Islamic Terrorism?


by Sheila Musaji

The list of terrorist acts attributed to “Islamic” Terrorism doesn’t need to be repeated here because it so widespread as to be “common knowledge — common, but not accurate.  Any act committed by any criminal who happens to be a Muslim will be labelled Islamic Terrorism. The truth is that TERROR HAS NO RELIGION.  TERRORISTS HAVE NO RELIGION.  TERRORISM HAS NO RELIGION.

We need to question whether al-Qaeda is “an evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of Islam” as Tony Blair has said, or is it a violent response to perceived injustices, twisting Islamic belief in an attempt to justify that response by misusing the Qur’an and going against 1400 years of Islamic thought.

In the case of Islamist terrorism is much less generous than it was with possible Christian or Jewish terrorism and says only: “The extent of support for “Islamist terrorism” within the Muslim population is disputed, although it is generally agreed that only the most extremist fringes support it. Many Muslims have denounced support for terrorism.

This is a deceptive wording that gives a very different impression than the disclaimers for Christianity and Judaism.


“Terrorism, which is termed hirabah (not jihad) in Arabic, was uniformly condemned by all the classical Islamic scholars, even by those who were imprisoned by the authorities (which included all the greatest scholars in Islamic history), because it was the classic example of the fasad (or societal corruption) that destroys civilization (al hadara al islamiya). Osama bin Laden is nothing less than a Beast of the Anti-Christ (the masiah al dajal) and his terrorism against America is hirabah al shaitaniyyah, a satanic war that can only plunge all of humanity into centuries or millennia of barbarism. ... We must understand where he is coming from, but also where he is going. Our task is not merely to stop evil, which can’t be done, but to promote good, which can overcome it, in sha’a Allah.”   Economic Justice: A Cure for Terrorism, Dr. Robert D. Crane

Currently, to add to this misunderstanding and mutual distrust we have:

(1) blame leveled at the entire religion — the problem is not just Muslim terrorists but an “evil” Islam.  (TAM has a collection of alarming anti-Muslim quotes - many by “respectable” community and religious leaders);

“Responsibility” is a better word than “blame”. We demand it, rightly, of those who carry out the atrocities; we should demand it also of ourselves and our rulers. The bombers, or rather those who control and influence them, are clear they are at war. President Bush seemed to agree when he declared a “war on terror”. Is our role in this war a just one? Do we want to continue the war? If not, what will we do to stop it? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves.” The Responsibility We Share for Islamist Shock and Awe, Peter Wilby

(2) demands for the Muslim community to apologize for every criminal action that is carried out by any individual who happens to be a Muslim (Many Muslims are very frustrated by this demand for an apology for something that is not the fault of Islam).  Almost daily, one Muslim leder or another is called on to engage in what amounts to calling into doubt the sanctity of Islam - falling just short of being asked to condemn their religion;

“Terrorism and Islam’s Exceptionalism.  Modern forms of terrorism were introduced into the Middle East in the 1940s by Jewish groups in then British-occupied Palestine. It was the Irgun, the Stern gang, and the Hagana that began the practice of bombing “gathering places [and] crowded Arab areas [in an attempt to] terrorize the Arab community” (Smith, 1992: 19; 140). The Stern gang even attacked Jewish banks, resulting in “Jewish loss of life” (120). The Irgun, as we know, “slaughtered about 250 men, women and children whose mutilated bodies were stuffed down wells” in the village of Dair Yassin (143).  ...  Even though many such terror tactics continued until fairly recent times, people in the U.S. did not put world Jewry on call by asking Jews to explain what Judaism has to say about killing innocent civilians. ...  People may have denounced these terrorist groups-freedom fighters to many-but they did not call on all Jews to explain which Torah or Talmud the Jewish terrorists were reading, or ask the “real” Judaism to “stand up.” Why, then, this assault on Muslims to explain what their “bible” - as that savant, Larry King, calls the Qur’an - teaches about violence? (He even badgered Hanan Ashrawi, assuming that because she’s Palestinian, she’s a Muslim, even though she’s not.) The same people who say (like the anonymous author I quoted earlier does) that they don’t give a “rat’s—-” about Islam nonetheless are shrieking for the “real” Islam to stand up! In an atmosphere where only Muslims are expected to keep protesting our humanity and to defend our religion, my politics dictated that I should not speak at all in any forum on Islam. But, my religion teaches the jihad of knowledge and, as a Muslim, this jihad is obligatory for me. Interpretation and Exceptionalism, Asma Barlas

(3) an attempt (named “Religion Building”.  Jim Lobe looks at this attempt to re-define Islam for us;

“It is very unkind for Muslims to blame Christianity for the abominations of pagan secularists and their blind followers, especially because Muslims are victims of precisely the same sort of demonizing everywhere themselves. If Muslims want others to let them define Islam, they should let devout Christians define Christianity and devout Jews define the essence of Judaism. Confrontation through polemical denial of the other’s right to self-identity is universally to be condemned as perhaps the worst possible affront to human dignity.   Peaceful Engagement Through Interfaith Action, Dr. Robert D. Crane

(4) requests for us to explain what it is about Islam that allows it to be hijacked; as if terrorism were inherent in Islam, but somehow mitigated by extenuating circumstances when committed by others.

(5) Verses taken out of context to “prove” that the Qur’an encourages terrorism, or that the Muslim world is backwards because of the teachings of the Qur’an;

“Imagine asking Christians or Jews to reconcile Christianity or Judaism in light of an out-of-context verse from the Bible, such as: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3)  Or this verse: “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16) ...  This is certainly not a fair or scientific way to understand the Bible nor the peaceful message of Christianity or Judaism. The Quran, like all other scriptures, cannot be understood except within its context. Taking a verse out of its theological or historical context can lead to misinterpretations, often the hallmark of extremists. Just as the Bible has been abused by fanatics to justify slavery and the holocaust, so have Muslim fanatics abused the Qur’an to further their murderous agenda. Quoting the Qur’an, Hussam Ayloush

(6) the constantly repeated “Where are the Muslim voices against terrorism?” - no matter how often those voices have spoken, they don’t seem to be heard or are discounted as being “insincere”.  MUSLIMS DENOUNCE TERRORISM and do so frequently and clearly. 
(7) Misrepresentation, mistranslation, or misenterpretation of Arabic or Islamic terms. 

The most recent of these blame Islam diatribes was by Thomas Friedman.  On July 8, 2005 Thomas Friedman wrote “If It’s A Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution” in which he said “To this day - to this day - no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” 

I use Friedman as an example throughout this paper simply because his writing so clearly exemplifies so many of the issues raised.  His is the “average” American point of view.

“The second false presupposition Mr. Friedman puts forward is that bin Ladenite jihadism is a Muslim problem that begs Muslim solutions. I wonder whether throughout the years that the IRA terrorized Britons in London any pundit ever called the predicament of the Irish a “Catholic problem with Catholic solutions.” ... It is true that Islam, like any other religion, is understood in competing and at times contradictory ways. But each of these competing interpretations of Islam corresponds and reacts to particular situations in which Muslims find themselves. One cannot understand violent interpretations of jihad outside the violence to which Muslim majority nations have been subjected. In other words, Islam is not innately predisposed to violence; it does not breed savagery ex nihilo, thus the fallacy of terrorism as a “Muslim problem.” Somehow it is easier for many western pundits to understand that rather than a “Catholic problem,” violence in Northern Ireland had much to do with British Empire.” Thomas Friedmans Muslim Problem, Behrooz Ghamari

Muslims have spoken up just as loudly against terrorism as any other group.  Hundreds of clerics and theologians have condemned al Qaeda’s and Osama bin Laden’s violence.  There have been fatwas issued on every aspect of violence and terrorism and even fatwas to clarify who is qualified to issue a fatwa. 


“Fatwa has entered the media’s vocabulary. Fatwa, like other borrowed Arabic terms, (e.g., intifada, jihad, madrasa, sharia) carries an assumed meaning, is draped in mystery, and leads to misunderstanding. Linguistically, fatwa means “an answer to a question” - the question may be rhetorical or actual. The answer represents only the opinion of the person who offered it. In Islamic jurisprudence, fatwa means the opinion of a scholar based on that scholar’s understanding and interpretation of the intent of the sources of Islam, that scholar’s knowledge of the subject in question, and the social milieu that produced the issue or question. The scholar’s answer or fatwa is not a binding rule; rather, it is a recommendation. The answer (fatwa) may be opposed, criticized, accepted, or rejected. In addition, the answer (fatwa) may itself become the subject of debate or questions. ... In an egalitarian system such as Islam, a fatwa gains acceptance based on the integrity of the person who offered the fatwa (in Arabic, a mufti), that person’s knowledge of Islamic sources as well as knowledge of the issue and of the social context that raised the issue. Any of the aforementioned prerequisites may be challenged and the answer (fatwa) is an opinion and that opinion may be incorrect. To consider a fatwa issued by anyone as binding on all Muslims is a dangerous contemporary trend that merely stifles Islam’s rich history of debate and dissent. Moreover, it would allow individuals to claim authority over others by virtue of their supposed knowledge of God’s will. The purpose of a fatwa is to offer an opinion, not to silence discourse.” Demystifying the Fatwa, by Dr. Maher Hathout

TAM has a lengthy collection of references under the heading Muslim Voices Against Terrorism  The fatwa recently issued by the Fiqh Council of North America (which was insulted as coming late) was simply the latest in a long list of such fatwas.  Perhaps if we continue to issue such fatwas and statements enough times they will finally be heard even by the deafest of those who continue to deny that such statements have been made.

“Whether we are American, Nigerian, Indonesian, or British, we look like them, we dress like them, we speak like them, and we pray like them. We cannot identify them before they strike. They hate us because we reject their ideology. They would kill us as ‘‘infidels.” We are Muslims. So are they. But they are terrorists and we are not. That is the distinction. This is where we must make our stand. ... As troubling as it is for Muslims to be identified as potential terrorists, the truth is that the terrorists conducting such barbaric acts in today’s society are Muslims. That is not to say that they are the only or the biggest terrorists, but they are the most mindless, unpredictable, and deliberately merciless. Driven by motives or grievances that they may legitimately share with countless other Muslims, they have devised their own demonic modus operandi that almost all others abhor and are repulsed by. In an open society they bear no distinctive traits. ... While the recent terror acts have been committed by Muslims, there is nothing ‘‘Islamic” about them. They are totally antithetical to the fundamental principles of Islam and represent a heretical deviation of the religion. When the 9/11 Commission went out of its way to define terrorism as not just any generic terrorism, but specifically as ‘‘Islamist,” this pejorative label, despite the banal niceties of ‘‘Islam being a religion of peace,” sent a chilling message to Muslims worldwide that terrorism is a hallmark or prerogative of Islam, or that when committed by other groups it is in some way mitigated by intrinsic extenuating circumstances. ,,, The leap from deviant Muslims perpetrating atrocities to a religion being impugned for the sins of its supposed adherents is breath-taking in its audacity. This distinction has become critical ever since the ‘‘showdown with Saddam” transmuted into the ‘‘war on terror.” With the daily mind-numbing imagery of maniacal Muslim ‘‘insurgents” savaging troops and civilians alike, a transformation rapidly took place: The problem was just not Muslim terrorists but an ‘‘evil” Islam itself. This is a theme broadcast with malevolent glee by talk shows on a daily basis thereby intensifying suspicion, fear, contempt, and hatred of Islam. Demonizing Islam makes it the enemy in the ‘‘war on terror.” ... Ironically, it is us Muslims who have the greatest vested interest in eradicating terrorism. We need to do this to salvage our religion and our self-respect. As long as we are marginalized by the West and taunted by the extremists, we are made to feel as if we were part of the problem rather than of the solution, and our commitment becomes ambivalent. If the so-called war on terrorism has any chance of being won, there needs to be an immediate redefinition of the enemy.”  Foe isn’t Islam, it’s Binladenism, Abdul Cader Asmal 

To say that recent terrorist acts are specifically a Muslim problem is to remove them from the historical context.

“The terrorist acts of a few Muslims are terrible tragedies: but do they have a history behind them? Is there a history of Western provocations in the Muslim world? Does the Western world at any point enter the historical chain of causation that now drives a few sane Muslims to acts of terrorism? The only history that Friedman will acknowledge is one of Western innocence. There is no blowback: hence, no Western responsibility, no Western guilt. ... Mr. Friedman speaks on this authoritatively and with clarity. The Muslim world has produced a “jihadist death cult in its midst.” “If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere.” His two-fold verdict is clear. Inexplicably, the Muslims have produced a death cult, a religious frenzy, that is driving those infected by it to kill innocent Westerners without provocation. Equally bad, the Muslims have done nothing to condemn, to root out this death cult they have spawned. ... There is not even a hint of history in these words. The historical amnesia is truly astounding. Does Mr. Friedman know any history? Of course, he does; but the history he knows is better forgotten if he is to succeed in demonizing the Muslim world. The oppressors choose to forget the history of their depredations, or substitute a civilizing mission for their history of brutalities, bombings, massacres, ethnic cleansings and expropriations. It is the oppressed peoples who know the history of their oppression: they know it because they have endured it. Its history is seared into their memory, their individual and collective memory. Indeed, they can liberate themselves only by memorializing this history.”  A Muslim Problem, M. Shahid Alam
“Two weeks ago, we saw how a group of young Muslims swallowed the bait of fiery rhetoric riddled with out-of-context verses spun in order to serve a nihilistic ideology of anger and despair offered to them disguised as Islam. Within a short period of time, these young men fell prey to the hate-filled dogma and were transformed into beings capable of blowing themselves up, taking with them innocent lives whom God has also blown in them from his spirit and “conferred dignity on the children of Adam” (Quran 7:70) which cuts through barriers of race, gender and creed…As they commit the crime against themselves and others, they drag with them the reputation and image of the religion they claim to venerate. They not only violate its basic teachings, but disfigure the message of “mercy to the worlds” into a justification for cruel, cowardly and repulsive behavior. In this way, hearts that were supposed to be opened to the word of God got closed and minds that were hoped to have been opened to the light of guidance are shut.”  Dr. Maher Hathout

To remove the discussion of terrorism from the historical context makes it easy to turn this in to an us and them struggle that has no other solution but violence.

The triumph of the West, or the resurgence of an Islam interpreted by bestselling Pentecostal authors as a chastisement and a demonic challenge, signals the end of a growing worry about the religious meaninglessness of late modernity. Tragically, however, neither protagonist seems validly linked to the remnants of established religion, or shows any sign of awareness of how to connect with history. Fundamentalist disjuncture is placing us in a kind of metahistorical parenthesis, an end-time excitement in which, as for St Paul, old rules are irrelevant, and Christ and Antichrist are the only significant gladiators on the stage. Fundamentalists, as well as mystics, can insist that the moment is all that is real. ... In such a world of pseudo-religious reaction against the postmodern erosion of identity, it follows that if you are not with us, you are with the devil. Or, when this has to be reformulated for the benefit of the blue-collar godless, you are a ґcheese-eating surrender monkey. Where religion exists to supply an identity, the world is Augustinian, if not quite Manichean. The West’s ancient trope of itself as a free space, perhaps a white space, holding out against Persian or Semitic intruders, is being coupled powerfully, but hardly for the first time, with Pauline and patristic understandings of the New Israel as unique vessel of truth and salvation, threatened in the discharge of its redemptive project by the Oriental, Semitic, Ishmaelitic other. In the West, at least, the religious resources for this dualism are abundant and easily abused.”  Bombing Without Moonlight: the Origins of Suicidal Terrorism, Abdal-Hakim Murad

There have been some Muslims who defended terrorism or at least justified some form of it.  The most striking example is what is called the “Palestinian exception” to the rules of war.


“No doubt, Muslims are facing a deep spiritual crisis. Islam has been hijacked and turned into an ideology in pursuit of worldly success instead of a religion meant to purify the soul and focus one’s life on Almighty God. ...  I don’t deny that there are “Muslim terrorists” out there. Rather, like many people, I’m rather cynical about the conduct of what so far has been a rather selective war on terrorism. Indeed, a blind-eye is being turned to other great atrocities in the world and problems that cost far more human lives are being ignored. In the hands of ideologues who seemingly believe that military force can solve many of the world’s complex problems, the “War on Terror” has been expanded to include not only countries that are seemingly uninvolved, but carried out in gross violation of the very international laws that the terrorists are guilty of violating. Unfortunately, we live in an age where well-intentioned criticism is often considered un-patrioticespecially when coming from a Muslim. Being a good citizenship these days seems to mean shutting up and climbing on the bandwagon. Critical thinking and moral courage seem to be in short supply. Finding a semblance of them is as tough as finding an honest man in Congress. We only hope that our attempts to understand the motives for a crime are never understood to be endorsements of it. In order to develop reasonable, coherent and viable solutions to the plague of ignorance and extremism that we’re facing, we need to study the sources, context and motives behind the crimes. Simple solutions are bogus solutions, and most of the tough problems facing the human race can’t be solved by using military force. ... As a God-fearing and morally upright community, we’ve got to join together and bring our resources to bear in order to refute with a vengeance these extremist “Protestant Muslims” and their flaky “Do-It-Yourself” religion that has cast aside over 1,400 years of peerless scholarly tradition. In this undertaking, it’s crucial that we stay balanced, moderate and true to our blessed tradition. ...We need to explain the high moral standards of our faith; that it is a religion that primarily emphasizes not only the infinite mercy of God but encourages mercy between all human beings. Indeed, Islam condemns terrorism, murder, hijacking, kidnaping, taking the law into your own hands and so on. None of this is compromised by the fact that we also have a “Just War” theory which is extremely similar to the ones advocated not only by various churches, but by international law as well. Our beloved Prophet was sent as a mercy to the worlds (Qur’an 21:107), so we have to save Islam from the reckless few that have made a large part of humanity feel that it’s a scourge rather than a blessing.”  Monkey See Monkey Do - Not an Islamic Ideal, Abdur Rahman Squires

We are in the midst of wars between the different families of Abraham - Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Some of the family members actually define these wars as religiously required. ... Even worse, there are groups within the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities that are trying to incite and create an all-out war between Islam and “the West.” Such a war would bring misery upon the peoples of all nations.  All of us must do everything possible to denounce and resist the efforts of those who would destroy us.