Saturday, October 04, 2014

Denial that the driver of Islamic terrorism is religious belief is profoundly unhelpful

Let's go back, for a moment, to 1972 and the massacre, by terrorists, of Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympic Games. These killers were Palestinians, but they were also Muslims. However that group, Black September, was not primarily driven by its religious beliefs but by its political goals. Later a successor to Black September, The "Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine", had a more overt religious driver though its political goal was the same. Now let's look at a State, Saudi Arabia, which is Islamic and as a consequence of this has a Sharia based legal system. This system has established a crime and punishment and social control regime that would be unthinkable not just in the West but throughout most of the rest of the world. Finally let's mention "Islamic State" the armed group which reports suggest is some 50,000 strong and which is attacking militarily the Governments in Iraq and Syria. It is also, of course, committing grotesque atrocities against innocent civilians, some of them foreigners.

The common theme across these randomly selected groups is how their Muslim beliefs, to a greater or lesser extent, drive their behaviour.
Does the fact that some rogue States, political activists and terrorists are Muslim mean that Islam is an evil religion? Of course not. The vast majority of Muslims live peaceful, unremarkable lives and many States where Islam is the majority religion are not oppressive. But does the fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS follow a distorted version of Islam mean that we should factor Islam into our understanding of and response to them. I would argue emphatically “yes”. For me Islamic terrorism in all its various guises (including when it is State sponsored) is Islamic as well as terrorist. I argued here that most religions have extreme elements in them, but that that doesn't make them in some way not some part of that religion. Some religious “observance” at the extremities is benign. When it is terrorist is is obviously not. At the height of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland Catholic leaders condemned the IRA and Protestant leaders condemned the UVF. But they could not deny that the former was catholic in its roots and the latter protestant. No more can Muslim leaders today claim that Al Qaeda or ISIS are not Muslim.

The frequently heard rhetoric that ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam” is an expression not of the reality (which is that it it has) but of an emotional and intellectual belief that it should have nothing to do with Islam. Islamic scholars who reject the idea of the Jihad favour a peaceful and non- aggressive version of their religion. And they would also, perhaps, accept that Sharia must be subordinate to secular laws in any one legal jurisdiction. But beyond this peaceful Islam is a more aggressive version which places Sharia above man-made laws and which argues for a Jihad on the opponents (as they see it) of their faith. In this version the beheading of innocent victims is justified by the need for the Jihad.

So whilst we all - many Muslims and non-Muslims alike - argue for the peaceful variant (and perhaps mainstream) of Islam we cannot deny that many other variants are not peaceful. So when David Cameron said of ISIS “They are not Muslims. They are monsters,” he was only half right. Denial of the Muslim drivers of ISIS and the rest is both untrue and profoundly unhelpful. Because if the principal reason tens of thousands of Muslims join the armed struggle is precisely because they are Muslims (albeit a very extreme version) then we must acknowledge this. And when studying the origins of young Muslims’ conversions to religious extremism we must look first at the Mosques and the Madrassas and hunt down those active there in promulgating it.


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