By Arshad Alam, New age Islam
22 May 2020
An absolute horror unfolded when Islamic terrorists decided to target a hospital in Afghanistan a week ago. Amongst those killed were women and infants as the hospital was one of the few in the area which had maternity facilities. That those killed were mostly Shia Hazaras should come as no surprise as anti-Shia prejudice runs deep within Sunni Muslims. The point of this article is to highlight that our response to this incident (and many others) has now become predictable and routine, with hardly any critical introspection. Like in other such attacks, there was swift condemnation of the terrorist attack from within the Muslim community. Unfortunately, incidents like these keep on happening and yet we see the same kind of response coming from the Muslim community. While we are swift in condemning such attacks, there is very little reflection as to how some of our core Islamic tenets might be responsible for some of the violence that we see around us.
There are three set responses that comes from within the Muslim community after every such attack. First, we see a mad rush within Muslims to delink Islam from such acts of terrorism. Muslim apologists, of all hue, try to belabour the point such incidents should not be linked to Islam. The underlying assumption of course is that Islam is a religion of peace and that no religion teaches to commit acts of terror. This defense is simply facile. All religions in the world have committed acts of premeditated violence. The scale of killings by the adherents of just Islam and Christianity would dwarf the number of people killed during the two world wars.
Terrorism is a complex phenomenon and one religion’s terrorist can be another one’s martyr. There is perhaps no other way to label an act of terrorism but to look at the motivation of the group or person committing the act. So, if terrorists attack a school in Pakistan and claim that they did so in the name of Islam (as they did in 2014), then we must understand it as an act of Islamic terror. There is simply no need to delink Islam from such acts if that religion sanctions killings in the eyes of some of its believers. The important point therefore is not to defend a religious system, rather to excavate why this is happening and ask how to make them less toxic.
The second response that comes from within Muslims is that this must be a conspiracy to malign the image of Islam. And as our Islamic theology tells us time and again, the conspirators in almost all cases happen to be either Jewish or Christian. Of late, another group has been added to this list: Muslim groups who are allegedly working at the behest of ‘foreign powers’ whose only purpose of existence is again, to malign the noblest religion of Islam.
Thus, groups like the ISIS and the Taliban are understood to be sponsored by ‘foreign’ powers who commit acts of violence with the express intention of defaming Islam and Muslims. Within Muslims there is a huge following for such conspiracy theories. I met with a Pakistani scholar few years ago and all that he had to say about the rise of Pakistan Taliban was that it was a western and Indian conspiracy to defame Muslims and Islam. I have met learned local religious leaders who have told me with full conviction that practicing family planning is forbidden in Islam and that its promotion is being done at the behest of the Jewish lobby. Many of us still believe that Jews were responsible for 9/11 and that not one of them was killed during the attacks because they were warned about it earlier.
Normally people would not care about such fantastic ideas. But within the Muslim community, such ideas are so pervasive that at times it appears as if these very ideas are driving the thought process of the Muslim world. In relation to terror attacks, these conspiracy theories provide an essential function: they do not allow any self-reflexive thought process to emerge within our societies. The more we are wedded to such ideas, the more it becomes difficult for us to become self-critical. The prime beneficiaries of such lack of critical thinking within Muslims are those who are heavily invested in reproducing the status quo. Thus it is no surprise that such contra-factual assertions are treated as scared truths in our religious seminaries.
Related to these two, there is a third response from the community which accepts that the perpetrators are Muslims, but lays the fault at ‘erroneous interpretations’ of Islam. In other words, those Muslims who are committing acts of terror do not know what Islam is all about. This articulation tells us that essentially, Islam is a religion of peace but some Muslims misunderstand its core teachings and therefore are led astray. This response is hypocritical, to say the least. We know that Islam (like many other religions) does not always preach peace. There is enough in our sacred scriptures which can justify killings of those who are not Muslims or are not considered Muslim enough. Moreover, we tend to forget that if the issue was so clear cut, then why is it that the learned scholars of Islam have so much difficulty in condemning the so called anti-Islamic acts of these terror groups. It is very easy to condemn ‘terrorism’, as it is an amorphous faceless category. But a terrorist group which acts in the name of Islam and seeks to replace the existing system with an Islamic caliphate hardly ever gets condemned. Thus the Indian Ulama have had no problems condemning ‘terrorism’ but have hardly uttered a word against the vicious deprivations of the Taliban.
As Muslims, we perhaps need to rethink some of the dominant narratives of our religion. We need to emphasize that some of those teachings which came in a specific context are no longer applicable today. In order to do so, we need to realize that Islamic theology is not sacred, that it is a product of history, and like most other things, is liable to change, and should be changed. Most of what we understand as Islamic theology has anyway very little to do with the formative moments of Islam, and more to do with the concerns of expanding an empire. Those conditions do not exist today and therefore there is no need for certain aspects of this theology which were crafted for the express purpose of subjugating non-Muslims as well as dissent within Muslims. Any analysis which does not implicate Islamic theology for the current mess in which Muslims find themselves today is doing injustice to the Muslim cause.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com