Monday, August 13, 2007

Debate or denial: the Muslim dilemma

Hasan Suroor

More Muslims need to realise that Islamist terrorists are not simply “misguided” individuals acting on a whim but that they are people who know what they are doing and they are doing it deliberately in the name of Islam.

Judging from much of the Muslim reaction to the latest Islamist outrage — last month’s attempted bombings in London and Glasgow — the community seems to have talked itself into a default position in relation to violent Muslim extremism. The same old arguments are being flogged again betraying an unwillingness to acknowledge either the scale of the problem or its nature. The fear of making the community or Islam look bad has created a strange silence around issues that lie at the heart of the Islamism debate.

Broadly, the Muslim argument is that it is all down to a host of external factors. Top of the list is the western foreign policy, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue, compounded by the invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq. Then there are social and economic reasons such as lack of education and high rate of unemployment in the Muslim community — again attributed to external causes such as racial or religious discrimination.

In other words: don’t blame us; it is all other people’s doing. We are only the victims. As someone who feels the same pressures as other Muslims, I wish this was true. But it isn’t. It not all other people’s doing. We are not just the victims.
I used the term ‘default position’ as an euphemism. There is a more robustly appropriate term, which is being increasingly used to describe the Muslim position: denial. The view that Muslims are in denial of the extent of the problem and their own responsibility in dealing with it is no longer confined to right-wing Muslim-bashers. Even liberal opinion has started to shift.

Appearing on an NDTV panel discussion last week, I was struck by how closely my two distinguished co-panellists — one in New Delhi and the other in Bangalore — stuck to the ‘default’ position. They kept refer ring to “looming images” from Iraq and Palestine; and to the frustration and “anger” bred by American and British foreign policy. There were obligatory references to social deprivation etc., etc. And as for the three Indian doctors suspected to have been behind the London-Glasgow plot, they were simply “misguided” individuals acting alone.

There was much hand-wringing when the anchor underlined the fact that Muslims had been behind all recent acts of terrorism. Yes, it was worrying. Of course, the community condemned any violence committed in the name of Islam, a peaceful religion. And, indeed, there was need for introspection and discussion. But all this was hedged in with so many “ifs” and “buts” that the whole debate seemed like a huge exercise in denial. At least up to the point where I was cut off because the satellite time ran out.

It is the response of a community that sees itself under siege and is irritated that every time a Muslim does something silly it is expected to stand up and apologise. Add to this the prevailing Islamophobia (it is pretty widespread, make no mistake about it), and it is not difficult to understand why Muslims are in this defensive mood. But how long will they continue to shy away from facing the truth? And the truth is that many of their assumptions about the underlying causes of extremism are flawed. Every fresh terrorist attack chips away at the idea that foreign policy and socio-economic factors are the sole drivers of Islamist extremism, making the Muslim default position more untenable.

Hassan Butt, a reformed British extremist, recalls how “we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.” Writing in The Observer, he said if he was still stuck in his old ways, he would be “laughing once again” at suggestions that the June 29-30 failed attacks were motivated by anger over British foreign policy.
Mr. Butt criticised Muslims and liberal non-Muslim intellectuals and politicians for failing to recognise the “role of Islamist ideology in terrorism” — an ideology that, according to another lapsed extremist Shiraz Maher, preaches a “separatist message of Islamic supremacy” and seeks to establish a “puritanical caliphate.” Mr. Maher knew Kafeel Ahmed, the Indian who tried to blow up Glasgow airport and is now fighting for his life in a hospital in Scotland.

Both Mr. Butt and Mr. Maher were activists of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, one of Britain’s most controversial radical groups with a long and notorious history of recruiting potential jihadis in mosques and on university campuses. Mohammed Siddique Khan, who masterminded the 7/7 bombings, was a member of Hizb at the same time as Mr. Butt. The July 7 attacks were widely attributed to the invasion of Iraq and other west-inspired “atrocities” against Muslims. According to Mr. Butt, though many extremists were enraged by the deaths of fellow Muslims across the world “what drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world.”

Arguably, defectors are not the most reliable of people and there is, inevitably, an element of exaggeration in what they say about the organisation they have left and of their own role in it. Yet, so long as we are careful to remember where they are coming from and don’t allow ourselves to be mesmerised by their insiders’ account, they remain our best guide to understanding the world they have left behind. It is only an ex-extremist who can help us get a glimpse of what goes on inside an extremist organisation and sometime that can change our perceptions of an issue in a fundamental way. So, when people like Mr. Butt and Mr. Maher debunk some of the most widely held assumptions about the nature of Muslim extremism it is important to pay heed. And they are not the only ones. Ed Husain, another ex-Islamist, has written a whole book (The Islamist) warning against complacency.
First and foremost, Muslims must acknowledge what Ziauddin Sardar, one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim scholars, calls the “Islamic nature of the problem.” Islamist extremism has not descended from another planet or been imposed on the community from outside. It breeds within the community and is the product of a certain kind of interpretation of Islam. And, in the words, of Mr. Sardar, terrorists are a “product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history.”
In a seminal essay, “The Struggle for Islam’s Soul” (New Statesman, July 18, 2005), Mr. Sardar argued that Islamists were “nourished by an Islamic tradition that is intrinsically inhuman and violent in its rhetoric, thought and practice” and this placed a unique burden on Muslims as they tried to make sense of what their co-religionists were doing in the name of Islam. “To deny that they are a product of Islamic history and tradition is more than complacency. It is a denial of responsibility, a denial of what is happening in our communities. It is a refusal to live in the real world,” he wrote.
Mr. Sardar’s views are significant. He is a practising Muslim with deep grounding in Islamic theology. He was deeply upset by Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and is often involved in verbal duels with Islamophobic commentators. But as he points out because he is a Muslim and it is in the name of his religion that terrorists are acting, he believes it is his “responsibility critically to examine the tradition that sustains them.”

More Muslims need to realise that Islamist terrorists are not simply “misguided” individuals acting on a whim but that they are people who know what they are doing and they are doing it deliberately in the name of Islam. However perverted their interpretation it remains an interpretation of Islam and it is not enough to condemn their actions or accuse them of hijacking Islam without doing anything about it.

Let’s face it; there are verses in the Koran that justify violence. The “hard truth that Islam does permit the use of violence,” as Mr. Butt points out, must be recognised by Muslims. When Islam was in its infancy and battling against non-believers violence was deemed legitimate to put them down. Today, when it is the world’s second largest religion with more than one billion followers around the world and still growing that context has lost its relevance. Yet, jihadi groups, pursuing their madcap scheme of establishing Dar-ul-Islam (the Land of Islam), are using these passages to incite impressionable Muslim youths. Yet there is no sign of a debate in the community beyond easy platitudes, and it remains in denial.

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