By S P Seth
March 25, 2015
The widespread use of racial profiling in the US and other countries targeting Muslims has created a lot of resentment and anger
In the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo carnage in Paris, almost everyone had an opinion about terrorism and, not surprisingly, it was largely considered abhorrent, fuerther reinforced by the carnage in Tunisia where foreign tourists were targeted when visiting the country’s national museum and amplified when 140 people were killed in two Shia mosques in Sanaa, Yemen. Terrorism is largely blamed on Muslim fanatics and extremists who act in the name of Islam. They do not always agree on their respective version of Islam and often fight their own turf wars. One can see a heightened version of this in Syria and Iraq where the so-called Islamic caliphate is trying to enforce its own diktat. The scale of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam by all these jihadi groups is leading some in the west – and they are powerful people and interests – to lump terrorism with Islam to simplify and amplify their message. They think that separating terrorism from Islam is ‘political correctness’. For instance, Rupert Murdoch, a very powerful media mogul who heads 21st Century Fox, tweeted after the Charlie Hebdo killings: “Maybe most Muslims are peaceful but until they recognise and destroy their jihadi cancer they must be held responsible.” In a follow up tweet, he wrote, “Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy.”
In other words, let us call a spade a spade and blame all Muslims as they are not rising up to rid their religion of the “jihadist cancer”. By this standard, President Obama would rate as a hypocrite because in a recent interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya Network he did not buy such a simplified characterisation of Islam. He reportedly told his interviewer, “(What) we need to understand is that there are extremist organisations – whether Muslim or any other faith in the past – that will use faith as a justification for violence.” He added, “We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.” Not surprisingly, Obama copped criticism for these statements in his country where a good percentage of the people still regard him as a closet Muslim.
There are two ways to frame the debate about terrorism. One, it is a horrible phenomenon. Its practitioners happen to be Muslims with all sorts of grievances directed mainly, but not exclusively, at the west. And, in this, they use the name of Islam purporting to speak for all Muslims. But they do not even spare their own co-religionists if they do not fall within their version of Islam. Another way, as Rupert Murdoch and many like him do, is to blame the religion of Islam as intrinsically violent, leading to terrorism. They contend that if Islam were a religion of peace, its adherents all over the world would collectively eradicate this cancer from their midst. Taking Islamic State (IS) as an example of Islamic terrorism, Canadian journalist Graeme Wood has been quoted from the March issue of The Atlantic to opine, “The reality is that IS is Islamic, very Islamic.” He writes, “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
Both versions of this debate are simplistic. The terrorists, even though they claim to be acting for Islam, certainly do not have the support of the wider Muslim community worldwide for their rampant and brutal violence, as they too are at times among its victims. Such terrorist violence has brought havoc to vast swathes of lands and people by plunging them into dislocation and destitution. One has only to look at the dismal situation in Syria and Iraq, and in parts of Pakistan and Nigeria. Here is the thing: while a majority of Muslims disapprove of terrorist violence, they have some sympathy when they (jihadi groups) articulate how Muslims have been humiliated and discriminated against worldwide by the dominant west and its ally, Israel.
It is partly historical memory of Islamic glory when, for instance, the Ottoman Empire was at its zenith, and the situation today when a number of Muslim countries are in a state of anarchy, much of it blamed on western countries, particularly after 9/11. In its wake, a US-led coalition attacked Afghanistan and Iraq and has left a mess that is still creating havoc, particularly in Iraq. The situation in Afghanistan is very fluid with no sense of how it will be resolved finally. Besides, the widespread use of racial profiling in the US and other countries targeting Muslims has created a lot of resentment and anger among Muslims, particularly those living in western countries. At the same time, the ghettoisation of Muslims, for instance in France, now affecting second and third generations of Muslim citizens, has been building up considerable anger among Europe’s Muslim youth against widespread economic, social, cultural and political discrimination. All these developments against the backdrop of events in Iraq, Israel’s wanton bombing of Gaza and its perceived immunity from causing havoc in the West Bank has come to coalesce with historical memory and local grievances of minority Muslim communities in the west into a larger narrative of a community that sees itself under siege.
On top of this, satirising Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in some western publications, like Charlie Hebdo, has reinforced their sense of humiliation. As a young Parisian Muslim told the Washington Post, “You go to a night club and they do not let you in. You go to a party, they look at your beard and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is part of that too.” This means: “Those stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. And, yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.” Many young Muslims in Europe suffer from a deep sense of alienation leading them to cling to their religious identity and group think because it gives them a sense of belonging, like us and them – a binary way of looking at things. And this is quite dangerous because it is increasingly reflected in the way many Muslims look at things even when opposed to terrorist violence.
Obviously, there is something very wrong about the way the relationship is being handled. The western approach, led by the US, has been to universalise their version of freedom and democracy. But in trying to force it on Afghanistan and Iraq by invading them and then getting bogged down there and seen as foreign invaders, an otherwise positive message was not only tarnished but seriously discredited. Not only that, such military interventions proved counter-productive as contributing to the rise of the monstrous so-called Islamic State (IS) creating another war theatre.
It is a dangerously chaotic state of affairs even though IS needs to be contained. There is a great need for an alternative inclusive political message to counter such terrorism. And that is missing and has been missing all this time. What that message should be is proving difficult because there are multiple voices talking at each other than to each other to break this vicious terrorist cycle. Without that, things could get even worse.
S P Seth is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia