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Should Muslims Have to Condemn Terrorism?

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists are sufficiently common that we've developed a ritualized commentary about them. Some people, especially non-Muslim politicians, explain that the latest atrocity was incompatible with "true Islam" and warn us not to overreact. Others say the atrocity exposed Islam's dark heart, and then get called bigots.

An additional ritual concerns the reaction of peaceful Muslims. Some people say they have a duty to denounce the attacks -- such as the slaughter this week of 132 Pakistani schoolchildren by the Taliban -- while others heatedly deny that any such duty exists. Max Fisher, writing at Vox.com, spoke up this week for the last group. To say that Muslims should denounce the attacks is to assume that they might have sympathy for them, and to impose a special burden on Muslims alone. Merely reporting that Muslim organizations have condemned violence, Fisher argues, reflects "bigoted assumptions" even if the reports are well intentioned: Why should it be considered newsworthy that these organizations abhor terrorism?

I'm sympathetic to Fisher's view, up to a point. Liberal societies are rightly skeptical of notions of collective responsibility. I wouldn't demand that prominent Muslim groups condemn terrorist acts, or hold their refusal to speak up as an endorsement of violence. But Fisher takes this viewpoint too far. The logical implication of his argument is that when Muslim groups do condemn such violence, they're making a concession to bigotry.

I'd argue, by contrast, that Muslim groups have good reasons for condemning it -- and that journalists should report it when they do.

Foremost among those reasons is that the extremists are committing outrages in the name of something that peaceful Muslims care deeply about: the religion they at least nominally share. If the news were full of people killing civilians in the name of Christianity, I'd feel obligated to say that they were grossly distorting my religion. Leaving aside questions of self-respect, it would be a religious duty to defend the integrity of the faith and combat misunderstandings of it -- especially perverted misunderstandings.

This motive should be augmented by the fact that extremists enjoy non-trivial support among Muslims around the world. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 26 percent of Muslims in Bangladesh think that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is sometimes justified. They're a minority, to be sure, but one that includes about 40 million people. Seven percent of Indonesian Muslims agreed: another 17 million people or so.

When Muslims condemn violence and declare it contrary to Islam, they may make some of these sympathizers reconsider, or at least keep their numbers from growing. They're more likely to have this influence than non-Muslims who say the same things. They may therefore wish to exert that influence to improve the health of their faith.

And they may wish to improve its reputation as well. This isn't a concession to anti-Muslim prejudice. It isn't bigoted to note that many Muslims -- though, again, not a majority -- tolerate extremist violence. It's the unfortunate truth. That truth affects how non-Muslims view the Muslim world. If Christians were, in the name of Christianity, committing violence against people going about their daily business, I'd want non-Christians to know that the great mass of my coreligionists doesn't tolerate it -- and I'd be dismayed if silence created the opposite impression.

It would be wrong to infer support for terrorism from silence: Perhaps Muslims who refrain from condemning terrorists do so because they agree with Fisher and resent the idea that they should have to say anything. But one cost of not saying anything is that it makes it harder for non-Muslims to get a sense of where the balance of opinion among Muslims lies. All in all, condemnation seems to me the wiser course.

And since there manifestly is a dispute among people who call themselves Muslim about what their religion means and how it should be practiced, reporters should cover how that dispute is conducted -- including denunciations of Islamist terrorism by Muslims. Those denunciations should be welcomed, not fretted over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net