From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by the Bridge Initiative. I’m Hannah Sullivan.
When it comes to terrorism, there is no category of individuals who are asked to take collective blame for violence more than Muslims. In the United States, every time a perpetrator of an attack is reported to be Muslim, voices in the media are quick to call on Muslim leaders to condemn terrorism:
[Voice of Sean Hannity]: Welcome back to Hannity. So the question is, will prominent Muslims denounce and take on groups like ISIS, Hamas, and condemn and also fight against their unthinkable acts of terrorism?
Politicians, too, have suggested that the world will not be safe from terrorism until everyone–and especially Muslims–condemns it:
[Voice of President Obama]: It is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL.
On today’s episode, I sit down with Professor Todd Green to learn about his latest book, “Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.” Dr. Green is an Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College. He is also a nationally recognized expert on Islamophobia, and has served as an advisor on anti-Muslim prejudice to federal employees at the U.S. Department of State, Homeland Security, and the FBI. In my conversation with Dr. Green, I asked him about the driving forces behind his book and how he hopes it can change public conversations that conflate Islam and Muslims with violence.
Hannah Sullivan: The title of your book is “Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn’t Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.” What led you to write on this topic, and what is it about today’s political climate that makes this subject important?
Dr. Todd Green: Two reasons why I wrote this book. One was, just doing public scholarship and public activism on Islamophobia, interacting a lot with Muslim-American communities, [I was] constantly hearing that question, either asked of me, or asked of my Muslim friends and neighbors, “Why don’t you speak out more against terrorism? Where are these moderate Muslim voices?” That question had become so ubiquitous, and I found it to be such a problematic question. And if I found it to be a problematic question, you can imagine how many Muslims in America feel having to answer and feel that question. And all the wrong assumptions embedded in the question. So that was broadly the reason why I wrote the book.
But there was a specific event where I finally decided, I have to sit down and get this book done. It was in 2015, at the National Prayer Breakfast when President Obama was addressing the anxiety about the rise and the spread of ISIS and its brutality. And in that Prayer Breakfast speech, he took a very brief detour warning the audience of the problems of assuming that religion and violence [are] unique to some particular religious tradition. In fact, he was also trying to make the case that the history of Christianity also has some horrific episodes of violence. He mentioned the Crusades, and Jim Crow, and slavery, and things like that. And he didn’t spend a long time on it. And the fallout was horrific across the political spectrum and across the journalistic spectrum. And it was very clear that you could not actually have a conversation at all in the United States about “our” violence. And by that I mean, those of us who are not Muslim, the non-Muslim majority. And particularly, white Americans and white Christian Americans, and white Europeans. And that’s one of the main reasons why I wrote the book (in terms of a specific episode) so it could finally start to generate a conversation about this.
HS: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the intended audience of your book. In your perfect world, who are you hoping might read this book and what would their intended takeaway be?
TG: I think many of us who write books imagine and fantasize that anyone and everyone will read it, and that we can try to reach anyone and everyone equally. And I certainly hold that same sort of dream with this book, that a lot of different groups of people can find the book helpful. But I was very clear, too, that when I’m think about whom I’m trying to persuade, I’m not trying to persuade Muslim Americans, broadly speaking. I’m not trying to persuade African Americans. I’m not trying to persuade a lot of people who are not white. And I say that in part because it’s white Americans–white, Christian Americans–and many white Europeans, who struggle the most with recognizing the hypocrisy involved in asking Muslims to condemn violence that they’re not directly connected with, without doing any soul-searching whatsoever, either individually or more importantly collectively, when it comes to our own violent past and our ongoing complicity in the violent world order.
HS: I’d love to get into the meat of your book a little bit. In your book you establish three key reasons why we shouldn’t ask Muslims to condemn terrorism. Could you explain these three reasons to our listeners?
TG: Sure. The first reason why I think the question itself is problematic (“why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?”) is that the question itself assumes that Islam is the catalyst for terrorism or the cause of terrorism. And I can’t think of any significant scholar of religion today who studies religion and violence and its relationship who would actually argue that religion in any kind of singular way causes violence. That’s actually the wrong way to understand the role of religion and violence in many ways. Religion never acts as an independent actor anyway, right? There’s political and social and cultural factors, and a lot of individualistic factors that we can’t even pinpoint until after something has happened, that feed into the conditions that generate terrorism. So that’s the first reason, it’s just a false assumption.
The second reason, which is the one I was the least happy about writing–but I had to do it–was that Muslims condemn terrorism all the time. I mean, Muslim condemnations of terrorism are just ubiquitous. And I am stunned if now in the year 2019 I get someone in the audience who still is asking that question. But it does happen every now and then. Someone says, “Well, I’ve never heard Muslims condemn terrorism.”
But actually, it helps generate a much more interesting conversation. Given how ubiquitous these condemnations are, what does that say about the person who still asks such a question, right? That’s the conversation to be had. Not, “Are Muslims condemning terrorism or not?” I can give you that answer in five seconds. The real conversation to be had is, “why are you assuming that they’re not? And why do you assume that they need to make a statement in order for you to have any kind of assurance that they are opposed to this violence?”
Which does lead to the third reason. Which, to me is the most important. The third reason is the most significant [to the question of] why we shouldn’t ask Muslims to condemn terrorism. Because it does distract us from that very conversation about our own violent past and our ongoing complicity in a violent world order. But this is a conversation that we really struggle to have. And I see a lot of Islamophobia, and particularly in the topic of Islam and violence and the Islamophobic assumptions around that, as a diversionary tactic. It really is a distraction. And I quote Toni Morrison toward the end of that section of the book, where she some decades ago is talking about is talking about anti-black racisms, said “Know the function. The very serious function of racism, which is distraction.” And she was talking, of course, in part about how African Americans are constantly on the defensive, to defend themselves and their history and their contributions to American society. And their culture, and their art, and their literature, and basically their very humanity. And they have to keep doing it. To a population that still seems rather resistant to accept any of this, right? So she was basically talking about how exhausting it is to be black in America precisely for these reasons.
And I use that as a way of reflecting on whether Islamophobia–which is a form of racism–is doing the same thing. Distracting us, by projecting unto Muslims, this notion of a unique propensity toward violence. That has less to do objectively with Muslims or Islam, and has a lot to do with our own unresolved anxieties and history of violence. And our inability to come to terms publicly with our own violent past and our ongoing complicity in a violent world order. In fact, that was the portion of the book that I wrote first. I learned some time ago that you start the book that you’re writing with what you think is the most important part.
HS: You use a lot of key examples of these uncomfortable truths about Western violence. Could you speak to why it’s important for us to grapple with these truths? What should we be taking away from these things?
TG: Yes. I think that a lot of the uncomfortable truths involve the tendency of majority populations, and the political and media elite who represent them, either to redact or whitewash or otherwise eliminate from our collective memories, horrific examples of violence, many of which involve categories of violence we use to describe ISIS today. There isn’t a major category of violence attributed to ISIS that does not apply to us, in the West. Whether it’s fighting holy wars or persecution of religious minorities or slavery, torture, et cetera, et cetera. All of this stuff is not just about “them,” it’s about our history too. And that’s humbling. And the big payoff for that, if we can take it seriously, is that this really would shift the conversation in terms of this horrific and false dichotomy between “barbaric Muslims” and “peaceful” or “civilized” Westerners. The United States in particular is very much a nation that is addicted to violence. It came into power through horrific violence. Modern capitalism was literally built on the shoulders slaves. Some of those slaves were Muslim slaves, by the way.
That’s the story. That’s what we need to be talking about. And if we can’t take that seriously and really reflect upon our nation’s dependence upon horrific violence in order to achieve its global dominance today, then we will never be able to figure out ISIS or whoever comes after ISIS because we have not done any self-reflection.
HS: When we return, I ask Dr. Green about the meaning and function of the word terrorism, and whether we should change our understanding of the word in light of growing concerns over white supremacist violence around the world.
HS: I’d love to talk to you a little bit about the word terrorism. In October 2017, you wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post stating that we should abandon the word terrorism altogether. You wrote that, “the racial and religious connotations infused into the word ‘terrorism’ have permanently altered its meaning,” and that because of that, we shouldn’t try to expand the use of the word terrorism to talk about attacks carried out by white supremacists. Could you expand on this for our listeners?
TG: The word terrorism often times as it’s used in public and political discourse, there’s this assumption that we have an objective understanding of what that is. And in fact, even in government circles there’s no consistent definition of terrorism, and that’s a problem in and of itself. But we very quickly, in the past several decades, and particularly after 9/11, the language of terrorism increasingly has been racialized to the point that it’s almost always now racialized. And it refers to people who don’t look like me. People who aren’t white, they don’t have my cultural background, they’re not Christian, in many cases. When white men, angry white men–there’s been plenty of them lately–hear about horrific acts of violence, there are other ways that the public, and particularly the media and politicians, respond to this violence that tries to make sense of it using other lenses of interpretation. Often times, through mental health or [with] the perpetrator in New Zealand or the Las Vegas shooter or Dylann Roof, I remember all sorts of speculation about, “What type of relationship did Roof have with his mother when he was growing up?,” and I cannot remember an incident in the past decade or so when a perpetrator with a Muslim background was psychologized and psychoanalyzed in that way. It’s just assumed that this is singularly about something called Islam.
But it’s also important to understand the function of the word terrorism, which I think is a particular political function. It’s meant to delegitimize certain types of violence, and to legitimize other types of violence. And this goes beyond the terrorist attacks by white perpetrators. I’m talking about state violence. We struggle in the United States in public discourse to talk about state-sponsored violence, which includes violence that the United States actively supports or facilitates, such as the Saudi bombing of Yemen…broadly speaking, of course, the War on Terror, right?
We’re just a nation that struggles to talk about violence in any sort of nuanced way, in any sort of self-critical way. And terrorism is just another word, another category, that is meant to distract us from reflecting upon our ongoing complicity in a violent world order.
HS: I think that also speaks to the point of, what do we do with this word terrorism in light of growing awareness [of] white supremacist violence? Something I wanted to ask you about is, I think there’s been more media awareness and public awareness around white supremacist violence. And the word terrorism was widely used by the media to talk about the Christchurch attacks, and the New Zealand Prime Minister also referred to the attacker as a terrorist. So, in light of these types of conversations, has your thinking on the use of the word terrorism changed?
TG: Not really. Though I am–and I want to make this clear–I am very appreciative of those efforts (which are deliberate and very conscious efforts, I can tell) to try to call attention to that, if the November Paris attacks constitute terrorism, or if the Brussels attacks constitute terrorism, or if the Nice, France attacks constitute terrorism, then [the Christchurch, New Zealand attacks] should constitute terrorism, too. And just because it’s a person who’s white and presumably not drawing from Islam as a source of inspiration, we shouldn’t dismiss it as something else. And so I do appreciate that.
And my thinking could change on this down the road. I don’t know. I’m still skeptical–maybe it’s because scholars by nature are skeptical or cynical sometimes–but as to whether what happened in New Zealand and the narrative that politicians there and the Prime Minister there tried to generate about that particular kind of violence, that was picked up a little bit in other Western media outlets. Whether that’s going to stick or not…we’ll see. But history would not lead me to believe that we’re going to make a major change in the way we understand violence, just based upon this long history we have of white supremacist violence, which doesn’t just include terrorist attacks like what happened in Norway with Breivik, or what happened in New Zealand, or Dylann Roof, right? I mean, white supremacist violence is also structural violence. It’s the racial caste system. It’s mass incarceration. It’s all sorts of things that fall under that. And so I’ll have to see how things go, in terms of the larger political narrative.
Kudos to New Zealand, kudos to its political leadership, and the impact I think they’ve had at least on that terrorist attack in terms of the way we’re narrating it. But I’m still skeptical that our tune is going to change. We have a lot invested in the United States particularly, and the particular violent world order that we live in, that we benefit from. And there is still going to be some anxiety about calling attention broadly speaking to white supremacy apart from individual isolated attacks, like you might’ve seen in New Zealand, or seen in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or other places.
But systemic white supremacist violence, structural violence, that i would argue is still very much in place in the United States, I don’t see that changing. And therefore I don’t think that the terrorism conversation will change dramatically. But revisit this with me in a few years. Let’s see if the political conversation does actually change.
HS: My final question for you is about scholarship and impact. A lot of us working in the field of Islamophobia think about the social impact of our work, but as you touched upon earlier, those of us in academic circles also tend to be pretty cynical. How do you view the impact of your work? What do you hope could be the impact of your work?
TG: That’s a good way to think about it. I think anyone who studies Islamophobia that I know of, and certainly the Bridge Initiative here at Georgetown, you’re not indifferent to Islamophobia. You don’t come in here thinking, “I’m going to look at both sides: the pro-Islamophobia side, and the anti-Islamophobia side.” We don’t do that.
The word for that is engaged scholarship. A lot of people who study anti-black racism, they’re not “both-sides-ing” it, right? They have something invested in their scholarship in terms of shaping discourse and maybe shaping discourse to the point that it shapes policy, [and] calls attention and brings awareness to both the history and the ongoing manifestations of racism so that we can change as a society.
And I am certainly trying to do that with my own scholarship. More and more of my writing is for a larger public audience. In a perfect world, what I hope would change is that we start recognizing a lot of our anxieties and hostilities in the majority population toward Muslims.
But it is hard work. It is frustrating, in part because…it’s a different conversation for a different podcast as to, “Okay, I wrote some books, are people reading books anymore?” Or, do books allow me to do podcast interviews like this, and maybe more people will encounter my ideas this way?
I think that’s a hard conversation to have. How do you shape ideas? How do we engage the media? How do we engage politicians? Those are the big questions I wrestle with today. How do you actually take these ideas and translate them in a way that it could affect change?
But I will say this. It sounds cynical but it’s just realistic. By every metric I can think of, Islamophobia is getting worse. We’re not in a better situation. Hate crimes are just one way to measure that. You think of anti-Sharia legislation. You think of the policies proposed in the last presidential campaign. Muslim registration systems, Muslim ID cards. Statements like, “Islam hates us.” Not to mention ongoing military intervention in Muslim-majority countries. The Muslim Ban. By almost every metric, we are going in the wrong direction.
And for those of us who are engaged in this work of studying and responding to Islamophobia, we do need to do some soul searching about whether we are approaching this in the best way possible. And I don’t know the answer to that question. But nationally speaking, we’re still in a lot of trouble. And those of us who do this work have to take that seriously, and think about how our scholarship is and is not benefitting the conversation and the policies that we want to change.
HS: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s really great to hear your thoughts and get the behind-the-scenes version of your book and what led you to it. We appreciate your coming to speak with us at the Bridge Initiative.
TG: Well thank you, I appreciate the conversation. I’m a huge fan of the Bridge Initiative, and I look forward to these podcasts in the future so I can listen to them and learn more myself.
HS: Absolutely. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to speak to you again.
To stay informed on this topic and other issues related to Islamophobia, follow the Bridge Initiative’s research on its website, at bridge.georgetown.edu. If you liked what you heard today, be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Voices on Islamophobia. Thanks for listening, and tune in next time.