or unpersuasive. Nevertheless, we need to keep swiping, and here is my attempt.

Let me start with a brief description of why I care. A student once asked why I, as a Christian, want to defend Islam. I am not interested in defending Islam per se, although sometimes I feel defensive for Muslim friends if I think they are being slandered. But more generally, I care for two reasons. First, as a Christian, I am called to be a truth-teller and never to "bear false witness against my neighbor" (Exodus 20:16). That includes speaking truthfully and fairly about Muslim neighbors worldwide, as I want them to do for me. Secondly, I am concerned that critics of Islam use the question as a kind of trump card which short-circuits more important discussions.

I recently wrote a post about how Islamic traditions have inspired virtuous and often heroic acts by Muslims throughout history. The article resonated with people and got some traction on social media. One comment that received many "likes," however, was from a woman who ignored my main points and simply retorted, "If Muslims are so good, why don't more denounce terrorism? The proof is in the pudding!"

The pesky fly circles again -- attracted to pudding, no less.

I'm not sure what to say to stubborn skeptics. Their pudding seems only to consist of one insufficient "proof" captured in the mantra, "All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11." Even when Muslims do condemn extremism, some question the validity of their condemnations by claiming that Islam teaches them to lie. (Ben Carson provides a recent example of this logic based on gross caricatures of the Islamic concept of Taqiyya.) Damned if you do and if you don't, it seems.

So how do we avoid the blind blustering of such critics while still addressing the sincere questions of the concerned and confused?

Two caveats seem appropriate here. First, asking if Muslims adequately condemn terror is not the same as asking if Islam is compatible with modern liberalism. There are thorny debates about how Islam addresses, for example, issues of apostasy or the place of religious law in public life. For now, I can only refer readers to helpful authors such as Mustafa Akyol and Shadi Hamid, and to resources on Muslim diversity. Otherwise, I offer a simple reminder that someone need not fully embrace liberalism in order to genuinely oppose terrorism and extremist ideologies.

Secondly, I think it's fair to ask whether average Muslims should be held more responsible for denouncing extremism than non-Muslims. After all, most Muslims in the world have no connections to extremists. Therefore, expecting them to condemn extremism more than others might falsely suggest that all Muslims are somehow responsible for the behavior of a few. That point is worth more consideration. For now, however, it still seems reasonable to suggest that in today's world it is important for everyone -- including Muslims -- to assertively denounce terror done in the name of Islam.

So back to the question: Do Muslims condemn extremism and terrorism?

In short: Yes. Constantly. Loudly. In multiple ways. In fact, what is deafening is not the silence, but the consistent chorus of voices from across the Muslim world. Condemnations are common from top religious leaders, heads of state, average men and women, and youth. They come from every corner of the globe, from Chicago to Cairo to Cape Town, from Italy to Iran to Indonesia. They emanate from Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Ismaili, Ahmadiyya, and other Muslim communities. They appear in official fatwas, popular social media campaigns (#NotInMyName), academic treatises, open letters, joint declarations, and international conferences.

Troubling counter-examples do exist, of course, but a constant chorus of condemnation has reverberated since Islamic terrorism became a buzz-phrase. Public denouncements blared before the dust settled at Ground Zero in September 2001 and continued through this month's condemnations of the Orlando shooting. Additionally, denunciations often include efforts to "respond to evil with good." Consider, for example, the current "Muslims United for Victims of Pulse Shooting" or the recent Marrakesh Declaration of leaders from all over the Muslim world who assembled in Morocco to defend the religious freedom of Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

Anyone interested in learning more can follow the embedded links I have provided or simply Google "Muslims denounce terrorism" and peruse the more than 370,000 results.

In the end, all of this leaves us wondering why so many still mistake the deafening chorus for a deafening silence. Is it a failure of the media? Is there a deliberate cover-up? Do Muslim voices get lost in the cacophony of an easily-distracted, sensationalized culture? Are we drowning in a sea of over-information? Or, as I discuss in another post, are we blinded by fear?

Whatever the reasons, the more pressing question today is not, "Why don't Muslims denounce extremism and terrorism?" but rather, "Why don't we hear them when they do?"