By Iftikhar Rashid
November 18, 2015
The Paris terrorist explosions and shootings on November 13, killing at least 129 people in multiple locations, have left the world in a state of shock and anger. It was the largest terrorist attack in Paris since World War II.
We are left devastated from the terrorist attacks that reminded us of 9/11, Bali, 7/7, and Mumbai. A day before the Paris attacks, suicide bombers killed at least 41 people in Beirut, Lebanon. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for both attacks in Paris and Beirut. The bloodshed and human suffering from the Islamist terrorist attacks are no doubt the lowest ebb of humanity. Our heartfelt sympathies for the victims.
As we stand in solidarity with Paris, it is time for Muslims to do some soul-searching on how we got here and what are the long-term implications of Islamist extremism. Every time there is a terrorist attack by the self-proclaimed “guardians” of Islam, it is the rest of us with a Muslim background and name who have to, unfortunately, bear the brunt of the backlash from other communities across the world.
The next time we apply for a tourist visa, seek a foreign job, or pass airport security checkpoints, we are inevitably bound to be seen with considerable suspicion (and perhaps justifiably so). I am not looking forward to more “random” checks at airports, but Muslims have no one to blame for this predicament but themselves.
Notwithstanding how “Islamophobia” has been established by Islamist extremists as a concept preventing any criticism of religious extremism, the fact is there is growing prejudice and antagonism towards Muslims and Islam across the world. We have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt for a long time, but I see more and more people equating Islamist extremists with Muslims and Islam as a whole.
Can we really blame other communities for this fall out? We -- I am speaking about Muslims in general -- have brought this upon ourselves with our failure to challenge Islamist extremists who have hijacked Islam from us.
In fact, I would argue that the West has been much more tolerant, inclusive, and restrained than expected under the circumstances. After the Lindt cafe terrorist siege in Sydney last year, Australians, to their credit, flooded social media with statements of solidarity, with a hashtag for Muslims who were fearful of traveling in public transport attired in their religious clothing due to fears of reprisal.
No doubt a great move to build bridges, but how long can we rely on the compassion of other communities instead of addressing the problem of Islamist extremism within us in the first place?
After every terrorist attack, we witness a predictable cycle of denials and conspiracy theories by Muslims, blaming everyone but Islamist extremists within. We seem to go to great lengths, claiming Islamist extremists are “not true Muslims” when they explode bombs and kill people, but we remain dangerously silent when similar individuals and groups radicalise Muslim communities with their divisive, obscurantist, and violent messages in both Western and Muslim countries every day.
In the West, Islamist extremists claim to reject everything “Western,” yet they do not hesitate to take all benefits from the country they live in. They call upon the rest of us to sign up for so-called “halal” superannuation schemes, free from the so-called “immoral” West, but they never complain about taking out financial handouts, healthcare privileges, and other benefits from the same governments.
They despise democracy, but don’t think twice about exploiting it to the fullest to propagate their radical narratives. Islamist extremists have been able to get away with all this hypocrisy and stand in the way of Muslim communities living harmoniously with the rest of society because of our individual and collective silence against their bigotry.
How many times have we challenged Islamist extremists targeting Muslim youth with their militant messages in mosques, halakas (self-styled religious discussion groups), and virtual forums with counter-narratives? We cannot remain conveniently silent when Islamist extremists attempt to create Saudi-style mini-theocracies within our communities based on their narrow dictums of what is “right” and what is “wrong” and then suddenly wake up when these negative elements carry out a terrorist attack somewhere in the world.
No doubt we need to disown and delegitimise Islamist extremists carrying out terrorist attacks, but we need to question the misguided interpretations of religious scripture leading to such militancy in the first place.
We need to go beyond the fashionable “grievance” arguments. There can be no justification for terrorism, irrespective of what the so-called pretext is. We have seen time and again that Islamists will look for some rationale or other to justify their militancy.
In some cases, we have seen them share doctored images on social media to create an artificial and exaggerated sense of “victimhood.” The truth is, each and everyone has some kind of frustration or other, irrespective of their background, but what drives some Muslims to violent extremism, instead of others, is the indoctrination of radical ideology fostering intolerance, rejecting democracy, and justifying violence.
It may be easier to blame everyone else, but Muslims need to stand up against Islamist extremism for their own survival and existence. Recent terrorist attacks in Lebanon and other countries have shown Muslims are not only the victims of Islamist extremists, but at the front-line in the fight against terrorism. The majority of peace-loving Muslims cannot be held hostage by a minority of bloodthirsty Islamist extremists. I firmly believe that the average Muslim does not endorse or sympathise with terrorist ideologies in anyway.
We cannot be in a denial because, the fact is, Islamist extremists are carrying out terrorist attacks in our name. Though other communities have given us the benefit of doubt for a long time, we can’t blame them for increasingly equating Islamist extremism with Muslims and Islam.
Though there is no reason for Muslims to carry the baggage of Islamist extremism, we have failed to create a strong resistance against the radicalisation of Muslim communities in Western and Muslim countries alike. We need to acknowledge that there is a problem and develop counter-narratives to challenge Islamist extremists.
So far, our counter-narratives appear to be half-hearted and inadequate; it seems the majority of liberal and secular Muslims are either indifferent, divided, or simply ill-prepared to face the threat of Islamist extremism. This is unfortunate because Islam has a history of multiple interpretations about everything from hijab to state. There is enough room and opportunity for us to draw on liberal interpretations to challenge Islamist extremism without reinventing the wheel.
The bigger war here is the battle for the “soul of Islam” within. At the end of the day, we can win this fight against Islamist extremists by effectively countering and rejecting their radical narratives along with traditional security solutions to dismantle their organisations. Counter-narratives have become more important than ever before in today’s context, given global terrorist movements have evolved from top-down to bottom-up structures, often based on self-radicalised cells that are organisationally detached from groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda, yet connected to them through ideological convergence. This requires a broader coalition to fight Islamist extremism, both militarily and ideologically, at home and abroad.
There can be no complacency as the ISIL attacks this week indicate the militant group’s determination to inflict massive civilian casualties in foreign countries. No country is safe and the ultimate challenge is for Muslims to “reclaim” Islam from Islamist extremists espousing political Islam and willing to justify bloodshed for its sake. We need to differentiate between Islam (the religion with a history of multiple interpretations) and Islamism (a misguided political ideology attempting to kill and terrorise).
Our continued silence will make us culpable for terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists under different banners. Muslims need to do some introspection and it is not enough for us to disown Islamist extremists, but challenge their radical ideology from the outset. Till we do that, we have no right to complain about this so-called “Islamophobia” in the world.
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