All Muslims Shouldn’t Be Expected to Apologize Until All Men Are Expected to Apologize

June 19, 2016

Community anti-violence rally in Harlem

This has been a rough week and a terrifying year.

2016 is emotionally heavy with the most pervasive hate-mongering in recent memory.

In the last seven days, we’ve woken up to the horrific mass shooting of Latinx & black LGBTQ clubgoers, the assassination of British MP Jo Cox, and the Charleston massacre’s one-year mark. Each day carves new wounds while re-opening old ones.

We struggle to catch our breath. We reflect, mourn, hold vigils, forums, filibusters, hug our friends and family tighter, text people that we love them. Politicians send “thoughts and prayers.”

But what will make a difference? Meaningful gun control legislation could help, but how can we prevent hateful murder in the first place?

Standing up against hate in our communities is paramount to prevent more violence.

Until each person is understood as a human, and ALL forms of violence are held up to the mirror, we will never change. We must examine the reality of violence within systems which preserve power for the few at the expense of the many. We must work to change not only these systems but ourselves.

What does this mean? Let’s look at the facts:

Despite the above statistics, many expect all Muslims (1.6 billion people — yes, 23% of the world’s population) to apologize, condemn and take responsibility for violence committed by other alleged Muslims.

But according to the facts:

If we are actually concerned about an entire group apologizing and taking responsibility for patterns of hateful violence…

All men should apologize for each murder, mass shooting, and intimate partner homicide.

The NRA should apologize every time someone is killed or commits suicide with a gun. All Americans should apologize every time a civilian is killed by an airstrike. All white men should apologize for Anders Breivik, Roseburg, Charleston, Oak Creek, Newtown, Aurora, Columbine. All Christians should apologize for abortion clinic murders, clergy sex abuse, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the KKK. All Jews should apologize for settler violence and the killing of civilians in Gaza. All Buddhists should apologize for persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. All residents of states with pending anti-LGBTQ legislation should apologize for hate crimes against LGBTQ people.

Individuals in these groups can and do condemn violence out of choice, moral outrage, desire to change violent outcomes, etc. However, the popular expectation to apologize and condemn — a transfer of responsibility from the few to the whole — doesn’t exist. Why?

Because these patterns of violence are normalized. They are committed by individuals or institutions already holding social, political, and/or financial power. They are afforded an innocence, complexity and humanity that is not granted to marginalized groups.

NYC vigil for the Orlando shooting, Stonewall Inn.

In contrast, collective guilt logic is often hypocritically applied to Muslims, immigrants, and people of color. There is no evidence that this approach actually prevents more violence — quite the contrary. It incites hateful blame in a way hateful blame was incited against Jews before World War II. It deflects from core issues, like the question “but what about black-on-black crime?” deflects from systemic racism, the New Jim Crow and over-criminalization. It creates barriers to social cohesion, which can increase conflict. It contributes to isolation and alienation, which is characteristic of killers. It overlooks that violence is inexorably tied to power and control issues. It doesn’t take into account that past violence remains the single biggest predictor of future violence, not racial/religious/ethnic group or mental illness.

Those who ask, “why aren’t Muslims doing more to condemn and prevent such attacks?” are simply not listening or unwilling to educate themselves. In fact, major Muslim organizations across the world routinely condemn violent acts. Muslim individuals and leaders can and do speak out, strongly and vocally.

Another familiar narrative has emerged since 9/11: blaming violence committed by Muslims on “Islamic extremism,” “radical Islam,” or “Islamists.” This narrative persists even in the majority of cases where the killers are not religious and lack ties to terrorist groups. This one-size-fits-all analysis conflating religious identity with violence and terrorism is a slippery slope into bigotry.

It’s especially important for Jews to stem a growing tide of willful ignorance from our communities. Not too long ago, we were demeaned, attacked, stripped of our rights, displaced, imprisoned, and killed — all justified by stereotypes of inherent violence, racial inferiority, conspiracy to destroy civilization. The “radical Islam” narrative reeks of racism, Islamophobia and is reminiscent of anti-Semitism. It ascribes individual acts to stereotypes of “radicalization” which have been disproven by research. As Dean Obeidallah powerfully states, “Obviously, there are people who sincerely view themselves as Muslims who have committed horrible acts in the name of Islam. We Muslims make the case that their actions are not based on any part of the faith but on their own political agenda.”

If accusers insist on reducing violent individuals to religion, they can conduct a cursory Google search to learn that Islam’s core pillars are faith, prayer, charity, pilgrimage, and the Ramadan fast. They will also learn that killing innocents is expressly forbidden in Islam. The largest study ever conducted of Muslims, “Who Speaks for Islam,” reveals that Muslims worldwide and Americans hold very similar values including family, democracy, technology and innovation. The vast majority of Muslims across countries do not support killing civilians, and those who do are not more religious. Therefore, to call last week’s attacks, or any violence committed by Muslims, “Islamic” or “Islamist,” rings false upon closer examination. It ignores complex political, economic, and personal motivations, and deprives them of the complexity of identity granted to more privileged perpetrators.

To be clear, I am not attempting to speak for or detract from Muslim voices. As a Jewish woman with years of positive, and profound relationships with Muslim individuals and communities, I am casting a critical lens on mainstream society’s expectation for some groups, rather than others, to apologize for or condemn violence. In my opinion, this expectation wrongfully implicates all, amounting to structural violence itself.

These harmful narratives also support severe civil rights violations of Muslim, Arab, and immigrant communities in the U.S.— profiling, surveillance, entrapment, and imprisonment in the name of “security.” These practices are well-honed by similar state violence towards black, anti-war, and feminist civil rights activists throughout the 1960s and 1970s continuing to today. Let’s not forget the witch-hunt led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (which targeted many Jews in Hollywood), the inexcusable internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The sobering truth is, America was founded and built upon the subjugation of groups perceived as threats to maintain the status quo.

As many have pointed out, quick-to-slander media coverage of violence shows a clear double standard and sloppy journalism. The Orlando shooter fit a pattern of most mass shooters: social isolation, emotional instability, enthusiasm for guns and law enforcement, previous violent threats, severe domestic abuse (a commonly ignored red flag before a mass shooting), not to mention possible self-hate related to his closeted sexuality. Despite being non-religious and having no ties to terrorist groups, the Orlando shooter was immediately called a terrorist. Upon further investigation, his claimed allegiances to ISIS and other groups may have been to gain attention and distract from personal motives. It also came to light that an FBI informant tried to previously lure the shooter into committing a terrorist act, which may have spurred him into action. In contrast, the white killer of Jo Cox was characterized as a mentally disturbed loner, despite the political context of the upcoming “Brexit” referendum and his long history of material ties to neo-Nazi, white supremacist right-wing groups. In the mainstream coverage of her murder, he was not called a “terrorist.” Meanwhile, the white supremacist murderer of black church leaders in Charleston is not being charged with terrorism because of law enforcement bureaucracy. If the Jo Cox and Charleston murders were committed by a Muslim, wouldn’t terrorism would be the first word on the media’s and law enforcement’s tongues? The double standard is glaring, but not surprising, in a world that grants more humanity to those in power.

So what can we do?

We must do more than apologize, condemn, and pray. We must educate ourselves to challenge and change our universal culture of violence, every moment and every day.

  • Elevate voices of those who are most impacted by the violence at hand.
  • Recognize and welcome the many identities humans embody through faith, creed, race, culture, national origin, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Build solidarity between identities, and have each other’s backs when those with more power try to divide you.
  • Don’t ignore or throw targeted groups under the bus to support your own agenda.
  • Don’t ignore injustice to stay in your comfort zone.
  • Reflect on your role in the prevention and perpetration of any type of oppression.
  • Hold difficult conversations to examine and change double standards, biases and prejudices.
  • Speak out against hateful rhetoric, even if it means calling out peers and loved ones.
  • Reach out to those who seem to be isolated or emotionally unstable.
  • Be there physically, in heart and soul to support anyone in getting help when they need it.
  • If you are feeling shamed and isolated, don’t give up on the search for a space to be yourself. Seek support through art, music, education, organizing, volunteering, events, new hobbies, social services, counseling, etc.
  • Know rights, options and services if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship or has experienced childhood abuse.
  • Plan life-affirming events that recognize and welcome every identity.
  • Celebrate and honor the beauty, dignity, and resilience of our diversity.
  • Learn and share the strength of religious, social and cultural values of peace, freedom, charity, equality, and social justice.

Stand against hate, but also commit to humanizing every individual, and not making assumptions about who they are.

We can take it upon ourselves to stand up to hateful rhetoric from our own — but others with more power should not expect or obligate it from us, and we should not obligate it from others without doing the hard work ourselves. Challenging and preventing hate is a vital calling of our time. Everyone can play a positive role at this critical juncture. We are saturated with racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia, and our country may be coming to a breaking point.

In the immortal words of the AIDS prevention activist group ACT UP, SILENCE = DEATH.

Sarah is a peacebuilding consultant focused on violence prevention, gender, and justice. She organized international campaign events for #NoBanNoWall, Women’s March, and International Women’s Day. She is a steering committee member and co-founder of the NYC Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee and former chapter co-leader of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She led numerous community outreach programs for the New York City municipal government at the NYC Family Justice Center, Manhattan and NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. She is a New York State certified rape crisis advocate. She is also a member of the Women’s Information Network-NYC, OutSmartNYC, Harlem Pride, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She holds an M.A. in Education from Columbia University and a B.A. in Political Science from McGill University.

The views presented here are her own, and do not represent any organization or affiliation.