- - Monday, January 4, 2016

When I hear about the latest bone-chilling crime committed by a member of a group, I ask, “Is this the action of a few very bad apples, or is there something rotten about the barrel?”

The question becomes more poignant when the “barrel” in question is a religious community. If you’re fortunate enough to belong to a religious community, you know its many benefits — fellowship, mutual aid, spiritual connection and worship, to name a few. Perhaps the greatest spiritual gift is the opportunity for self-examination that supports moral change and personal growth. Every religion I know of includes the possibility for individual repair, repentance and renewal.

But what happens when the community itself is in need of repair? What if problems in the community implicate a “bad barrel?”

Too often, a religious community will resist facing the possibility of its own culpability in the moral failures of its members. The current movie “Spotlight” brings to the screen the real-life situation of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. The church and the larger Boston community colluded in denial and cover-ups for many years.

Those who tried to expose the crimes found themselves sidelined, maligned and intimidated. It took an outsider with investigative resources and the power of the press, a new, non-Bostonian editor of the Boston Globe, to see that the problem was systemic. It led up through the highest levels.

Boston was indeed a bad barrel. Only when that truth was faced could the institution begin to change, its victims begin to heal.

What happens when mass murderers arise from within religious communities? Let’s see how two communities responded.

Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginian Polytechnic Institute went on a shooting rampage that left 32 people dead and 17 wounded. His community was devastated by sorrow and shame. The Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Virginia, is racially and culturally distinctive, and as a vulnerable minority, they worried about the risk of reprisals. So they protected themselves with additional security.

But fear of retaliation did not dominate their response. It did not stop there. It proceeded through self-examination.

Although Cho had been clearly mentally ill, the community questioned what it might have done to help him and his family earlier. What support or intervention might have prevented his massacre, they wondered. Some of their religious leaders called on the community to participate in a 32-day fast, one day for each victim, for repentance. Theirs was a truly religious response.

Compare that to the Muslim community’s response to the San Bernadino mass shooting that left 14 people dead and 22 seriously injured. The murderers were a couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, strictly religious Muslims who attended a local mosque.

How did the leadership of the American Muslim community respond? They strongly condemned the murders … and then changed the subject to their fear of reprisals. Full stop.

With a now-familiar script orchestrated by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), the media are led to focus on the subject of potential threat to the U.S. Muslim community rather than the actual threat of violence from radical, extremist Muslims. The script has various ways of deflecting responsibility away from Islam and the Muslim community. One is the bogeyman of Islamophobia.

Muslim leaders have it wrong when they project “Islamophobia” onto the general public.

The real “Islamophobia” is the Muslim community leaders’ fearful aversion to looking inside themselves. As violence continues to arise from within the Muslim community, can they still close our eyes and say “it’s a few bad apples,” or is it time to examine the barrel?

Following the initial condemnation of violence, the discussion was dominated by denial and minimization, expressed with an undertone of self-pity and a sense of victimization, as in, “Why do they focus on Islam? Most mass shooters in the U.S. have not been Muslim!” The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, is a favorite reference in this argument.

The verbiage is all about deflection:

• Deflect — “Islamophobia.”

• Deflect — “We’re afraid of retaliators.”

• Deflect — “What about other murderers?”

Those who represent the Muslim community often use subtle and sophisticated means to deflect from the need for self-examination.

Two of these techniques were skillfully demonstrated in the recent PBS interview of Manal Omar, acting vice-president for the Middle East and Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Asked to respond to President Obama’s statement about the need for the Muslim community to take more responsibility, Mr. Omar replied, “I’m worried about putting all that responsibility on the Muslim community. Absolutely everyone must play a role if we are to combat violent extremism. It can’t just be the Muslims, we need everyone.”

But if “everyone” is responsible, then no one in particular is responsible. Diffusion of responsibility prevents self-examination. Reframing the issue impedes self-examination, too. Every listener knows what “radical Islamic terrorism” means. In contrast, “violent extremism” is an abstract concept with no particular address. The problem becomes fuzzy; the responsibility vague.

The Catholic Church needed an outsider to force it to face itself. The Korean-American Christian community had the courage do it on its own. Self-examination is now urgently needed in the Muslim community.

The rich religious tradition of Islam is unequivocally in favor of soul-searching self-examination. In our phone conversation, Omer Salem, who holds advanced degrees from both Yale University Divinity School and AlAzhar University, Cairo, Egypt, explained the four-step process available to a Muslim who has harmed someone, which also applies to the community that enabled or participated in harming, as follows:

• Remorse.

• Repent to Allah.

• Resolve to change the behavior.

• Make amends /restitution and ask forgiveness. (This step can be accomplished via messenger, when face-to-face is not feasible.)

It is time for the Muslim community to look inward. Time to examine its barrel.

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