Of course, there are numerous problems with this question, and several appropriate responses to it. Firstly, there is the hypocrisy that, as Senator Sherrod Brown recently noted, a significant portion of terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11 in the US have been committed by white men, who — it should be said — were often Christian, and that in spite of this fact, people that look like me aren’t expected to apologize or condemn these attacks. Secondly, of course, large numbers of Muslims have indeed condemned the attacks, which leaves one to wonder how many times one must apologize to satisfy the urge to cast guilt on the religion.
Thirdly, and this is the point I want to dwell on in this post, the question itself is deeply prejudiced and objectionable because of the way that it conflates all Muslims with terrorism (as we also see implicitly in point one above). Although I’m grossly ignorant of the specifics of Islam (as I am with Christianity, I suppose it should be said), with 1.6bn members Islam is a varied and diverse religion with different branches and subdivisions including Sunni, Sufi, Wahhabi, Shia containing countless schools of jurisprudence within each. Different religious groups focus on different portions of the Quran, with some emphasizing those portions purportedly written in Mecca, and others emphasizing the Medina texts, and some, of course, have joined the death cult that is Daesh. Among many other things, this makes it plausible for practicing Muslims to say things like, “These people [terrorists] are not Muslim… They don’t represent Islam, because they don’t represent what we believe in. These so-called jihadists, or fundamentalists, they only represent themselves.” So, then, the expectation that ‘Muslims’ condemn these terrorist attacks reduces all the complexity, diversity, and dynamism within the religion and the people who live their lives alongside and through the religion. In so doing, I think it quite clearly reveals the implicit (and often not so implicit) bigotry that motivates this line of questioning.
In light of this, let me suggest that — as an antidote to the bigotry within the question of whether Muslims should condemn these awful actions — it is worthwhile to revise and distort the question in an attempt to bring out some of the diversity, complexity, and contributions that Islam and the Middle East more broadly (as the two are not synonymous, of course) has brought to the world. Consequently, let me ask whether non-Muslims should celebrate the wonderful actions and outcomes that this religion and region has brought to the world. Of course, this revised question is as naive and foolish as the one on which it is modeled, but I think it’s worth asking nonetheless, as it brought home to me (at least) just how misguided it is to cast our current predicament as one of Christians vs radical Muslims (which Marco Rubio is wont to do), or as Christians vs. Muslims simpliciter as Donald Trump sets up the issue in his typically blunt and buffoonish fashion. In spite of its flaws, I ask this question as it has brought me a little humility and perspective, which can so easily be lost during periods of tumult and dislocation and be drowned out by the beating of the war drums.
What, then, do I as an atheist white male in the US have to celebrate in Islam? Well, the fact is that — as people from Jeremy Waldron to Amartya Sen have argued — like people of all religions, races, and genders, I can’t be reduced merely to these features. Instead, I am a complex person with interests that cut across these identities and connect me to other people in myriad ways. Amongst my other interests and identities, my life gets great meaning and direction from my work in political theory. I learn much about myself as a human being and about the political world from this reading, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to stand on the shoulders of those thinkers who came before me, and to contribute to this ongoing body of research and knowledge. Importantly, this body of knowledge would look very different without the work of Islamic scholars in especially the period from around 400-1200AD, and for them I am grateful.
As Jerry Cohen notes in If You’re An Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich, we’re each just a drop in the ocean so we shouldn’t chastise ourselves if our contributions arise to nothing more than the tiny ripple caused by a little drop. As it stands, I’m just a drop. There are, however, a handful of thinkers including Plato & Socrates, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Hobbes, Kant, and Marx who make not ripples, but great waves in the field of political theory and contribute to remarkable shifts in actual political structures. What gives me great pause is the realization that, although Aristotle has had amongst the greatest influences of all, it is quite possible that without careful restoration, preservation and translation by Arabic scholars, he may have been lost to history in the early years of the first millennium. Although Aristotle’s work on logic was translated by Roman scholars up through at least the 5th century, his political and ethical works appeared to have been lost to the Western world by the Middle Ages (due to especially the collapse of the Roman Empire). As Arlene Saxonhouse pithily puts the point, important work like the Politics and the Ethics only began to renter into Europe “through contact with the Moors in Spain and with the Arabs during the Crusades” (Women in the History of Political Thought, p. 144). So, then, without the work of Islamic scholars committed to preserving the intellectual history of Europe when Europe could not do it herself, my field of study would look very different to the way it does now. Indeed — putting the non-identity problem aside — one wonders whether Thomas Hobbes would have felt compelled to construct a political theory that fundamentally repudiates the work of ‘The Philosopher’ without the work of these Arabic scholars. We certainly wouldn’t have the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and we would likely be deprived of what I think are some of the best arguments in defense of a democratic and humanistic education.
Consequently, I celebrate the fine work of Muslim thinkers and intellectuals and their profound influence on the shape of Western political thought and political life. Without them, I would not only be studying an impoverished field of thought, but I would also likely live in a very different society to the one that I revere.