A British man shouted, “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv,” at a terrorist. What happened next won’t exactly blow your mind.
In my recent list of tropes for the political use and misuse of terrorism, I included a form of argument called No True Muslim. It’s a play on an old form of circular reasoning known as No True Scotsman, which goes something like this.
“No true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
“But my Uncle Hamish puts sugar on his porridge.”
“Aye, then he must be no true Scotsman.”
In the No True Muslim version, “the trope is used by a non-Muslim to disavow the association of Muslims with any negative qualities—particularly religiously motivated violence—by asserting that anyone who commits such violence must be No True Muslim.”
As an example, I mentioned a story from Britain in which a Muslim man attacked people on the London subway, proclaiming that it was “for Syria.” A bystander was recorded shouting back at him, “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv.” This was gleefully repeated in the British media and by Prime Minister David Cameron, who seized on it as evidence of the rejection of violence and terrorism by the ordinary, moderate British Muslim.
At the time, though, the person who shouted that sentence had not been identified. Since then he has been, and his story is just too deliciously perfect an example of the No True Muslim trope.
It turns out that “John,” which is how he is identified, “is not Muslim himself, but said he is angry that terrorist groups such as ISIL claim to represent Islam.” He tells the London Telegraph, “ISIS should be wiped out, because they’re not Muslims, because Muslims don’t do that. It’s as simple as that.”
Except, of course, that a Muslim did do that. And John actually knows this, because the story gets even better. Why is he identified only by his first name, refusing to let the newspapers publish his last name? “Now the man behind the comments has said he fears retribution from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—also known as ISIS—after their popularity.”
Well, there you go. The subway attacker wasn’t a Muslim, and the Islamic State is not Islamic—yet somehow they have an insistent interest in cutting off the head of any infidel who dares to make pronouncements about Islam.
What makes this such a perfect example of the trope is that it is once again non-Muslims who are insisting they know better about who and what are “truly” Islamic. And that they are doing it in the face of obvious counterexamples, which they acknowledge by their own actions—in this case, a subway attack by a Muslim, followed by a threat from radical Muslims.
To be sure, there are many “moderate,” non-violent, non-terrorist Muslims in Britain, and in America, and in the rest of the world. See a moving Facebook post by a disabled British soldier for some great perspective on this. Yet there is no point in denying the existence of the large faction of Muslims who support tyranny and terror—which has been measured by polling and ranges from one in three to one in ten in various Western countries. Those who are killers or who support murder may be a minority, but they are a significant minority.
A debate among these people about the meaning of Islam and who is a true Muslim is useful and ongoing. But that’s not what the No True Muslim trope is about. The non-Muslims who make pronouncements about Islam are not actually attempting to influence Muslims or say anything about Islam. They’re trying to say something about themselves. John’s somewhat inarticulate explanation of what he was thinking ends with: “I don’t believe in all that.” It’s a message about what he believes, not what Muslims believe. It’s about establishing the purity of one’s own attitudes and motives.
Among the commentariat, No True Muslim is about scrambling for political power and authority by portraying yourself as more tolerant and enlightened than your political opposition—by refusing to recognize the nature or existence of a creed that is notably intolerant and unenlightened. For the average person, it is meant to signal your own virtue as a right-thinking person who doesn’t succumb to “Islamophobia,” even in the face of obvious evidence that there really is something to fear from Islam.
It is this inward focus, the emphasis on what we believe instead of what our enemies believe, that is the problem. We’re so focused on reinforcing our cherished intellectual tropes that we render ourselves incapable of dealing with the reality right in front of our faces.