Progressives: Pointing Out Extremism is Just Like Extremism


In the wake of the attack on a French satirical paper yesterday, the progressive left has renewed an argument which says anyone who believes Islamic extremism is at war with western culture is an extremist themselves.

The argument goes like this. First, Islamic extremists believe they are at war with Western civilization. Second, “Islamophobes” believe the same thing. Third, both sides are wrong and should be ignored. For a recent example of this argument, here’s Vox’s Max Fisher responding the murders in Paris yesterday:

Allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists’ premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn’t). These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem.

Let’s go through this argument one point at a time. First, there’s no doubt Islamic extremists really do believe they are at war with our civilization. In the most recent issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine, Ayman al-Zawahiri writes, “We regret to inform you that you are the worst civilization in the history of the human race.” You can’t be much more blunt than that.

There is also no doubt that some anti-Islamic crusaders believe the extremists are right about Islam’s incompatibility with Western freedom. To use a well-known example, Pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran at his tiny church in Florida back in 2011. A few days later in Afghanistan an anti-American mob burned down part of the United Nations compound and murdered 12 people.

So we’ve established the two sides exist. And we’ve established that they are in some agreement about the nature of Islam. However, how do progressives get from these facts to the claim that both sides are wrong and should be ignored in polite society? Generally that’s an appeal to the silent majority of Muslims who obviously do not believe they are at war with Western culture. The progressive left often seems to assume the data is overwhelmingly on their side, i.e. that the percentage of Muslims who support violence or theocracy is so small that it is appropriate to ignore them as outliers.

In fact the available evidence from a recent Pew Research poll suggests that’s not the case. Stoning women for adultery, killing religious apostates and imposing Sharia law–all of these are majority views in some Islamic countries while in others these are merely views held by a sizeable minority. It should probably go without saying that such views are not compatible with what most of us think of as Western secular democracy. The favorability of these abhorrent beliefs even surprised Max Fisher who called the results “distrubing.” And if the two sides can’t be ignored as outliers then all that remains of this argument is a false equivalence.

This is not a case where progressives can call for a pox on both their houses. Pointing out someone else’s violent extremism, even in an intentionally provocative way, is not an attempt to limit speech. Cartoons mocking Islam are provocative, as is the act of burning a Koran, but neither act stifles discussion. On the contrary, both the cartoons and the Koran-burning were preceded by and resulted in a great deal of discussion around the world. It’s really not hard to tell who the extremists are in this case. They’re the ones with blood, not ink, on their hands.


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