By Rami G. Khouri
February 18, 2015
If I read one more article or hear one more speech by a Western politician telling us that we are experiencing a war within Islam between radicals and moderates, or a battle for the future and soul of Islam, I will seek medical options for a long hibernation. This will allow me to wake up in another era, when more sensible analysis is used to understand and roll back the expanding circles of violence that plague many countries.
We suffer stress and danger in the Arab world from political violence, aging tyrants, foreign invasions, local criminal and militia groups, colonial settler expansions, and frayed, hemorrhaging socioeconomic systems. That is why we do not need to add to the confusion thanks to those who find comfort in old-fashioned racism and reductionism (“Islam is this, Islam is that”) that illustrates nothing but their own bewilderment.
Declaring that Islam is at war with itself, or that we are witnessing a battle for the soul and heart of Islam, is vulgar reductionist, essentialist nonsense. But it is a nonsense that is totally understandable in its current context of violent, nationally dislocating events. It is much easier to declare a war within Islam than to do the hard work – and admit the hard truths of shared culpability – to understand accurately the several simultaneous, frightening phenomena we see all around us. Our world has suddenly become tainted by violent young men who kill with abandon across the Middle East. Governments are falling, borders are fraying or dissolving, established criminal groups such as Al-Qaeda are expanding, new extremist militants such as ISIS are holding their ground in Syria-Iraq and are attracting pockets of like-minded fanatics in Egypt, Libya and other lands. Arab, Iranian and Western armies are fighting back, and a handful of troubled individuals in Western countries are carrying out isolated murders, often with some links to Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the like.
Why would some young men born and raised in France, Denmark, Canada, Germany Belgium, the United Kingdom or other impressive societies travel to ISIS lands to fight for what they see as their existential cause, or turn against their own societies? Why do new pockets of extremist criminals spring up regularly in new countries, such as those in Libya who slaughtered Egyptian Christians this week? Why, above all, do some of these killers who brandish the holy book of Muslims mostly kill fellow Muslims in the Arab and Asian regions?
Explaining this as a great battle underway within Islam strikes me as reflecting a combination of racism, ignorance, perplexity and old-fashioned Orientalism. The outcome of this battle, we are told, will shape the Islamic faith and its adherents for centuries to come, maybe until the end of time and the coming of the Mehdi, or messiah. The facility with which some people move from reading the day’s ugly news to eschatological verdicts about 1.4 billion people across the world is striking, laughable and troubling.
Those who recklessly analyze the condition of Islam itself should instead do the harder work of understanding the realities of a handful of killers, or a group of misfits, or a gang of criminals, or pockets of dislocated outcasts, or some desperate youth on the verge of certain death by lifelong marginalization and hopelessness.
Instead, they affirm pompously the contested condition of Islam, of all 1.4 billion Muslims living in hundreds of very different societies, practicing very different social and political values. My own impression, living my whole life among some of those multitudes of Muslims, is that the overwhelming majority of them live in peace and are committed to family values, education and hard work, resembling more the old-fashioned Protestant work ethic than anything else I have witnessed.
The angry young killers and criminal terrorists among them were not among us a generation or two ago. Why and how did they suddenly appear in the last few decades? What caused the most fanatical and brutal among them, like ISIS, to suddenly see the imminent coming of the Mehdi?
These phenomena are not eschatological signs or divine signals. They are sociopolitical mechanical processes that have logical and verifiable causal explanations; they can be analyzed like the knocking of a car engine, the pain of a sore muscle, or the drips of a leaky water fountain. The symptoms of radical Muslim militants who speak in the language of religion are of this world should we dare to trace how our societies and policies allowed young farmers, immigrants, or taxi drivers to be transformed into crazed killers and criminals. These transformations have occurred and continue to occur in Arab or Western jails, in the rubble of bombed-out neighborhoods, or in the prisons of our own societies where these young men absorb the numbing, transformative realities of hopelessness and dehumanization.
Islam is what it has always been, a religion with complexities and with varieties of adherents. The trouble today concerns relatively small groups of extremists and deviant killers who speak of Islam. Only fools would confuse the two.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by The Daily Star.