Efforts to define Islam by the actions of its individual members are generally frivolous. If a single Islamic fanatic blowing himself up at a children’s concert is not indicative of Islam being a religion of violence, then a single Islamic moderate helping to carry the resulting corpses from the rubble is not indicative of it being a religion of peace. If we continue with this kind of situational point scoring rather than pursuing a conversation about the core values of its agreed-upon teachings, the political, journalistic and artistic paranoia surrounding Islam will never be resolved.
Instead, we should turn our attention towards the ideological factors that motivate a Muslim to act as they do, and assess how appropriately they have behaved in relation to these factors. Only then can we hope to decide whether or not a person is representing Islam, and then in our criticisms we are really judging the underlying ideology, not the agent who enacts upon it.
This critical distinction between the believer and their beliefs is seemingly ignored (or worse, obscured) by the majority of those who comment on Islam or Muslims, a mistake resulting in the spread of the kind of genuine bigotry that they so ostensibly detest. It is the responsibility of both the Left and the moderate Right to prevent any continuation of the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, and there is only one way this can be done: by talking honestly about the shortcomings of Islam.
Is it any wonder that membership of crackpot far-right cults is increasing in a culture so paralysed by attempts to do just this? Where else is a person with innocent concerns about Islam supposed to turn if nobody else is willing to so much as listen to them without obsessive hostility? It doesn’t take long for such groups to indoctrinate a person once they have taken this first, fatal step, especially after a precedent for distrust of mainstream political conversation has been set. Those who wish to undermine the power of these organisations are standing on their own tail by fostering precisely the kind of retreatism that defines the most ideologically dangerous groups of our time.
You needn’t agree with a person in order to listen to them. (I would view a statement like this as nothing more than an obvious platitude were it not so routinely contradicted.) In fact, the single best thing you can do when faced with an opinion you are either merely sceptical of or positively despise is to take it seriously. The greatest possible outcome of such a situation, as far as you are concerned, is for the person who presented the opinion to you to doubt it, and perhaps change their mind. This cannot occur without fair conversation.
By dismissing anxieties about Islam as unenlightened, unairable, and bigoted, and by conflating them with anxieties about all Muslims (which are always ungrounded and easily confronted), we drive those who hold them into environments where genuinely unenlightened convictions are quickly developed. We have to stop this immediately, and begin to engage more openly with critics of Islam. Remember the alternative.