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On blaming Muslims for Paris


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.

Eiffel Tower peace symbolIt 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, and one could reasonably demand moral accountability for racist acts committed in its name. There is a necessary link between Neo-Nazi ideology and violence — such creeds demand that they triumph violently.

Others are not. Yes, it is possible to find what one theologian, Phylis Trible, describes as 'texts of terror' (legitimations of violence) in Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. (Think about the blood-curdling threats in Deuteronomy or the Gospel of Matthew's notorious 'His blood be upon us and our children', used to legitimise anti-Jewish pogroms through the ages.) 

These texts' potential to be exploited for harm should not be underestimated. They need to be responsibly understood and explored with a close understanding of their context and the damage they can cause. Nevertheless, those who understand the scriptures of which they are part know that such texts reflect the circumstances of their drafting and the communities in which they arose, and cannot be paraded in isolation millennia later.

It should be clearly understood that those who seek to use these texts to justify violence are yoking religion into the service of hatred rather than the other way around.

To their credit, many people are aware of this. We did not demand that all Christians, nor even all Catholics, stand up and denounce every IRA attack. Anders Breivik, the man responsible for the 2011 massacres of young people in Oslo and Utøya claimed both Zionist and Christian motivations. There was, however, no suggestion at the time that all Christians or Zionists apologise for his acts.

The same is true where secular ideals are used as figleaves for atrocities. Guantanamo Bay was justified in the name of defending freedom and democracy. There is no suggestion that all who support such things are thereby tainted with its abuses.

Similarly, demanding that all members of a religion with over a billion adherents with multiple ancient variants apologise for every horror claimed to have been committed in its name simply displays the ignorance of those who demand.

If we are to combat ISIS and its perverted use of Islam to justify its atrocities then we need to understand what they are doing and what fears they wish to play on. Kneejerk responses simply play into their hands.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Paris, ISIS, terrorism, Islam, Muslims



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Existing comments

Whenever there is a tragedy, it is appropriate and necessary for leaders to speak, it’s part of the job of leadership, making sense of the world and happenings. Do you expect silence when all the world is shocked by violence? The statements of leaders shows what they are thinking and what the subtext is, which allows the community to think their own thoughts. Silence in the wake of horrific behaviour is neither helpful nor wise. Events need to be put into context and through dialogue, hopefully solutions and good will result.

plain jane | 19 November 2015  

Thanks Justin, I very much enjoyed reading and reflecting on your piece. I am wondering if you have read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book "Infidel: My Life" and, if so, if you have any response to what she has written about Islam.

Nick Dunstan | 19 November 2015  

Justin Glynn: "There are, clearly, cases of collective guilt".. Religious leaders of all religions tend to deify their beliefs, and try to gain influence over their followers by claiming, either explicitly or by implication, that their version of God's will is the exclusive truth, and that it must be defended at all costs. When parents (whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews), condition their children to accept such claims, they are accountable for it, even if done with the best of intentions. Prejudices that arise from such conditioning needs to be recognised and corrected. God does not have 'favourites', but is constant and universal.

Robert Liddy | 19 November 2015  

Like all the recent articles in Eureka Street precipitated by the recent recent mass murders in Paris, Justin, this is quite excellent and on the mark. Robert Liddy is possibly a little behind the times in thinking that all religions still consider there is only one way to salvation and that those outside are fair game. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, would no longer sanction the Crusades against the Albigensians nor the Muslims nor the later Wars of Religion. Nor would the mainstream Protestant bodies involved in the last. There seems to be a struggle within Islam between the forces of relative tolerance and the hard-liners of the Wahhabi-Salafi persuasion. This is serious and I hope the forces of relative tolerance (it has never been easy for Middle Eastern Christians) win. The situation is more nuanced than Robert believes although he has a point in that there are some terrifying people in the Religious Right in the USA and in Isis and its financial backers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. There are of course, other religious hard-liners such as Hindu Supremacists in India and Buddhist Supremacists in Myanmar. Tolerance is something which needs constant standing up for.

Edward Fido | 19 November 2015  

Edward Fido: "The Roman Catholic Church, for example, would no longer sanction the Crusades against the Albigensians nor the Muslims nor the later Wars of Religion."... Granted. , BUT it still claims that God became Incarnate to "Redeem" mankind from a supposed sin of some supposed First Parents that must have occurred about a million years earlier. Such a belief implies a God-guarantee of the religion so established, and the implication that other religions do not have such a charter. Effective tacit 'deification' of ones religion is used to justify war on other religions, even when it involves actions contrary to the fundamental teachings of the aggressive religion. Such beliefs are compatible when it is believed that the earth is the crown of God's Creation, but now that we know there are billions of galaxies like ours, all obeying constant and universal laws, such beliefs about tinkering by God is revealed as anthropological projection..

Robert Liddy | 19 November 2015  

"Koran 9.29] Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection. [9.30] And the Jews say: Uzair is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away!" @Edward Fido. You talk of the fight within Islam for relative tolerance and the hard-liners. The above two verses are but two among many exhorting Muslims to fight and subjugate the unbelievers. Given that Muslims believe the word of Allah is revealed in the Koran and that it is applicable for all time and places, I don't see this as a fight between a relative tolerance and hard-liners. You either believe these instructions from the Koran and follow them or you don't. I don't know what Koran some of the writers at ES have been reading but it must be a much milder version than the one on IS's shelves.

Gerald Lanigan | 19 November 2015  

Important article. Thank you.

noelle | 19 November 2015  

I would expect leaders of any religion to denounce terrorist attacks that are perpetrated in that religion's name.

Peter O'Brien | 20 November 2015  

Racial and religious bigotry is alive and well in most countries. Muslim people in Europe and Australia are the contemporary fashionable 'scape goats' for the media and ignorant people to blame for all our problems. I liked a comment by a Vietnamese bloke on Phillip Adam's 'Late Night Live' program about a week ago which was 'there are no bad religions, only bad people'. All religions have had histories of fascist behaviour by various leaders, which continues today in the Catholic Church with anti-feminist and anti-homosexual policies. In my opinion, the actions of ISIS are political acts and not religious acts. It is also bemusing how our media covers some of these political acts in some places as a 'soap opera' and ignores other similar acts such as those in Beirut, Lebanon and Ankara, Turkey.

Mark Doyle | 20 November 2015  

But it would be a good idea to start editing our holy books.

Consuelo | 20 November 2015  

Hello Nick. No, I have not read Ayaan Hirsan Ali. I would be interested, though, because she is often used as something of an icon by anti-Muslim forces. Other sources I have read suggest she is more nuanced than often thought. Gerald, the so-called "Sword Verses" you quote are a classic example of texts taken out of context as a text of terror. Most mainstream Islamic scholars would, as I understand it, read it in its context (namely what the 7th C Muslim community was to do when they had a truce with non-Muslim neighbours which those neighbours were consistently violating). The surrounding verses emphasise the duty of mercy and not attacking those who were not committing aggression. I have also never heard any Muslim say that because the Quran is the word of God, it should be interpreted without sensitivity to context or drafting history. (If you know any sources, I'd be grateful.) Such a context-insensitive interpretation would run against other verses like Surah 2:55 which speaks of the holiness of all Peoples of the Revelation who love God and do what is right.

Justin Glyn SJ | 20 November 2015  

@GeraldLanigan, we've all been reading the same Quran, it's just that some of us read 'all' of it, and in the context it states, rather than very selectively quoting and putting our own spin on it. Chapter 9 refers clearly 'only' to those who break their oaths during a time of war:"Excepting those of the idolaters with whom you have entered into a treaty and who have not subsequently failed you in anything nor aided anyone against you. So fulfil to these the treaty you have made with them till their term. Surely, Allah loves those who are righteous."(9:4),"And if they break their oaths after their covenant, and attack your religion, then fight these leaders of disbelief β€” surely, they have no regard for their oaths β€” that they may desist."(9:12). The reference to a specific sect of Jews, and Christians of a corrupt character of that time is also clear:"O ye who believe! surely, many of the priests and monks devour the wealth of men by false means and turn men away from the way of Allah. And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah β€” give to them the tidings of a painful punishment"(9:34). The Quran is clear:"Allah forbids you not, respecting those who have not fought against you on account of your religion, and who have not driven you forth from your homes, that you be kind to them and act equitably towards them; surely Allah loves those who are equitable."(60:9). Elsewhere, the 'general' high regard for Jews and Christians who are righteous is explicit: (3:113, 2:62, 3:199 etc).

Rashid.M | 20 November 2015  

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