Extremist Pamela Geller is an outlier, but her attitudes are not
Every so often, a new or social research organization releases a “perceptions vs reality” poll, to show how ignorant the public is on an issue. I do not say “ignorant” pejoratively, as I am often surprised to find how far off reality my own perceptions are.
One such survey released by Ipsos Mori in 2016 looked at perceptions of Muslim populations in Western countries. Almost universally, the population was overestimated. In the UK, respondents believed that the Muslim population was 15 percent — in reality, it was 5 percent. In France, respondents placed it at 31 percent; in reality, it was 7.5 percent. And in the US, respondents placed it at 17 percent, a full 17 times the actual proportion.
These results are concerning because perception vs reality polling tends to find that we overestimate what we think are negative things, and underestimate what we think are positive things.
This sentiment is vulnerable to extremism, and this is the context in which today’s recipient of the dubious honor of featuring in this newspaper’s Preachers of Hate series operates. Pamela Geller’s influence is an outlier, but her attitudes are not.
Geller says that she became politically involved as a result of 9/11. In this, she is not alone. More than the jihadi activity of the 1990s which for most Western observers was comfortably far away, 9/11 was many viewers’ first introduction to any activity by people calling themselves Muslims. Sadly it would shape people’s views about Islam.
In the years since there has been little let-up in the stream of news stories about terror attacks carried about by jihadis against Western interests. For many, this was made worse by the fact that many of these attacks in the West were by Western Muslims.
The response to extremism is not to deny its link to the religions it claims as justification, but to follow the response of the orthodox through the centuries when dealing with dangerous mutations: To call it heresy, and drive it out.
There were three possible responses to these phenomena. The first was to ignore the motivations and ideological justifications of the attackers, often on the spurious grounds that to acknowledge any link between Islam and Islamists indicated hatred of Muslims. The second was to recognize how far the jihadi heresy was from the understanding of the vast majority of Muslims, and work with those Muslims who were seeking to defeat it.
The third approach — followed by Geller — was to take jihadi claims at face value. If jihadi ideologues claimed that they were acting in accordance with true Islam, then they must have been. It became an odd symbiotic relationship: the strongest defenders of jihadi claims about Islam were those who were most committed to the destruction of Islam.
Of course, Geller and others deny that they hate Muslims, but they follow a circular argument. They hate Islam, but not Muslims, because Islam is a violent religion — but if that is true, then its followers must be violent. In which case true Muslims must also be violent.
This is nonsense, but it is compelling when the issue is not addressed properly by mainstream politics. The general Western public’s understanding of Islam is low, and many Westerners will not consciously know any Muslims.
Pamela Geller takes this approach to heights unimaginable to most Islam-haters. This is, in part, due to a media environment that rewards controversy. But the greater reason is the failure of mainstream politics to grapple with the fears that many voters have about Islam.
When leading politicians deny any link between Islam and jihadism, to many voters it sounds like they are denying the Earth is round. Voters can see the messages of jihadi leaders on the news, couched in Islamic language. They can see pictures of jihadi terrorists praying. They can read manifestos, and watch the taped confessions of would-be suicide bombers. It is patent nonsense to deny that there is a link.
As we have seen in this Preachers of Hate series, including today, extremists do not just come in Muslim form. The response to extremism is not to deny its link to the religions it claims as justification, but to follow the response of the orthodox through the centuries when dealing with dangerous mutations: To call it heresy, and drive it out.
• Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived
in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby