I know Muslims are sick and tired of the Islamophobic refrain of “Why don’t they speak out against ISIS?” Some refuse to accept the terms of the challenge, seeing it as a demand that they apologize for being Muslim. Others denounce terrorism, to deaf ears. But it wasn’t until I read this piece by New Zealanders Khareyah Wahaab and Jason Kennedy, who made news a couple of years back by inviting a racist MP to dinner, that I realized how Muslims in the West are doubly threatened by extremism.
[Tim from Timaru, by the way, is the New Zealand equivalent of Joe Bloggs — or perhaps Joe the Plumber. And it should be noted that before ISIS took to beheading Western hostages, they beheaded dozens of Syrians in Raqqa. They stuck the heads on the points of railings in the city’s main park. Western media paid no attention.]
This may come as a shock to some, but ISIS hates us, a young Muslim couple in the West, with the same vehemence as Tim from Timaru. Except, unlike Tim, we have many ties to the Muslim community in New Zealand. It’s a small community and our family is known to most Muslims here, who in turn still have ties to their countries of origin. This means that if by some freak chance a terrorist group were to put a bounty on our heads for speaking out against them, they have a much greater chance of finding us than finding Tim from Tumaru.
More than anyone else, terror groups seek to punish those they view as apostates of their own religion. Radical fundamentalists thus hold all Muslims hostage. Even in New Zealand, where our freedoms of speech and religion are a given, we still live with the risk of terrorist reprisal for speaking out, precisely because we are Muslim.
Terrorism is not aimed only at Westerners; it’s a daily experience for those who must live among extremists. Muslims have immigrated to the West in a conscious decision to escape violence and instability, seeking to build a better life, but many fear that if they speak out loud, they and their families “back home” will suffer. You may call this cowardly, but first ask yourself if you would be willing to jeopardize your family’s freedom and safety if you legitimately feared reprisal.
Many do so nonetheless. In public gatherings, demonstrations, formal statements by imams, even teenagers posting their frustrations on YouTube, the message is the same: “ISIS does not represent us. ISIS does not represent Islam. We condemn their actions entirely.” You don’t hear them because they’re not considered newsworthy, but engage a Muslim in conversation, and you are very apt to find someone who feels exactly the same way about extremists as you do.
How can we, two Kiwis who have never had anything to do with the Middle East, possibly answer for the actions of extremists with whom we have nothing in common other than proclaiming to be Muslim? Like every other Muslim we know, we choose to follow the progressive, peaceful tenets of Islam, and leave the rest to the annals of a long and tumultuous history.
With biblical literalism still prevalent in many churches, it should be no surprise that Islam also struggles with literalism. Most Muslims in the West gloss over the violent passages in the Quran in much the same way as Christians disregard the violent passages in the Bible. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they recognize the need for reform. But Martin Luther’s reform of Christianity didn’t come until the sixteenth century. Islam, a faith 600 years younger, is now, in the twenty-first century, grappling with the same need. Progressive western Muslims will certainly lead the way.
And if you haven’t managed to hear it by now, then hear it this time: Yes, we are Muslim, and yes, we categorically denounce ISIS and all forms of terror.