On Terrorism and Islamophobia

In recent decades much political and intellectual capital has been spent on global terrorism and Islamophobia in the West. Of these, historically speaking, terrorism is as old as the first human settlements. Islamophobia, on the other hand, is rooted in the first Christian crusade to recover Jerusalem from the hands of the (Muslim) infidel. Terror and Islam got tied together after the end of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and the rise of al-Qaeda, a terrorist group supposedly fighting for Islam. America’s quick withdrawal from Afghanistan after the war and its pro-Israel and pro-Saudi involvement in the Middle East were the catalysts for the emergence of al-Qaeda. Its acts of terror against the United States culminated in the bombing of the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. In response, America declared “war on terror”, invaded Afghanistan, and dethroned the Taliban. That did not, however, stop al-Qaeda and associated groups from conducting acts of terror outside the U.S.

The word terrorism is hard to define. It depends on the context and one’s perspective. (The dialogue between Alexander of Macedonia and a pirate cited by St Augustine in The City of God sheds much light on the issue.) We do know what terror is: it is any act of violence to intimidate or compel obedience. It is a weapon to plunder, rob, kill, or enslave. The history of terror is well documented in the ancient writings from China, the fertile Crescent, North Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Greeks and Romans terrorised other nations and people in and outside Europe. And so did the Babylonians, Nubians, and Persians. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus used terror to convert, dominate, and rob. How else were the ancient empires built?

In the modern age, from the discovery of the Americas to this day, the so-called civilised nations have used terror to subdue, destroy, rob, and enslave the so-called barbarians. Spanish Conquistadors did it in the Americas. Likewise, the Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French merchants with guns colonised large parts of Asia and Africa. Perhaps the worst form of terror was reserved for slaves from Africa. There is copious evidence of terror used by the English settlers in North America against the indigenous and African people; the Spanish inquisitors against Jews and Muslims; Jacobins in France; Stalin in the Soviet Union; Hitler in Nazi Germany; Mao in China; United States in Vietnam and Cambodia; Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; Apartheid regime in South Africa; military regimes in Chile and Argentina, and Saddam Husain in Iraq. All of these are examples of state-led terror. The non-state organised groups of terrorists include secular fanatics like anarchists, fascists, communists, nationalists, and religious zealots like the Zionist gangs in pre-partition Palestine, al-Qaeda and associates based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, al-Shabab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. The non-state agents of terror, secular and religious, have used it to upset the status quo or overthrow the existing regimes.

In the present context, the predominant agents of terror are associated with the name of Islam. They have hit targets and killed people in several countries after 2001: France, Spain, England, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. There is much debate about the validity of the agents’ claim that their acts of terror are justified in Islam or by the Muslim tradition. A vast majority of the Muslims repudiate their stand, particularly if the acts of terror are targeted at the civilian populations and their property. This is supported by the data collected from several opinion polls and surveys in the Muslim-majority countries. It can also be argued that the terrorists abuse the notion of jihad in Islam. For them jihad is merely a cover for terrorising people, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The metastasized mujahideen of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan took upon themselves the right to impose the sharia in the Muslim states and fight the “devil” in the West. America’s support to Israel and the oil-rich states in the Middle East became the major target of their jihad. Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s provided a haven to al-Qaeda to organise and carry out the acts of terror. Following al-Qaeda, many other groups with similar ideology sprang up in Asia and Africa. Surely the cause of these terrorist groups is neither valid nor just; they are losers of history.

The reawakening of Islamophobia in the West — the fear of Islam as an existential threat — is only partly a backlash to the terror perpetrated by al-Qaeda and other groups. The other reason is the rapid growth of Muslim immigrants (refugees and others) in Western Europe and North America. Islamophobia has a long history in Europe. Pope Urban II urged Christians to go on crusade against the Muslims and liberate the Holy Land — freedom from indulgences was its promised reward. The crusades had devastating consequences for both Europe and the Middle East. I have found a fine account of the history of polemical writings against Islam and its followers in Norman Daniel’s, Islam in the West: The Making of an Image, a classic on the roots of Islamophobia. The rapid spread of Islam was attributed to violence alone. Prophet Muhammad was portrayed as an imposter, a false prophet, and the Antichrist. Martin Luther added his dicta against the Turks (Muslims) to the rich body of the medieval literature against Islam. The Muslim rule in Spain and the rise of the Ottomans (Turks) and their penetration into Europe kept the anti-Muslim fire alive. The defeat of the Turks by the Habsburgs in 1791 literally extinguished the anti-Islam fire in Europe. The colonial occupation of the Muslim lands by some Western countries from the seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century, and the demolition of the Ottoman empire after the Great War, put the fear of Islam as a distant though recoverable memory.

The resurgence of the anti-Islam literature in the West can be traced to the rising inflow of Muslims, though culturally and ethnically diverse, in some European countries followed by the growth of the jihadist terrorist groups and their targeted attacks. A lot of this literature came to surface in France and the United States — its authors are both secularists and religious zealots. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order remains one of the most influential pieces of anti-Islamic writings. And so is Soumission (Submission), a French novel by Michel Houellebecq. These writings and others like them have a simple message: that Islam promotes violence and is fundamentally anti-democratic. Put it differently. Islamic values are incompatible with the (Judeo-Christian) values of the West.

Some church leaders (mostly Evangelicals) in the United States, politicians in France, Netherlands, and England, and media outlets and personalities in the West have made it their right and privilege to propagate views against Islam. (In this the role of mass media platforms is even more corrosive.) Often these views are based on dubious if not false assumptions, distorted facts, and exaggerations out of proportion and context. They also use the evidence of street demonstrations and acts of violence by angry groups of Muslims. The two most celebrated examples of free speech as targets of attack are (1) Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a novel denigrating Islam, its Prophet, and his wives and (2) cartoons of the Prophet of Islam in Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine. It’s worth noting that a vast majority of Muslims, angry though they were about what they thought was abuse of free speech, did not approve or support the call for violence and the attacks. The idea of free speech is not a settled issue: when does free speech become hate speech? Don’t some of the speeches, writings about and depictions of Islam and Muslims cross the border? But then where is the border? And can it really be drawn? My point is little different. To cite the violent demonstrations and acts of terror by some misguided and angry Muslims as representative of the global Muslim community or of Islam is to misrepresent and twist the facts. We know the power of propaganda: keep repeating a lie; the bigger the lie the more believable it becomes.

Muslims in the West, individually and as a community, are stereotyped targets of insults, assaults, and even murders. Mosques and other places of gatherings have not been spared. There have been numerous incidents of mass violence resulting in fatalities in, for example, France, Canada, and New Zealand. One cannot ignore the fact that the perpetrators of these crimes against Muslims were influenced by the barrage of propaganda in the mass media, speeches by some politicians, clerics and media personalities, and the writings of influential intellectuals and idealogues. The good news is that a vast majority of the non-Muslims and most governments in the West are on the side of the Muslim community.

Postscript: It seems that the Taliban are back in the saddle in Afghanistan, almost 20 years after they were dislodged from power by the armed forces of the United States and its NATO allies. No one knows how they will govern the country this time. We do know that their previous rule was harsh and unjust. Can they reinvent themselves, given their experience and the resources they have captured this time? I hope they do. Their initial announcements sound promising, but only actions will reveal the course. The people of Afghanistan haven’t seen much peace or security since at least 1978.

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Mahmood Hasan Khan

Mahmood Hasan Khan

Retired professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University, Canada