By: Stan Grant
Source: ABC News (Australia)
This week I got an early morning taxi to the airport for a flight to Melbourne.
As you do, my taxi driver and I fell into an easy conversation — cricket, food, our kids.
He was originally from Pakistan and I told him of the many years I spent reporting out of there and my deep affection for the country and its people.
I always found Pakistan alluring, at times terrifying yet strangely comforting. It must have been something about the smell of the place — my bureau in Islamabad was surrounded by gum trees that reminded me of home.
As a reporter it was an extraordinary place, described as the most dangerous country on earth.
It is nuclear armed, locked in an existential unending stand-off with rival India. It has been a breeding ground for terrorists.
The madrassas — Islamic schools — gave rise to the Taliban (Talib literally means scholar). The north-west frontier is home to militant gangs. Kashmir has its own armed extremist organisations.
The 9/11 attacks were masterminded from Pakistan. Osama Bin Laden was tracked down and killed living in a Pakistani military town right under the noses of officials.
Not for nothing has Pakistan been dubbed the serpent’s tail.
‘Muslims share some of the blame’
With the reminder this week, in London and in Melbourne, of how terrorism can touch our lives, I asked the taxi driver how he was feeling.
He is a Muslim, he is aware of the criticism his religion receives, of how the words of the Koran can be read to inspire acts of terror.
Sadly, he said, Muslims share some of the blame.
It is not unusual for Muslims to speak this way. Our neighbouring family is Muslim. After the weekend attack in London the mother came to our door with cakes to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan — a time of fasting and prayer — and apologised to us personally for what had happened in the name of her religion.
I recall many years ago visiting a CNN colleague who lived in an Arab town in Israel near the Sea of Galilee. We had been reporting on a spate of suicide bombings and we talked about this scourge of Islamic extremism.
We have to kill our prophets, he told me. It was his poetic way of saying that his religion needed to reform, there needed to be separation of Mosque and state.
I have had many such conversations over two decades of reporting around the world; ordinary Muslims locked in a battle for the soul of their faith.
Too often these conversations took place after a terrorist attack had killed Muslims. They are at the frontline of this battle. It comes out of their mosques and explodes in their streets.
According to the US National Counterterrorism Centre, up to 97 per cent of fatalities in the past five years have been Muslims.
Muslims are seven times more likely than non-Muslims to be the victims of terror.
It is so commonplace that it often barely makes the headlines of our media. It is a reality that we do not feel the pain of those lost lives as deeply as we do the lives lost in the West.
It is worth remembering that as we sift through the column inches of commentary and listen to our politicians accusing Muslims of not speaking out loudly enough against Islamic inspired terrorism.
These critics are either wilfully ignorant, deliberately misleading or malicious. They are certainly selective in their facts.
The vast majority of Muslims reject terrorism. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001 until 2007, Pew Research conducted extensive worldwide studies of attitudes towards terrorism.
The research polled thousands of people representing up to 90 per cent of the world’s Islamic populations and found that 93 per cent condemned the 9/11 attacks as unjustified.
In 2015, Pew released another study showing overwhelming negative views of Islamic State among Muslims.
Why wouldn’t they? They are the people targeted by these extremist groups. It is their children that IS seeks to pervert and recruit.
The civilian death toll alone in Iraq since the rise of IS, according to the group Iraq Body Count, is more than 170,000.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, more than a quarter of a million people have been killed.
Georgetown University Professor and terrorism expert, Tamara Sonn, asks hard questions about the role of Islam in terrorism in her recent book, Is Islam an Enemy of the West?
Professor Sonn makes it clear that terrorism is a crime against Islamic law. She says there is a word for it — hirabah — which describes actions of terror and violence against random victims. She says it is the very opposite of the word for peace.
Professor Sonn writes that Mulsim authorities of every variety — diverse Sunnis and Shia — have repeatedly and publicly condemned terrorism as crimes both against Islam and humanity at large.
She cites the September 12, 2001 press release by the organisation representing the 57 Muslim majority countries, the Organisation of the Islamic Co-operation, that condemned the 9/11 attacks as “criminal and brutal acts … counter to all covenants, humanitarian values and divine religions, foremost among which is Islam”.
After the 2004 attacks in Madrid that killed nearly 200 people, the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia issued a public statement describing the assault as “pernicious and shameless evils which are not justified by any sane logic, nor by the religion of Islam”.
In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan issued a comprehensive condemnation of terrorism signed by 200 Muslim authorities from 50 countries.
In part it read: “Assault upon the life of a human being, be it murder, injury or threat, is an assault upon the right to life among all human beings.”
In 2014 ,dozens of Sunni Muslim religious authorities issued an open letter to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Line by line they refuted the IS doctrine.
The leaders said he had no legitimacy.
None of this is hard to find. All the research is available online. All the public statements are on the official record.
Professor Sonn’s book can be found easily in our stores.
At best a distortion, at worst an outright lie
No-one need be ignorant, yet again this week we are seeing politicians and pundits doubling down on the Muslim community — the people who pay more than anyone with their own blood in the fight against terrorism — saying they don’t do enough to condemn Islamic extremism.
Just this week the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan — a Muslim — has denounced the terrorists for killing in his name. He has explicitly said there was no justification for the attacks and has vowed the terrorists will never win.
Still some have criticised him for not doing enough.
Accusing Muslims of not strongly condemning terrorism is at best a distortion, at worst an outright lie.
The other claim is that Islam is at the core of the wave of violent extremism, as though somehow the religion is to blame.
These arguments are often built around selective quotes from the Koran with little nuance.
The Koran was delivered over a 20-year period covering times of war and peace.
Its verses address justice and conflict. Koranic scholars are careful to locate the teachings within their correct context.
Extremist groups like IS hijack the teachings to deliver a twisted version of the religion.
As Professor Sonn points out, this is precisely why learned Islamic leaders have denounced the group as illegitimate.
What we are seeing is an extremist group using religion to pursue a political purpose.
Political scientist Richard English places the rise of Islamic violent extremism within a global history of terrorism in his book, Does Terrorism Work?
Terrorism he says, is rooted in the idea that at certain times it is considered the most effective way of achieving necessary goals.
It is, he says, a “violent form of politics”.
This violent form has operated under many guises.
Between 1868-1871 alone, white-hooded bible-wielding terrorists killed 20,000 African Americans. They were called the Ku Klux Klan.
Between 1931 and 1948 the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organisation, operated in Mandate Palestine. Its campaign of insurgent violence expedited British withdrawal from the region.
Spear of the Nation, an armed wing of the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela pursued majority black rights in South Africa.
A group of Welsh separatists, the Free Wales Army, used violence in a failed attempt to achieve independent statehood.
From Sri Lanka to Ireland to Greece, militant groups have used ideology and violent tactics to achieve their aims.
As England points out, ultimately most fail and progress, when it does come, follows an end of hostilities.
Answer to weakness in Islam may be stronger Islam
England is not addressing the relative merits of each cause but looking at its motivation and modus operandi.
Islamic extremists fit within that tradition of violent extremism.
While they may quote the Koran, their tactics are just as likely to come from China’s Chairman Mao.
Islamist strategists have posted their playbooks online. They are fond of quoting revolutionary leaders like Mao who said “war cannot be separated even for a second from politics”.
Nothing Islamic there. But the question remains, what is the role of Islam in terrorism? Is there something peculiar and unique in this current struggle?
Scholar Shadi Hamid probes this question in his book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How The Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping The World.
Hamid says we need to understand and respect this exceptionalism. He identifies it as “the problem of religion and its role in politics”.
He says in the Islamic world, the legal and political order is “anchored in religion”.
Islamic State is rejected by most Muslims, but Hamid argues it “draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have a broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations”.
Professor Sonn too speaks of “shared grievances”. These grievances, she writes, “have their roots in European colonialism, something experienced by most Muslim majority countries”.
Dr Hamid says it is wrong to imagine some Christian style reformation. The Muslim world is “intimately tied to and shaped by Islam”.
He writes: “Islam will have to play a significant role in the forging of political community, particularly where political community is weak.”
Put simply, the answer to weakness in Islam may be stronger Islam.
Muslims are terrorism’s great victims. Muslims are locked in a battle to defeat an ideology that is eating its own.
Muslim leaders, time and again, have condemned and denounced these perverters of their faith.
Yet this week they are again being blamed. Dr Hamid and Professor Sonn make it clear that we in the West need to support and work with Islamic communities, not undermine or vilify them.
There are so many unresolved questions, particularly how Islam and Muslims find a place in western liberal democratic countries?
These are serious questions with serious consequences, not for point-scoring politicians or ignorant commentators.
It is the conversation I will keep having with my taxi driver and my neighbour.