Charlie Hebdo and #MuslimApologies

 
 

In the wake of Islamist attacks, non-Muslims express concern and confusion not because they are indifferent, but because they are afraid. They want to understand. Muslims have an opportunity to embrace this opportunity for understanding.

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Since it started in 2014, the Twitter hashtag #MuslimApologies has become trendy, with sarcastic “apologies” by Muslims for everything from sugar to algebra. These anti-apologies stem from a perception by some Muslims that others expect all Muslims to apologize for the acts of the relatively few Muslims who carry out violence in the name of Islam. On Twitter, one of Qatar’s top journalists, Abdullah Al Athba, has urged his fellow Muslims, “Don't apologize for a crime you did not commit.”

#MuslimApologies is also a backlash against the hashtag #NotInMyName, which many Muslims were using to express their opposition to the gruesome brutality carried out in the name of Islam by ISIS and other terrorist groups. #NotInMyName was started by the Active Change Foundation, an organization in the UK that “promotes integration and cohesion in communities” in an effort “to confront and prevent violent extremism in all its forms.”

It is troubling that so many have decided to pour their time and energy into the #MuslimApologies anti-apology movement rather than taking constructive action. Cynicism and snark will not defeat terrorism. Perhaps this misplaced energy is simply the result of confusion. So let me explain: public requests for a response to terrorism and other brutal violence are not the same thing as a public request for an apology.

Condemnations vs. Apologies

An apology is not what non-Muslims expect from Muslims. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb “to apologize” thus: “to express regret for doing or saying something wrong.” Condemning wrongdoing and countering the ways of those who commit wrongdoing are not the same thing as apologizing for it.

Maha Hilal, the American who helped start #MuslimApologies, observed in an interview, “I just think there’s a very fine line in terms of condemning and apologizing.”  I’m not sure the line really is all that fine. But even if it is, this does not justify condemning condemnations, which seems to be the point of #MuslimApologies. Hilal sees this as a case of Muslims being treated differently from others. She says, “I think it comes back to what is expected of Muslims and Muslim Americans, and is this expected of other groups? And I think the answer is no, it’s not expected of other groups.”

But, in fact, I have experienced this as a Christian. When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Quran—claiming to act in his role as a Christian preacher—my non-Christian friends, including Muslim friends, wanted to know what I thought and what I was going to do about it. Each time there is a violent attack on an abortion clinic by someone claiming to act out of Christian faith, my non-Christian friends want to know what I think and what I am going to do.

When non-Christians look to me in such situations, they are not demanding that I apologize for others’ actions. I cannot apologize for others’ actions. But this does not mean I opt for silence, cynicism, or irony.

Abortion, Womanhood, and Christianity

An injustice that is a particularly painful thorn in my heart is abortion. When I, as a woman, see the National Organization for Women (NOW) use the term “women” in their work to facilitate access to abortion, I feel they are trying to usurp my voice in support of evil. It makes me feel angry and alienated—and I’m not the only one. Thanks to the efforts of many courageous women, there is now a Women Speak for Themselves movement helping to make sure the voices of women who do not support NOW’s abortion efforts are heard. In many way, Women Speak for Themselves is very similar to the Muslim “Not in My Name” movement.

On Saturday, January 24, instead of sitting on my sofa tweeting cynical remarks with hashtag #WomanApologies, I will be out on the streets of San Francisco at the Walk for Life West Coast, ruing the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, exercising my civic freedom to protest publicly against abortion. While I’m at it, I’ll also be protesting against NOW’s claim to speak for me. I’ll be carrying a sign reading, “Abortion = Violence against Women” and “Women Speak for Themselves.”

As a female Christian opposed to abortion, I face not only the attempt by NOW to speak on behalf of me as a woman, but also the association of my Christian faith with murderous violence against abortion providers.

The Power of Intrafaith Engagement

In a previous article I asked, “What is the responsibility of religious believers in a given faith to engage fanatics advocating ideologies of hate while claiming to act in the name of this faith?” I continue to wonder about this, and I hope others do too.

When injustice is being carried out in the name of one’s faith, I believe that there is an imperative to intrafaith engagement. While I greatly value engagement, especially substantive engagement, across faith lines, I think that today there is sometimes a disproportionate emphasis on interfaith dialogue, at the cost of neglecting intrafaith dialogue. Saudi Arabia, for instance, funds an interfaith center in Vienna, Austria, though it seems to do nothing deep and substantive to counter the violent ideologies within some Muslim communities. No matter our religious tradition, we ought to try to engage our fellow believers and together find better ways forward when there is error.

Although intrafaith engagement is challenging, when extreme violence is carried out in the name of one’s faith, inaction is simply not an option. Writing at the Guardian, Ed Husain observes:

The prominent French-speaking Muslim theologian Shaikh Abdullah bin Bayyah often says that if there is a house on fire, everybody works towards putting out the fire. You don’t ask why is this or that person carrying the bucket of water. The house of Islam is on fire. The water needs to be carried by everybody, regardless of race or religion.

I cannot apologize in any meaningful way for the wrongful actions of others. But I can, I must, and I will voice my opposition and actively seek to change the structures and cultural environments that facilitate evil. This includes the situations in which such evils are carried out in the name of my sex and in the name of my faith. Is this fun? No. Absolutely not. I hate being associated in the minds of some with those who have claimed Christian faith as their justification for murdering abortion providers. Someone else created this problem, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it.

I have empathy for non-Christians who look to me for answers. They are afraid. They are confused. How could they be otherwise? I too am frightened and confused by such violence. I may not have answers for them, but I am active in Christian circles, while they are not. I can engage in serious intrafaith discourse with my fellow Christians. Through such engagement, I can be a peacemaker, doing what I can to ensure that the seeds of anti-abortion violence do not find fertile soil within Christian communities. While I don’t like it, I understand why non-Christians look to me when Christians engage in anti-abortion violence.

A More Constructive Response

#MuslimApologies is, among other things, an expression of how frustrated peaceful Muslims are that many in the world today think that Islam per se supports violence and that Muslims themselves are inherently violent. While I hope that non-Muslims come to understand this frustration better, I also hope enthusiasts of #MuslimApologies would begin to opt for a more constructive avenue of activism.

Non-Muslims express fear and confusion not because they are indifferent, but because they are afraid, and they want to understand what is going on. This is actually a good thing. Indifference is a very hard mindset to penetrate, whereas a mindset of seeking understanding is an opportunity to explain. Muslims have an opportunity to embrace this, and some already have.

One example of a positive and constructive response is that of the Islamic Networks Group (ING). ING is active in over twenty American cities providing public, grassroots education about Islam, most of all to non-Muslims. On the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack, instead of issuing an empty-sounding condemnation (or a cynical tweet), ING went on the offensive with an “Affirmation of Values,” standing strong for human life and for freedom:

ING and its Affiliates nationwide join fellow Americans in extending their deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s horrific attack at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris today which took the lives of twelve people. No belief, cause, or grievance justifies such senseless violence. We pray that the perpetrators be found and quickly brought to justice. As Muslims, people of other faiths, and leaders across the world condemn this attack, we affirm the following values and principles:

  • 1. We affirm and uphold the sanctity of all human life, the taking of which is among the gravest of all sins.

  • 2. We affirm the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and speech.

  • 3. We affirm the right to security in one’s livelihood, profession, and residence.

  • 4. We believe that God created us with all the diversity of race, religion, language, and belief to get to know one another, not to despise or hate one another.

  • 5. We believe that Islam is above all a religion of peace and mercy, and that Muslims are obligated to model those traits in their lives and characters and to work for the good of our homeland and society, wherever that might be.

In the Charlie Hebdo attack, freedom of speech itself was a target. Peaceful Muslims do not have any obligation to apologize for this attack, or for any other evils and injustices carried out by other Muslims. At the same time, if you believe that these murderous attacks are wrong, don’t just sit there. Don’t just issue condemnation press releases while relegating your programs to counter violent extremism down to the bottom of your list of priorities. Don’t complain about those who are trying to do something. Go do something.

Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, is Director of the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto, CA.

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