Before I begin I must make something clear. Despite being a Muslim myself, I do not claim to hold any religious authority nor have I had any official religious training. The opinions expressed in this piece are the product of nearly two years of my own research and insights, and are not intended to represent the entire Muslim community to any degree.
In the wake of each devastating terrorist attack we suffer, at home or abroad, what seems almost more pervasive than an effort to understand the roots of terroristic ideologies is the debate over our diction, and the statements of political leaders. This debate centers chiefly around whether we call it “radical Islamic terrorism,” in the President’s own words, or completely remove terrorism’s association with Islam because it apparently has no connection to the religion itself – not that the ISIS flag is imprinted with the Islamic declaration of faith or anything. It is insulting to Islam not to recognize, not to address this grave abuse of the most central part of the religion.
To say that terrorism and Islam are related is not to imply that a fair and intellectually honest practice of the religion results in terrorism. Islam is not a terroristic religion, but rather Islamic scripture is contorted to fit political objectives–this is where the connection between Islam and terrorism lies. To ignore this reality that stares us in the face results in the inhibition of the combative ideological stance that is already being taken against terrorism. We choose to look exclusively at political motivations in the name of not causing offense to Muslims, ignoring the perversion of Islamic scripture. This is an insult to the purity of the religion, allowing it to be sullied and used for political gain in amoral hands.
In order to obtain a better understanding of the way Islam is twisted to fit political goals, we must go back to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt of the mid-20th century, and to the mind of a revolutionary named Sayyid Qutb. The suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood after the attempt on Nasser’s life,the coopting of all religious authority in Egypt, and Qutb’s experiences of studying in Greeley, CO, all led to his main grievance with secular systems of government.
He believed that the separation of mosque from state created tension between the private religious duties of the Muslim and the public secular duties of the citizen. To him, this inner tension was unacceptable as it amounted the deadliest sin in Islam: shirk, or idol worship. It promoted servitude to fellow man and deified this relationship through state power, directly contradicting “there is no deity but God.” His solution was to combine these two aspects, to create an Islamic society, in order to remove this force that was pulling apart the core of Muslim hearts.
Many people would like to believe that Qutb would ignore Quranic verses such as “there is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256), but this is certainly not the case. Qutb actually utilizes this verse, interpreting it to mean that in a perfectly Islamic system of governance, there is no servitude to fellow man, and therefore the Muslims need only consider their relationship with God to be liberated, as opposed to the conventional interpretation that one cannot force Islam upon others.
He then justifies violence as a means to remove impious leaders, “and kill them (the disbelievers) where you find them” (Quran 2:191) was revealed at a time when the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his followers were continuously chased away from their homeland of Mecca, often tortured and killed only to respond with steadfastness. After three attempts to return in peace, met only by more violence, was permission granted to retaliate in the face of yet another assault. Qutb twists this by applying his own context–saying that a spiritual attack as he perceives it is far more concerning than the physical attack that initially triggered this revelation for very specific circumstances. Thus the removal of impious leaders through force is given textual validation by Qutb.
Permission for the two most nefarious acts employed by terrorists, killing of innocents and suicide bombings, have been justified purely on religious grounds. The killing of innocents is justified by the idea of equal judgement in the hereafter–perverted into the belief that is does not matter how one is killed, they will be judged fairly and no injustice has been done. The evasion of the idea that suicide is greatly sinful in Islam, greatly slashing our defensive capabilities because we cannot rely upon man’s evolutionary priority of self-preservation to disqualify methods of potential attack, is done by warping the idea of Islamic martyrdom, saying that a suicide bombing will not be a death of jahiliyya (ignorance, sinfulness) because of the cause for which the individual is fighting.
Motivation vs. Authorization
What I have intentionally omitted, in order to prove a prudent point, from the previous section is the motivations, as opposed to the political justifications, with which terrorists work. Qutb was a revolutionary and enemy of the Egyptian state and Ayman al-Zawahiri was much the same. Bin Laden’s declaration of war upon the United States, issued in 1996, was inundated with political concerns such as aid to Israel, American soldiers defending Saudi Arabia against Iraq as opposed to his militia of Arab Afghans, and the failure to protect Muslims during the genocide at Srebrenica.
This has been the key defense of those who wish to separate Islam from terrorism, saying that terrorism is politically motivated. Indeed this argument is not fundamentally flawed, but ignores the religious authorizations for these actions. Again, Islam itself does not directly justify these actions, but it is being warped in order to do so. To use Joseph Nye’s metaphor for conflict – the motivations form a pile of firewood, drenched in gasoline, but without the contortion of religious ideas to authorize the violent response to these motivations, the allegorical match may never be thrown into the mix.
Of course, one might say that we eliminate the firewood to solve the problem. This is an agreeable perspective, but taken too far with the conclusion that we must focus only on the grievances, and thus terrorism has nothing to do with Islam. Sure then, eliminate the Qutb and bin Laden-inspired political grievances (an impossible task, but I shall concede this for the sake of argument) at the heart of radical Islam. What happens the next day, week or year? Political developments are in a state of constant ebb and flow, and to hold that eliminating political grievances is the only solution is ignorant of how individuals will also find gripping concerns within the political sphere.
The Right Steps
Cooperation with authorities in Islamic jurisprudence, in order to counter the theological justifications for extreme violence, is another, equally urgent part of the solution. Focusing on just the political side of terrorism and branding your colleagues of opposing opinion as Islamophobic is to spit in the face of Islam and actively prohibit the fight against perversion of religious ideas.
The longer we stick to the niceties of political correctness, the longer we wait before working with Islamic community to erase the ideas that authorize suicide bombings in crowded playgrounds and indiscriminate shootings in dark night clubs, the more we allow these ideas to become deeply entrenched in Islamist narratives.
As I have mentioned, active efforts by the Islamic community are already under way, highlighting the hypocrisies woven through the terroristic interpretation of Islam. All we do by insisting that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, ironically in the name of extending an olive branch to the Muslim community, is undermine these efforts. We allow the religion’s most consequential aspects, reserved only for self-defense and existential threats, to be defaced by those who slaughter their fellow Muslims, innocent women and children, and anybody that dares stand in the way of their bloodthirsty dismantling of civility.