Karima Bennoune: How the Right and the Left Are Getting San Bernardino Wrong
By: Karima Bennoune; Originally posted on The Huffington Post
14 people are dead. 21 are injured.
A young couple armed for battle attacked a Christmas party full of the husband’s colleagues. In the face of this nightmare — both the 355th mass shooting in 336 days in the United States, and one that came less than three weeks after the Paris attacks — right and left alike are sticking to their scripts rather than grappling with the complex reality. If we are to successfully prevent future massacres, that has to change.
First and foremost, we have to think of the victims and their families.
And then we have to declare all-out war on the political ideology of Islamism that motivated Syed Farook and Tafsheen Malik, while simultaneously standing firm against all attempts to discriminate against Muslims generally. We have to disarm all potential terrorists by toughening up gun control laws and by discrediting the foul ideas that motivate them. (And we have to name those ideas without fear of being labelled politically incorrect. ) The right and the left, more worried about their fight with each other than the fight against terrorism, have made this an either/or choice when it is both/and. We cannot succeed by only doing one of these things or the other.
The right rushed in almost immediately. Twitter was full of smears of all Muslims, President Obama, immigrants, etc. Ann Coulter tweeted: “it’s been a 50 year invasion.” “Where,” shrieked Pamela Geller, “are the programs in mosques and madrassas teaching against jihad? NONE.” Are there enough such programs and are they succeeding? No. But, as someone who has spent years traveling the world talking to Muslims, including clergy, who are challenging extremism, I know that this is simply a lie. As the icing on the cake, Marco Rubio now denies that there is any discrimination against Muslims in America.
The left meanwhile, as exemplified by the tepid statements of Democratic candidates — has only been willing to talk about gun control and has mostly refused to name a key part of the problem in this case — Muslim fundamentalism or Islamism, a virulent political ideology (which represents the far right of the Muslim political spectrum). That ideology today poses a global threat and is one that many (but not enough) people of Muslim heritage themselves have been fighting against all around the world for years. Hilary Clinton deems it insulting to say “radical Islam.” Not saying it, when it represents a reality, is much worse.
The double standards have been stunning. On the right, people who denounced anyone who dared make a connection between the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooter and its own extreme anti-choice discourse were instantly linking the San Bernardino bloodbath to “Islamic” terrorism before there was any evidence other than that the first suspect had a foreign sounding name. On the left, the same people who had instantly (and correctly) recognized the politics of the Planned Parenthood shooting were reticent to admit any connection to terrorism here or to discuss the possible political motivation, even as thousands of rounds of ammunition were being found in the “IED factory” Farook and Malik had in their garage.
The soundtrack to all of this has been a diatribe from the Far Right in the West increasingly suggesting that all Muslims are members of one big sleeper cell and that there is something inherently wrong with this religion, and this religion only. Such views contravene basic tenets of humanism and decency. They also give a powerful weapon both to actual fundamentalists and those who apologize for them by suggesting that the extremists are just fighting an oppressive, imperialist West and defending Muslim interests. Making Muslims into victims, or making them feel like they are, plays into the hands of the fundamentalists who know just how to play that card.
While the Western Right sometimes advocates bigotry and international crimes — like killing the families of terrorists as Donald Trump appallingly suggests — in response to Muslim fundamentalist violence, the Western Left often refuses to recognize the reality of that violence and the actual danger posed by its underlying ideology.
They should listen to progressives of Muslim heritage whose words also belie the claims of the Gellers of the world. For example, Algerian anti-extremist activist Cherifa Kheddar, whose own brother and sister were killed by the Armed Islamic Group in 1996, clearly explains that you cannot end jihadist violence without “prioritizing the fight against fundamentalism which makes the bed of jihadism.”
A similar point was made by a petition authored by Muslim journalist Mohamed Sifaoui and published last summer in the leftwing and secular French magazine Marianne that was signed by some 2000 people, mostly people of North African, Muslim heritage. “Islamism imposes a war on us and its principle weapon is terrorism, but Islamism also imposes on us a great ideological battle that we must face up to collectively.”
In facing up to this very battle, President Obama got some things right in his Oval Office speech though he mainly pledged — somewhat incongruously — to continue the same strategy against a threat which has evolved, and emphasized what he would not do. However, he rightly reminded us that Muslim Americans are an integral part of the community. Discrimination is an unacceptable response to terror. Allowing terror suspects to arm themselves inside our borders is not a good idea. And at the same time he insisted that Muslims must confront extremism which is a grave threat and one that has, in fact, taken root in certain quarters, including here in the U.S..
What we need to do now — rather than giving a forum to self-appointed spokespeople like CAIR who have not led the fight against extremism — is listen to those who have actually been taking on this very struggle the President referenced. One of those brave people, Ani Zonneveld, the Malaysian American head of Muslims for Progressive Values based in Southern California, wrote to me the day after the San Bernardino slaughter. “You cannot be religious and go out and kill in Islam, and yet again we are witnessing murder in the name of our faith. The fact that guns are easily accessible and there have been more than 355 mass shootings in America to date should be irrelevant to our internal conversation. Our conversation should be why and what is it in our theology that has been so bastardized to give people permission to kill? Until we honestly root this out, we will by default be blamed.”
To enable the “rooting out” Ani calls for, the right and the left need to focus on the actual problem and not on each other. They all need to carefully distinguish between Muslims, people of Muslim heritage and immigrants on the one hand, and Islamist extremists on the other. They must be tolerant toward the former who are key allies, and unwaveringly intolerant of the latter. As a necessary first step, they must speak the name of the problem: “Muslim fundamentalism.”
The memory of the victims of San Bernardino, and of so many other recent terror attacks around the world, demands nothing less from us today.