Combating Muslim Extremism Requires Nuanced Understanding

I’m frustrated today because in the wake of Paris there seems to be, once again, a post-attack popular backlash against thinking. In 2003, The Decider convinced us that The Gut was our best analytical tool. Today hordes of people blinded by anger and sorrow are taking to social media to denounce the sin of thinking (the timidity!) in the face of Western Civilization’s Greatest Threat.

I posted the following video clip on Facebook with the caption:

Always a breath of fresh air listening to someone who’s capable of entertaining nuanced thought (I’m not talking about Don Lemon). Our political discourse is So. Stupid.


A friend of mine, whose thinking is usually quite clear, posted the following response:

I’m afraid people like Reza are so enlightened and progressive that we are going to continue to fail to solve the problem that keeps pounding us in the face. The kind of Chomsky-ish apologetic way of thinking is not going to get rid of groups like ISIS, is not going to make the world a better place for women, is not going to stop suicide bombings… We have to be honest with ourselves about what the problem is if we are going to solve it. The problem is that there is large percentage of the Muslim community that believes ideas such as drawing cartoons of the prophet should be met with a death sentence, and believes that women should be punished for leaving their homes without proper clothing. It’s incredibly boring to hear people regurgitate over and over again that this isn’t a Muslim problem but an extremist one. The “extremists” causing all the trouble in the world are arguably the most devout believers on the planet. What does it say about a religion when we seek to point out all the good members of it because they’re moderates, that they don’t really take their belief seriously, that they don’t really believe everything written on the pages? It’s people like Reza that think it’s fair to attack the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for being offensive and that if anything we should all blame ourselves for western imperialism. Specific beliefs have specific consequences and right now we are all in considerable danger because there’s a lot of people that believe very specific things. The only way forward is to try and figure out a way to make Islam as a religion compatible with the modern world, the way Christianity, Catholicism, and others are. They all had their dark times in the past, sure, but there’s a reason you don’t worry on a daily basis of a Catholic is going to cut your throat. They reformed, and Islam has to as well. But saying that none of this is representative of Islam, that these assholes are just extremists and that we are all guilty of making them hurt us is masochistic bullshit that I’m afraid is going to get us nowhere.

My Response

I want to respond at length here because this sort of doublethink drives me a little bit crazy.

My friend says, “We have to be honest with ourselves about what the problem is if we are going to solve it.”

Yes. That is precisely the point Reza is making. The best response to the problem, to borrow a word, is an enlightened response. Problems are easier to solve when they’re understood. But then my friend seems to say, “Let’s not try to understand the situation in too much detail, because it’ll distract us from what we already know, in our gut, is right.”

Reading the rest of his comment offers all the evidence Reza could possibly need (if we use our brains, rather than our guts) to support his point of view. Other religions have “reformed”? Then it’s obvious that whatever problems they had weren’t inherent in those religions. Islam has at times been a religion of peace (certainly relative to other major religions); for example, in the Umayyad days.

Why isn’t it relatively a religion of peace now*? To answer that question, it’s very useful to understand that in some places, it is. That’s Reza’s point. Understand that, and you can find out why in other places it’s not, and what the correct problem is that needs to be fixed. Why is genital cutting predominantly an African problem? Why is terrorist violence predominantly a Middle Eastern problem? It takes more than Islam, a global religion, to explain these phenomena.

My friend wants real methods of making the world a better place. If we refuse to recognize the above, what can the solution possibly be? Change Islam from the outside? Talk about getting us nowhere. Placing the blame at the feet of Islam is both inaccurately broad and totally useless.

Seems like it’s the Muslims doing it, we say.

No shit, says Reza. Let’s look a bit closer and understand why certain Muslims are extremists.

Who here is likely to come up with real solutions? Who is likely to understand the problem? Who is being unspecific? In a complex world, “being honest with ourselves” can’t be achieved by simplistic thinking.


*Yes, this contains the generalization Reza’s arguing against. It’s not my question, of course, but one that’s often posed.