National Security & Defense

Islamist Terror and Collective Guilt

Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty)
When can we assign culpability to an entire class of people?

Is the Muslim world as a whole responsible for the epidemic of jihadist terrorism that has rocked the globe in recent years? The question will strike many who consider themselves enlightened as offensive. And yet few of those who recoil from it reject out of hand the possibility that an entire society could be responsible for racially motivated terrorism.

Philosopher-turned-activist Cornel West is among those who do not seem to see any tension in this juxtaposition. On the January 15, 2016, episode of Bill Maher’s HBO show, Real Time, West admonished his host not to infer from the recent sexual attacks in Cologne, Germany, that the newly arrived Syrian migrants do not share European values. After all, West noted, many crimes are committed by non-Muslims, and many Muslims did not participate in the Cologne crimes.

“I think you have to distinguish between culture and morality,” West said. “Every culture has good morality and bad morality.”

On a CNN appearance several months earlier, in the aftermath of the notorious racially motivated Charleston shooting that left nine people dead at a church, West didn’t bother distinguishing between America’s racist culture and its (presumably deplorable) morality. He asserted that the “vicious legacy of white supremacy is still shot so deep in the culture” of the United States that politicians of both parties are unable to address it. In this social context, it makes sense to see racial terrorism as a manifestation of widely accepted racism.

According to Tuskegee University figures, some 4,743 “lynching” murders occurred between 1882 and 1968. That figure doesn’t even cover all of the terroristic racial murders during this period: so many bombs exploded in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s, targeting black homes and churches, that it earned the moniker “Bombingham.”

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Although the people who committed these murders have the greatest degree of guilt, it would be misleading to describe these crimes as the deeds of a few bad apples. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. opined: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice . . . ”

King made clear that at least some of these white moderates (those to whom he addressed the letter) were people of “genuine good will” who were critical of his civil disobedience. If they were guilty for not doing enough to combat white supremacy, then presumably those who expressed approval of the Klan’s activities, voted for pro-Klan politicians, or simply remained silent about the problem when they should have spoken up, were also tainted by varying degrees of guilt.

#share#If responsibility for these atrocities could be shared by some who would never personally murder a black person, then there’s no reason to rule out the possibility that something similar could be true of jihadist atrocities. Indeed, contrary to President Obama’s comforting falsehood that 99.9 percent of Muslims “are looking for the same things that we’re looking for — order, peace, prosperity,” and by implication have no truck with terrorism, there is evidence of a culture glorifying jihadist violence.

Polling consistently reveals high levels of Muslim support for — or at least no clear rejection of — jihadist terrorism. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey, which registered the opinions of Muslims in 11 Middle East and North African countries, found the median of 42 percent viewed Hezbollah unfavorably. The respective figures for Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda are 45, 51, and 57.

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A 2014 Pew Research Center survey registered lower favorable ratings for the Taliban and Hamas (especially by those who had the misfortune of having to live next door to them). But the poll also reiterated the bad news that in many countries only about half report unfavorable views of al-Qaeda, with disconcertingly large minorities expressing “favorable” views: 23 percent in Bangladesh, 18 percent in Malaysia, and 15 percent in both Egypt and Indonesia.

The news about Muslims in Western countries is not much more reassuring. One poll conducted shortly after the 2015 attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo found that 27 percent of British Muslims “felt some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks” and 11 percent believed that magazines that publish images of Mohammed “deserve” to be attacked. That percentage of Britain’s 3 million Muslims is 330,000 people.

RELATED: Why Does the Left Continue to Insist that Islamic Terrorism Has Nothing to Do With Islam? 

Stateside, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of American Muslim attitudes showed that 5 percent of respondents said they view al-Qaeda “favorably,” while another 11 percent viewed the terrorist organization “somewhat unfavorably” but not “very unfavorably.” Another 14 percent of respondents answered “don’t know,” bringing the total percentage of respondents who didn’t express very unfavorable views of al-Qaeda to 30 percent. Out of the 3.3 million American Muslims in 2016, that represents nearly 1 million people.

Among African-American Muslims, 56 percent reported “very unfavorable” views of al-Qaeda and 11 percent reported “favorable” views. The reaction of the Huffington Post, if those had been the numbers of white evangelical Christian men reporting their views on the KKK, can readily be imagined.

Credible reports of troubling Muslim reactions to terrorist incidents provide additional evidence of a culture of jihad. Following the twin attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market, which killed 17 people, French teachers reported seeing Muslim students reenact the murders, making Kalashnikov sounds with their mouths and shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” Two days after the attack, a group of French Muslim youths took selfies at the kosher market where the murders had occurred. They shared these artistic creations via Facebook along with obscene captions, one of which mimicked the victim’s death cries: “Allahu Akbar ratatatata ahhhh.” According to The Independent:

As memorial services took place for some of those who had died in the terror attacks, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Education Minister, held a meeting with teaching officials in response to the many schoolchildren in Muslim areas who had refused to observe a minute’s silence. At a secondary school in Seine-Saint-Denis, more than 80 per cent of the pupils refused to comply, saying the Charlie Hebdo staff had “deserved what they got”. In Lille, a boy threatened to shoot “with a Kalashnikov” a teacher who had asked a class to be quiet during the remembrance.

All of this points to a culture glorifying jihadist violence. This is not to say that all Muslims are culpable by virtue of sharing a religion with the culprits. People are culpable only for the things that they do (or omit to do). Those who promote this jihadist culture — and to a lesser degree those who do nothing to impede it — are culpable when that culture bears fruit in the form of murderous attacks.

#related#Of course, Islam is not “monolithic” in the sense that there are no significant differences between its members, or between the attitudes of various regional groups. But neither were white Americans in the Jim Crow era “monolithic” in this sense. Clearly, this doesn’t mean that racist terrorism wasn’t an extreme manifestation of very general cultural ills. If white moderates deserve blame for their inaction against Jim Crow, then perhaps moderate Muslims today can be faulted for failing to combat a culture of jihad.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.


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