Friedman’s Folly and the Islamophobic Razor

But we must ask a question only Muslims can answer: What is going on in your community that a critical number of your youth believes that every American military action in the Middle East is intolerable and justifies a violent response, and everything Muslim extremists do to other Muslims is ignorable and calls for mostly silence?”

The quote above comes from one of Thomas Friedman’s recent columns in the New York Times. The piece is riddled with problems but I chose this particular excerpt because it’s an excellent example of what I’d like to call the Islamophobic razor. By this I mean something quite simple: when multiple explanations are possible, the one with the most racist assumptions is taken as the best one. To see what I mean, let’s look at Friedman’s question piece by piece.

We can start with the opening line:

[W]e must ask a question only Muslims can answer.”

Friedman begins with the assumption that whatever happened in Boston, and is happening among Muslims throughout the world, has an explanation that “only” Muslims can articulate. The framing is impeccably Islamophobic. Why should we trust Friedman that questions of violence committed by some Muslims is something all Muslims can answer? More specifically, why should we believe that the violence of some Muslims can be answered by any Muslims other than the ones who committed it? What is it that Friedman thinks Muslims know about other Muslims who commit violence against civilians?

We can start by recognizing that the very basis for the exclusive nature of the question (“only Muslims can answer) is absurd. Consider it this way. School shootings are overwhelmingly committed by young white males born in the United States. The killings are sufficiently common to say that they raise legitimate security concerns for our children and families. As a young male US-born citizen, should I know anything about school shootings? Many of the youth responsible for the shootings have gun-loving parents. Should male teenagers whose parents own guns know something about the shootings? Try it another way: Should Catholics have an answer for the innumerable cases of rape and sexual assault within the Church?

The answer is simple: no.

Such questions are useless since there’s no reason to believe that people who fall into some category (“teenage white males” or “Catholics”) can account for the actions of others within that category. No one believes being a teenage white male or being a Catholic is sufficient to mean they know why other teenage white males murder or Catholics rape. Unless, of course, you’re Thomas Friedman. Then you can assume Muslims know why other Muslims kill innocent civilians. More precisely, you can rely on the Islamophobic razor. According to this racist logic, “only” Muslims can explain what other Muslims do because Islam tells us what all Muslims do. And by following this logic, you’ve not only closed all other explanations but you’ve ensured that no other questions can be asked, indeed need to be asked.

Let’s now look at Friedman’s actual question:

What is going on in your community that a critical number of your youth believes that every American military action in the Middle East is intolerable and justifies a violent response, and everything Muslim extremists do to other Muslims is ignorable and calls for mostly silence?”

We can start with what Friedman gets right. There is something going on with Muslims. Some Muslims are motivated to commit acts of violence against civilians. That’s about the extent of what he gets right. More than that, I can’t grant him.

So what does he get wrong?

First, what’s “going on in our community” is a problematic statement. Whose community is he talking about? The Muslim population is over 1 billion. Neither I nor any Muslim can account for “what’s going on” in such a diverse world community. Even if he’s talking about the US Muslim community, Friedman’s question is ridiculous. The 9/11 attacks were committed by Muslims from abroad. They were not part of “our community.” The Boston bombers were also born abroad and their connections to any Muslim community are unclear. It’s more accurate to say that the American Muslim community is really a constellation of Muslim communities. I have no idea what’s going on in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Boston mosques. And there’s a good possibility that Los Angeles Muslims don’t know what’s going on in other Los Angeles mosques. The reason is unsurprising: we’re like any other “community.” Many, if not most, Muslims lead lives that aren’t connected enough to make the kind of community Friedman presumes. And if any Muslims were planning on bombing a marathon, what makes Friedman think I’d have the slightest knowledge about it? Why would they tell anyone?

I should also add that, in quantitative terms, very little violence has actually come from the American Muslim community. While one killing is one too many, the fact of daily gun violence in the US is enough to eclipse the number of killings committed or attempted by American Muslims. In other words, the so-called Muslim menace is anything but a menace if you treat their crimes like you treat any other.

The second part of the question is also deceptive. Friedman is aware that many American Muslims oppose US military policies and violence in the Muslim world. Many of us oppose it publicly and passionately. This does not mean, however, that we believe in any “critical” number that American military violence justifies a violent response. The critical number Friedman is missing here is the ignored members of the Muslim community in America that use education, debate, cultural expression, and protest to express our views. In the America I live in, Muslims are on the radio, writing books, and expressing both their support for, and disagreements with, the US government. Why should the actions of so few Muslims serve to obscure the work of the many Muslims doing exactly what Friedman thinks we should be doing?

In addition to this omission, there are two more profound issues here. First, Friedman is distorting what we really know about Muslims who commit violence. Until now, we actually have little information on what motivated the Boston bombers. One of the brothers is dead and the other has revealed no particular narrative that links his actions with US military actions. Even if it turns out that these two brothers were motivated by US attacks abroad, can their actions alone suffice for holding the entire Muslim community of America accountable for their actions?

The second problem with Friedman’s question is that it ignores the fact that the US government operates according to the very logic he condemns. For over a decade, the US military has killed innocent civilians in the Muslim world as if every terrorist attack is “intolerable and justifies a violent response.” Indeed, the war on terror reflects the idea that war is a justified response to the actions of some violent Muslims. Given that we have engaged the Muslim world through war, why should we be surprised that some Muslims have engaged us through war? Isn’t it safe to say that our foreign policy is “radicalized” to the extent that we believe killing innocents is unfortunate but justified?

The final piece to Friedman’s question is perhaps the most offensive if not the most untrue. On what empirical grounds can Friedman possibly claim that Muslims ignore the violence committed by other Muslims? Muslims are not “silent” on the violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. I myself published an article discussing the gross violation of human rights committed by the Syrian regime against its population. Muslims are not silent on the reality of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. We’ve debated it, questioned it, and condemned it. Our voices are out there. The question is why pundits like Friedman are ignoring it. Why do Muslim scholars like T.J. Winter, whose discussion on suicide bombing was published years ago, and Sherman Jackson, who covered the question of jihad, go unnoticed? Why did the Amman Message receive so little press? Why does my own publication, The Islamic Monthly, or Muslim blogs like Altmuslim and Altmuslimah, which are unafraid of engaging the most pressing issues facing Muslims today, move so silently in Friedman’s world? The answer is, as usual, simple: he isn’t looking.

Friedman’s article is already circulating through all the usual channels. The quote above was cited by US Congressman, Peter King, on Meet the Press while pushing for greater scrutiny of the Muslim American community. I expect that it will go much further among the Islamophobes on Fox News and other right-wing networks. But before it does, we should be careful to avoid letting the flawed logic of Friedman’s Islamophobic razor get any further. We should do exactly what Friedman claims we don’t do: challenge pundits like him to see the folly of their own ignorance.

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    Michael Vicente Perez

    Michael Perez is a Senior Editor at The Islamic Monthly and a regular columnist.

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