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Between monsters and heroes: The rise of reformist Muslims

They are a minority, they have suffered more than anyone and they are our best allies against radical Islam

This is to my friends here in America who don’t believe there are Muslim reformists and Muslim moderates. Squeezed between the extreme right-wing who only see them as Radical Islamists, and the extreme left-wing who refuse to see the Islamic terror many suffered or witnessed, this group is in need of our support. To you, I say, grow up, and believe in fairy tales. There really are monsters. And there really are heroes, too. These are some of the heroes.

I treat Muslim patients who have been traumatized, either by the political violence from the rising tide of extremism in their original country, or by domestic violence and sexual abuse, which is higher, sometimes even rampant, in the cultures they come from. I go to some of their countries and treat them. I treat them here in LA. I have many friends who are Muslim, some of whom I love, some of whom I admire. I can attest, on my honor, there are moderate and reformist Muslims.

Yes, their numbers are not large — as is revealed in the frightening Pew polls. Yes, many are afraid to speak because their families, friends, and country may put them in danger. But they exist. And after the San Bernardino killings many of these Muslims in our country are afraid that the extremism they fled has come here. They are beginning to speak. They are beginning to organize. They need our support.

They know the threat from radical Islam better than you. They are witnesses to it. They are survivors from it. They have been trying to have people hear their stories, but as is true for most trauma survivors, most people do not want to hear. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us scared. And these trauma survivors have an extra problem: political groups funded by extremists support the crimes done against them. Their members dress up in suits and smiles and go on CNN to minimize the threat, or say that we are the threat. We are their safe haven. And they can help make us safer, too.

To be enriched by their depth, by their grace, by the beauty they cultivated from the horror of their experiences, we must be willing to see the horror they faced, to see these Muslims (and Yazidis, Jews, and Christians) as the victim-witnesses, not perpetrators. We must name the terror they have seen: Radical Islam. Whether it is Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Nusra, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, whether it comes from Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Iran, or San Bernardino, it is driven by radical Islam. By allowing ourselves to see through their eyes, we gain a telescopic view of a growing global threat ahead of time.

They are our best ally. They know the Syed Rizwan Farook’s better than you. They have gotten close enough to feel his breath, and hear the death rattles of their loved ones. They are angry, not only at their perpetrators, but they are angry at you. They are angry at you because you have responded to their stories by throwing rainbows and kisses, and platitudes of love and empathy at their perpetrators. You have made your theory — that world problems can be solved with a kiss — more important than their blood.

And I am angry, too. I am angry on behalf of them, on behalf of people I love. I understand your blinders because I drank the Kool Aid, too. Literally. I took LSD with Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, and the Merry Pranksters. I got into lofty discussions with Abbie Hoffman. We all thought that if everyone saw and felt like we did, the world would be a better place. Of course, everyone says that, including radical Islamists.

Then I joined peace groups. I was shocked by the placating I saw of radical Islamic perspectives; shocked by the apologists for their hatred, and shocked by the lower standards peace workers held for Muslims. In a charade of disrespect masked as kindness, Muslims were not held responsible for how they chose to respond to their suffering. It was all the fault of the US, or Israel, or the West, or the infidels. The well-meaning peace groups I saw had become enablers for the perpetrators.

So I joined psychology groups that saw the power and promise of empathy. I hoped that we, as mental health professionals, could use our training in domestic violence and couple-conflict to help these warring parties. But most of the time we only helped provide an ephemeral connection, quickly undone by the unnamed Radical Islamic ideology in the room which we were not allowed to notice — even when cries of “Kill the infidels” were shouted in the midst of group therapy. “They don’t mean it,” the director told me, when I complained. “Just be empathic. These were good, well-meaning therapists, who believed, like the people before them, that if everyone simply had empathy for everyone, there would be world peace. Beliefs that they would never offer to a victim of domestic violence — that she should just have empathy for her abusive husband — were offered wholesale to victims of Islamic terror, especially if they were Israeli. In fact, Israelis were often blamed for the terror done to them by counselors who would otherwise rail against the ignorant for blaming a rape victim for her rape. Over the long run, these well-meaning mental-health professionals were making things worse. The peace industry had become part of the problem.

So both the victims and I are angry at you. We are angry that you wouldn’t hear their cries before, that when you finally heard the cries, you blamed them. And when you stopped blaming them, you offered drawings of rainbows and unicorns and words of empathy to fight the real-world monsters.

Grow up, and believe in fairy tales. There really are monsters. Your ancestors embedded this message for you in the children’s stories to be passed through the generations. But your hippie parents rewrote the stories and removed the monsters because they were “too scary.” The monsters don’t go away, they are reflected in the eyes of the people you refuse to see. Look in their eyes. There are real moderate Muslims. There are real reformist Muslims. They are heroes. And they are trying to help. Notice them, and help them.

Begin by signing this petition.

About the Author
Orli Peter, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of trauma survivors. She is a former psychology professor at Mount St. Mary's University in Los Angeles, where she directed the psychology graduate programs. She travels frequently to the Middle East to help Arab and Israeli women through political and domestic trauma.
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