“If Muslims are peaceful, why don’t they condemn terrorism?”
This is a common question in some philosophical corners in response to headlines about attacks by radical Islamists. Assuming the good faith of those who ask this question, there are three important things to recognize.
1. Muslims do denounce terrorism.
It only takes a few minutes on Google to find condemnations of radical Islam by the Secretary General for the Organization Of Islamic Cooperation, the top cleric of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Al-Azhar’s Grand Mufti (the highest religious authority of Egypt), the chief of the Arab League, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Political Co-ordination Committee, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, dozens of UK imams, a Muslim HuffPo blogger, Muslims in Toronto, Muslims in Norway, and many, many more.
When someone says “I haven’t heard moderate Muslims denouncing radical Islam,” maybe what they really mean is “I haven’t looked for it.”
2. These denunciations are handicapped by the disincentives of information flow biases.
Why should this person have to look for it? He didn’t go looking for news about terrorist attacks – the news just came to him. Or so it seemed. Perhaps he implicitly assumes that news about condemnations of terrorist attacks should just come to him the same way.
I think there is a fallacy that “news” is a generally consistent portrayal of “things that are happening in the world.” I think this fallacy is especially seductive to those of us who “follow the news.” We know there are political biases in the way these “things” are portrayed or emphasized by certain sources, but I think we often ignore the inherent biases that affect whether or not events show up on our radar as “things” to be portrayed at all, and how they filter their way to our consciousness when they do.
Denunciations about terrorist attacks face multiple handicaps. First. people being killed tends to attract more attention than people talking. The latter is less likely to be introduced as “breaking news” or front-page headlines. Regardless of how prominently it is introduced, it is less likely to propagate through clicks, shares, comments, and general discussion.
Sometimes people talking about big events can attract more attention due to the connection to the big event. But a second handicap is that Western media and its Western consumers tend to pay more attention to Western people, especially those who are Important. That’s how Obama not going to France – a non-event that would normally register even less attention than Obama talking about something – was apparently a bigger deal last week than hundreds or thousands of Nigerians killed by Boko Haram. If dying Africans can’t compete with Obama’s travel plans, what hope do talking Arabs have?
A third handicap is that we tend to pay more attention to events that elicit emotion than events that absorb emotion. An article about someone condemning violence – if it finally manages to make it past the other handicaps – is less likely to elicit much reaction. Well, duh, denouncing violence is what we would expect any normal person to do. Normal expectation satisfied, emotion absorbed, not much impulse to share that story with others,
These handicaps hold true independently of political bias. A couple of the above links are from Fox News and the Blaze. But how prominently were such articles featured on these sites to begin with? How many clicks and shares did they receive? What percentage of articles do regular visitors to these sites read, what percentage of front-page vs. below-the-fold/deeplinked articles do regular visitors read, and what is the chance they saw those lesser articles at all?
3. If you really want more moderate denunciation of radicals, you should encourage and amplify the voices that are already doing that.
Some respond to the above points by moving the goalposts or making weaker claims: “Well, there’s still not enough of them” or “Well, they need to try harder” or “Well, it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?”
It can be simultaneously true that there are Muslims condemning violence done in the name of Islam and that the efforts of those voices should be increased. But I think people in good faith, if they really want those moderate voices to be more successful, should not respond with derision, but by recognizing the handicaps faced by those moderate voices and helping them out by encouraging and amplifying their voices.