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On blaming Muslims for Paris

  • 19 November 2015

A group of Muslims have set up a #NotInMyName hashtag on Twitter to declare their condemnation for the appalling atrocities in Paris claimed by ISIS.

It is sad that many communities in the West seem to demand condemnations from an entire community every time such an attack occurs. It says much for Muslim communities that these condemnations are inevitably forthcoming — although often ignored in the media.

The demand, however, raises a disturbing question. On what basis am I answerable for the actions of others who claim my creed?

There are, clearly, cases of collective guilt. Where someone has committed abuses in the course of their employment or in a way that is closely connected with it, a corporate body may be held liable for the actions of its employee unless steps were taken to prevent it (what lawyers call 'vicarious liability').

Similarly, systematic failures within an organisation to prevent abuse or its active cover-up or facilitation reasonably leads people to assume that it is being condoned. Examples here would include command responsibility for failure to prevent war crimes or the revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups within the churches and the lawsuits, settlements and/or apologies which have resulted in many cases. These are fairly morally clear-cut, even if individual circumstances may make legal cases harder to prove.

It gets much harder when the link is more tenuous. What about cases where a government purports to act in the name of its people? If the government is repressive and governs against their will, the people can hardly be held responsible. Individual Myanmarese can scarcely be bailed up for acts committed by the junta while it was in power.

Where the country is a democracy, however, the questions get more uncomfortable. The running of Manus and Nauru and the jailing of those who speak out about conditions there are bipartisan policy (condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture). Must every Australian stand up and condemn these acts or else be deemed to have ratified them? They certainly could not be held liable in court for voting for a party that supports them.

If the moral chains start looking a bit floppy at this point, how much more so when the claimed link is a common set of beliefs (a religion or set of principles) which is not inherently violent or brutal? 'Ah,' say those who demand apologies, 'but some religions or ideologies are inherently so.'

Some are. Nazism certainly was,