This article is adapted from Todd H. Green’s forthcoming book Presumed Guilty (Fortress Press), which will be published on September 1, 2018.
A disheartening pattern has emerged in the west whenever acts of terror occur. Almost immediately, many public figures ask variations of the same question: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?” The answer is supposed to be obvious—Muslims don’t speak out. The question really isn’t a question but a condemnation.
It’s time we stop asking Muslims to condemn terrorism. The question wrongly assumes Islam is the driving force behind terrorism. Muslims as a whole are presumed guilty because of a misguided assumption that they have failed to reform an inherently violent religion, to atone for the sins of their co-religionists, and to come to terms with their religion’s unique history of horrific violence. This presumption of guilt is an exercise in racist scapegoating. It enables us to project our sins of commission and omission onto the Muslim “Other” so that we need not come to terms with our own history of unjust violence or our own complicity in a violent world order.
Most of us are narcissistic when it comes to our own religion. We think of it at its best while only noticing the flaws and failures of other religions. This is certainly true when it comes to prevalent Christian views of Islam. The temptation to look to “our” best and compare it to “their” worst is particularly strong when it comes to examples of peace and violence. Christianity, we might argue, has nonviolent peacemakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, or humanitarian organizations such as the Salvation Army. Islam, on the other hand, gives us terrorists such as Osama bin Laden or ruthless organizations such as ISIS.
I encounter these types of comparisons all the time, but they are patently unfair and unethical. They reflect deliberate attempts to cast Islam in the worst light possible while presenting Christianity in the best light possible. In doing so, they shield us from the truth. Both religions have their share of villains and scoundrels, of injustices and mass atrocities. Both also have their share of heroes and role models, of social justice and peacemaking movements.
If we want to know whether Islam has its own Martin Luther King, the answer is not to whip out a Who’s Who list of Muslim extremists and terrorists but to identify and lift up examples of Muslims who are engaged in nonviolent peacemaking and social justice work. We must do our homework and educate ourselves about the extraordinary people whose contributions to peace and the common good arise not in spite of Islam but because of it.
We can begin with Muslims who are recent Nobel Peace Prize winners. Muhammad Yunus, an economist from Bangladesh, won the prize in 2006 for developing a system of financial lending to the poor, and particularly poor women, known as microfinancing. Yunus argued system reflected the true spirit of Islamic finance since Islam held a deep concern for the exploitation of the poor for financial profit.
Tawakkol Karman, a journalist and the cofounder of “Women Journalists without Chains,” won the prize in 2011 for her efforts before and during the Arab Spring to promote democracy and women’s right in her native Yemen. She was the first Arab woman to win the prize. Karmen cites the Qur’an as justification for her efforts to create a more peaceful Yemen and Middle East, especially the verse: “O ye who believe, enter ye into the peace, once and all” (Q. 2:208).
At thirty-two, Karman was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize—that is, until seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai won the prize three years later. Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen in her native Pakistan in 2012, was awarded the prize for the work that made her a Taliban target—fighting for the right of girls to receive an education. Like Karman, she notes the ways Islam has inspired her work for peace and education. This includes the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction not to harm others, the Qur’anic prohibition against murder, and the first command given by God to Muhammad, the command to read (iqra).
Yunus, Karman, and Yousafzai are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more Muslims throughout the world who engage in acts of mercy and compassion, who labor for peace and promote social justice, and who do so because of the inspiration they find within Islam. We will not often see their stories on CNN or the BBC or read about them in the New York Times, but their work is just as important and vital for peacemaking. All of these individuals represent the best of Islam. And it’s the best of Islam that deserves much more of our attention as we foster friendships with and respect for our Muslim neighbors.