As officials scurried about Paris assessing the damage and seeking to identify the culprits, I know my Muslim friends were thinking, “I hope they’re not Muslims.”
Were innocent people killed again in the name of Allah? If so, my Muslim friends know that Muslims will once again be defined not by what they believe and how they live, but by the actions of a vicious few who pervert the meaning of Islam. They fear that “Muslim” and “terrorist” will become even more deeply seared into the Western psyche.
And they fear that when Westerners look at them (Muslims who love peace and hate violence) they will be viewed through distorted lenses, lenses that see them (Muslims who love peace and hate violence) as vicious and hate-filled, a viciousness and hatred inspired by their religion. They fear, in short, more intolerance, bigotry and hatred.
Their initial, self-interested fears quickly gave way to compassion and concern for those who were killed and injured (and their families).
This tragedy, they will sympathetically think, is not about them. And yet, it is.
Since anything Muslims say may be viewed as special pleading, let me speak for them.
The vast majority of Muslims love peace and hate violence. The vast majority of Muslims renounce the killing of innocent lives as much as non-Muslims do. They enthusiastically endorse the Quran when it says, “Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all humankind” (5:32). The vast majority of Muslims, like non-Muslims, wish to live in peace and harmony, and to bequeath a better, safer world to their children. The vast majority of Muslims share in the sorrows of those who have just lost a loved one.
Sadly, many non-Muslims, unaware of what the vast majority of Muslims believe, base their judgment of Islam on the actions and declarations of a very small minority of Muslims.
In a 2012 poll of Americans, more than 70 percent had favorable attitudes towards Christians and Jews, yet only 48 percent had favorable attitudes toward Muslim-Americans. And while only eight percent of Americans had unfavorable attitudes toward Presbyterians and 11 percent had unfavorable attitudes towards Jews, 33 percent had unfavorable attitudes toward Muslim-Americans. Attitudes divided along party lines. Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to have negative views of Muslims. After Paris, unfavorable attitudes toward Muslim-Americans will likely increase.
We should resist our natural urge to judge people by the actions of an unrepresentative minority. While we are generous in our self-evaluations (and evaluations of the groups to which we belong), we can be harshly judgmental of others (and groups to which we don’t belong). We think vastly more highly of ourselves than we ought, and less highly of others than we ought. And studies show we have a natural human tendency to form our opinion of others based on bad things rather than good things.
We can’t ignore the reality of allegedly Muslim-inspired terrorism (I say “allegedly” because Muslim-inspired terrorism is as much an oxymoron as “Buddhist-inspired terrorism”). As we all know, in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings three people were killed and 264 injured. But, as a counterpoint, on March 11, 2011, a single drone attack in Pakistan killed 26-42 mostly innocent civilians.
Fear-mongers, selective media and human nature conspire to create negative, prejudicial attitudes towards those who are not like us.
Finally, I am often asked, “Why don’t moderate Muslims criticize the radical Muslims?” They do, but it doesn’t make the news. And it didn’t take Paris to mobilize Muslims against violence. Countless Muslim leaders have denounced violence and done so repeatedly. Over 100 Muslim scholars and leaders have denounced ISIS and its tactics as anti-Islamic. Finally, we need a better understanding of the root causes of violent extremism (hint: religion plays a minor role).
It is precisely at this moment that we must fight any urges to judge our Muslim neighbor as vicious, devious and even violent. Giving into such urges is to give into untruth. Moreover, in dehumanizing them, acceding to our primal, ignoble urges dehumanizes us even more.