Does Islam Preach Terror?


Does Islam preach terror? Honestly, beyond scoring some brownie points or furthering relentless academic debate on the subject, an answer in yes or no serves little purpose. For neither can we do away with Muslims nor with their religion. So most of us who pose the problem in terms of investigating the source of terror in the scriptures, canons, traditions or injunctions of Islam are either incorrigibly curious people, or are inflicted by irreparably prejudicial ideas. Yet every time a Hamas guerilla strikes an Israeli target, each time a ‘fidayeen’ attacks military bases in Kashmir or a bomb blast claims innocent lives, when news of the brutalities of ISIS, Tehreek-e-Taliban, Al Shababand or other such outfits reach us, our accusatory finger turns towards Islam and its foundational scripture, the Quran. The power of this narrative is such that it threatens to leave Muslims across the world contrite and self-abased. The usual response then is either to deny, join the chorus, claim victimhood, project Islam as a religion of peace or to apportion the blame to rival sects— Salafi, Wahabi, Shia, Sunni and others.

I do not intend to defend Islam here or condone the spites of terror outfits. My contention is that the prognosis of the kind mentioned above cynically overlooks temporal and tangible considerations that have informed violence in the past and continue to do so in the present. Certain questions call for contemplation. One, do we disproportionately attribute most violence to Muslims? The tendency and the political exigency to do so is immense, and from media houses, strategic experts to the thoughtful scholar, all have contributed to flag this imagery of a fanatic, bigoted Muslim bursting with unreasonable rage against the infidels. At least a decade preceding 9/11, Samuel Huntington (1993) had begun waxing eloquently on the impending clash of civilisations and Islam’s bloody borders. In 2002 in Goa, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s remark was analogous, ‘wherever Muslims are, they do not want to live in peace’.And lately, Donald Trump, Republican presidential nominee, promised a total ban on Muslims – ‘the extraordinary influx of hatred and danger’ – entering his country should he become the US president.The association between Muslims and terror has emerged as a doxa – a natural given – to the extent that those who are usually difficult consumers of such power-laden discourses have easily fallen prey to it. Here, I am reminded of a column by the politburo member of a leading Communist Party, that argued how Muslims were living in a ‘state of denial’.

How would history bear out such constructs? When Huntington wrote his much discussed essay, Al-Qaeda was an unknown entity, and as a motley group of disparate Afghan Mujahideen, its antecedents could have rather comforted the West. The first US invasion of Iraq (1990-91), was not in the name of the ‘war on terror’, not even for the elusive ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but to punish a former ally turned rogue, Saddam Hussein. The spectre of clash of civilisations that Huntington conjured had little evidentiary support—neither from the present nor from the past. The 39-countrycoalition that meted ‘infinite justice’ to Iraq included all the major Muslim nations of the world—Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Afghanistan. And the wars that have followed post 9/11 too—the Afghan invasion, the invasion of Iraq and Libya or the ongoing devastation in Syria—concede little to Huntington.

Vajpayee’s portrayal of Muslims as violent fanatics served as no more than a fig leaf to cover the culpability of his own party men in the brutalities in Gujarat that left nearly 2000 (mostly Muslims) dead, scores raped and ravaged. Later, the prosecution of Hindutva affiliates in a string of explosions – Mecca Masjid, Malegaon, Ajmer and Samjhauta Express – should have given rest to such lazy constructs. No one rushed to seek the roots of Hindutva violence in the idea of dharma yudha espoused by the classical texts and scriptures – and quite rightly so. Likewise statistics on terrorism lend no support to correlation between religion and terror. Robert Pape, specialist on global security affairs at University of Chicago, set out to study the religious motivation of suicide terrorists, but the ‘suicide attack database’, largest of its kind, (part of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism) that he compiled spoke a different tune—at least half of the attacks were executed by secular groups and almost all of them (95 per cent) targeted military occupation.

A second question that calls for some serious introspection is: why do we usually turn to ecclesiastical motivations when Muslims take to political violence? Do we mean to suggest that unlike an Irish revolutionary, an Eta separatist, a Bodo militant or a Zapatista fighter, Muslim political conduct is inextricable from their religion? There are nearly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. But they also see themselves as Arabs, Palestinians, Syrians, Kashmiris, Chechens and flaunt a variety of ideological currents – socialists, liberals, separatists, nationalists etc. Invariably, all such material and this-worldly impulses cease to be analytical tools when it is an individual or group that happens to be Muslim.The public discourse on mass shootings in the US and Europe is illustrative. So even if the 2015 Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, exhibited all the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder it was the apparent ISIS influence and his religious zeal that was a conclusion foregone. When Anders Breivik indiscriminately killed 77 children attending a summer camp in Oslo on the other hand, it was his supremacist proclivities and mental despondence, not once his Christian beliefs,that were relied upon to explain the dreadful act.

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The problem is compounded further when insurgent groups over to Islamic idiom in their political programme. This is where the dispassionate analyst as much as the partisan strategist most often blur the line that separates them. Thus, despite running a civilian government in the Gaza and its self-description as a ‘national Palestinian Movement’, Hamas continues to feature as an Islamic terrorist group in the USA’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) list. In the Lebanese government, Hizbollah is represented and its founding document declares ‘end to any colonial entity on their land’ and pledges to bring justice to those who perpetrated crimes against both Muslims and Christians. In the NCTC list however, Hizbollah is primarily a Shia fundamentalist organization. That the roots of rising extremist violence could be located in the domain of the political—in the denial of rights, in the uprooting of populations, in forced disappearances, in appropriation of wealth, in the usurpation of sovereignty, in thrusting of wars and enormous ‘collateral’ killings, in carpet bombings and assassinationsis is expediently rejected.

Finally, the question that seems to agitate us most; what about the obligation to Jihad, the injunction to establish the caliphate, and the promise of eternal bliss to the martyr in life hereafter? Bernard Lewis, a seasoned hand in orientalist historiography, in his essay, The Roots of Muslim Rage (1991), sought answers to a question, rather a presumption: why do they (Muslims) hate us (Americans/the West)? Lewis read scriptures and cited prophetic traditions to indicate that the root of the rage lied in the foundational doctrines of Islam. That religion and politics merged in Islam in contrast to its separation in Christianity. For Lewis, the history of Islam, as much as its sacred texts and traditions validate it, the Prophet was both a soldier and a preacher; the idea of just war against God’s enemies is more pronounced, the classical separation between the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the House of Unbelief (Dar al-Harb) is adhered to by all devout Muslims and so on.

No text, perhaps more so with religious scriptures, offers a single set of meanings to its reader(s). Were it so, the emergence of doctrinal disputes, rival sects and Churches would be rare. As there have been several interpretations, there have been innumerable ways of acting upon them. Accordingly, the idea of Jihad has an interesting career. It means quite literally, ‘to strive for a worthy cause’, and in the Quran, acquires the connotation of ‘striving in the path of god’. However, even in the Quran, the methods for Jihad are quite varied. And wherever in certain situations the use of force is sanctioned, Islamic jurists are unclear whether it is resistance against oppression or an aggression against the infidel which is obligated. Besides, there is no consensus whether Jihad is amongst the indispensable and foundational ideas that constitute the core of Islam’s belief structure.

In Islamic doctrine, Jihad is invariably for a just cause, and among the numerous forms of ‘striving in the path of God’ that one could take, violent Jihad does not acquire any exalted position. A prophetic tradition rather suggests that the greater Jihad (jihad al-Akbar) is the struggle against one’s own desires, greed and the temptations of Satan. Early European biographers of Mohammad acknowledge how in the wars that he waged, attacks on women, children, old men close to mortality, demolition of the dwellings of unresisting inhabitants, their means of subsistence, the uprooting of fruit trees, and particularly the palm tree, were forbidden. Thus, the justness of war is determined by its legitimate cause and right conduct during the war. In prescribing moralities of a just war, Islamic scriptures are no exception. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna clears Arjuna’s dilemmas regarding a war that was destined to bring colossal devastation—the war was to end all wars in the future, it was sort of a mother of all sacrifices and as a Kshatriya, he was duty-bound to undertake it. Yet, war was bound by ethical conduct and the warring parties—the Kauravas and the Pandavas—settled on righteous conduct during the war. In European Christianity, a just war thesis developed by St. Thomas Acquinas during the period of the Crusades had two parts—jus ad bellum (i.e., right to go to war) and jus in bello (i.e., right conduct during war). In Islam too jus ad bellum receives equal emphasis as jus in bello, and among the jurists there is a near unanimity that only an Imam or a political authority had the right to declare a combative Jihad on behalf of the people after prudent evaluation of a situation that leaves no alternative.

The point that is being argued here is that ideas are not frozen and immobile forces of history, but given a context, they acquire a life and dynamism different from the earlier manifestation. In the political history of Islam, the form, content and meaning of a righteous war has changed. In South Asia, for example, there was no call for Jihad through the reigns of the Mamluks, the Lodhis or the Mughals. It was seized upon by early Muslim revolutionaries during the anti-colonial resistance. Not everyone was impressed though. During the 1857 Rebellion, while the ulama proclaimed an armed jihad against the British and suffered enormously, Maulana Nazir Dehalvi refused to join the chorus, for he preferred Jihad-i-Lafzi (jihad of the tongue) against the British. A few years later, Maulvi Chiragh Ali (1885) drew upon Orientalist writers to rebuff the colonial portrayal of Islam to prove that Jihad was essentially defensive and purely of transitory nature; not the core of Islam that was obligated on future generations.

Islamic scholars in India have offered innovations in thought that emerged from the uniqueness of the Muslim situation here. Theoretically, at least, in a system of adult franchise, popular representative government and constitutional protection of religious freedom, they are co-sharers of power. The given circumstance allowed Muslim scholars to search for instances in the text and the tradition that allow an accommodative and peaceful dimension of Islam. Soon after the 1857 Rebellion, Sir Syed sought to buy peace with the colonial power by arguing for how the label, dar al-harb, did not apply to Muslims in British India as religious freedom had not shrunk; it qualified to be Dar al-aman, the land of peace. In contrast to the exclusivity of the Islamic Umma, Maulana Azad, introduced the concept of Ummawahida, based on the covenant between Prophet and the Jewish tribes of Medina to suggest how Hindus and Muslims formed a common nationality. Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani locked horns with poet Iqbal to distinguish qaum (nation) from millat (Islamic brotherhood) and provided a theological justification for muttahida qaumiyat or composite nationalism. Later on Abu AlaMaududi’s theorization of Jihad and theocratic polity incensed Islamic scholar, Ali Mian Nadwi who dismissed it as a minor import in contrast to tasawwuf (devotion) and ibadat (worship).

In merging Islam and terror, the current discourse does two disservices at one go. It dehistoricises Islam as well as terror. That terror as a political weapon has a history independent of Islam is glossed over. In India for instance, the epithet, left-wing extremism is reserved for Maoists guerillas, right-wing extremism for Hindutva groups, militancy for various other armed insurgencies while terrorism comes to be exclusively associated with the actions of Kashmiri insurgents. Apart from stigmatising Islam and its followers, this construct allows state actors to assume absolute power over life and liberty of individual citizenry. So, no matter how much civilian desolation is caused, a war is legitimate because it is waged by the state whereas combative actions of the insurgent/revolutionary groups are instantaneously christened as terror producing and illegitimate. In the Battle of Algiers, Ben M’Hidi, the leader of the Algerian resistance, is questioned by a French journalist; “ Wasn’t it cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry bombs that killed innocent people? And Ben M’Hidi r”eplies, ‘’Give us your airplane bombers, and you can have our baskets’’.

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