A classic cartoon has been re-circulating on social media lately showing a lonely looking elephant sitting on a psychiatrist's couch. The elephant laments "sometimes, even if I stand in the middle of the room, no-one acknowledges me." Anjem Choudary must feel similarly disheartened as, despite his many proclamations, no-one seems to take his dreams of a Islamic caliphate seriously.
There are signs that perhaps this issue is finally entering mainstream public discourse. Bill Maher's now famous segment on Islam was the spark that ignited a trend. Some, like actor Ben Affleck, feel uncomfortable talking about the ideology behind Islamic extremism. Not so Jeffrey Tayler, who penned a recent article in Salon, highlighting the need to accurately identify ideology as the root cause of terrorism. Tayler blamed religion itself, stating boldly: "We will all be better off when we relegate religious texts to the 'fiction' section in our local bookstore."
It is not the intention of this blog to wade into the discussion about religion and faith in today's world. Nor will it make claims about subjects that the greatest minds in human history have been unable to agree upon. What is relevant is when religious extremism inspires a political ideology that seeks to impose itself by force on others.
We are talking about Islamism, not Islam.
This debate has been sorely needed for a long time. When a young Yazidi girl kidnapped by the Islamic State calls a Peshmerga fighter and begs for death, crying "I've been raped 30 times and it isn't even lunchtime" we need to talk about why this is happening. Even though the world went briefly hashtag crazy after hearing of the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, there was never any serious discussion about the sharia-based outlook behind the Islamist group.
219 girls remain in captivity, forced into 'marriages' and sold into sex-slavery. Beyond periodic outrage over specific incidents, the broader trend goes unacknowledged.
Many would rather not talk about what drives global Islamism, instead contenting themselves with vague condemnations of individual events or groups. In this vein, Reza Aslan has become the go-to scholar interviewed on media outlets seeking to explain and describe terrorism without mentioning the Islamist ideology. He does this by means of an obfuscating post-modernism, arguing that religion is "not so much a description of what a person believes…" But that's exactly the crux of the problem. The Jihadist followers of the self-styled Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, the suited politicians of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt and the Wahhabist clerics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia all share an unshakeable belief in the rightness of their cause and in the divine origins of the laws they enforce. Indeed, only such certainty of faith can give them the conviction to perpetrate the ruthless crimes that they do.
Aslan argues that "the abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires." Much like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, he seems to say "When I [they] use a word…it means just what I [they] choose it to mean."
One can imagine the gales of hysterical laughter such a statement would provoke in an ISIS barracks, presumably just before they decapitated poor Mr. Aslan on charges of heresy and mounted his head on a spike.
Is Mr. Aslan so jaded that he does not know how to handle someone who actually has beliefs?
Jeffrey Tayler's central point, which he aims squarely at Aslan is this: "No thinking person need feel pressured into condoning or excusing faith-based brutalities out of well-meaning but incorrect liberal sentiments." Clarion Project's latest film, Honor Diaries, charting the struggle of women's rights activists against the brutality of honor violence and female genital mutilation put it another way: 'culture is no excuse for abuse.'
The question of how political ideology, inspired by and adapted from extremist interpretations of religion leads to heinous human rights abuses is not an academic question. Refraining from bigotry is vital, especially in turbulent times when the temptation to resort to black and white binaries is that much greater. The focus of this much-overdue discussion must be on the extremist ideology fueling the jihadist rampage, not on all Muslims.
Yet the overarching imperative is to care about the human rights abuses being committed daily on the ground.
Jeffrey Tayler's article in Salon could not have come at better time. In grand wars over ideas it is ordinary people and disproportionately women, who always suffer the most. Iraq and Syria are in utter devastation. Saudi Arabia and Iran both languish under the iron-booted heel of brutal theocracies. Islamism is attempting to impose its supremacist ideology on Muslim communities in the West, trying to force Western legal systems to accommodate sharia and excuse honor violence and FGM on the grounds of 'cultural sensitivity.'
It is refreshing and long overdue to finally see people acknowledging the elephant in the room.