Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why did it matter that they were Muslim?

Why did it matter that the pilots were Muslim?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself every time I read or watched one of the theories surrounding the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370. Understandably, after the flight was missing for more than a week, one of the theories that emerged centered on hijacking. Almost immediately, the American media started pointing to the fact that both the pilot and the copilot (as well as presumably a majority of the passengers and flight attendants) were Muslim. My question is, why does that matter? Or more specifically, why does that matter when assessing whether or not a hijacking has taken place?

In the wake of 9/11, the American media has become obsessed with the trope of Muslim-as-terrorist. Yet the country on average remains blissfully ignorant of a) what exactly Islam is and who exactly Muslims are, and b) the history of terrorism. For instance, it probably surprised most citizens (and newscasters) to learn that the largest Muslim country in the world is not, in fact, in the Middle East. It’s in East Asia, and is Indonesia, the country that borders Malaysia. It probably surprised many to learn that Malaysia is a Muslim majority country as well, with around 61 percent of the population professing Islam as their religion. In fact, most of the world’s Muslims live in South or Southeast Asia, and only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims live in Arab countries.

It also probably shocks most people to find out that more terrorist attacks on US soil since 1980 have been carried out by Jewish extremists than Muslims. You read that right: Jewish extremists. Yet I’m guessing that if the flight had been piloted by a Jewish person rather than a Muslim, their religion would never have been brought up in musings over whether the flight had been hijacked.

Terrorist attacks committed on US soil 1980-2005; Source: FBI

I don’t really expect the majority of Americans to know these facts. They offer perspective, and they’re certainly pertinent to the debate on terrorism, but people are busy trying to get by and live their lives, while only nerds like me spend their days obsessing over international trivia. What I do expect (or more appropriately, wish) is for television news (lookin' at you CNN) to at the very least offer a more nuanced view of terrorism, its perpetrators, and the psychology behind those who commit terrorist acts. It is, after all, their job, and with the proliferation of 24-hour news networks, you’d think at least one segment of those 24-hours could be devoted to actually informing people. For further rants on CNN's awful reporting, please see The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who does an immensely better job than I at taking this network down a peg or two.

Sometimes Muslims commit acts of terror. Sometimes Jewish people do, and sometimes Christians do as well. Sometimes people with no particular religious affiliation at all are terrorists. It’s never certain why people participate in terrorism, but I suspect that it’s often because they’re scared, and angry, and just a little bit crazy. What is certain is the incredible tragedy that 239 people lost their lives recently on flight MH 370. To think of what the (presumably Muslim) families of the pilot and co-pilot had to go through as they waited to find out whether or not their father/brother/son was dead is… unthinkable. Investigators going through your house; the international media castigating your loved one; and countless people pointing their fingers suggesting that you loved a terrorist.

The unimaginable grief that those families, as well as the families of the passengers, are going through now seems more than one person should have to deal with in a lifetime. Defending against charges of terrorism based on little more than a relative’s religion is too much to ask these people to bear.


  1. very well written and makes a lot of sense...why indeed..

  2. What were the 18 specific acts of terrorism committed by the Jewish Defense league that you are talking about and how do you feel those acts compare to the actions on 9/11

  3. The FBI report sited is available here: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/terror/terrorism-2000-2001.

    The attacks are not cited here as a comparison to the attacks of 9/11, which, as the most deadly terrorist attacks on US soil in history, are incomparable. Nor are they cited to indicate that Jewish people are prone to commit terrorism (my intention is, in fact, the opposite: I wish to demonstrate that believing in a particular religion has little concrete connection to propensity to commit terrorism). The data is offered as an example of the nuanced and complex nature of terrorism and those who commit it, who subscribe to a multitude of religious views and cannot be easily sorted into the box of "Islamist or Muslim as terrorist." Not every Muslim is an Islamist; not every Islamist is a terrorist; and not every terrorist is a Muslim.

  4. Not every terrorist is a Muslim but could every TRUE Muslim be a terrorist?

    Think about this
    Roman Catholic..... Roman Catholic Extremist
    Orthodox Jewish...................Orthodox Jewish Extremist
    Muslim..................Muslim Extremist

    I think there is no such thing. Your Roman Catholic or your not Your orthodox Jewish or your not your Muslim or your not.

    I was born and baptized Roman Catholic and a few years ago if you were to ask me my religion I would have said Roman Catholic. But the established Roman Catholic church would not see it that way. I am not a bad person, I just do not completely align with the doctor en of the Roman Catholic church. That being said I have my values and they are morally sound and similar.Part of what it is to be Roman Catholic is to spread this form of Christianity and bring more people into the Roman Church and they don't believe people should be killed for not converting.

    It is my understanding that to be Muslim; conversion of non Muslims is a big part of the belief, to the extent that non believers are to be killed.

    Then even when you break it down to Sunni and Shiite Muslim they hate each other simple because they can not agree on who was Mohammed's successor. Not sure but a lot of what this religion is about involves killing other humans?

    1. If you look at each of the world's major religions, they have all included factions that at one point or another committed horrendous acts of violence in the name of their beliefs. The world's most prolific religiously-inspired killers and torturers are, of course, Christians if you know your history. The views you've expressed here that equate being "a true" Muslim with believing in violent proselytization are incredibly ill-informed and point to the root of the problem I discuss in the article: the portrayal in the media, and belief of many Americans, that Islam and the Qur'an itself promote violence any more than the pages of the Bible or the Torah (and their adherents) do. All of the Muslims that I know would argue the opposite: that the root of Islam is peace, that their interpretation of the Qur'an suggests that any "true" Muslim would never commit an act of violence against another, that all "People of the Book" (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) believe in the same God... the list goes on and on.

      The analogy that you would not be considered a "true" Christian by the Roman Catholic Church does not hold here: first of all, there is no central church to judge Muslims on their "trueness"; secondly, a majority of Muslims do not believe in the use of violence to spread religion and shun the extremists as the true non-believers.

      It's a shame that a small group of radicals has been allowed to characterize a population of over 1.5 billion believers. Just as I do not judge Jewish people by the actions and platform of the JDL, I think that it is wrong to judge Muslims by the actions of terrorist groups that claim the same religion. Muslim religious beliefs are just as varied if not more than Christian beliefs, and to paint all Muslims with a broad brush as you've done here denigrates not only their religion, but their very humanity.