Brigitte Gabriel recently argued that, while the majority of Muslims in the world are peaceful, these peaceful Muslims don’t matter. History, Gabriel maintained, tells us that the peaceful majority is always irrelevant. Violent people set the agenda and determine the course of things. In twentieth-century Germany, Russia, China, and Japan, the majority was peaceful, and yet millions and millions of people died at the hands of a minority of brutal murderers. The peaceful majority proved to be thoroughly incompetent at stopping the most dreadful events of the twentieth century from happening: incompetent and thus irrelevant.
But this is a misinterpretation of history.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Even so, some interpretations are more factual and less fictitious than others. According to Gabriel, about 75 percent of Muslims in the world are peaceful, while between 15 and 25 percent are violent. The accuracy of these percentages is questionable, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are somewhat accurate. Saying that there are more peaceful Muslims than violent ones seems fair. The existence of quite a few violent, anti-Western Muslims also seems a fair conclusion. But Gabriel’s assertion that the 75 percent who are peaceful don’t matter is a peculiar interpretation, to say the least. Peculiar and problematic. Allow me to use an analogy to illustrate the problem.
According to Mary Koss’s groundbreaking 1987 national study of rape, 4.5 percent of college-aged American men had forced a woman to have sex. If this is still a somewhat accurate representation of reality, then millions of American men have at some point forced a woman to have sex against her will. Now if this 4.5 percent is going to determine what we should think and feel about men, then I must assume that a man is a crime waiting to happen. And 4.5 percent means that millions of men are millions of crimes waiting to happen. In Gabriel’s view, the peaceful 95.5 percent can do nothing to change that, for the peaceful majority never changes anything for the better. After all, they are irrelevant.
Obviously, such a conclusion is highly problematic. The majority of men who never commit sexual violence do matter. Thanks to that majority, a woman can still feel safe when she goes out in public. It is the members of that peaceful majority who form or join anti-sexual assault organizations, who contribute to the growing awareness that sexual violence is unacceptable in all of its forms. A Call to Men, Founding Fathers, Men United Against Sexual Assault, and Harvard Men Against Rape are just some of the many non-profit organizations and college or university prevention groups committed to the goal of creating cultures free from (sexual) violence. These are organizations joined by peaceful men who don’t think sexual violence is in any way acceptable — peaceful men whose endeavors could hardly be called irrelevant. Even if they don’t have the power to stop all sexual offenses from happening, they are far from irrelevant.
Gabriel is not the first to argue that the peaceful majority of a society or community is irrelevant. In 2006, the Canadian blogger and op-ed commentator Paul Marek wrote a widely read essay on the irrelevance of the peaceful majority of Muslims, and Gabriel clearly sympathizes with Marek’s views. It took only a handful of violent Muslims to “bring America to its knees” on September 11, Gabriel observed. Millions of peaceful Muslims were completely irrelevant on that day as nineteen violent men carried out horrific attacks against civilians. In the face of such evil, Gabriel argues, the peaceful are necessarily impotent. Gabriel makes comparisons between the peaceful Muslims of today and the peaceful Germans in Nazi Germany who did not stop millions of people from dying at the hands of the violent minority. Equally irrelevant, in Gabriel’s view, was the peaceful majority in the Soviet Union under Stalinist rule.
Is Doing Good Ever in Vain?
Yet history presents us with numerous examples of members of that “irrelevant” peaceful majority who made a huge difference in combatting violence, oppression, and hatred. If one is to maintain that the peaceful majority did not matter in Nazi Germany or in Stalinist Russia, one must ignore the actions of a whole lot of exceptional people.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was, in Gabriel’s interpretation, an irrelevant man. What did he actually do to stop millions of people from being killed under Stalinist rule? Oh, not much. He wrote a book about the horrors of life in the Gulags: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The book was a major blow to communist authorities, a blow from which they never entirely recovered. It shattered the intellectual and political credibility of communism in every place where it was read and thus contributed to the downfall of communism. But in Gabriel’s view, it was only the irrelevant book of an irrelevant, peaceful man. For that is what Solzhenitsyn was: one of millions of peaceful Russians in communist Russia who despised the hatred and terror of the system but, by Gabriel’s standards, despised it in vain.
Similarly, Oskar Schindler was a member of the peaceful majority in Nazi Germany. He was one of the many Germans who did not sympathize with hateful Nazi ideology. Schindler, in spite of his seeming irrelevance, saved more than a thousand lives. That is why he is considered one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and why he earned a medal that bears the famous Jewish saying: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” Saving a single life can change the whole world. Solzhenitsyn didn’t possess such a medal, but, in his own way, he too contributed to the greater good of humanity by spurring on the collapse of an oppressive political system and ideology. Indirectly, by speeding up the downfall of communism, he saved countless lives.
Of course, Schindler and Solzhenitsyn were exceptional people. They were part of peaceful majorities, but there were only a few Schindlers and Solzhenitsyns within those majorities. So what about all the others, then? Are those who did not save lives irrelevant?
No. They are not. When the dust finally settles, we will have to rely on that peaceful majority of people, people who may not be very exceptional, to create a just society. It was the peaceful people who had to rebuild Germany and Europe after the cataclysm of the Second World War, even if some of them had done little good during the war itself. And it will be peaceful Muslims who will have to restore order and peace where there is now discord and violence.
Already today numerous peaceful Muslims are committed to that task. Many peaceful Muslims have spoken out against violence and terror. There are numerous organizations in the United States and abroad in which peaceful Muslims explicitly oppose terrorism and the rhetoric of hatred that spurs anti-Western violence across the world. There are numerous Muslim artists, writers, and intellectuals who use their art or their writings as a means to condemn violence and terror.
A case in point is Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings, the voluminous Islamic decree written by the influential Pakistani politician and former law professor Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. Tahir-ul-Qadri is one of many Muslim voices calling for democratic reform, measures against governmental corruption, and peace. He represents the peaceful voice of peaceful people, and I don’t think we would do justice to him or to truth by calling him “an irrelevant man.”
Violence has always been part of human existence, and it is utopian to think that this will ever change. The peaceful cannot change human nature. But that does not mean they cannot change anything for the better. And if they can accomplish a single good act, then they are not irrelevant.
When Good Men Do Nothing
There is, however, a vast literature on the role of bystanders in situations when harm is inflicted on someone. Numerous sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists have examined the role of bystanders in school bullying, rape, murder, and large-scale crimes against humanity. There are indeed always people who do harm and people who do nothing to prevent this harm from being done. The latter can hardly be called virtuous.This view is captured in a well-known statement attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The peaceful majority is never irrelevant unless that majority becomes indolent and indifferent, unless the majority does nothing and cares for nothing. Then—and only then—will evil triumph. Passivity, not peacefulness, leads to the triumph of evil.
I believe that no good-hearted person is irrelevant. Not one single peaceful Jew, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, or atheist on this planet is insignificant. And should I be wrong, if good-heartedness and peacefulness are irrelevant, then nothing seems as important to me as being irrelevant.
Alicja Gescinska, PhD, was the 2013-2014 William E. Simon Postdoctoral Research Associate in Religion and Public Life at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and is currently a Karl Loewenstein Fellow in the Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College.