Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a basketball legend and, no doubt, a role model for tens of millions of young people around the globe.  Which is probably why, in 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed him Global Cultural Ambassador, with special emphasis on education to tolerance.  Add the fact that Kareem is a Muslim – and one can understand why I read with extreme interest a commentary he penned for Time Magazine, in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris.

At first, I was thrilled:Kareem opened his article by acknowledging that “another horrendous act of terrorism has taken place”.  I was expecting some thoughtful analysis and well-pondered proposals on how to ensure that ’another’ will finally become ‘the last’.  But, soooo disappointingly, he proceeded to explain that “these barbaric acts are in no way related to Islam”.  And to complain that he even has to explain such obvious thing.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Caliph of the Islamic State addressing followers in Mosul, Iraq

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed ‘Caliph’ of the ‘Islamic State’ addressing followers in Mosul, Iraq (public domain)

To claim that Islamist terrorism is “in no way related to Islam” is absurd, pointless and unhelpful.

It is absurd, because Jihadi terrorists do not come from Mars, they come from within our society; and more precisely, they come from within Muslim communities.

It is pointless, because reasonable people don’t blame Islam and Muslims en-masse; and Kareem’s ‘washing of the hands’ is unlikely to convince the unreasonable ones.

Finally, it’s unhelpful, because it attempts to slam shut the door leading to analysis and solutions. Kareem is right when he argues ‘Hey, don’t look at me, I’m not to blame for this’; but he is wrong when he appears to say ‘Hey, it’s not my problem’.

I cannot repeat this often enough: Muslims cannot, should not be blamed – either individually or collectively – for the acts of a few extremists.  But nor can, nor should it be ignored that there are issues within Muslim communities, issues that enable extremists to grow in their midst like a cancer – wrongly tolerated, recklessly unchallenged until it’s too late.  Muslims like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are certainly free of blame; but that should not make them free of introspection.

US-born imam-turned-terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki

US-born imam-turned-terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki (CC BY-SA)

As mentioned in a previous article, 20% of US-born Muslims believe that suicide bombing aimed at innocent civilians is justified (whether ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’), in order to defend Islam from its enemies”.  45% of European-born Muslims believe that “Jews cannot be trusted”.  Of course, not everyone expressing extremist, racist opinions will go on to commit acts of terror; but it’s from the toxic soil of fundamentalism and intolerance that those poisonous weeds draw their venom.

20%, 45%… These numbers represent minorities; but not fringe minorities.  The sane majority of Muslims (to which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar belongs) cannot merely shrug them away and sanctimoniously intone “nothing to do with Islam”.  The toxic soil needs to be cleaned – and who if not that sane majority will do it??

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar does not appear to understand that; fortunately, other Muslims do.

In an article entitled ‘Only Muslims can change the world’s view of Islam‘, Mohammed Wattad (a Visiting Professor with the University of California at Irvine), opines:

Terrorism today stems primarily from Muslims in the name of Islam, and we cannot brush off accusations about our faith just by saying that the terrorists do not act in our name.

In her acclaimed book ‘The Trouble with Islam Today’, Canadian activist Irshad Manji pleads:

When he [Prophet Muhammad] was asked to define religion, he reportedly replied that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others.  A fine definition – simple without being simplistic.  And yet, by that definition, how we Muslims behave, not in theory but in actuality, is Islam.  Which means our complacency is Islam.  It also means the power is ours to restore Islam’s better angels, those who care about the human rights of women and religious minorities.  To do that, though, we have to snap out of our denial.  By insisting that there’s nothing the matter with Islam today, we’re sweeping the reality of our religion under the rug of Islam as an ideal, thereby absolving ourselves of responsibility for our fellow human beings, including our fellow Muslims. See why I’m struggling?  By writing this open letter, I’m not implying that other religions are problem -free.  Hardly.  The difference is, libraries abound in books about the trouble with Christianity.  There’s no shortage of books about the trouble with Judaism.  We Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department.  Whose permission are we waiting for?

Whose, indeed?  [T]he power is ours to restore Islam’s better angels…”  Someone should tell Global Cultural Ambassador Abdul-Jabbar that education to tolerance, just like charity, begins at home!