In the last few years, and especially after the 9-11, the idea of a widespread, relentless, and endless attack on Muslims has been popularized in the West by a number of Muslim organizations,
Muslim Brotherhood-leaning groups, and some academics and policymakers. According to this narrative, Muslims are oppressed everywhere, from Kashmir to the West, by states and by other communities, whether Jews, Christians, Hindus, atheists, or secularists.
To argue against this narrative does not mean ignoring or underestimating the actual persecution that thousands of Muslims face in some parts of the world, or the reality of Islamophobia, an alarming trend in global public opinion. Muslim suffering should not be trivialized. Nor can it be honestly denied that in everyday settings, many Muslims are indeed harassed — at airports, in public spaces, and on social media.
But part of what it takes to rectify these injustices is to stand up to the hypocrisy of those who spin bitter realities into a narrative of victimization that fuels Muslims’ resentment toward the broader world, while deflecting any personal responsibility.
Two themes are especially prominent in the narrative of Muslim victimhood.
The first is the claim that, after every terrorist attack, the whole world blames all Muslims. This does not correspond to reality. While ignorance and bigotry prevail among a subset of public opinion, millions more do distinguish between Muslims and terrorists and between Islam and terrorism.
The second theme amounts to a mixture of deflection and defensiveness: “Why should Muslims feel obliged to condemn or feel guilty about something they are not responsible for?”
But when mainstream political commentators and policymakers demand a stronger condemnation of terrorism from Muslim communities, that is not the same as to hold them responsible for the acts themselves. They rather mean to say that, even if only a numerically insignificant portion of a Muslim community claims to act in its name, Muslims must give the lie to this claim, in support of efforts to isolate the criminal minority. Radicalism is a virus and a strong immune system is required to eradicate it.
The narrative of victimhood brings harmful consequences. Three in particular bear describing.
First, it amounts to a form of censorship: If one criticizes Muslim majorities for failing to assume personal responsibility for the problem of terrorism, one is labeled “Islamophobic.” Liberal democracies and their defenders are accused of discrimination, persecution, and indiscriminate profiling. They face pressure to relinquish their own sense of identity, and effectively cede the public space to Islamists.
Second, the narrative of victimhood serves Islamists’ effort to manipulate Muslims en masse. Even in the United States, where Muslim emigres and their children are among the more economically mobile Americans, Islamists strive to instill the fantasy of exploitation and marginalization.
Third, this manufactured feeling of victimhood is likely to foster radicalization.
Salman Abedi, the 23-year-old British citizen who carried out the Manchester Arena attack on May 22, 2017, is a striking example. While attending the Burnage Academy for Boys in Manchester, a community high school with a large Muslim student population, Abedi accused a teacher of Islamophobia for having merely criticized suicide attackers. A few years later, Abedi became a suicide bomber himself, killing 23.
A few months before his act of terror, on November 28, 2016, a vehicle-ramming and stabbing attack occurred at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. The attacker, Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was killed by a police officer after 13 people had been injured. Three months before the violent assault, in an interview with the student newspaper The Lantern, Artan complained about the lack of prayer rooms in the school and denounced the media for portraying Muslims negatively: “I just transferred from Columbus State. We had prayer rooms, like actual rooms where we could go pray because we Muslims have to pray five times a day. I mean, I’m new here. This is my first day. This place is huge, and I don’t even know where to pray. I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media. I’m a Muslim, it’s not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen. But, I don’t blame them. It’s the media that put that picture in their heads so they’re just going to have it. I was kind of scared right now. But I just did it. I relied on God. I went over to the corner and just prayed.”
The possibility that victimhood and self-pity can trigger violence gives further cause to challenge the narrative of victimhood.
Olivier Roy observed that contemporary Islamist radicals tend to “Islamize rebellion rather than rebel in the name of Islam.” In other words, they are in search for a cause and a rebel identity, and find both in Islam. The narrative of victimhood plays a role in this process: It puts an Islamic cover on social discontent to claim that all the problems Muslims face stem from an assault on their religious identity. Young Muslims in the West who swallow this narrative cultivate hostility toward the majority culture — sometimes a gateway to worse.