Every time an attack takes place, among the flurry of narratives that accompany it, a prominent one is that Not All Muslims are Terrorists. Another one, which follows directly in its toes is that Terrorism Has No Religion, says Titas Bose.
It is a singular experience to be shocked into awareness of our virtually unsafe lives, one fine day at the age of 13 – more so, when the threat of execution is immediate, and almost tangible because of its geographical proximity. The 26/11 terror attacks took place when I was in class 8. Being too small during both 9/11 and the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, this was virtually my first encounter with terror. I remember being glued to national news channels, hardly capable of grappling with the overwhelming reality of terrorist attacks in the nooks and crannies of a city too familiar and physically close to us. Overnight our teenage conversations changed radically. In my world of black and white, good and evil, all that registered, was that terrorists are bad people. They do not have any sense of humanity. And if terrorists are Muslims, (and for this, I have written Slam Book entry for “most secret desire”), then all Muslims should die. There was no Muslim black hole in my immediate peer group in school. I definitely did not think of them when I wrote it. What is it then, that led me to write that definitive statement that day in the same classroom where we had three Muslim children, as far as I recollect?
Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror is considered a seminal book in the Islamic terrorism related literary corpus. Tracing a historical paradigm of post World War modern history vis-a-vis American foreign policies in the Middle East, IndoChina and Africa, Mamdani makes a claim that has become one of the most prominent arguments to understand Islamic Terrorism in present times. At the onset, he discusses violence, as it is intellectually considered in two ways- in cultural terms for a pre-modern society, and theological terms for a modern society. Instead of looking at a nuanced, political and historical view of the rise and development of terrorism, he claims that the West has often treated Islamic fundamentalists as inherently evil- cultural renegades or moral perverts. Among the scholars who propagated this view, the most prominent was Samuel Huntington, who wrote in his The Clash of Civilizations, “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.” Following 9/11, President Bush made a distinction between Good and Bad Muslims. The bad ones are the terrorists. The good ones will support America in the war against them. (Today the division of Moderate Muslims and Radical Muslims is not exactly the same, but similar.) Through unabashed critique of western imperialism, cultural depictions of deliberate white supremacy, race branding annihilations in Africa and South America, and growth of justified centralised state violence, Mamdani builds towards his central argument that Islamic terrorism is completely a product of American efforts to suppress the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the early 1980s.
Political Islam (or the construction and consolidation of a political identity of Muslims) was not pioneered by the religious Ulema, but was pioneered by the intellectuals and political workers. Think of the Partition of India. A distinction was made between Islamic culture and religion on one hand, and being a Muslim as a political entity.
One of the ideas that I would like to take away from the book is a critique of the popular argument that Islamic Terrorism is a battle of tradition against secularism. Fundamentalism is a religious condition as opposed to political identity, which is formed through direct engagement with modern forms of power. “Unlike Christianity, mainstream Islam has no institutionalised religious hierarchy; it has a religious clergy, but not one organised parallel to the hierarchy of the state”. However, secularism has percolated into Muslim thought in a way, very different from that in the Western-Christian world. Political Islam (or the construction and consolidation of a political identity of Muslims) was not pioneered by the religious Ulema, but was pioneered by the intellectuals and political workers. Think of the Partition of India. A distinction was made between Islamic culture and religion on one hand, and being a Muslim as a political entity. This split, though difficult to retain in the present scenario, is an important historical fact and something that one can go back to, in times of obfuscation.Every time an attack takes place, among the flurry of narratives that accompany it, a prominent one is that Not All Muslims are Terrorists. Another one, which follows directly in its toes is that Terrorism Has No Religion. President Obama has often been noted to not label this kind of terrorism as Islamic, as a direct contrary to President Bush. In a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper in 2009, Obama explained, “I think it is very important for us to recognise that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organisations. But, those organisations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community. I think we have to — you know, words matter in this situation because one of the ways we’re going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds.” The other common reasoning is that Christianity too was a violent faith and there are ample instances of Christian terrorism strewn across history.
This is not a satisfactory analogy, because the context of Christian violence was radically different. Besides, this dilutes some of the main issues like the proposed idea of a clash between Radical Islam and Western Modernity. The sectarian divisions of Christianity and Islam are not parallel. This is also the reason why liberals have lately been vehemently criticised for denying the responsibility of Islam towards terrorism. Daniel Benjamin, while serving as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the United States Department of State had said, “putting the emphasis on “Islamist” instead of on “violent extremist” undercuts our efforts, since it falsely roots the core problem in the faith of more than one billion people who abhor violence. As one internal government study after another has shown, such statements invariably wind up being distorted in the global media, alienating Muslim moderates.” There are however, more complications to the matter.
While the outermost circle of conservative Muslims do not want to take up guns and shoot down whoever does not want to adhere to their views, they too have quite regressive ideas about human rights, women, homosexuality, etc. Although it is tempting to dismiss these ideas as racist, or Islamophobic, to be precise, it does bring up an essential issue. Is Islam the problem with the Jihadists being the extreme end of what is actually rotten at its roots?
My evident incomprehension and delusion about a clear rational view on this topic is captured perfectly in a Bill Maher The Real Time Show episode (6th Oct, 2014) on HBO. The Panel included Sam Harris, author of bestselling book The End of Faith and Ben Affleck. At one point in the conversation, Maher stated that liberals who stand up for liberal principles like gender equality, freedom of speech, non-heteronormative sexualities do not blame the Muslim world for propagating the exact opposite of these principles. Harris adds, “Every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.” Affleck’s retaliation was the “outsider- accusation”- “Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam?” Harris goes on to argue that the whole world of Islam can be represented in concentric circles of conservative Muslims, Islamists and Jihadists, spiralling down to a core of Fundamentalism. While the outermost circle of conservative Muslims do not want to take up guns and shoot down whoever does not want to adhere to their views, they too have quite regressive ideas about human rights, women, homosexuality, etc. Although it is tempting to dismiss these ideas as racist, or Islamophobic, to be precise, it does bring up an essential issue. Is Islam the problem with the Jihadists being the extreme end of what is actually rotten at its roots?Islamic fundamentalists claim that the laws laid down in the Holy Book are inviolable. That anybody who tries to alter, reform, mend, reinterpret the laws is an infidel, hence outside the purview of the Islamic community itself. Moderate Islam, by this logic is hypocrisy. Tasleema Nasreen in her interview with Rajdeep Sardesai, after the Dhaka terror attacks, denied that there is a moderate Islam, that Islam fundamentally prescribes violence. At the same time, she also mentioned that not all Muslims are terrorists. The common strain in both these sessions is that there is a marked division between “Islam” and “Muslim”, or more specifically, Islam, the Book, which resists any alteration of its laws, and the historical Islamic cultures diversified across the world over centuries. At the cost of being labelled an insensitive outsider, I would like to state this division seems naive. Both categories are naturally intertwined. Even a moderate Muslim (that is, who practices Islam) owes his or her allegiance to that, which has been understood to be a religion of violence.
Which condition is more ahistorical? Obama not labelling today’s terrorist activities as “Islamic” or the theory that there is after all, only one Islam and from it follows that there is only one Islamic culture?
There is no easy way out by saying that a religious book cannot have one interpretation, and that the fundamentalist view is just one of many. Coming down to the bare basics, there is a problem with the logistics of interpretation. How do you have varied interpretations for something whose very condition of existence is the lack of interpretation? Conversely, isn’t a text always already interpreted? Which condition is more ahistorical? Obama not labelling today’s terrorist activities as “Islamic” or the theory that there is after all, only one Islam and from it follows that there is only one Islamic culture? Can Mamdani’s distinctions of Islam the cultural and religious element, Islam, the book and Muslim, the political identity be still held to be in sacrosanct separate compartments, never to be mixed?Above all, political correctness and the anxiety of a liberal position aside, how do we retain a humanitarian attitude in this web spun by this complex beast of an issue? As millions die every year, or live in a state of perpetual terror, can one reconcile their sense of individual morality with this churning mesh of ideas? I mean, when one looks at the photo of Omran from Aleppo that went viral across international media, can one’s first reaction be intellectually sound? Can one immediately engage with the debates and discussions I enlisted (and consequently got muddled up in)? This is why I tend to go back to my class 8 experience once again. The response generated then- of shock, helplessness, anger, hatred- was one of unadulterated affect. I was told that these men who massacred Bombay, were Muslims and they did this because they were Muslims.
Somewhere in the midst of all these discussions and debates, the grey area is no longer a ready refuge for thinking minds. Something very human, very personally scarring is irretrievably obscured when one gets into the critical study of 21st century Islamic Terrorism. There is a humongous abyss of dirt that one has to wade through, to initiate a conversation on Islamic terrorism. Underneath all that, perhaps, there is the shame of privilege and the despairing incomprehension arising from the lack of actual physical experience in terror itself.
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