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Should We Blame Islam For Terrorism?

By David Shariatmadari

27 March 2017

Since the Westminster attacks, many people seem to have been getting stuck on the following question, as they do after most acts of Jihadi violence: “Is there something special about Islam? Something that lends itself to terrorism?”

I’m not just talking about the Katie Hopkinses of this world (they have already decided to privilege gut feeling over actually finding out, so this piece isn’t really for them). Or even the Roger Scrutons: on Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday, he said: “We do need to have a discussion about the Qur’an … how do we deal with those difficult Suras [chapters] which are full of these tetchy pronouncements.” It sits at the back of progressives’ minds too, the kind of people who think it’s not good to generalise, and that there are definitely lots of nice Muslims, but still …

And, in fact, it’s not an unreasonable thought if you’re unfamiliar with Islam. It provides an easy-to-grasp account of acts that otherwise seem inexplicable. Who knows (or can be bothered to find out) what those verses say, and how they have been interpreted? The media uses shorthand, focuses on the present and immediate past rather than the vast contemporary and historical context, and therefore nudges us towards the conclusion that there’s something fishy about this faith.

The fact is, however, that a proper explanation isn’t to be found here. And while it’s crucial liberals don’t avoid the question (that just sounds like making excuses), we need to show why it’s the wrong one. Because until we do, all it really does is stand in the way of proper investigation. It’s like a sign that says “look here and no further”, obscuring, sometimes a little too conveniently, far more complex causes.

Let’s assume for a moment, then, that Islam is especially predisposed towards violence. If that’s your view, then you’ll need to show why the history of Jihadi terrorism is so very short: this is emphatically a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon, yet Islam has been around since the seventh century.

What about its wars of conquest? Well they definitely happened, but not in a way that marks Islam out from other cultures. The subsequent wave of imperial expansionism came via the sky-worshipping Mongols, before they settled down to become Muslims. Not only that, the dominant (often genocidal) military powers since the 17th century have been Christian – and they frequently regarded themselves as having a religious mission.

Aspects of Islamic teaching do indeed justify some kinds of violence. Islam isn’t a pacifist religion. But again, it has this in common with Christianity, Judaism and other world faiths. Since that’s the case, and since we know that violence in the name of Islam has waxed and waned, it follows that we cannot look simply to theology to explain recent Islam-inspired terrorism.

An interviewee of mine recently pointed out that, before the Iranian revolution, Shi’ism was regarded by many non-Muslim commentators as a uniquely private, peaceable, apolitical form of Islam (in other words, “quietist”). These were essential and natural qualities of Shi’ism, they argued.

After the 1979 revolution, this interpretation was turned on its head. Trying to make sense of the fervour with which many Iranians bought into the Islamic Republic, they recognised the inherently radical qualities of Shi’ism, its obsession with martyrdom and sacrifice, and explained the revolution as a natural expression of the Shia mindset.

What had changed? Not the religion. A political earthquake had occurred and religion was now being used by those in power as a vehicle for massive social reorganisation. But what this story captures is a tendency among non-Muslims to attribute magical, ahistorical qualities to Islam – to appeal to it as a black box when events are perplexing, or, as is sometimes the case, when their own wrongheaded policies are implicated.

It’s here that the question of politics – geopolitics – becomes inescapable. The Qur’an and the Hadith, the sources of Islam, didn’t get rewritten in the last few decades. But they were taken up and used by certain political actors to justify horrific violence. Why?

The answer must lie among the political, economic, military and social changes in the Middle East in our times, and how they have ramified in the wider world. It’s only by looking beyond the texts that we can hope to understand why certain interpretations of them have gained currency among a tiny minority – but a minority willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.

This isn’t an excuse. This isn’t the “‘kill us, we deserve it’ school of foreign policy analysis” as described by Nick Cohen. It’s unimpeachable logic. If you think that the causes of terrorism are embedded in the Qur’an and Hadith, you’re proving yourself unable to deal with the complexities of a world in which politics – including military and non-military intervention by foreign powers – interacts with religion.

Saying “there’s something special about Islam” saves you from making the effort to learn more about this faith, the people who practise it and the conditions they live in.

It’s psychologically useful, granted. Islam can be a convenient focus for the rage we feel after hearing about acts of brutality. But don’t mistake something being seductive for it being accurate.

For some – and I suspect this includes Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen and more than a few British pundits – the natural conclusion is that people should be convinced to abandon Islam, and if that doesn’t work, it should be driven out. This, of course, would be a grossly illiberal and violent programme – but one, I suppose, that sits in a rather long tradition of nationalism and supremacism in the west.

Remind me: who’s special again?




Total Comments (10)

  • 10 .

     Why Dictators fall in disgrace? Because they are surrounded by sycophants, praising them all the time. Why do democracies grow? Because not only the opposition parties but also the press continually criticize every move of the governing party. Hence criticisms are essential for the growth of a nation, institution, political party or Religion.  

     Last year Pope declared that the atheists also will go to heaven, provided they love others. He also declared that Holy Communion (Prasad) will be given at the Mass for the divorced people also. Hence, criticisms are vital to know where we stand in the world and what others think about us, and for the upliftment of any institution and to take it to the next level. The editor of NAI probably would have thought that Hats Off’s criticism would not make Islam upside down; rather it would encourage the readers and scholars to read the Koran and to refute his criticisms. Above all the NAI columnists are invigorated and their articles become bolder and convincing.

    By Royalj 03/04/2017 22:13:27
  • 9 .

    Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) father died before he was born and his mother died in infancy. Jesus Christ was born of a virgin mother. Prophet Moses father also died before he was born. While Abraham opposed his father's religion, he always prayed for his father until his father's death. Islam, Christianity and Judaism teach honouring of father and mother even if they be non-believers or polytheists. They are not to be obeyed only in matters of faith when their beliefs are in contradiction of monotheism. They are otherwise to be treated with respect and honour. Prophet Muhammad remained very close to his uncle Abu Talib although he never accepted Islam.

    By Naseer Ahmed 02/04/2017 00:35:59
  • 8 .
    I do not know whether Hats Off was invited back by the editor or not but we have to recognize and combat his persistent and corrosive hate war against progressive Islam in this forum.. He has a right to hold and express his views in appropriate websites but we have to do what we can to maintain the integrity and the ideals of the forum that claims to be a progressive Muslim outlet. 

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin 02/04/2017 00:10:44
  • 7 .

    Many Intellegent  non-Muslim are showing less presence on this website.

    The so called learned Muslims scholars of this website are just never ready to accept any flaws in thier book Quran, they are like Ghandhi who was never ready to accept flaws in Hindu relgion and on other hand he wanted to have Dalits on Hindu side.

    Muslim commentators and scholars  had enough feedback of non-Muslim commemtators, the only thing they do is that start to think and re-write counter-narrative, they never accept flaws.

    Hatts off its time to have break and let Muslims commentators had word fight (vaq yudh) among themselves for some time,

    Mohmmad Paigamber apostates his father relgion because his father died when he was young, Naseer Ahmed proof of Paul C Viz and all other paigamber of Abhramic relgion was first to hate their own fathers relgion and started new relgion, so their is nothing wrong in hating own fathers relgion, one good thing of hatts off is he atleast not started new relgion and but became Atheist, history of Abhrahmic relgion also proved that this messengers not only started new relgion but violence as well.

    Naseer Ahmed proof of Paul C vitz shows how Hatts off and Mohmmad paigamber(or even Jesus) have very simalrity all deprived of fathers love, one gave violence, one gave love, one is ready to remove irrationality.

    Our NAI commentators cannot see their own Ideal of their deprived of fatherly love before showing wrong sympathy and criticising hatts off.
    By Aayina 01/04/2017 12:54:16
  • 6 .

    Why are we discussing here Mr so&so, and not talking about Mr Davis 's wonderful article in which he has scholarly stated what is special about Islam.

    The author authentically says, " why the history of Jihadi terrorism is so very short: this is emphatically a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon, yet Islam has been around since the seventh century". It is a great point which specifies something wrong happened at the end of previous century or at the beginning of current century which prompted some violent reactions from the radical Muslims throughout the world.

    By Raihan Nezami 01/04/2017 07:55:02