Four Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam


One of the best-written pieces in the aftermath of the Paris attacks has not received significant exposure so far. It is a pity, because Shai Held’s 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam goes right to the heart of how public dialogue on religious extremism should be handled. As Held indicates, “the public conversation about radical Islam is often tedious at best, and downright toxic at worst,” because, predictably, each side cares more about defending its own worldview than engaging in nuanced consideration of the problem posed by radical Islam (or any other religious extremism, for that matter). Both sides become entrenched in their opinions, something which isn’t helped by the nature of social media. Those with a positive view of Islam and Muslims are understandably inclined to distance ISIS and other expressions of extremism from Islam as practiced by millions. On the other side of the debate are those who are legitimately concerned with violent acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, but wildly exaggerate its role in Islam. Each view feeds on the other. How do we step out of yet another vicious circle of partisan strife and find effective solutions to the problem posed by radical Islam?

In facing the current moment, there are four pitfalls we must avoid. The first two, the mistakes of misguided liberals, are (1) denying that Islam has anything to do with ISIS, and (2) refusing to admit that Islam is in unique crisis. The latter two, the mistakes of reactionary conservatives, are (3) declaring that Islam is irredeemably evil, and (4) painting all Muslims with the same brush. All four of these illusions are appealing to some, but all are false, and ultimately noxious.

I highly recommend reading the rest of Held’s piece, it is a reasoned and reasonable response to a controversial topic that does not dismiss legitimate concerns on either side. Something rare indeed.

2 thoughts on “Four Mistakes to Avoid When Talking About Radical Islam”

  1. The article hit on a point I really like:

    But uncomfortable as his ferocious hatred (rightly) makes Eisner, Amir was not just a radical, fanatical Jew. He was steeped in a hyper-nationalist messianic religious ideology — a vision of Judaism, in other words — and he acted on his understanding of what that ideology demanded of him. Call it radical Judaism; call it Judeo-fascism; call it whatever you want, but don’t kid yourself: Amir’s murderousness was a manifestation of his Judaism.

    Because it’s become popular in some circles to discuss religion like it’s just an add-on with little to no effect on a person’s life. A popular comment goes along the lines of ‘a person’s religion will be whatever that person brings to their religion.’ In other words, it doesn’t matter what religion you follow; they’re all equally impotent to influence human behavior.

    That’s, frankly, silly, and I suspect the kind of comment popular if one has never seriously engaged with and/or befriended religious people. For better or worse, religion is *the* defining personal characteristic for many people. And I would include myself in that category. Another Catholic friend and I were talking the other day about how most Americans introduce themselves by their profession, since one’s profession ranks high in American interest, but if we really wanted to start a conversation with our most defining characteristic, we’d say we’re Catholic. Our religious beliefs are central to who we are and what we do.

    As a recent convert/returnee to religion, I can also say from personal experience that, if you at least try to take your religion seriously (no promises about success on my end), religious teachings will displace personal preferences, not the other way around. To give a short and frank description, I’ve had plenty of people I’ve wanted to tell to fuck off since I became a Christian. But I don’t, because I know that’s not something Jesus would do (barring an incident in the Temple…). Blessed are the peacemakers. And the funny thing is that, while at first this process is conscious and quite painful, over time the process becomes easier and subconscious. Nowadays I just don’t get angry in the first place, rather than having to put out the fire of anger after it has started. This change in personal behavior is a direct result of the religion I follow. If I followed a religion that praised telling people to get bent or simply didn’t comment, I’d still be doing that, because that’s what I wanted to do in the absence of any belief compelling me to do otherwise.

    To bring these wandering comments back to the article, the result is precisely what Held describes: Instead of superficially dismissing religion as irrelevant to this discussion, we have to engage seriously with the content of the individual religion in question. Is this a valid interpretation of this religious tradition? Or is it an invalid permutation? A comment on the article hit on another point I’ve had in my mind for a while:

    [Eisner’s] point is that Islam, like Judaism, is a decentralized religion. It is not like Catholicism where one might say that what the Pope says is what Catholicism is. Her point is that there is no fact of the matter as to what represents authentic Islam.

    Which is the exact observation I’ve made about Islam (as well as other decentralized religions/sects) in the past. Lacking a single central authority to declare what is or isn’t a valid expression of a religion makes dealing with groups like ISIS more difficult.

    Great read!

  2. Also, there’s something funny in discussing religion where people seem to think you either have to view a religion as perfectly fine or hate it. And that implied dichotomy can make my life rather difficult, because I actually have a high opinion of Islam and many of its adherents, but I also have issues with some of its teachings and early history, and depending on whether I’m discussing what I like or what I dislike, people can walk away thinking I’m an apologist for Islam or a hater. So then I just have to give the full picture every time I discuss Islam, which results in long posts that few want to read.

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