The Ohio State University Attack and the Dire Need for Dissenting Voices

Prior to the Trump Administration entering the White House, we need to talk about how we discuss terrorism and Islam in America.

Before President Obama announces that today’s attack by Somalian Abdul Razak Ali Artan at The Ohio State University has nothing to do with Islam and before President-elect Trump says Islam must be banned from the U.S., let’s find some balance: This appears to be related to Islamism, particularly the preachings of Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as the command of ISIS (via their magazine, Rumiyah) to carry out “lone-wolf” knife attacks.

The entire Islamic religion is not to blame – especially not its followers – but we must help believers and dissenters alike speak out by making our own voices heard.

Today’s attack, much like others, is the spawn of extreme forms of a young religion. Remember, Islam is approximately 1,400 years and has no central body, not to mention a major sectarian schism between Shiite and Sunni that happened soon after the religion’s birth. There is no pope of Islam, for example, so clerics like al-Awlaki – a diseased radical Islamic cleric, who once called Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan “a hero” – get a voice. In tumultuous times, there are willing listeners. Islam has not yet had its own enlightenment.

One might ask, “Well where are the reasonable clerics? Why do they not speak out against this?” They do. They’re widespread; 70,000 deep, as this link notes. Perhaps that’s not widespread enough, as some have argued, but a non-violent act usually goes unreported.

Think about your nightly news or internet news browsing: Do you ever see a segment about how many people HAVEN’T been murdered this year? Right. Blood and terror leads; innocents suffer and live in silence.

This is where we come in, not with bullets and bombs but with the power of speech and dissent. I’m sure most everyone reading this believes in free speech, women’s rights, gay rights, due process, and non-violent resolution. Guess what? These beliefs are held by American Muslims and many other Muslims across the world.

As Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy told NPR in 2012, tip-toeing around free speech issues and Muslims is a “kid gloves” treatment, one he seems to resent (linked above).

“I think it treats Muslims, again, as second class and that we somehow need to be treated with kid gloves while, you know, the Mormon faith can have a play in New York that attacks it. The Christian faith is attacked, but nobody riots.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are shown on national TV in Egypt, and there weren’t riots in Israel against the Egyptian embassy, etc. So either we use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all of these countries signed onto and we say that freedom of speech is inexorably wedded to freedom of religion and we defend that, or we go on the defensive. And I just don’t think that strategy works, and the Islamists ultimately will use this to fill the vacuum of control over their own societies and the freedom of speech within.”

However, voicing these beliefs, especially for Muslims outside of the U.S., is difficult due to fear of retribution, excommunication, or in strict societies, death. For example, Saudi Arabian citizen Raif Badawi is serving 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. His crime? Blogging about his desire for a secular, pluralistic, and liberal society instead of a tyrannical, oppressive, religious society.

I’m still trying to figure out how to help voices like Badawi’s resonate, but I do think there is pressure on me – along with Americans and westerns – to speak louder and be heard in opposition of any violent, oppressive rhetoric, including from our own government and countrymen. I often fear that I fall victim to what Flemming Rose has dubbed “The Tyranny of Silence.” Many of us do, whether by uncertainty, self-interest, or simply not wanting to be called an Islamophobe, bigot, traitor, or some other categorizing insult.

But here’s the thing: Liberty and freedom are basic human rights that should be fought for with vigor, consequence be damned. So what if someone misunderstands? We can clarify and write or speak better next time. Fighting oppression in its various forms should be our single greatest duty as humans. Us humans become something quite different without the freedom to cultivate our own ways of thinking and believing. A mind told to blindly believe is doomed to repeat the path of the millions of minds before it and the world is left in a rut. We should all be willing to fight hard for these rights, not only for ourselves but for our less fortunate brothers and sisters across the world. We must recognize that the pen and the voice are mighty weapons that will always have fresh ammo and long-lasting effects, while the cudgeling effect of bombs and weaponry diminish quickly.

Violence like that of today’s at Ohio State will happen again. In fact, today’s act was thankfully small and quick. Acts will likely become bigger, more grandiose and bombastic. Trump hasn’t just empowered far right Americans, he’s inflamed the far right in Islam. It’s our job to speak against all of these tyrannical forces and call them by name – Islamist, Jihadist, nationalist, bigoted – while trusting ourselves and others to speak, criticize, and dissent with nuance and open minds. This means not punishing moderate, liberal or non- believers of Islam or right-leaning Americans for loose associations with unhinged ideologues. It especially means not jumping on someone who is new in the conversation for a minor slip-up, instead using the moment as a learning experience for everyone. It’s complex, I know, but this is perhaps the single most important issue in the world right now. United we stand, divided we fall, as the saying goes.

We’ve let the bigots have control of the conversation for long enough. Complex issues deserve a fine touch, not a broad brush. We can be tolerant and accepting of people while still condemning acts of terrorism that stem from the roots of a belief system. Did we not love our Christian friends when extremist Christians bombed abortion clinics or opened fire in black churches? Did we not love our Jewish friends even after far-right extremist groups have attacked Palestinian Christians over the past year? Did we love our Buddhist friends and sit in awe as the Dalai Lama speaks of love and peace even as Burmese monks massacre Muslims in Burma?

As Americans and westerners who enjoy the fruits of freedom, it is our duty to help others taste it too. We must empower the voices of dissenters and free-thinkers. It starts with our own voices. Let’s join the conversation and fight bigotry with thoughtfulness, reason, and nuance.

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