When Muslims object that blaming Islam for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) leads to Islamophobia, it is rejected as avoiding critical commentary and self-criticism. While it is true that Muslims need to do a lot of critical thinking and put their own house in order, the fact is that ISIS and its likes manipulate global politics and Islamophobic discourses claim more ground and gain new recruits. Their appeal, to the extent to which it exists among the 1.5 billion Muslims of the world, is generated not so much by what they believe in but rather by what they reject.
Here we are confronted with a vicious circle: the ISIS ideologues and their foot soldiers decry the injustices they see as a violation of their rights. They commit terrible acts of barbarism in the name of seeking justice but end up seeking revenge. They use religious language to justify their acts. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims reject their discourses and justifications.
This leads some in the West to link Islam with extremism and terrorism. They ignore the fact that terrorism is a global phenomenon used by various individuals, groups and states regardless of race, religion or culture. Islamophobes use ISIS to equate Islam with terrorism and present Muslims as suspects. They call on their governments to take strict measures and even wage wars against their Muslim citizens and immigrant communities. In the name of rooting out radicalism, they play right into the hands of groups like ISIS. In essence, one form of extremism feeds another.
This vicious circle of mutual extremisms and phobia creates what I call "Muslim tokenism" where Muslims are called upon to answer questions about ISIS when such questioning is not expected of people of other faiths. More damagingly, Muslim leaders, academics, scholars, professionals and even artists are invited to talk only about "hot Muslim issues," i.e., extremism, radicalism, terrorism, etc. The underlying assumption in such cases is that Muslims cannot speak about other issues such as climate change, arts, alleviating poverty, space missions or fighting against Ebola.
The Islamophobia industry again conveniently ignores the fact that ISIS has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, destroyed cities in Muslim countries more than attacking Western targets, and created a climate of fear and discrimination against mainstream Muslims around the world.
Tasnim Nazeer, an award-winning freelance journalist, author and poet and a British Muslim, not surprisingly experienced an act of public harassment by an ordinary citizen in Glasgow. "I have never experienced an incident of prejudice for being Muslim until recently when I was walking through the city of Glasgow." she says. "A man approached me using foul language and demanded that I should apologize for the actions of ISIS in the middle of the busy city center." While Nazeer has been an outspoken critic of ISIS, she is still treated as somehow responsible for ISIS's actions.
Likewise, Muslims in France rightly complain that they are victims of both ISIS and Islamophobia. But their condemnation of ISIS, al-Qaida and similar groups are lost in the noise of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry.
There are lessons to be learned from anti-Semitism. The dark history of anti-Semitism has rightly established a culture and ethics of discernment whereby one is required to distinguish between individual actions and Jewish collective identity. The policies of the State of Israel, for instance, cannot and should not be attributed to Jewish individuals and communities around the world.
The New York Times published a detailed report about the new waves of anti-Semitism in Europe after the last Israeli war on Gaza. The morale of the story is that you cannot blame and thus hate the Jews for the actions of the State of Israel.
The report noted that "…there is also concern about what some see as an insidious "softer" anti-Jewish bias, which they fear is creeping into the European mainstream and undermining the postwar consensus to root out anti-Semitism."
What happens when Muslims ask for the same discernment and expect a clear distinction between the actions of ISIS and the mainstream faith of the vast majority of Muslims? Most of the time, any proper sense of discernment is replaced by stereotyping and generalizations that one would immediately reject when applied to other faiths and communities.
From Anders Behring Breivik's rampage on July 22, 2011, which killed 78 people in Oslo and Utoya, Norway, to the cheaply made hoax movie "Innocence of Muslims" of 2012, which caused world-wide protests and deaths, Islamophobic individuals and groups seek to defame the Muslim faith. These acts are then taken up by extremists to present the entire Western world as Islamophobic.
An important corrective to this would be to acknowledge that ISIS and its likes make Muslims themselves victims of doctrinal distortion and extremism on the one hand, and Islamophobia and collective stereotyping on the other. Instead of blaming each other, Muslims and non-Muslims have a shared interest in breaking this vicious cycle.