Ali Eteraz is a liberal Muslim writer who, like Barack Obama, has not waited until he was old to write his memoirs: his book Children of Dust, according to the book website, is a “coming-of-age story” in which Eteraz “captures not merely pain, but also the love, laughter, and pathos of Muslim life.” It is not surprising that such a writer would grapple with issues related to Islamic jihad violence. What is surprising is how he has done so, and what the implications of his stances are for those who are betting everything on peaceful Muslims combating Islamic jihadists within Muslim communities.
Eteraz once stated feebly that peaceful Muslims should remain silent in the face of jihadist violence and supremacism, claiming that Martin Luther King, Jr., stayed silent in the face of racist oppression. That was preposterous enough, but now Eteraz has made an even more preposterous move, going from supine passivity to defiance:
During the salat, or prayer, Muslims raise their index finger to bear witness to the oneness of God. In America today, with all the calls for Muslims to condemn every little act of violence committed in the name of their religion, Muslims should start raising up the other finger. The middle one.
There is no need for one Muslim to condemn the crimes of another. Collective responsibility cannot, and should not, be accepted. Where one accepts collective responsibility one opens the door to collective punishment. Are Muslims individuals? Or are they one singular marionette that pirouettes each time its string is pulled?
The core assumption Eteraz makes here is that it is an exercise in collective responsibility that diminishes Muslims’ individuality if they are asked to condemn Islamic terrorist attacks. After all, Islam is not a monolith, as we are reminded endlessly. So if one Muslim believes that Islam teaches warfare against unbelievers and acts upon that belief, what does that have to do with Ali Eteraz, who presumably eschews such beliefs?
It’s a fair question. To what extent does membership in a group make one responsible for all the other members of that group? If one Christian does some evil deed and ascribes it to Christianity, are all Christians everywhere responsible for that?
Well, to a certain extent, yes. They wouldn’t rightly share any of the blame for it, but it would be incumbent upon them to show to those who might be concerned about a recurrence of such evil deeds that the way in which the evildoer used Christianity was actually wrong, and condemnable, and that they were working against such a recurrence by teaching against such false beliefs.
The point, in other words, is not collective responsibility at all. To blame all Muslims for the actions of jihadists would be asinine. But to take note of how those jihadists use Islam — its texts and core teachings — to justify violence and supremacism and warfare against unbelievers — and to ask peaceful Muslims what they’re doing to combat such teachings within the Muslim community is not asinine at all.
And it is not blaming anyone for anything he didn’t do. It is simply to ask someone like Eteraz this: “The jihadis say that they’re following the authentic path of Islam. If they’re correct, the implications of this would be many and ominous, for it would suggest that all Muslims, if they decided to follow the authentic path of Islam, would become jihadis — working either by violent or peaceful means to impose Sharia upon non-Muslims. You say you’re living out an authentic expression of Islam, and reject all that. Good. What case are you making against the jihadist understanding of Islam within the Muslim community? How are you combating it?”
I don’t think these are unreasonable questions. For if Muslims who profess to reject the jihadist understanding of Islam don’t fight against it, who will? And if they profess to reject the jihadist understanding of Islam but don’t do anything to stop its spread, of what ultimate value is their rejection of it? They may not be responsible for it, but since they profess Islam, shouldn’t they feel any responsibility to combat the jihadist claim to represent authentic Islam?
Apparently not. In years of calling for peaceful Muslims to present a viable alternative to the jihadist understanding of Islam, one that will convince Muslims not to take the jihadist path, we have seen numerous vague assertions that the jihadis are violating Islamic teaching; some vague condemnations of “terrorism” and attacks on “innocent civilians” that don’t define either term or rule out the jihadist understanding of Islam; some transparently flimsy constructions based on selective Qur’an quoting that will convince ignorant non-Muslims but not a single Muslim; and some “reformist” interpretations of Islam that roll out with much fanfare in the mainstream media but end up being only condemnations of attacks that kill other Muslims or attacks that don’t have state authority behind them (which latter point ignores the fact that in Islamic theology defensive jihad is incumbent upon every Muslim, state authority notwithstanding, and all contemporary jihads are presented as defensive).
And now we get the finger.
All right. I wouldn’t expect anything else from Ali Eteraz, but I do hope that some people who have been counting upon peaceful Muslims to work against the jihadists within Muslim communities will take careful note.