If you do not care to carefully diagnose a disease, you will not be able to treat it. You cannot adequately fight what you do not even seek to adequately understand. This applies to the current dilemma facing the world concerning the continuous spread of violent acts of terror. In my opinion, our current lack of understanding of this devastating phenomenon partly comes from our inability or unwillingness to approach the problem from a neutral or detached position. It goes without saying that absolute neutrality or detachment is impossible. We all start from some assumptions. But it is still very important to attempt to be as neutral and as detached as possible while acknowledging our limitations and keeping our assumptions in check. One big impediment to a better grasp of this disease of terrorism is that our discussions about it are more interested in defending previously held beliefs about the world than seeking to understand and treat the disease.
This leaves us with two views that dominate our public discourse in the U.S. and Europe. We have on one side a belief that the real reason we have this disease is the foreign policies of Western governments and that if only those policies were to change then grievances would vanish and terrorism would disappear. And on the other side, we have a belief that Islam is the real reason for this disease and that there is no solution but to fight Islam itself. These two positions react to each other and we end up with two additional propositions. The first side becomes a defender of Islam, claiming that violence has nothing to do with religion and that terrorists are not true Muslims. The second side becomes a defender of Western foreign policies, highlighting the need to defend national interests. These clashing perspectives lead to shouting matches and more bad policies but they do not help us fight the spread of terror. As someone who has studied and pondered the rise of religious extremism, I would like to propose three points that might be helpful to those seeking to move beyond the usual headlines and political battles:
1. Foreign policy changes will not stop terrorism in the foreseeable future
While the foreign policies of Western governments have over the decades created chaotic situations in many parts of the so-called Muslim world and while a change in these policies might have real ramifications on the lives of populations in some corners, it is very unlikely that such a change is going to have a real impact on stopping terror attacks in the foreseeable future because the problems that create popular grievances are too deep. The structural problems of most states in that part of the world are multilayered; many of them go back to the era of European colonialism and the rise of nation-states after independence. They include a lack of functioning democratic institutions, uneven distribution of wealth, extreme poverty, widespread illiteracy, high unemployment, very inadequate educational systems, and many other severe problems that will continue to create distress for a long time. These situations have been exacerbated by the strong impact of global events throughout the decades of the 20th century, including World War I, World War II, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Cold War, as well as the economic policies of international financial institutions. Explaining the impact of each one of these would take full university courses, but the main point is that there is a long history of instability to take in consideration.
More importantly, a narrative has been constructed over the decades that presents the “West” as the main reason behind all the problems of Muslim-majority societies. This narrative (or narratives) contain truths, half-truths, and falsehoods but they all feed the social memory of the populations. It would take a very long time as well as a lot of good will, honesty, hard work, and patience to remedy the situation in the long run. It goes without saying that the leaders of the world seem sadly far from that kind of commitment. This means that grievances will remain in the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Western governments decide in the short term to change their policies towards this or that country. Those grievances will unfortunately lead some groups and individuals to find new ways to commit acts of terror.
2. Islam plays a role in the violence
Those analysts who claim that what we call religion has no role in (or has very little to do with) the acts of terror are highly and dangerously mistaken. Islam provides powerful symbols and notions (God, believers and non-believers, heaven and hell, destiny, martyrdom, the end of the world etc… ) that create strong psychological incentives to act on one’s beliefs. Those beliefs are the result of picking and choosing from a rich and varied heritage. In that heritage, one can find elements that encourage peace and pluralism as well as others that promote violence and conflict. There is no surprise there. The Islamic heritage is composed of a variety of traditions within many disciplines or fields that span centuries and continents. The emphasis of each discipline (law, theology, mysticism, philosophy) differs and leads to different perspectives. Even within one field, one finds different schools and positions.
These tensions exist as well in the scriptural source: the Qur’an (seen by most Muslims as the literal word of God). Some verses teach pluralism and peace, others call for raising arms in defense of the self, yet others promote offensive warfare. For the historian, these tensions and contradictions make sense because the Qur’an is not originally a book as we understand a book today, it was an oral discourse interacting with and seeking to shape particular contexts over a period of more than 20 years. It makes sense that it responds differently to different events and situations. But once that original context was forever gone and the Qur’an was made into a closed book, then those who accepted it as authoritative had to find ways to make sense of those tensions. They did and they still do. Accordingly, it is misleading to say that Islam has nothing to do with violence. Instead, we must all help make the peaceful and pluralistic perspectives of the Islamic heritage the dominant ones. Muslims have a role to play by thinking critically about their religious teachings; non-Muslims have a role to play by engaging Muslims in a respectful but principled way; and world powers have a role by having and implementing a long-term vision of an equitable and just world which would make looking for peace an attractive option for people worldwide.
3. Muslims have a serious responsibility in the fight against terrorism
It is appealing for Muslims to claim that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are not Islamic. However, a sober and objective look tells us that these groups are social actors with political agendas who also happen to be part of the religious market providing a religious interpretation for consumption. Unfortunately, some of the children of our unbalanced and failing world system find that interpretation appealing. They are certainly a small minority but even such a relatively small number is enough to wreak havoc on the world, bringing it to the brink of a perhaps unprecedented disaster.
American and European Muslims are right to politically distance themselves from all these violent groups. They are also right to repeat everywhere that it is ludicrous to blame all Muslims for the actions of a small number of people. The potential backlash against Muslim individuals and communities could take a very ugly turn, given the current volatile political climate and the resurgence of the far-right. However, Muslims are wrong to keep denying any connection between Islam and the violence that we are witnessing everywhere. While individual Muslims are certainly not responsible for the actions of extremist groups, the Muslim community as a whole has serious responsibilities on at least two fronts.
Firstly, Muslims as a group have a duty to protect the present and future of their religious tradition from its deteriorating reputation in large parts of the world. This cannot be done by simply repeating that Islam is peace and that the terrorists have hijacked it. The events unfolding in front of our own eyes undermine these empty slogans. Nor will it be done by getting into shouting matches about whose victims were mourned harder on social media. What is truly required is a healthy dose of self-criticism. As carriers of an ethical message and a long tradition of spiritual teachings that have provided countless human beings throughout the ages with hope and love, Muslims cannot settle today for reactionary stances. Tough questions must be asked about the directions of Islamic thought in the contemporary world and about the failure of religious leaders to rise up to the challenges of our times.
Secondly, Muslims as a community have a responsibility towards the young Muslims who are falling prey every day to the recruiting effort and propaganda of ISIS and similar groups. It is easy to vilify these young men and women, who are in search of identity and purpose in life, after they join violent groups and commit atrocious acts. What is needed is to ask the difficult questions as to why no adequate alternatives were provided to them before such transitions occurred and as to how the bleeding can be contained before the whole body succumbs to the wounds inflicted upon it. This is not simply a matter of reaching out to vulnerable members of the community, there is a real problem with the contemporary religious message itself.
Although the majority of religious scholars condemn the actions and agendas of groups like ISIS, they perpetuate the myths that sustain the appeal of these extremist groups to the minds of average Muslims from a young age. The religious scholars often preach about topics like the importance of jihad in Islam, the necessity of the institution of the caliphate, the obligation of implementing “God’s Law,” and many others. These scholars do not necessarily perceive these issues in the same light as the jihadist organizations but they nevertheless skip any critical analysis of the historical character of these concepts and institutions and instead sustain a mytho-history in the minds of Muslim audiences. The problem gets more complicated when one adds that most of these scholars are either connected to or are at least in friendly terms with political regimes that, in fact, do not apply any of these “Islamic” notions. Guess who is claiming that they do establish jihad, the caliphate, and “God’s Law.” That’s right; it is ISIS, Boko Haram, etc… For idealist and socially or economically frustrated youth, the appeal of such movements and organizations is real. We all must grasp this fact before it is too late.