Against Defensiveness and Moral Equivalence

Against Defensiveness and Moral Equivalence

by S. Abdallah Schleifer

I do not accept a current of thought running through some of the American Muslim internet discourse that I have been party to, that all of the sins or crimes of everyone else are reason for Muslims not to continuously denounce terrorism committed in the name of Islam, or reasons for Muslims not to attempt to understand what it is in many Muslims’ contemporary understanding of our religion that allows such crimes to take place and to be justified. Nor do I accept the insistence on finding only roots and causes of terrorism that are exclusively all outside of a particular way in which some Muslims understand Islam.

Is the “cause” colonialism?  Emir Abdul Qader al Jazeeri warred for years in the mid-19th century against one of the cruelest strains of European colonialism – French colonialism in Algeria –without committing one atrocious act. On the contrary he punished his own troops if they committed atrocities that are now par for the course among Islamist terrorists.  Perhaps the answer is that Amir Abdul Qader considered Islam above all as a personal path to a spiritual Reality, and not as a religion emptied of spiritual content and turned into a modern revolutionary ideology.

Crime is crime and when it happens we must face it. The defensiveness involved in rhetorical attacks on others—be they the descendents of the murderers of American Indians and slave traders, or the Dutch unit that failed to fight the Serbian forces that overran Srebrenica, are at the heart of the question.

I will digress to deal just with that one example—a Dutch government resigned because of the shame and embarrassment of a investigation and report that the Dutch Army undertook itself as to the shameful behavior of their unit in Srebrenica. Of course they didn’t have to, they could have responded by blaming the UN military and political command for failing to provide the free zone with the 5,000 or more troops needed to defend the zone instead of the 450 Dutch troops assigned the task which was indeed the case; or they could have responded to the shame, not by resigning but by blaming, (quite correctly) the UN military command for failing even to send in aircraft to break up the Serbian formations moving on the city; they could have blamed a Bosnian Muslim commander now on trial for war crimes for using the cover of the safe area to strike out at Serbian villages near Srebrenica in his own little game of ethnic cleansing which provided a convenient provocation for the Serbian onslaught. But they didn’t; they had the decency instead to experience shame and do the right thing.

That’s all I ask my fellow Muslims—lets get over old history—Amerindian genocide, the colonization and conquest of Palestine, the imperial conquest and looting of India etc etc, and do, now, the decent, the right thing.

Here is what matters. Every day terrible crimes are being committed against civilians—targeted civilians, be they Shiites praying in a mosque or Londoners on the tubes, or a year or so back, Israeli teenagers in a pizzeria, and these crimes are committed in the name of Islam, in the name of Allah and His Prophet. Nobody else does this sort of thing anymore for a variety of reasons. The IRA never killed in the Name of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, the Tamil Tigers never killed in the name of Vishnu—the closest to this phenomena are the Hindu fundamentalists in India killing Indian Muslims or Jewish fundamentalist-settlers killing Palestinian villagers in the West Bank. But these are not a massive global phenomena but sporadic, generally low-key localized incidents—and what do they matter, from one’s own personal moral perspective, whereby as we were taught as children, “two wrongs do not make a right.” By that I mean, I oppose Jewish fundamentalist -settler terrorism in the West Bank but I do not share responsibility for it—other Israelis do, and to their credit, there is a slim majority of Israelis who favor pulling all the settlers out of the occupied West Bank as well as Gaza. I do, as a Muslim, share a certain personal responsibility for Islamist terrorism —I am called upon to act as a moral person, when crimes are committed in the name of my religion, in the Name that I call my God and in the name of His Prophet, and I remind my Muslim readers that is going on every day. And it’s neither low key nor sporadic

Let me underline this point at the price of repetition. Islamist Terrorism is horrendous. As a perversion of my religion, as a pollution of my religion I find it more horrendous than other crimes since I do not identify with the communities from whence come those individuals committing other crimes—like the fundamentalist Israeli settlers, or violent Hindu fundamentalists. My sympathies, as a Muslim, are entirely with those forces which seek to crush Islamist Terror—be it the Saudi Counter-Terrorist units in Riyadh, the Iraqi Army, the FBI or the CIA.

For me the great heroes of World War II are those third generation Japanese-Americans—who despite the most terrible and racist treatment of interned Japanese Americans; a treatment we Muslims should remember before tearing our hair out in anger at American and British back-lash—nevertheless served in the US Infantry, in Reconnaissance patrols in Italy, at the point of every American advance and taking the highest casualties. And it is in memory and to honor their profound patriotism that I will wear my regimental crest (7th Regiment, New York National Guard) on my customary cold-weather beret this coming winter, Insh’Allah.


S. Abdallah Schleifer, is Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Mass Communication at The American University in Cairo and a former NBC News Middle East producer-reporter and Cairo bureau chief. Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)