So I wanted to change that by telling stories. I interviewed about 300 people from about 30 Muslim-majority countries, a diaspora population from Mali to Afghanistan, to hear their experiences of either being victims of Muslim extremism, or of standing up to it in all sorts of creative ways. It’s sort of a terrible shame everyone knows who Osama bin Laden is, but don’t know about all the extraordinary people standing up to bin Laden in his time, or those would-be bin Ladens in their own time.
From outside looking in, people may not have understood what was happening in the country, and thought the fundamentalists should have been allowed to take power. But it’s a complicated history.
But then flip forward to the post-9/11 world, and by then many people rightly realized that these jihadist groups are not our allies, are not people who support values that are defensible. They are antithetical to human rights, they are out to kill large numbers of people – but unfortunately what gets lost is this is not a battle between the West and Islam. This is actually a battle going on within Muslim-majority societies between extremists and the rest of the population – specifically, the people brave enough to stand up to them.
What gets lost is that, A), lots of Muslims and people of Muslim heritage have stood up to these extremists and have often paid with their lives for doing so, and B), Muslims have been the largest number of victims of these movements. Somehow, that has not been widely understood in the West in the post-9/11 world.
I’m hoping that with the tragic violence caused by the Islamic State that people are starting to realize this, but you still have terror attacks elsewhere around the world getting more attention. I don’t mean to say that all lives aren’t important; attacks are important wherever they happen. But the vast majority of victims of violence by Muslim fundamentalists – the thousands dying in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – are not getting the attention they deserve, and we really need to change that if we want to understand what really is going on, and if we want to be effective in the response.
Also, now there is an international military coalition against these movements that you did have in the past, and that is a very big difference. I’m hoping that and the involvement of the U.N. can make a big difference; it’s absolutely critical for human rights that the so-called Islamic State is really destroyed – not only that, but we must challenge the idea behind it because if we don’t, it will just keep resurrecting itself elsewhere.
There are some truly positive things happening in parts of the world – for example, in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, there continue to be difficulties – but women there are so well organized that when the fundamentalists have tried to take advantage of openings created by the Arab Spring, and have tried to push various negative developments in the law for women’s rights, women’s groups have been able to defeat many of those efforts. They feel pressure, for example, about ways they dress in ways they have not felt before. So I don’t want to overstate the case, but there are many positive examples like that in a region that often has this sense of going backwards.
But also, these are very difficult times in which to do this work. I would say that when you have the views that we have heard at times from President Trump about Islam and the Muslim population in general, the climate becomes more difficult to do it. But I think those discriminatory attitudes and words much be challenged everywhere, across the board. But it worries me to also see some of the response on the left to downplay all these things, as if Muslim fundamentalism is not really a problem.
Then on the left, you get this almost apologetic discourse that is really the cultural relativist response – again, not from all on the left, but some – the claim that you really have to understand that this is just their culture, and so it’s not at all a problem. I completely reject that. It’s not a helpful response to the right-wing discrimination. The helpful response is to recognize the reality of the problem, recognize those who are tackling it, and try to find non-discriminatory ways to understand the complexity of the situation and support those who are trying to do something about it. But unfortunately, we’re living in an era of insults and invective, and not an era of thinking and analysis – and that really has to change.