Stop making me apologise for the acts of extremists

Yassir Morsi provides a look at life as a Muslim in the West during these politically charged times

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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Horrified by recent terrorist attacks in the name of religion, many Muslims living in the West are keen to explain that the bloodlust of ISIL does not represent either their values or the pulse of mainstream Islam. Despite the West’s many liberal democracies’ public stance against Islamophobia, it remains necessary to publicly state the remarkably obvious point that not all Muslims are alike.

Community leaders typically enter the public eye a day after a terrorist attack to condemn ISIL, as well as distance themselves from the toxic narrative of extremists.

In response to the recent San Bernardino, California, shootings, Hussam Ayloush, a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, explained why it responded with a statement on how it unequivocally condemned this horrific act.

Mr Ayloush said: “There’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, fuelled by pundits. We felt there was a need for our fellow Americans to know that all American Muslims share with the rest of the country, our sorrow today, our shock and our agony for what happened.”

Its not my point to say we shouldn’t distance Islam from ISIL, but to note how such distancing is so often done through appeals to secular and colour-blind liberal sensibilities about local Muslims, sharing citizenry and a denunciation of the binary “us” and “them” rhetoric.

Language matters greatly in these times, so we have to ask what really can be said about Islam in this current climate?

Effectively, no matter how complex Islam is, Muslims in the West commonly find ourselves saying nothing much other than the word “not”. Islam becomes simply defined through a string of negations. For the radical Muslim, Islam is a negation of the West. For moderate Muslims, Islam is a negation of the radical’s negation: we are not terrorists, this is not the Sharia, this is not the true meaning of jihad.

A spiral of “nots” string together our public speeches, which say nothing about the religion other than what it opposes. In this spiral, everyday Muslims occupy a burden to confess where they are situated in this radical-moderate line.

Indeed, one of western society’s fundamental rituals is the act of inducing confessions. We are commonly told that upon our confession we have liberated ourselves from carrying the burden of our heavy sins. We are more honest, more likely to change, we are taking a step to our redemption.

Confession, we are told, purges us of the parasite of secrecy that gnaws at our conscience.

It was the philosopher Michel Foucault who suggested that our “incitement to speak the truth” relies on our assumption of freeing what remains concealed within, and thus he famously claims that Western man “has become a confessing animal”.

Even our democratic ethos is tainted with the same confessionals. The call for a politics to be transparent is a call to expose inner motives, which claims to induce a confession for the sake of our polity’s salvation.

In our act of confessing, Foucault argues that we become at once the governor and the governed, the observer and the observed. By confessing all that is within, all that is hidden, all that we can know about ourselves, we are delivering our deepest sense of self to society so we can be forgiven, counselled, judged, corrected, weighed or punished.

We become through our confession an object of judgement. It becomes all the more a hierarchy of judge and suspect when that relationship between confessor and forgiver is a racial one.

We saw last year the #muslimapologies campaign where Muslims mock the idea that they have to apologise for terrorism by affirming their contributions to history: as one tweet suggested, “sorry for inventing algebra”.

This reflects how many Muslims feel an unfair pressure to speak only after saying “sorry” for crimes they have neither committed nor supported. In these politically charged times, as a Muslim in the West, I feel the impulse to confess my thoughts on ISIL, to condemn the barbarity of their violence and to confess my love for adopted liberal democracy. Many of my day-to-day conversations involve someone’s invitation for me to step forward and clear my name by airing my moderate views, revealing my humanity and admitting that my community’s first step is for us to recognise its problem with radicalisation.

But this ritual is Islamophobia’s Trojan horse. It initially comes to us as a gift, an opportunity to set the record straight, but in the long-term it solidifies our position in the dock.

The demand conceals what resides in its belly: “hidden” in the invitation for Muslims to show they are good citizens of the West is the Islamophobic caricature of Muslims as a threat. The act of requiring us to confess our loyalty, in the midst of current fear, only reaffirms the anatomy of the “other” who is imagined much like a Trojan horse: the benign ethnic who lives in multicultural suburbs who is concealing a violent streak. If we do not turn ourselves inside-out, the logic goes, we ought to remain as somehow “provisional” citizens.

What is most obscene about this ritual of confession, however, it is that curtails political discussion and reaffirms the “us” and “them” binary it hopes to deny.

Undoubtedly anti-western sentiments do, of course, exist within Muslim communities. But I have often wondered the extent to which the perennial debates over the place of Muslims in the West – which is so insulting and constantly questions our basic humanity while being steeped in the language of surveillance, – have elicited from “within” our youth these more aggressive expressions of anti-western defiance.

I am not denying the responsibility to condemn terrorism. I am not suggesting that alienation is its source. I am not neglecting the Islamic obligation some Muslims feel to condemn what is wrong. But we should not minimise the almost-religious compulsion at work in secular society’s constant demand that I purify myself as a Muslim by ritually confessing my disgust at beheadings and mass shootings.

This is not about shifting blame from one side to the other, but recognising that two sides must be constructed in order for one to be more policed than the other. Nothing makes me feel more like the “other” than continually speaking about what I am not.

Dr Yassir Morsi is a critical race theorist from University of South Australia

On Twitter: @YMorsi