I have praised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before as a thoughtful commentator on class warfare, racism, police shootings, and films. Now he has written a piece on the recent killings in Paris that is definitely a mixed bag.
I agree and sympathize with him when he describes what well-known Muslims have to endure every time a situation like this happens.
Another horrendous act of terrorism has taken place and people like myself who are on media speed-dial under “Celebrity Muslims” are thrust in the spotlight to angrily condemn, disavow, and explain—again—how these barbaric acts are in no way related to Islam.
When the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in a black family’s yard, prominent Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts. Most people already realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. That’s what I and other Muslims long for—the day when these terrorists praising the Prophet Muhammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims.
Where I disagree with him is when he says that “Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion—it’s ultimately about money” and that “these terrorist attacks are not about religion”. It would have been more accurate to say that they are not only about religion or that it is not the ultimate motive. After all, it is presumptuous to assert that people who proudly proclaim their religious motives for an action do not really mean it. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we have to take their words at face value and assume that it is at least the proximate cause for what they did. That there are other factors that may have caused these religious reasons to come to the surface does not mean that these reasons are not salient.
Again, I agree with him when he says that:
So the attack in Paris, as with most others, isn’t about changing Western behavior, it’s about swaggering into a room, flexing a muscle, and hoping to elicit some admiring sighs. In this case, the sighs are more recruits and more donations to keep their organization alive. They have to keep proving they are more relevant than their competing terrorist groups. It’s just business.
But I disagree when he says:
Nor should we blame America’s foreign policy as the spark that lights the fuse. Poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, lack of critical thinking, and general hopelessness in these countries is the spark… if recruits were swayed by logical idealism, they would realize that the fact that we conducted, released, and debated such a report is what makes America admirable. We don’t always do the right thing, but we strive to.
His words display a naivete about US foreign policy and its consequences and blowback that surprises me. To look at America’s long and ugly acts of violence and torture both abroad and at home and say that we always strive to do the right thing is astounding in its whitewashing of history. The appalling US foreign policy towards countries in the Middle East and the way that we have treated Muslim detainees at Guantanamo and the many black sites run by the US undoubtedly play a role in inflaming individuals so that they are more easily recruited by violent groups
In addition, we have young people in the US from comfortable middle class homes for whom “poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, and general hopelessness” are not applicable and yet are still willing to travel to that region to join the fight, so those cannot be the only reasons. Religion, US and western policies towards the Palestinians and nations in the Middle East, and conditions on the ground in those countries all play roles. The only question is the relative weights they have in influencing any particular individual.
It is also not the case that all Americans going abroad to fight for causes are viewed with the same level of concern. For example, since 2009, 1661 Americans have joined the Israeli Defense Forces and have been involved in its suppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and in the vicious periodic assaults on Gaza. Some of them are the children of very influential people in the US who play major roles in how Israel’s behavior is portrayed in the US.
The son of Times columnist David Brooks is now in the Israel Defense Force. The son of the former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner was in the IDF. The son of Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner, an Israeli, is now serving in the Israeli military. Brooks’s son was in the IDF for months before the New York Times even mentioned it.
And yet we do not view these young people’s decision to go abroad to fight to advance the agendas of other groups with the same level of dismay, showing once again the double standards that are applied.