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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Michael Shermer was wrong. Islam is not the problem.

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Over the past two weeks, news of the tragedy at the Paris office of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo has made its way to every corner of the globe. Though such despicable acts of terrorism are unequivocally horrible and ought to be immediately condemned, we are presented now with a teachable moment and a chance to take part in important discourses regarding freedom of speech, radical Islam, and endemic racism in France and through- out Europe.

That said, some rhetoric is point- less. Carleton College is blessed to be a conversational arena largely devoid of hate speech, but this was not the case on Friday, Jan. 9. On that day, in the first Convocation of the term, Skeptic magazine editor-in-chief Michael Shermer unleashed a rambling, Islamophobic tirade suffering from factual inaccuracies, logical failings, and blatant disregard for the fundamental rules of tolerance that we on this campus have attempted to follow.

There are multiple angles from which to address Shermer’s rant. To begin with, his use of evidence as it related to his arguments was flawed from the start. Shermer insisted that Muslims were not “bad people” per se, but that they were falling victim to the corrupting force of Islam. Yet to support this theory, he attempted to bring attention to the failures of Muslims while ignoring Islam itself.

The main evidence at his disposal was a Pew Research survey on global Muslim attitudes. Shermer selectively applies this evidence to form a conclusion that reeks of a bigoted phobia of “creeping Sharia” peddled on many right-wing talk shows.

To quote noted theologian and University of California – Riverside professor Reza Aslan, “Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.” Sharia law, which the polling indicates is supported by most Muslims, varies wildly from place to place. The one aspect of it that does not vary is the audience on which Muslims want to enact the law – other Muslims. Majorities in every region polled in this survey show that Muslims globally believe other groups ought to be governed by the laws of their choosing.

However, in addition to displaying an ignorance about Sharia, Shermer committed far more egregious mis- takes by being ignorant of history and of the present nature of Muslims and violence committed by them. Shermer based his speech on a false dichotomy. He succinctly stated that Islamic civilization is inherently back- ward while Western civilization has become the envy of the world due to the advancement promoted by “Western, secular, enlightenment thinkers.” The problems with this statement are twofold. For one, the Western Enlightenment was characterized by a rich tradition of religious thinkers. But be- yond that, the Enlightenment period is often credited in part to Muslim thinkers like Avicenna and Averroes, to name only two religiously-guided polymaths whose achievements have withstood the test of time.

Shermer’s knowledge of current affairs was similarly lacking. Though he might have you believe that Mus- lims are guilty of terroristic offenses worldwide, the numbers tell a dif- ferent story. Europol – the European Union’s law enforcement agency – found that of the 152 terrorist attacks carried out in Europe, the vast majori- ty were by separatist groups. Contrary to what biased media coverage would indicate, only two of the attacks were religiously motivated.

In the United States, the issue is exaggerated once again. The Boston Marathon bombing – a horrendous tragedy, to be sure – left three dead. It was the only act of Islamic terror- ism in the US that year. To put that into perspective, toddlers accidentally wielding guns killed five people in the US. Even as a subset of terrorist attacks, the role of Muslims is minimal – an FBI study found that in the average year, 94% of terrorist attacks in the US are committed by non-Muslims. And even the Godless, violent entity that is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has enough manpower to fill only about a third of the Rose Bowl stadium in California.

To be clear, the Muslim world has its faults. Islam has its extremists, and where they exist, they must be condemned and summarily dealt with. But we cannot lose our composure over the terror wrought by a tiny, fanatical minority. We cannot forget of the bulk of Muslims who oppose terrorists and die at their hands (or those who are victimized by hate crimes in the wake of such attacks), nor can we neglect the heroism of those like Ahmed Merabet, the police officer killed on the street by the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris, and Lassana Bathily, who is being hailed after tak- ing hostages to safety on the day of the attack. We must maintain the civility of our discourse, and we hope that the Convocations Committee will select speakers who will do the same.

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