No sooner had the news about the horrible terrorist attack at Brussels reached our ears last week that the same hackneyed arguments and opinions flooded the airwaves. On TV and social media, self-proclaimed experts and mediators asked the same old questions about the terrorists: What can be done about Muslims (as a group)? Does the Qur’an compel them to commit violence against non-Muslims? And why do Muslims not condemn such attacks and take action against people committing such massacres? And last, not but least, that to stop terrorism, Islam needs to reform (not Muslims) and a 1,400 years old creed and its holy book require amendments.
Such claims ignore many obvious, proven facts about the present incidents of terrorists. One, even if the terrorists are Muslims, none of them are religious scholars and most are found to be born-again religious extremists. Vast majority of terrorists are recently radicalized by following extremist ideologues either willingly or are recruited online. Furthermore, there is no homogeneous profile of extremists and others who fall prey to extremist ideology and are likely to commit acts of terrorism. Researchers at George Washington University found an unprecedented diversity of ages, backgrounds and locations among ISIL’s U.S. based recruits – from “keyboard warriors” who share the group’s propaganda online to those who actually take up arms in Syria and Iraq. The Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston bombings, Somali men in Minnesota who planned to join ISIS, and the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people had nothing in common, not even their adherence to Islamic beliefs and rituals.
Two, as one analyst suggests, the current wave of terrorism can be understood as part of globalization. Disenfranchised and radicalized men and women can today attack the supposed Western source of their misery. Using latest communication devices and weapons, otherwise weak and marginal actors are now able to commit individual acts of violence far from their homelands. As the world becomes more and more connected, it provides more space and access to all nefarious actors including human traffickers, illegal arms and drug traders, and terrorists.
Third, the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ rhetoric is completely flawed. “Islamic” or “Eastern” civilizations that must be conquered and modernized by “Western” civilization are constructs of an oppressive colonial past. Countries in Africa or Asia with dominant Muslim populations have prospered, many as vibrant democracies. Muslims are an immensely diverse group and their geographical prevalence stretches from Morocco to Australia. And Muslims have, and continue to be, productive members of European and North American societies. To categorize them as a lump-sum communal entity is as flawed as Al-Qaeda or ISIS bundling up all of Europe and United States as the “evil West.” This harmful dichotomy is further entrenched by political demagogues and bias in the media, which directly fuels radicalization and violence in the world.
It is becoming apparent that the solution to global terrorism is to destroy the breeding grounds of religious extremists and to challenge the radical ideology of such groups. ISIS cannot be defeated until there is stability in Iraq and the long drawn conflict in Syria is resolved. Greater efforts are needed toward interreligious harmony, by means of sharing experiences and discussing beliefs and current issues. Followers of all major religions interpret their holy books according to the context of their day and age. The ancient creeds and holy books do not need reform; it is their practitioners who need to interpret these texts wisely.
Today, Muslims themselves have to confront extremist ideologues and propagate narratives that challenge violent ideas and actions. A step in this direction is The Marrakesh Declaration, published in January 2016, focusing on the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim majority communities. It was created and endorsed by a large number of Islamic scholars, academics and ministers, representing various backgrounds and schools of thought in the Islamic world.
As I wrote this piece on Sunday, a bomb went off in Lahore, Pakistan, the second largest city in my home country. Terrorists targeted a park where many Christians had congregated for Easter celebrations and other families were having fun on a Sunday evening. Nearly 70 people lost their lives, mostly women and children. A splinter group of the extremist Taliban claimed responsibility- a group and its ideology that has cost the lives of more than 50,000 Pakistani lives. Social media was immediately rife with pictures of men and women rushing to the hospitals to donate blood. As one person tweeted, “Every drop of blood donated will mix with the blood of the injured. Muslims and Christians will share their bodies tonight. You [terrorists] lost!”
Faris Kasim is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He has worked as development practitioner and emergency response person in Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, Thailand and the United States.
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