Islam, World Peace, and the Terrorism Discourse

Every time anger and frustration take over the human spirit, reason and rational thinking fade into the background. High emotions cloud reason, subvert justice, and undermine peace. In the absence of reason, new terminology takes hold. The discourse on terrorism that rages today in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist strikes on New York and Washington is ripe with emotions triggered by a sinister and apocalyptic attacks on unarmed and non-combatant civilians. On television and radio talk shows across the United States, countless self-proclaimed experts on terrorism, counseling that we strike back against a host of countries suspected of supporting terrorism. Statements from the White House have been more balanced and measured, but the theme is the same: an all-out war on terrorism.

Terrorism we must fight, and we must fight with determination and vigor. But for the fight to be effective, it must be carried according to fair rules, and must aim at the real target. An effective war on terrorism requires two elements. First, we must have a clear understanding of the sources of the anger and frustration that lies at the roots of global terrorism, and a clear definition of what constitutes a terrorist act. Second, we must have a clear vision of a global society based on the universal principles of equal freedom and mutual respect. A war on terrorism that employ moral themes but advance the narrow interests of a privileged few can bring more evil than good, as it is likely to result in harming innocent bystanders.

Judging by the discourse on terrorism and war, we have a long way to go before true understanding and clear vision come to bear on the strategic thinking of political leaders. This puts extra burden on intellectual and scholars. Intellectual and Scholars of all regions, religions, and persuasions are called upon more than ever before to bring reason and enlightenment to a world filled with emotion and ignorance.

In a televised address to a joint session of Congress, the United States President, George W. Bush, went directly to the heart of the question that continues to puzzle Americans: Why would anyone want to harm America? What motivates nineteen Middle Eastern men to shatter the lives of several thousands civilians, and to bring pain, grieve, and anguish to even greater number of their families, friends, and countrymen? What in the world would produce the degree of anger, hate, and hostility we all have seen explode in front of our eyes, as we sat watching with bewilderment and horror the two civilian jetliners crash into the World Trade Center’‘s twin towers?

“Why do they hate us?” Bush asked in his statement to Congress. His answer was short and straightforward: “They hate what they see right in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Bush’‘s answer, while containing elements of truth, seems to be lacking on several important accounts.

It is true that the radical groups who attacked the United States have little appreciation of freedom and democracy. Most peoples in the Middle East have had no experience in recent memories of freedom of speech and assembly, and no experience of true and functional democracy. However, while radicals, who constitute a fraction of Middle Eastern societies, are involved in destructive endeavors that are bound to shake the foundation of world peace, the bulk of people in the Middle East yearn for an open and free political system, where freedom of religion, speech, and assembly are part and parcel of their political experience. It is also true that self-appointed leaders, who rely on military force to keep their population in check, rule most political regimes in the Middle East.

It is equally true that the values of freedom and democracy are held with high esteem by Americans. Americans have been vigilant in ensuring that the freedom and democracy they have inherited from the founders of this great nation are not usurped or taken away. The combination of political and religious freedoms on the one hand, and the accountability of elected officials, give this country an edge over others, and attract every year hundreds of thousands of creative and hardworking people who find in America’‘s freedom a conducive atmosphere to improve their personal lives and to enrich the life of their community and adopted country.


The sad fact, which President Bush has failed so far to recognize and acknowledge, is that in many parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East, America is associated not with freedom and democracy but with suppressive and autocratic regimes. For the last fifty years, successive United States governments have stood behind self-appointed leaders, providing them with financial and military support, as well as security and political advice. Far from being the guardian of freedom and democracy, the United States is often seen as the power behind military regimes and brutal dictators.

The United States involvement in Iran is a case in point. The United States Central Intelligence Agency was directly involved in engineering the coup d’‘tat that removed the democratically elected government of Mohammed Musadeq, and installed the Shah regime in Iran in 1954. Despite his abuse of the civil liberties of his people, and his extensive use of state security forces to suppress critics and opposition forces, the Shah continued to receive the blessing of American leaders. President Carter, who insisted that the United States foreign policy must be informed by American concerns over human rights, praised the Shah during a visit shortly before the latter was ousted by the Islamic revolution. The United States later took an active part in arming Saddam Hussein in a bid to topple the revolutionary government in Tehran. To ensure the cooperation of the Iraqi military government, the Reagan Administration kept silent when Saddam used Chemical weapons against Iranians as well as against the Kurdish opposition in Northern Iraq. It was only when the belligerent Saddam turned his newly acquired military strength against the oil rich Gulf countries that he was declared a renegade.

The blunders of United States foreign policy in the Middle East have not ended with the Gulf war. Rather than finishing Saddam, US-led coalition decided to keep him in power and to impose an economic embargo on Iraq. The American decision brought about a human disaster of great magnitude. For over a decade, the people of the Middle East, and many humanitarian workers and human rights activists, had to watch in horror hundreds of thousands of ill-stricken and malnourished Iraqi civilians perish.
America’‘s commitments to freedom and democracy have hardly had any bearings on the United States foreign policies towards Iraq and Iran. To the Iraqis and Iranians, the United States appears as a technologically advanced military power, unrestrained by moral obligations in its pursuit of its own self-interest.

The failure of successive United States administrations to project clear and sustained interests in freedom and democracy can be seen in the United States position vis-驠-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, Arabs and Muslims watched the Israeli government expand its territories at the expense of its Arab neighbors. Israel was allowed to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and South Lebanon with the tacit approval and blessing, and occasionally with the open support, of the United States government, in spite of successive UN resolutions and clear violation of International law.[ii]

Over the past year, Middle Easterners watched countless pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting at rock-throwing Palestinian kids, of US-made Apache, designed to destroy tanks, used for assassinating Palestinian activists, and US-made tanks and rocket launchers used to suppress the Palestinian Intifada.


Terrorism is a plight that must be fought. No amount of anger and discontent can justify the targeting of non-combatant civilians with the brutality we all witnessed on September 11, 2001. The level of destruction inflicted on civilians, the brutality with which the terrorist attacks were executed, and the fact that the terrorist design is undertaken by extensive deliberation and determination sent shock waves throughout the world, and brought condemnation from foes and friends alike. Targeting thousands of unarmed civilians, using civilian airliners carrying civilian passengers, and bringing down two of the most spectacular buildings in the whole planet, in a drama that was played on live TV in front of millions of viewers, made the attacks even more sinister and apocalyptic.

But terrorism cannot be fought by mystifying it or by ignoring its root causes. The first step for developing a sound strategy to effectively combat terrorism is to examine the conditions that give rise to the anger, frustration, and desperation that fuel all terrorist acts. To focus on individuals and organizations that employ terror, while ignoring the socio-political circumstances that give rise to acts of desperation, can potentially strengthen the arms of the terrorists. A devastating force unleashed against elusive groups can exacerbate the very conditions that gave rise to resentment, frustration, and anger.

America is admired throughout the world for a political system characterized by freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. But America is resented in many parts of the world for, ironically, its willingness to support authoritarian and corrupt regimes as long as they advance America’‘s economic and strategic interests. Those who are using terror against America are the product of political repression. They are the product of Middle Eastern regimes befriended by the United States but have little respect for freedom and democracy. It is indeed a sad but true reality that many prefer to ignore: Free and democratic America has been nurturing repression aboard. To acknowledge this fact is the first step to deal with the roots of terrorism.

Equally important is that we pursue a methodical and persistent approach to terrorism. Terrorism must be clearly defined, and systematically confronted. If terrorism is defined as the use of violence against unarmed civilians, then we have to ensure that all individuals and organizations that fit this description, regardless of their positioning and loyalty, are identified as such. The United States government has not been consistent in identifying terrorist acts. The United States government did not recognize the Russian brutal attacks against Chechnya, and its use of disproportionate force to flatten the Chechen capital for what it is, and for what it represents.

Similarly, The Israeli incursion into Lebanon, and Israel’‘s shelling of Beirut and other civilian targets, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, did not receive the moral condemnation it deserves. Israel continues to use excessive military force to suppression an essentially civilian uprising against its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush administration has so far given Israel a free hand to bully the Palestinians and to violate the terms of its Oslo commitments.

Terrorism is fueled by the actions of exclusivist regimes that privilege some and deny basic rights to others. It is fueled by rogue governments that use state security agencies and excessive force to silence critics and political opposition. To be effective in fighting terrorism we must dry the swamps of abuse and injustice that bread radicalism all over the world.


President Bush, along with several American leaders, counseled against targeting Muslim Americans, and went out of his way to dissociate Islam and terrorism. Still may, particularly in the media, continue to make both subtle and direct attacks on Islam’‘s beliefs and values. Among all religions, Islam has been singled out by media groups, and unfairly blamed for acts of terror carried out by Muslim groups. The blame is frequently subtle, articulated through the old and primitive instrument of ““guilt by association.”” It often takes the form of using Islam as an adjective to describe terrorism, hence the catch phrase ““Islamic terrorism.”” Alternatively, Islamic symbols and sounds——e.g. mosque, prayer, Muslim call to prayer, etc.——are played in the background every time a terrorist act is reported. Occasionally, the blame is laid at the doorsteps of Islam by self-appointed experts on terrorism, a lࠠ Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson, who find it convenient to point fingers at all practicing Muslims in order to push their narrow political agenda.

The efforts to blame Islam for terrorism are not only baseless and erroneous, but are unmistakably malicious and ill-intended. Islam, like many religious traditions, stresses charity, mercy, and compassion. Historically, Islam is recognized for its tolerance toward other religions, even when bigotry and intolerance were widely accepted and practiced in medieval times. But like other religious traditions, Islam recognizes the right of peoples to fight aggression, even though it puts higher premium on forgiveness. Reciprocity, or eye for an eye, is found not only in Islam, but in Christianity and Judaism as well. Further, like other religions, Islamic texts contain statements that emphasize forgiveness and peace, along with others that permit the use of force for fighting back against aggression and for achieving just peace.

In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, Moses narrates to the Israelites a fiery message from God as they prepare to enter the promised land: ““I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.”“
Likewise, the Gospels contain texts that call for the use of force to avenge the rights of people and to punish the unjust. In the Gospel of Matthew, a statement attributed to Jesus reads: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but the sword.”

A partial and out-of-context reading of religious texts, combined with a desire to reciprocate against real of perceived injustice, may lead misguided individuals and radical groups to commit atrocities in the name of religion and justice. Muslim scholars and leaders must speak against using Islam and Islamic doctrines to undertake acts rooted in political ambition or frustration.

By the same token, media organizations have the duty to present a balanced picture of Muslim society and faith, rather than feeding on the frenzy of bigotry and stereotyping. The media more often than not focuses on the eccentric and extraordinary, and as such brings distorted pictures of Middle Eastern realities. Rather than showing that radical Islamic groups standing on the fringe outside mainstream society, the media reverse the picture by projecting radicalism and extremism as the norm in the Middle East. The sight of a handful Palestinian youths celebrating an American calamity is newsworthy, but a demonstration by thousands of sympathetic Arabs is not.


The United States foreign policy that aligns American support behind tyrants and dictators, and against the legitimate aspirations of popular movements pursuing national independence or democratic rule, is informed by notions and principles advanced by political realists. That is, they are informed by the nationalist political culture of nineteenth-century Europe. The political realist approach to international politics insists that national leaders have one paramount obligation, i.e. advancing the national-interests of their nations, often defined in economic or geopolitical terms. Political realists justify this position by pointing out that in the absence of international law that can be enforced by a central authority, nations are justified in enforcing their own interests. To do otherwise, political realists stress, is to give unprincipled foreign powers the opportunity to grow unchecked.

The pursuit of self-defined national interests led Europe to two devastating world wars. This, however, did not put an end to political realism, even after the United States introduced a new approach to international relations based on international organizations and International Law, as many of its advocates found in the Cold War atmosphere a basis for reproducing a bit more sophisticated argument to place national interests over the demand of right and justice.

The United States is the sole superpower today, and has the opportunity to restructure world politics so as to ensure that the principles of right and justice that guide the internal politics of the United States are brought to bear on international relations. That is, international politics should no more be based on the notion of might makes right. The American people have long rejected such a notion in national politics and fought a war of independence, and later a civil war, to ensure that those who have been endowed by their creator with equal freedoms and dignity are treated as such. Indeed, the United States and the American people are uniquely situated to expand the values of freedom, equality, and rule of law from the national to the international domain. Not only is the United States an unrivaled superpower, but Americans constitute a microcosm of world population. America is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society whose ethnic and religious groups represent the major ethnic and religious communities that form the modern world. Africans, Anglo-Saxons, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Irish, Koreans, Latinos, and Slavs live peacefully in America, and work together in pursuit of their individual and collective dreams, and confess and practice freely different religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with a host of other religions.


The recent tragic events put the world in general, and the United States in particular, on a crossroad. We have the choice of marching forward toward global peace, rooted in rules of equitable law, and fairly administered to all, the strong and the weak, the far and the near, or to immerse ourselves in empire building in which the strong conquer and dominate the weak.

The United States is in a unique position——culturally, economically, and politically——to lead the world in either direction. And given this choice, I am confident that Americans would choose global peace over world empire. But for America to make the right choice, political leaders, as well as the leaders of public opinion, have to play a pivotal role in helping the public make the right move by choosing American values over America’‘s narrow and short-term interests. It is true that lending support to corrupt governments makes it a bit easier, in the short run, for the United States to influence the foreign and domestic policies of these governments. In the long run, however, a foreign policy oblivious to moral standards is bound to corrupt American politics. Indeed, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have already compromised the precious freedom America cherishes in the form of an anti-terrorism legislation that exchange freedom and due process for false sense of security.


The terrorist attacks on the United State have not only resulted in the loss of life and property, but is increasingly threatening the very freedom that lies at the root of America’‘s greatness and strength, and has shaken the very notion of due process of the laws that define the basic character of American democracy. The hasty passage of the anti-terrorism legislation is received with alarm by civil and human rights organizations in the United States and abroad. The United State attorney general, John Ashcroft, insists that he and his department need the legislation to fight terrorism. Civil and human rights organizations fear that the legislation gives law enforcement agencies sweeping powers, and take away judicial scrutiny, very essential for preventing enthusiastic law enforcement officers from encroaching into the civil rights of law abiding Americans who may be looked at mistakenly with suspicion.

Even before the passage of the anti-terrorism bill, law enforcement agencies have incarcerated over 600 residents on unspecified violations of immigration regulations. While the identities of the detainees have not been disclosed, it is believed that most of them are of Arab of Muslim background. The lack of information on the conditions surrounding these arrest prompted over 22 human and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Rights Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, American Muslim Council, and the Council on Islamic-American Relations, to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requesting information about the hundreds of Muslims and Arabs who have been detained since the terrorist attacks on September 11.

Evidently, the Anti-Terrorism legislation violates Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a state party. It imposes sever restriction on judicial review, and hence lends itself to arbitrary and abusive applications. Judging by recent practices of federal agencies under the 1985 Anti-Terrorism Act, the concerns over potential abuse stemming from the new legislation are real. Between 1986 and 2000, over 22 United States residents were arrested on charges filed using secret evidence provisions. All the 22 detainees were of Arab or Muslim descent, and none of the evidence submitted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) stood judicial scrutiny when the government was eventually required to reveal the secrete evidence. Some of the detainees spent four years in detention before they were found innocent of the charges brought against them by DOJ.

In a letter sent to John Ashcroft, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth underscored the gravity of the new legislation, pointing out that “The danger to the United States posed by terrorist activities should not be used as a justification to expand those powers in ways that undermine the rights to liberty and due process of law possessed by citizens and non-citizens alike.”[iii]

While the new legislation’‘s usefulness in fighting terrorism is in doubt, the harm of violating international human rights standards is real. Several countries have already taken advantage of the new sense of urgency in fighting terrorism, and of the lack of clarity in defining terrorism, to silence opposition and suppress national liberation movements. “Russia has compared the U.S. war on terrorism to its own brutal campaign against Chechen rebels. China has requested support for its repressive policies in Tibet and the Muslim region of Xinjiang. Egypt has lashed out against outside criticism of its human rights record, saying that the world should now adopt its fight against terrorism as a model.”[iv] And Israel’‘s Arial Sharon escalated his attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories, likening the Palestinian Authority to Al-Qaida and Arafat to Bin Laden.


Terrorism cannot be fought through military means alone. The fight against terrorism must start by displaying a firm and unwavering political commitment to bringing justice and eliminating the roots of desperation. History, both old and new, is rampant with examples of great powers that wasted their resources, and hence lost their privileged positions in the world, by improving war apparatus and overlooking the system of justice.
Global peace cannot be achieved by relying extensively on military might. Rather, it requires that we first and foremost strive to see the values of freedom, equality, and dignity for all prevail throughout the world.

Ten years of economic sanctions have devastated the Iraqi population, and brought untold sorrow and misery to ordinary Iraqis, particularly the most vulnerable. UNICEF reported that 18% in 1991 to 31% in 1996 of all children under five suffer from ““chronic malnutrition (stunting); 9% to 26% with underweight malnutrition; 3% to 11% with wasting (acute malnutrition), an increase in over 200%. By 1997, it was estimated about one million children under five were [chronically] malnourished.”” See UNICEF 1998 Report.

[ii] UN Resolutions 242 and 338 require that Israel withdraw from territories it occupied during 1967 War with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, including the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Height of Syria.

[iii] Human Rights Watch Press Release, New York, September 28, 2001.

[iv] Human Rights Watch Press Release, New York, September 28, 2001.

Copyright ɩ 2001 Louay Safi Originally published in Middle East Affairs Journal, Fall 2001.  Visit Louay Safis website at  The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.