The Courage to Name the Problem

Yesterday, on my Facebook timeline, I reflected on the third anniversary of a massacre that occurred in a gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 human beings were murdered by a Muslim. My commemoration of this crime simply noted the facts:

New York based writer Doug Henwood, known for his newsletter Left Business Observer, among other things, wondered why I noted Omar Mateen’s faith. What was the point of highlighting his religion? he asked. The answer was obvious, I thought: Islam provided the motive for Mateen’s actions. Moreover, that Islam provided the motive was not speculation or interpretation, but lay explicitly in the things Mateen wrote and said. He declared himself an “Islamic Solider,” a “Soldier of God,” and he told a 9-1-1 operator: “Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God.”

Henwood and I are not friends on Facebook anymore (not my choice), but the encounter made me think some more about how weird the left’s relationship with Islam has become. I am not talking about the postmodern left. One expects them to fetishize the “other.” It was after all none other than Michel Foucault who propagandized for the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution while working in Iran as special correspondent for Corriere della Sera and le Nouvel Observateur. But Henwood is something of a Marxist. Why would a leftwing Marxist-type take offense at naming the regressive ideology that motivated Omar Mateen’s actions? More generally, why do leftwing Marxists apologize for an ideology that oppresses and advocates violence against women and homosexuals?

I have written about the problem of Islam on this blog before (see, for examples, Orland and Religion and Threat Minimization and Ecumenical Demobilization). What I am writing today will echo some of what I have already said. But I feel the need to write down the thoughts that have been banging around in my head since yesterday because the episode provides a ready illustration of the problem secularists face in defending a free society, as well as the challenges to the building of a secular society unpinned by socialist arrangements. Antitheism is an essential part of the Marxist critique of capitalism. On February 7, 1844, in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Marx published these words: “The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.” Yet Marxian leftists are distancing themselves from Marx. This is a serious problem.

* * *

What I have been thinking about is double standard. When I note the religious identity of a person who takes terrorist action or commits a hate crime based on dogma associated with his identity, the response depends on which religious identity I am noting. The response is different when the person is a Christian than if the person is a Muslim.

If the person is Christian, then I will almost always be judged to have acted properly or perceived as just stating the obvious. I rarely take flak for criticizing Christianity. When I do, it is always always from a fundamentalist Christian. Folks from other religious faiths or those who are not very or not at all religious almost never object to anti-Christian rhetoric. For example, when I note that a Christian bombed an abortion clinic, this is treated as acceptable. It is not controversial that I claim the man’s religious faith probably explains why he targeted an abortion clinic. He believes that God puts souls in fetuses to make life and that he has an obligation to do his part to protect those lives.

If, on the other hand, the religious identity of the perpetrator is Muslim, then I will be judged to have acted improperly by calling attention to this fact. I violate an unspoken rule on the contemporary left when I say that a Muslim massacred people in a gay nightclub: It is okay to call out religion if the religion is associated with western civilization. Mormonism and Scientology are absurd belief systems. South Park makes fun of them. No problem. But if it is a nonwestern religion, especially Islam, then it is either an irrelevant detail or bigoted. Even when Islam is directly implicated, as was clear in Omar Mateen’s communications, it should not be characterized as causative. The motive must be found somewhere else.

We see this double standard at work in the treatment of women in religion. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of the plight of women under the thumb of Christian theonomy, is celebrated by feminists, and much is made of the way the women in that story are segregated and covered, yet the same feminists celebrate the hijab and are silent on the practice of gender segregation in Islam.

In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, the double standard confused the public about what caused the shootings. The media and the social media left told the public that the massacre was caused by homophobia (the concept of toxic masculinity also appeared). But the public was not told that target selection was motivated by a commitment to Islam, even though Mateen expressed this commitment. The public was never told about the loathing that Muslims have for western society, which Mateen explicitly referenced, a society they see as decadent and sinful because it tolerates homosexuality. It was never explained to the public that the West is a safe space for gays and lesbians compared to Muslim-majority countries. The public did not have an opportunity to contemplate that, because of immigration and the embracing of Islam, western space was becoming less safe. The cultural managers in the West did not want the public to think about the character of homophobia that led to the attack because Islam was directly implicated. These acts of omission and obfuscation put gay people in danger. Indeed, it raises the risk for everybody when the media hides the effects of Islamization on western societies and dissembles the goals of political Islam.

The attitude that Islam is incidental to the crime is crystalized in Henwood’s reflexive complaint: “Yeah, but what’s the point of highlighting his religion?” In other words, what does religion have to do with it? It’s a rhetorical question with the actual answer desperately avoided: religion has everything to do with it. Frankly, it’s a disingenuous question. People like Henwood are smart enough to know why Mateen’s religion is relevant in marking the anniversary of this tragedy: if we want to protect the gay community from violence, we have to be honest about the threat religion poses. Unfortunately, for those who mix loathing of the West in with their opposition to capitalist exploitation (a common occurrence on the contemporary Marxian left), the ethic is often “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

* * *

Without any apparent reflection on his part, the objection “what does religion have to do with it?” is almost always uttered by somebody who urges the public to blame white supremacy for the actions of persons who target places and people on the basis of racial identity. If authorities don’t make a big deal out of white supremacist identity in the perpetration of violence, for example when a KKK member or fellow traveler shooting up a black church for explicitly racist reasons doesn’t get a terrorist label, then leftists accuse the authorities of having a double standard. Eyes rolling, they put their double standard this way: “When a Muslim shoots up a gay bar, it’s terrorism, but when a white guy shoots up a black church, it’s mental illness.” I have seen this in meme form posted to Facebook or Twitter countless times. 

This way of thinking is massively misguided. The formulation confuses ideology with race. When we know a person is a Muslim we know something about this person. We know he believes in Islam. We know that Islam is anti-women, anti-gay, and anti-secular. We know that if a man takes Islam seriously, if he is committed to the faith, then he is more likely to act on its preachments than somebody who does not take the faith as seriously. Knowing a person is white, on the other hand, tells us nothing about the character or behavioral potential of that person. He may or may not be many things. Yet the left will blame whiteness for all sorts of things (while ignoring the fact that Muslim terrorists are also often white). If the person is white, skin color stands in for ideology. 

For many on the left, being white is a motive in-itself, whereas being Muslim means never having your crimes considering in the light of your beliefs. Being black means the same thing as being Muslim. Consider that the perpetrator of the last mass shooting in the United States was a black man. Has there been any public discussion about how the perpetrator’s identity in the Virginia Beach shooting (which occurred on May 31, 2019 and resulted in the deaths of twelve people and the wounding of five others) disrupts the belief that mass shooting is a white man phenomenon?

Reflexively, many westerners think religion is not a species of ideology, that it is rather something like skin color, or sex, or sexual orientation. When I note that a Muslim committed a crime on the basis of Islamic ideology, I am likely to be reminded that Muslims are peace-loving, law-abiding people who are just trying to raise families and live their lives. An entire people cannot be blamed for the actions of a few individuals claiming to act in the name of Islam, I am told. That’s the logic of racism. If belief enters the conversation, I am reminded that the actions of the terrible few represent a “perversion” of the faith, not its “true teachings.” It is a good thing that the majority of Muslims do not act on their faith. But this doesn’t make the problem of ideology go away. Ideology has consequences. Ideologies come with beliefs. Beliefs motivate action; human beings act on the basis of the beliefs they have about the world. Does that mean they will always act on the basis of their beliefs? Ask any community organizer about how apathy works against praxis. But in every community you have people who are highly motivated to action, and their actions animate their beliefs, and because the beliefs are bad their actions are bad. 

* * *

Millions of people believe doctors who perform abortion are murderers. Only a few people act on this belief and engage in violent actions in defense of innocents. The consequences are lethal. More important than the gun in a man’s hand is the reason why he is shooing the gun. We control guns because we cannot as effectively control religious ideology in a free society. But it is the ideology that is motivating the action. We excuse hateful and oppressive motives when we shut down people who are explaining behavior by its lights. In a free society we depend on criticism of ideology to minimize its harmful effects. We don’t ban it. We interrogate it.

The First Amendment grants the KKK religious liberty and free speech. They meet and perform rituals consist with their doctrine. They light crosses. They wear crosses. Most Ku Klux Klan members (comprising a small percentage of the population) are peace-loving, law-abiding citizens who are just trying to raise families and live their lives. They choose to wear the robes and hoods of the Klan because it represents their faith. People condemn and harass them. They are not allowed to wear their religious garments at work.When it is discovered that a person is a member of the KKK, they risk losing their jobs and their reputations. They may even be violently assaulted because of their beliefs. They are a persecuted minority, made to feel ashamed of their faith. Folks on the left say, “Good, they should feel ashamed. They should give up their hateful ideology.” I agree! The Klan should be blamed for racist violence by a few because their belief system informs their actions. This is why I have all my life been a critic of the KKK. I’m consistent.  

If those who use the accusation of “Islamophobia” to attack the critics of Islam were consistent they might consider calling this phenomenon “Klanophobia.” Klanophobia (along with Fascophobia) is a very real problem in America today. Yet, despite the persecution the KKK suffers, the community of faiths refuses to extend its ecumenical hand to the them. Is it because, unlike other faiths, KKK doctrine declares homosexuality an abomination? No, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions declare this, too. Is it because, unlike other faiths, KKK parents teach their KKK children to think of themselves as part of a group that is different from other groups? No, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions teach their children this, too. Is it because, unlike other faiths, KKK women are expected to assume subordinate roles in KKK family? No, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have a long history of subordinating women. Why don’t folks on the left see how unfair it is to blame all KKK members for the violence committed by a handful of their members? They see the problem when Islam is blamed for the actions of a handful of Muslims. Yet the Ku Klux Klan is a terrible organization despite the apathy of most of its members.

Of course, the left would have it wrong if they accepted my analogy in the direction of lowering the volume of anti-Klan rhetoric. There is no problem blaming the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations and white supremacist ideology generally for the actions of a handful of people acting on white supremacist belief. It is rational to identify the ideology that motivates terroristic and hateful violence. It is wrong to believe the things the KKK espouses and we should say so. In a free society they are free to espouse those beliefs. But we are also free to criticize them and obligated to do so because the KKK is wrong and their beliefs have effects. If we are to be consistent, then the same standard applies to Islam. Like white supremacy, Islam motivates terroristic and hateful violence, not because people pervert its teachings, but because of what the ideology preaches. We have to criticize Islamic belief because it is wrong and it has effects. It hurts people we claim to care about.

Either ideology potentially motivates violence or ideology provides no explanatory power. If you say that Islam cannot be a motive for action, then Fascism cannot be a motive for action. Nor can racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. The double standard is the result of people choosing sides. They have chosen the side of Islam against secularism, feminism, and the gay community by treating Islam as it were analogous to such things. This is fallacious. It is a very troubling trend on the left.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

One thought on “The Courage to Name the Problem”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.