In a recent column for Time (These Terrorist Attacks Are Not About Religion), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it bluntly:
“When the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in a black family’s yard, Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts.
Most people already realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. That’s what I and other Muslims long for—the day when these terrorists praising Mohammed or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims.”
At first glance, I find Abdul-Jabbar’s analogy to be compelling. Comparing extremist Muslims to the Ku-Klux-Klan makes a lot of sense. They are both hate-filled violence-prone minorities. However, on closer examination, the analogy begins to fall apart.
For one thing, by whose authority does Abdul-Jabbar assert that the terrorists are “disguising themselves as Muslims” — as opposed to being true Muslims? I assume that members of Al-Qaeda would make the same accusation about Abdul-Jabbar. As I have previously asserted, there are minority segments of all religions. Being a minority, even a violent minority, does not mean you cannot also be a legitimate member of a religion. There are certainly those would claim that advocating violence is as much a part of religious teachings, both Muslim and Christian, as advocating peace.
As for the terrorists who gunned down the staff of Charlie Hebdo — it is true that they are small in number. However, these terrorists were not just a bunch of thugs acting in isolation. They are not, as Abdul-Jabbar suggests, the equivalent of “bank robbers wearing masks of presidents.”
Rather, the terrorists were trained and backed by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. And Al-Qaeda does not exist in a vacuum. It survives in part because of support from the population and authorities in the countries where they reside. Many Muslims in these countries offer tacit approval of such acts, even if they assert that they would never carry out such acts themselves.
Here is where I believe that Abdul-Jabbar’s Ku Klux Klan analogy is at its most accurate, although not in the way he intended. We shouldn’t look at the analogy from the point of view of a comfortable American living in 2015. Rather, look at it from the perspective of an African-American living in the deep South in the 1950’s.
Here you are, a black person at the time when the Ku Klux Klan’s power and influence were at their height. The Klan may represent only a tiny minority of the Christian population around you. They may represent a distorted view of Christianity, one that Christ himself would reject. Indeed, as a black person, you likely attend a Christian church that holds very different views.
Regardless, you know that none of this really matters. The larger truth is that the Klan survives because it is tolerated by the rest of the community. More than that, much of the community quietly approves of what the Klan is doing, even if they would never participate in its actions.
Indeed, the majority population of the Southern states are overtly racist. As a black person in the South in the 1950’s, you see this every time you are humiliated by the institutionalized racism that surrounds you. You have to go to the back of the bus. You can’t use the “whites only” water fountain. Schools are completely segregated. You can’t buy a house in most neighborhoods of a city. You can’t even vote. And you risk getting beaten by the police for challenging any of these restrictions. This racism is sanctioned by the government, all the way from the local councilman to the governor of the state.
This is the full picture of the time of Ku Klux Klan. With this full picture in mind, we see that the analogy to the Muslim situation today is apt, but differently than the way Abdul-Jabbar asserts.
Today, we see a Muslim world in the Middle East where, like the deep South decades ago, the population is unwilling to speak out against the actions of the extremists. Too often, the silence masks a disturbing approval of these actions. The supporters may not represent the majority— but they are far from a trivial component. In many instances, discrimination is institutionalized — even towards other members of the Muslim faith* — as seen in the gross inequality toward women and harsh penalties (including death) for those who rebel against the faith. And, of course, anti-Semitism is rampant everywhere.
The Ku Klux Klan was an extreme manifestation of racism in the South, but not the exclusive or even primary proponent of it. I believe the same is true today for the Muslim extremists in the Middle East.
If and when the day ever comes that the views of Abdul-Jabbar are representative of all parts of the Muslim world, I will happily join Abdul-Jabbar in what he “longs for.” Until then, I contend that these terrorist attacks are about religion — not the religion as Abdul-Jabbar practices it, but religion none-the-less.
* Just saw this today: Egypt student gets 3-year jail term for atheism.