By Syed Kamran Hashmi
Recently, most Muslims have adopted an unequivocal stance against terrorist attacks in which non-Muslims are targeted. Earlier, their response used to show confusion, lack of sympathy and sometimes, even admiration instead of condemnation. One of the most shocking things was their cruel and cold reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks, a great human tragedy. At that time, what to talk about outrage, grief or anger, I even noticed a faint smile spreading across the faces of many Pakistanis.
I know you are thinking why I am trying to explain the response (or lack thereof) of a diverse group of people 15 yeas after the fact. For me, in order to open a dialogue about terrorism with the rest of the world, and provide the perspective of the majority of Muslims, the discussion needs to start from the World Trade Centre. To begin with, let me say that after 9/11, most ordinary Muslims like you and me, people who are worried about their everyday lives, and prospects of their jobs much more than the accuracy of their faith, could not believe how Islam be used as a weapon to kill ordinary citizens just as Americans could not believe how airplanes full of passengers be used as missiles.
Of course, Muslims understood the sectarian warfare that has been going on between Shias and Sunnis for centuries. They also recognised the armed resistance against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan or the gravity of the Palestine-Israel conflict. But the idea that a group of private individuals or militia, like the al-Qaeda, could wage a war against the most powerful nation of the world, the United States of America, shocked them. How could that even be possible? Not sure of what to make of the tragedy, they began to deny the involvement of Muslims in the attacks at all. Their deep-rooted suspicions regarding the US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East also played a role in that negation.
This state of denial turned out to be an ideal situation for conspiracy theories to mushroom. And sure enough, a series of ‘alternative explanations,’ ranging from containing China to the control of natural resources of Afghanistan were disseminated and established roots in the Muslim majority societies, where many even after 15 years maintain that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’. I have heard at least 10 different versions myself, and to add icing on top, I heard them from people who I thought were reasonable, educated and moderate.
This mindset also led Muslims to bring up a half-hearted condemnation in response (if any). To hit the coffin with yet another nail, some Muslims celebrated the loss of American lives as if they have themselves defeated their enemy, or won a lottery. However, their joy did not display a religious conviction. Instead, it probably manifested a political gesture, a kind of jubilation when your perceived oppressor gets hurt.
Another view that infiltrated Muslim societies was that they certainly did not condone the attacks, but that they do understand the ‘grievances’ of ordinary Arabs in Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It is a response to the systematic oppression, they would say. So, in their minds the al-Qaeda was not the only one who did wrong. The West also held responsibility for what had happened in New York.
Not being familiar with Islam and Muslims in general, the West misconstrued their dull response as an approval of such an atrocity on religious grounds. What they did not realise and still do not understand was that the majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic as their first language and are not aware of the contents of the Holy Quran in detail. The truth is: an overwhelming majority of Muslims listened to the ‘Sword Verse’ for the first time in their lives from CNN and BBC. Muslims respect their holy book from the core of their heart as the Word of God, and would even die to safeguard its sanctity, but they do not understand many things that have been explained in it. Even during prayers, most Muslims recite the verses without much idea of what they mean. Find it hard to believe? Ask a Pakistani to tell you what the meaning is of the prayer they just finished, most of them would be clueless. The Holy Quran to most non-Arab Muslims is like Bible written in French for Americans. With some help, they may be able to pronounce it correctly because the alphabet is the same, but it is very difficult for them to comprehend most of it.
From the day the Holy Quran was revealed, it is a book in Arabic and has to be recited in the same language. Whether someone wants to look up the translation or not is a matter of personal choice. To be a ‘good’ practising Muslim, all you have to do is to memorise a few verses, which are recited in daily prayers. You don’t have to understand it at all. I have asked the meanings of verses from Pakistanis who have learnt the Holy Quran by heart. They looked at me in response as if I was asking them to explain the theory of relativity.
In short, a great majority of Muslims, people who are more concerned with their everyday life never look up the meanings. In fact, only a small religiously inclined minority read the whole Quran with translation. And most Muslims remain deprived of the real essence of the message of God sent to the world in the form of the Holy Quran.
Syed Kamran Hashmi is a US-based freelance columnist