If you’ve been following the news in Iceland over the past few days, or even if you’ve just passed through Facebook, you’ve probably seen the storm that erupted over Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson “just asking” if we should maybe investigate all 1,500 or so of Iceland’s Muslims to see if any of them went to terrorist training camps. The reaction from most of the rest of the country was swift. Even members of Ásmundur’s own party were quick to denounce the idea (PROTIP: if resident arch-conservative Björn Bjarnason thinks you’ve gone too far with your othering, chances are you really went too far), so it doesn’t look as though Ásmundur’s idea is going to get off the ground. But I do want to point out a rhetorical device he used in raising this idea; one I’ve seen from Christian culture warriors and atheists alike when it comes to talking about Islam. To pull out some of his choice quotes here:
“I have often thought about asking these questions before but I have always wanted to believe the best in people but that’s not relevant where national security is concerned.”
“I’m just throwing this out there. I wonder whether we need to worry if these kinds of people are lurking [in Iceland]. I have no idea if they are or not. I just think that we should discuss it.”
“I’m just wondering if we don’t need to think the issue over and consider the future.”
And so forth. You see what he did there? He’s not saying any of Iceland’s Muslims went to terrorist training camps; he’s “Just Asking Questions”. This rhetorical device is known as JAQing off. It’s a way to throw terrible accusations at people by cowardly phrasing them as leading questions. I could, for example, ask if Ásmundur is a white supremacist who has an account on Stormfront, believes in Christian Identity ideology and has attended meetings with the Aryan Nations. I mean, I’m not saying he is. I’m just asking questions. I have no idea if he is or not. I just think we should discuss it.
But let’s not single out Ásmundur. The Progressive Party also did their share of JAQing off about Islam earlier this year, for example when city councilperson Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir “just asked” if we want to have to deal with forced marriages in Iceland.
This JAQing off about Islam is invariably tied in with the idea of “just wanting an open and honest discussion” about Islam. Two problems with this: First, the idea is predicated on the belief that there isn’t already a discussion (or really, thousands of discussions) about Islam already going on, when this is demonstrably false. Second, it’s not like you can’t just use The Google to contact the Muslim Association of Iceland to ask all the questions you want to your heart’s content. No, the people who “just” want to have a discussion about Islam are probably aware there’s discussions about Islam going on – they’re just not the discussions they want to have. They’re usually not interested in talking with Muslims, but about them (one caveat: Ásmundur has posted a shout-out to Iceland’s Muslims on his Facebook asking for such a meeting, apparently also unaware of the power of The Google to find Muslim organisations, which he admitted in an interview he doesn’t even know exist).
Self-identified Christians aren’t the only ones who take part in this, either. I have plenty of atheist friends who also “just” want to talk about Islam. As an atheist myself, I have serious reservations with the rhetoric they put forward. Most commonly you’ll see “Islam is not a race, ergo I am not being racist”, yet they invariably talk about Islam as a religion practiced exclusively by in-coming Middle Eastern immigrants, and not a religion which has existed on the continent for centuries, practiced not just by immigrants but also by folks as Euro as any other native-born continental. They may contend that they “question all religions equally”, yet place a disproportionate amount of focus on jihadists. From so-called rationalists, this is highly irrational. According to data from Europol, less than 1% of European acts of terror from 1980 to 2005 were committed by self-identified Muslims. Meanwhile, right here in our backyard, we have fundamentalists who control our government and schools who are anti-woman, anti-LGBT and anti-minority. We also have extremists (some of whom came from abroad) who have already committed religiously-motivated hate crimes against other Icelanders – but they’re not Muslims. Treating jihadists as the real threat to progress, rationality and civilisation is like contending that this is the Year of the Linux Desktop.
I, too, want to live in a peaceful, rational society. So do Iceland’s Muslims. If you “just want to have a discussion” about Islam, how about talking to Muslims about Islam? I’m just throwing that out there.