Don’t blame communities for actions of individuals

Opinion piece originally published with the Orlando Sun Sentinel

Certainly we can all be doing more to resolve violence in our world. This has always been the case.

Yet the assertion that Muslims should be doing more to counter violence perpetrated by individuals who identify as Muslim reeks of cultural and religious bias.

We can see the implicit bias if we translate the situation to another community. For example, when Dylann Roof drew from his Christian ideologies to murder nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., earlier this year, did we call on Christians around the country to condemn his actions?

It would be inappropriate for us to demand a response from moderate Christians — who make up a majority of our nation — for the actions of an extremist like Roof who killed in the name of his faith. Similarly, it is inappropriate for us to demand additional action from moderate Muslims — who make up the enormous majority of the community — for the actions of a select few who kill in the name of their faith.

In America, we do not judge an entire community on the basis of an individual’s actions; nor do we presume an entire group to be guilty by association.

This question is unfair for precisely this reason; it presumes a double standard in which we would expect certain groups to denounce the violent actions of others who claim the same identity, yet refuse to hold other groups of different religious and cultural backgrounds to the same standard.

This double standard puts American Muslims in a double bind. On the one hand, American Muslims feel compelled to condemn violence when perpetrated by another individual who claims to act in the name of Islam. On the other hand, American Muslims realize that condemning the violence condones and further perpetuates this unfair expectation.

Expecting Muslims to denounce the actions of others who identify as Muslim is, in essence, demanding an apology from people who are only guilty by association. Presuming the entire Muslim community to be guilty is not just unfair — it is bigoted and Islamophobic. Only a minuscule fraction of the 1.6 billion people who identify as Muslim engage in violence, just as those who kill in the name of Christianity — or any other religion — represent a tiny proportion of those religious communities.

The Muslim community immediately condemned the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and global Muslim leaders have spoken out vociferously against the violence being perpetrated by the Islamic State. American Muslims have also regularly condemned violence, including this past year after the shootings in Garland, Texas, and Chattanooga, Tenn.

One reason why these condemnations go unheard is because the Muslim community does not have a single central authority — like the pope or a church — that speaks on behalf of the global Muslim community. Another reason is that our media spend far more time covering the violence and do not pay much attention to responses from American Muslims.

We must stop thinking that all Muslims share a single worldview and that the extreme beliefs of a small minority can be said to represent the entire community. And we must do a better job of understanding who is actually responsible.

We can begin this process by ending our expectation that Muslims must condemn acts of violence that claim a religious motivation. This expectation is not only unfair, bigoted and Islamophobic — it is also unhelpful to addressing the very real threats that we face as a nation.

Simran Jeet Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University. He also serves as senior religion fellow for The Sikh Coalition.

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