Peter Singer on "Countering Islamic Extremism"
In an article titled "Countering Islamic Extremism" (Project Syndicate, March 10, 2015), Peter Singer explains why "countering violent extremism" is insufficient and why we would do better by confronting the unpalatable truth:
Last month, US President Barack Obama hosted a three-day summit on "Countering Violent Extremism," . . . . [or] "CVE," used no fewer than 12 times in a Fact Sheet released by the Obama administration, . . . . [a] Fact Sheet [that] also uses the term "violent extremism" 21 times. How many times do, terms like "Islam," "Islamic," or "Muslim" appear? Zero. There is not even a reference to the "Islamic State." That entity is referred to only by the initials "ISIL."Is this apparent reticence accidental? No, says Singer:
This is not an accident; it is part of a strategy to win the support of mainstream Muslims . . . . [Some Muslims think] that using terms like "radical Islam" harms the cause of stopping the violence . . . . Another reason . . . offered for not referring to "Islamic radicalism" or the "Islamic State" is that to do so concedes the terrorists' claims that they are acting in accordance with Islam's teachings . . . . Finally, the repeated use of "Islamic" as part of the description of enemy groups may make it appear that the West is "at war with Islam."I figured these were the reasons, but avoiding the term "Islam" and related words, e.g., "Islamic" or "Islamist," dulls any otherwise sharp analysis. It also ignores reality:
[I]t is never a good idea for [anyone] . . . to appear to be denying what we can all see before our eyes . . . . because it is obvious to everyone that most violent extremism is being carried out in the name of Islam . . . . A further problem becomes apparent as soon as we ask why it is important that mainstream Muslim leaders stand up in public and say that their religion opposes killing innocent people . . . . Why should Muslim leaders, in particular, make such statements, rather than Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu leaders?Yeah, if we're only fighting "violent extremism," why do we urge Muslim leaders in particular to speak out? Good question. What's the answer:
The answer, once again, is obvious. But it is obvious only because we already know that groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Taliban are not obeying the precepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, or Hinduism.Since that's the reality, what are we non-Muslims to do?
Obama [has] said that "all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative" . . . . [U]nlike the White House Fact Sheet, [this statement] acknowledges that groups like the Islamic state claim to be Islamic. Otherwise, what would be the [statement's] relevance . . . to "countering violent extremism"?But there's still a problem with Obama's exhortation - most of us know too little to refute Islamic extremists. Singer admits that he can't:
If I tried to get into a debate with any moderately well-educated Islamic State supporter about whether that organization is true to the teachings of Islam, I would lose the argument. I am not sufficiently expert in the Islamic tradition to be confident that extremists are misinterpreting it, and few of us are. The responsibility to which Obama was referring rests with those who are much more learned in Islam than "all of us."But another difficulty lurks here:
Even for people who are learned in Islam, discharging the responsibility Obama has placed on them will not be easy, as a reading of Graeme Wood's revealing recent account demonstrates. Wood presents a picture of people driven by a firm belief in Islam, and knowledgeable about its key texts . . . . The Islamic State's spokesmen insist on following the original precepts laid down by the Prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers, understood literally and with no adjustment for different circumstances . . . . [T]hey see themselves as preparing for - and helping to bring about - the apocalypse.What ought we do? Singer offers a suggestion:
By now, the problem with trying to counter those who seek new recruits for "violent extremism" without focusing on this extremism's Islamic basis should be clear. Those considering joining an extremist Islamic group should be told: You believe every other religion to be false, but adherents of many other religions believe just as firmly that your faith is false. You cannot really know who is right, and you could all be wrong. Either way, you do not have a sufficiently well-grounded justification for killing people, or for sacrificing your own life . . . . Of course, . . . some people are not open to reasoning of any kind, and so will not be swayed by such an argument. But others may be. Why rule it out in advance by denying that much extremist violence is religiously motivated [by Islamic beliefs]?As Singer himself admits, this attempt at engaging an Islamist in rational inquiry probably won't persuade many of those extremists, but we shouldn't rule anything out in advance.