Initially published in Egypt’s Ahram
This Cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune
sums up my thoughts about our disunity in fighting terrorism
Sinai, Beirut, Paris, Bamako, and Tunis: the latest terror attacks across three continents are a rude reminder to our global community that vicious anti-modernity bullies continue to foment hatred and violence.
By slaughtering innocents, regressive radicals attempt to force brutal barbarism onto the world as a new norm. Are we ready to fight such ruthless evil? Judging by the array of responses to the recent terror attacks, the answer is undoubtedly ‘no.’
The global community is not united against terrorism. While we may be united in condemnation, we differ on everything else.
Whenever there is a major terrorist attack in a Western city, an updated version of Godwin’s law (as a discussion gets longer, inevitably someone will compare the situation to Hitler or Nazism) usually applies, in which the subject is Islam instead of Nazism.
In contemporary terror events, after the initial shock, a futile and mushrooming dialogue emerges, comprised of clashes, conflicting opinions, bitterness, victimhood, and finger pointing that eventually leads to Islam.
Two camps typically emerge. One defends Islam and is composed mainly of Muslims and leftist, liberal Westerners. A second cluster ruthlessly bashes and demonizes Muslims.
The overall result is a pointless zero-sum outcome that does not effectively confront terrorism or minimize the growing Islamophobia in various Western societies.
Our collective failure to fight terror effectively stems from our own inability to focus on the task. Instead, we engage in nonsensical bickering over semantics. Is it Islam or not? Is it politics or religion?
The futile judging of “Islam”
Unlike what many Muslims and the liberal western elite emphasize, contemporary terrorism undoubtedly has a religious element to it. It is frankly disingenuous to deny this reality. It is also futile, however, to judge Islam. Islam is not an entity, a specific institution, or a state.
Like other religions, Islam is not what is written in texts, but what people opt to apply in their life.
Radicals have simply resurrected older interpretations of Islamic texts and twisted such concepts in cynical farcical ways to validate their gruesome actions. Their behavior is actually a reflection of the broader cultural suicide of the Muslim world, and not on the Muslim faith per se.
It is about time to admit that we have failed to establish a modern Islamic culture that engages our youth and prevents them from drifting toward radicalism. Our Islam struggles to survive because various actors politicize Islam and become agents of death who sell the afterlife as the ultimate alternative.
Our current cultural bankruptcy has led even mainstream religious institutions to glamorize the past. Our text books have whitewashed the past–Andalucía, the Ottoman Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, Salahdin, and many more–of all negative aspects.
Instead they offer fairytales to our youth. This results in a rise of escapism as an antidote to modern challenges. Our Islamic past has become an opiate for many Muslims aspiring to a better life. It is no wonder that ISIS and Co. attract many disenchanted youth, including losers like Salah Abdesalam, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, and his gang.
Some argue rightly, that Islamic teaching needs reform with more liberal interpretations. This is indeed true. Nonetheless, radicalism is not just about what is written in text, but also about one’s susceptibility toward accepting religious regression.
Without confronting our escapism to the past and glamorization of past figures, some youth will dismiss liberal interpretations and only dig deeper in search for past heroes.
Our Muslim communities urgently need a dose of realism about Islamic history. None of our Islamic heroes was an angel.
Islam teaches us that no human is perfect, so why do our scholars insist that our past leaders were perfect? Our youth need a clear mirror that highlights how our past included colonialism and imperialism that were neither fair nor just.
Our past wars were as savage as the current war in Syria—and even worse. Our ancestors were not perfect. Only with a clearer historical periscope can our youth reject the backwardness and medievalism promoted by the Islamic State and other radicals.
Abusing the war against terrorism for political reasons
With respect, I doubt that the right and left in the political sphere are giving the current terror attacks the seriousness they deserve. Decades after WWII, it seems we have lost our ability to appreciate global threats and instead constantly frame them within our narrow political interests.
In America for example, Obama is now more concerned about his own legacy than the impact of his timid foreign polices. In comparison, Republicans are demonizing Syrian refugees to look tough on terrorism.
The situation in Europe is not better. It was painful to read in July how Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, argued that the Iran agreement is a disaster for ISIS.
Events this November have proven how this opinion was merely wishful thinking. Many in the West are falling into the Islamists’ narrative that Muslims are one nation.
Sadly, we are not. A deal with Shia Iran only helped Sunni, Jihadi groups like ISIS. Such groups consider Shia as apostates and flourish among disfranchised Sunnis. These conflicting views have accelerated the on-going cold war in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Another argument links political oppression against Islamists with the rise of radical Jihadists. Advocates of this argument conveniently ignore the repeated terror attacks in Tunisia, and claim that Islamist youth turn violent only because democratic channels are closed in their faces.
This argument may sound logical as the oppression of any group is counter-productive, but this perspective is problematic. It essentializes political Islam as an ideology that considers violence as its reflexive plan B to any conflict, and indirectly sanctions uncontrollable anger as the normal reaction to injustices. Both are wrong in Islam.
Islamic teaching asks Muslims to be patient and resist anger. Saber “patience” is a basic Islamic tenant. After his mistreatment in Mecca, the Prophet did not embark in a campaign of beheadings of his opponents and killing of innocents in Mecca. In fact, the prophet never adopted anger as his prime reaction. Ironically, Islamists and their Western supporters conveniently ignore this simple fact.
Moreover, some liberal and leftist pundits, and human rights advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, ignore the main task of how to fight ISIS and instead focus on judging how their political opponents will fight ISIS.
Our intellectual elite are comfortable to play the arbiters of the war on terror but are not willing to step down from their idealism to confront and handle the practicalities of a painful reality.
The Arab and Muslim world continue to send the West mixed signals. Syria is a glaring example. We denounce the West for not solving the mess (which is fundamentally ours, by the way), and then we curse foreign interventions citing the doomed Iraq war against Saddam Hussein. What, exactly, do we want? “The Perfect Intervention” may be an ideal computer game, but that is not real life.
Meanwhile, our quest for the perfect solution is paralyzing our thinking process even as we watch as our lives and freedom are hijacked by terrorists.
It’s about time to update our strategic software and start to triage a clear approach to the complex challenge of terrorism. Both the Muslim world and the Western world have to unite to face the challenge of terrorism. Currently, we are not fighting the terrorists; we are only fighting each other.