Who decides who is and isn't a Muslim?

January 8th, 2015

On Wednesday (Jan. 7) Howard Dean, a 2004 U.S. presidential candidate and former governor of Vermont, appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and had this to say about the three gunmen who stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier that day: “I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They’re about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else’s life.”

This is absolute denial; there’s really nothing else to call it.

Like so many others in the press and in politics, Dean means well. With the growing concern over possible backlash against Muslims, he’s no doubt trying to say something — anything — to lower the temperature in the room a notch or two.

But insulting people’s intelligence is not the way to go about it.

Like Christians and those of other faiths, Muslims have their own internal disagreements over who qualifies as a real follower and who doesn’t. But for those of us on the outside, we mostly have to take people at their word. If they say they’re Muslim, then they are, even if many Muslims (and others) say they’re not. 

In this case, when terrorists claim to be avenging the founding prophet of Islam and leave the scene of an attack yelling, “Allahu Akbar,” it’s hard to convince the rest of the world that they’re anything but Muslim.

“I think you have to treat these people as basically mass murderers, but I do not think we should accord them any religious respect because, whatever they’re claiming their motivation is clearly is a twisted, cultish mind,” says Dean.

So, according to Howard Dean, they’re just generic religious extremists, no more Muslim than they are Christian or Buddhist.

Kmart brand terrorists, if you will.

I don’t buy it, and I don’t think many others do either.

The religion these terrorists follow may be an extreme or twisted form of Islam, but for classification purposes, what else is it if it’s not Islam?

In October, Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and Washington Post columnist, penned a thoughtful essay titled, “Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now.”

Zakaria wrote, “There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough.”

Note the difference between the perspectives of Zakaria (who was raised in a Muslim family, but doesn’t claim to be religious now) and Dean (an Episcopalian-turned-Congregationalist). Zakaria is the realist here.

Every religion has its maniacs, extremists and far-out sectarians. But as Zakaria notes, terrorism is a problem largely associated with Islam, not other religions, and the statistics appear to back that up.

Whenever I tweet something from the news about Islam and terrorism, I almost always get a reply like this: “Do you think the haters at Westboro Baptist Church are Christians?”

The short answer is, it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what those outside of Christendom think. Perception is often reality when it comes to public (and interreligious) relations.

Regarding Islam, there’s a huge middle ground between anti-Muslim extremists who are ready to burn mosques and deport all Muslims and the folks at the other end of the spectrum (like the former governor of Vermont) who create alternate realities to avoid uncomfortable truths.

Most intelligent and well-informed people probably know that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims don't support terrorism.

And it's unlikely that the others will be persuaded by a snow job from Howard Dean.

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