By: Qays Arthur
We ask Allah for His mercy and that He grant comfort to those in grief.
Last Thursday’s mass murder at a French cartoon publication in which 12 perished has triggered global outrage, days later Paris is still on “high alert”. By no means was it the only or most bloody mass killing of the day. A bomb blast near a police college in Sanaa, Yemen where no less than 38 people were killed was no less horrendous. Certainly it was more political in nature and thus more likely an act of terrorism even if “global” outrage is comparatively mute. With that I would like to clarify that there are real acts of terrorism with political and military motivations but what concerns me at this point is those crimes that, in all likelihood, are not yet are cast as such and blamed on something called “radical Islam”.
Concerning the Paris shootings we don’t know and will likely never know with certainty, now that the suspects are all dead, to what extent this extreme and criminal act was politically motivated. Yet despite that fact it has already been squarely cast as an act of terrorism and an indication of the so-called threat of radical Islam. This to me, all the way in Amman, is deeply unsettling. Perhaps we should really pause this time and ask probing questions about extremism or radicalism.
Imam Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi the great 10th century Sunni jurist and theologian said, in his renowned theology primer, “Al-Aqida”, that the religion of Islam:
“…is between fanaticism and laxity, theanthropism and abstraction, fatalism and free will, between presuming oneself saved and presuming oneself damned.”
Those words appear at the very end of the text as the Imam summarizes the theological arguments he made throughout. “Radicalism” or extremism has always been opposed by orthodox Islam, has always been present, and will likely always be present. Radical Islam is not a major problem for France or the United States or Britain any more than it is for Yemen. Radical Islam is not a political or social problem. It is a theological problem. Theologians call it unorthodoxy. And its cure is moderation.
That simple fact alters the entire discourse. I’m not saying that unorthodoxy isn’t a problem. What I am saying is that the problem of unorthodox Islam and how to treat it is a matter of Muslim theology and education which Muslim educators need to address.
But unlawful violence and criminality, even when they are terrorism, indicate that there are bigger problems afoot. Those larger problems may, in fact, concern governments and politicians. And when I, as something of a Muslim educator and casual reader of history, hear power centers essentially blaming unorthodoxy for such criminality I become suspicious.
If those power centers are supposed to be secular, I become alarmed.
What I fear when politicians and talking heads create a vacuous discourse around apparent unorthodoxy rebranded as “radical Islam” is a smoke and mirrors game intended to obfuscate matters pertaining to social justice and cohesion, due process, and accountability that those in power don’t want their public scrutinizing. And that game it seems relies on latent prejudices.
In other words the authorities are not really concerned with a theologically unorthodox Islam. Rather they are concerned with radical Muslims which is to say Muslim criminals. But saying our problem is Muslim criminals may invite too many unwelcome questions, from the conscientious, about why the need to treat Muslim criminals any differently from non-Muslims ones – at which point things like social and political grievances and even matters of foreign policy may come up. The more impersonal “radical Islam” avoids that by implying that ideas (theology or beliefs) are being targeted when in fact the target is people – criminal elements of a specific segment of the population.
The radical Islam discourse depersonalizes the issue and thus helps to facilitate public acceptance of attempts by authorities to treat the criminal elements of a specific community differently before the law from other citizens. To the extent that that is true it is a cause for grave concern.
And what I have seen whether in Australia with the scandalously exaggerated, now turned invisible “Sydney Siege”; or with the “Boston Bombings” in the US before that; and now with the Charlie Hebdo shootings only reinforces that concern.
The Sydney Siege, which involved Man Haron Monis, an apprently unhinged refugee turned citizen from Iran with a criminal record and no links to terrorist groups, indicates fundamental failings within the Muslim community and broader society. There was neglect at many levels.
Some ask how such an individual could have obtained a firearm and others wonder how Australia’s anti-terrorism apparatus failed regarding him. It seems clear to me that Australia’s anti-terrorism apparatus did not fail regarding Monis because he was not a terrorist threat. He was more likely a man in need of mental health care and it was his immediate community and social services that failed him, his victims, and his nation.
Yet with the mention of terrorism and radical Islam, all concerned parties avoid scrutiny and Monis is simply discarded as “unorthodox” or radical human garbage. There has thus been almost no scrutiny of the wildly exaggerated and politicized media coverage of the crime, or of the precise circumstances of Monis’ and the killed hostages’ deaths. (As I was writing this a story revealing that one of the Sydney Siege hostages was killed by a police bullet broke but received, as yet, relatively little exposure likely due to Paris shootings.)
Australian Muslims even took the radical step of initially refusing to bury the man (as was also the case with the killed Boston bomber). That is despite the fact that a Muslim funeral is an ordained religious duty and right of all Muslims, whether right or wrong acting. That duty is specifically mentioned in books of theology, including the one I quoted earlier, as a hallmark of moderation. What I see in that highly unorthodox and radical gesture on the part of Muslim leaders is fear, the type of fear that chips away at moderation. I will come back to that fear shortly insha Allah.
The Australian government is yet to declare whether the Sydney Siege was an act of terrorism or not.
Compared to the Sydney seige, the Boston bombings and Paris shootings are different only in the apparent absence of mental health issues. When you look at the media circus, the race and cultural dynamics, familial circumstances, level of overall ideological or religious commitment of the suspects, the parallels are telling. Both pairs of suspects were siblings with troubling stories, there is no evidence of the involvement of terrorist networks, yet evidence of parental disconnection, isolation, marginalization, and neglect within the community, as well as fear and intimidation from the state seem common.
This report from 2012 that I came across when looking up Monis gives some insight into how Australian law enforcement can deal with the Muslim community:
“The source said the people targeted for the operation were not believed to have been involved in a fully realised terrorist plot, but were involved in ”contemplating and getting information” about terrorist activities…
The warrant also says police were looking for copies of the infamous al-Qaeda-produced magazine Inspire, which reportedly nominated Sydney as a potential terrorist target earlier this year.
Sources said the men targeted were Australian residents from a mix of cultural backgrounds.
One man whose house was raided in the early hours of the morning condemned the police and intelligence services in a Facebook posting.
”And look at the tactics. They come early in the morning (6am) and break the door of the markaz and about 20-30 come to the door of my neighbour as well. He (the neighbour) is overseas and has no control over what’s happening over here,” he wrote.
”In the house are only his wife and children who have been followed in the house even to the point that one policewoman has to go with them when they change clothes! Also, there are two police cars parked in the front of units to check who is entering and exiting the units!”'”
I doubt that Australians in general are treated in that manner by their law enforcement. I also doubt that most Australians are comfortable with the idea of raids taking place for “contemplating… about terrorist activity…”. What sort of crime is that? A thought crime perhaps? The much debated NYPD Muslim surveillance program in the US suggests that things are not terribly different there.
In that context of isolation and intimidation it stands out to me that in all three cases the suspects were citizens with a history of encounters with the police and intelligence services before allegedly committing the crimes. In such cases it likely isn’t terrorism, but urban crime committed by criminals from communities under significant social pressure and imposing government surveillance.
Yet, unlike what happens when similar crimes are committed by members of other communities, the public seems unconcerned with such trivialities. It is indeed striking how the possibility of mental illness which seems almost pursued by the media when mass murders are done by members of other communities was all but ignored in all these cases including the Sydney siege where it was an obvious factor. Perhaps the religion, names, and faces are too alien to merit such close examination.
So, with few exceptions, the middle class public (including Muslims) is not asking probing questions of their governments and security services. They are not demanding the details of each case – like hard evidence for such loose claims as “had links with radical Islam” or “received terrorist training”, or the details concerning the circumstances of death of suspects and hostages.
Instead the middle class is rallied by a media establishment that seeks profit ahead of discharging civic responsibility. And a sordid self-assuring ritual of emotional outpourings peppered with slogans that overtly appeal exclusively to urban middle-class sentiments ensues. These media spectacles have little to do with the actual victims or their families or the suspects. Instead they focus on political pundits and politicians talking as footage of armed guerrilla fighters in the Middle East alternates with images of grieving masses holding flickering lights at vigils, all to reinforce the official narrative – one in which radical Islam features prominently.
Appealing to that very narrative, even Muslim community leaders act on cue and cry “barbarians” along with some scripted nonsense about freedom of speech. I say “scripted nonsense” because what those leaders themselves lack the freedom to speak of is the sad extent to which their words are motivated by fear – fear of the type I hinted at earlier as being manifested in the highly unorthodox and immoderate refusal to bury the dead suspects. It is a fear of a “backlash” from bigoted but significant segments of the broader community and/or government agencies and even private institutions like banks, and social media companies that can sanction them if there is so much of a hit that the authorities deem them “radical”.
When Muslim organizations with money and voices are muted and brought to their knees by such fear what of the confused, morally torn, under-educated young men and women who out of anger, frustration, or just stupidity make the mistake of browsing the wrong websites or visiting the wrong people or country while Muslim? And what of the broader context of all of this fear and confusion?
I am far away and may be completely wrong, but it does seem to me that there is great merit in the alarm being sounded by some right-minded activists and academics like Noam Chomsky that the United States and other nations are in danger of losing their hard-earned freedoms to systems that are easily manipulated by powerful moneyed interests referred to by terms such as “the Wall St. elite” or “the one percent”.
Other principled people like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have exposed a massive surveillance apparatus which they can demonstrate is aimed at the public it is supposed to be protecting. They are asking the right questions including those that pertain to Muslims, as a marginalized, and discriminated against group who are being conspicuously targeted by that apparatus precisely because strong undercurrents of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States and elsewhere permit that at present.
That puts Muslims in the center of the crosshairs of an ever expanding global security and surveillance behemoth the purpose of which is unclear, the nature of which is invasive and coercive, and the scale of which is mind-blowing. We should not forget that many Muslim migrants to western nations flee from nations that are the scenes of drone attacks and “renditions”, one face of the behemoth, only to find the other face – alienation and state intimidation – in their adopted homes.
On the point of alienation I would like to return to Paris and the current tragedy. Muslims really should also ask themselves and their fellow citizens if we are indeed all “Charlie”. Does Charlie Hebdo really represent what is important to us about freedoms in general and freedom of speech in particular, or is “je suis Charlie” merely one privileged segment of society’s twisted play on raw emotions to make a point against other, perhaps less privileged and less “culturally attuned”, segments while those in power nod, subtly confirming the prejudice with talk about “radical Islam”? I rather suspect the latter to be the case.
And when those in power, whether in Paris or Washington, condone the stoking of prejudices, however subtly, among their citizens while carrying out programs of torture and surveillance and consistently killing Muslim suspects without accountability, citizens of conscience, especially Muslims, need to take stock and act.
It seems to me that despite their circumstances, indeed because of them, American Muslims, before others, must find the courage to act for the pleasure of God and the betterment of society. They must partner with like minds across the political spectrum to ask probing questions of political context and policy and demand answers that are more meaningful than “radical Islam”.
American Muslims and others in the west must ask their political leaders whether a corpus of unorthodox and violent teachings or radical Islam (which, as I pointed out was always present) is indeed the reason they and their fellow citizens are confronting violent Muslim criminality or whether it returns to matters related to those government’s policies abroad and other failures (including those of the Muslim community) at adequately addressing the repercussions of those policies as well as the neglected concerns of the marginalized at home.
To the extent that the radical Islam discourse prevents that discussion and provides justification for treating Muslims as “special cases” where due process and transparency don’t apply, it must be scrutinized and challenged. To the extent that it helps to stoke anti-Muslim prejudices and silence Muslims through fear, it must be boldly and vigorously rejected with the full force of the law.
What currency will fanatics like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have with young people if the mainstream leadership finds the boldness to take such steps? What will bigots say to Muslims whose actions can be seen to be informed by their faith in God as well as their allegiance to the constitution?
Such boldness is not optional. It is a moral imperative. It is stopping evil with the hand. And if the politics of fear is at all a factor in preventing such steps from being taken, that is not an excuse, it simply makes the moral imperative even greater. In short, it is a matter of being good citizens and good Muslims.
“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” Quran. Chapter 4, verse 135 (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)
Some may call that radical. In reality it’s just Islam.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MuslimVillage.com.