Blanket descriptions not helpful nor accurate…

In today’s Guardian ex nun and Islamic specialist, Karen Armstrong, argues that using blanket terms such as ‘Muslim terrorists’ is not only inacccurate but counterproductive and urges a more informed opinion/analysis of islamic religion which is not a monolithic entity as we would like to believe.

The label of Catholic terror was never used about the IRA

Fundamentalism is often a form of nationalism in religious disguise

Karen Armstrong
Monday July 11, 2005
The Guardian

Last year I attended a conference in the US about security and intelligence in the so-called war on terror and was astonished to hear one of the more belligerent participants, who as far as I could tell had nothing but contempt for religion, strongly argue that as a purely practical expedient, politicians and the media must stop referring to “Muslim terrorism”. It was obvious, he said, that the atrocities had nothing to do with Islam, and to suggest otherwise was not merely inaccurate but dangerously counterproductive.

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————————————————————————Rhetoric is a powerful weapon in any conflict. We cannot hope to convert Osama bin Laden from his vicious ideology; our priority must be to stem the flow of young people into organisations such as al-Qaida, instead of alienating them by routinely coupling their religion with immoral violence. Incorrect statements about Islam have convinced too many in the Muslim world that the west is an implacable enemy. Yet, as we found at the conference, it is not easy to find an alternative for referring to this terrorism; however, the attempt can be a salutary exercise that reveals the complexity of what we are up against.

We need a phrase that is more exact than “Islamic terror”. These acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur’an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. It also states firmly that there must be no coercion in religious matters, and for centuries Islam had a much better record of religious tolerance than Christianity.

Like the Bible, the Qur’an has its share of aggressive texts, but like all the great religions, its main thrust is towards kindliness and compassion. Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and forbids the use of fire, the destruction of buildings and the killing of innocent civilians in a military campaign. So although Muslims, like Christians or Jews, have all too often failed to live up to their ideals, it is not because of the religion per se.

We rarely, if ever, called the IRA bombings “Catholic” terrorism because we knew enough to realise that this was not essentially a religious campaign. Indeed, like the Irish republican movement, many fundamentalist movements worldwide are simply new forms of nationalism in a highly unorthodox religious guise. This is obviously the case with Zionist fundamentalism in Israel and the fervently patriotic Christian right in the US.

In the Muslim world, too, where the European nationalist ideology has always seemed an alien import, fundamentalisms are often more about a search for social identity and national self-definition than religion. They represent a widespread desire to return to the roots of the culture, before it was invaded and weakened by the colonial powers.

Because it is increasingly recognised that the terrorists in no way represent mainstream Islam, some prefer to call them jihadists, but this is not very satisfactory. Extremists and unscrupulous politicians have purloined the word for their own purposes, but the real meaning of jihad is not “holy war” but “struggle” or “effort.” Muslims are commanded to make a massive attempt on all fronts – social, economic, intellectual, ethical and spiritual – to put the will of God into practice.

Sometimes a military effort may be a regrettable necessity in order to defend decent values, but an oft-quoted tradition has the Prophet Muhammad saying after a military victory: “We are coming back from the Lesser Jihad [ie the battle] and returning to the Greater Jihad” – the far more important, difficult and momentous struggle to reform our own society and our own hearts.

Jihad is thus a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence. Last year, at the University of Kentucky, I met a delightful young man called Jihad; his parents had given him that name in the hope that he would become not a holy warrior, but a truly spiritual man who would make the world a better place. The term jihadi terrorism is likely to be offensive, therefore, and will win no hearts or minds.

At our conference in Washington, many people favoured “Wahhabi terrorism”. They pointed out that most of the hijackers on September 11 came from Saudi Arabia, where a peculiarly intolerant form of Islam known as Wahhabism was the state religion. They argued that this description would be popular with those many Muslims who tended to be hostile to the Saudis. I was not happy, however, because even though the narrow, sometimes bigoted vision of Wahhabism makes it a fruitful ground for extremism, the vast majority of Wahhabis do not commit acts of terror.

Bin Laden was not inspired by Wahhabism but by the writings of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Nasser in 1966. Almost every fundamentalist movement in Sunni Islam has been strongly influenced by Qutb, so there is a good case for calling the violence that some of his followers commit “Qutbian terrorism.” Qutb urged his followers to withdraw from the moral and spiritual barbarism of modern society and fight it to the death.

Western people should learn more about such thinkers as Qutb, and become aware of the many dramatically different shades of opinion in the Muslim world. There are too many lazy, unexamined assumptions about Islam, which tends to be regarded as an amorphous, monolithic entity. Remarks such as “They hate our freedom” may give some a righteous glow, but they are not useful, because they are rarely accompanied by a rigorous analysis of who exactly “they” are.

The story of Qutb is also instructive as a reminder that militant religiosity is often the product of social, economic and political factors. Qutb was imprisoned for 15 years in one of Nasser’s vile concentration camps, where he and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subjected to physical and mental torture. He entered the camp as a moderate, but the prison made him a fundamentalist. Modern secularism, as he had experienced it under Nasser, seemed a great evil and a lethal assault on faith.

Precise intelligence is essential in any conflict. It is important to know who our enemies are, but equally crucial to know who they are not. It is even more vital to avoid turning potential friends into foes. By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the seemingly intractable and increasingly perilous problems of our divided world.

· Karen Armstrong is author of Islam: a Short History

  • David

    There are several things I do disagree with in this article. Nearly every scholar of the Crusades will tell a person that they started due to the aggression of Moslems and their teachings. All of the Middle Eastern Christian world was destroyed by Islamic invasions with those invasions nearly taking all of Western Europe. The Crusades had little to do with religion and had a lot to do with Islamic aggression. There are certainly branches of the Islam but the thrust of Islam, and its ideas about Isa do not make a gentle religion.

  • David

    There are several things I do disagree with in this article. Nearly every scholar of the Crusades will tell a person that they started due to the aggression of Moslems and their teachings. All of the Middle Eastern Christian world was destroyed by Islamic invasions with those invasions nearly taking all of Western Europe. The Crusades had little to do with religion and had a lot to do with Islamic aggression. There are certainly branches of the Islam but the thrust of Islam, and its ideas about Isa do not make a gentle religion.

  • Biffo

    I thinks it’s a completely sensible article. Knowledge is a good thing. People really do need to start understanding what’s going on in the world.

    David

    Islam was spread throughout the middle east by Arab invaders. Christianity was spread in the west by Roman invaders.

    “All of the Middle Eastern Christian world was destroyed”.

    Christianity continued in the middle east after the Arab invasions, the copts in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine etc etc. But Moorish culture in Spain was destroyed.

  • Waitnsee

    Is David for real? The Crusades were an extremely complex series of events with multiple causes and multiple outcomes – and I’ll agree they weren’t the ‘genocide’ some Islamic scholars today enjoy proclaiming (in fact they weren’t an event much out of the ordinary for most people of the time and the region, involving mostly the swapping back and forth of one tiny ruling class for another.)

    But of one thing you can be absolutely certain. The Muslims didn’t start it.

  • DCB

    I knew a bloke at Uni who was called Jihid (though he went by the name of James).

    David both Islam and Christainity are, unlike Judiasm for instance, very aggressive/expasionary religions.

    Unlike Christanity, Islam does have a prohibition on forcing conversation.

    While there was a physical invasion of lands, trade was more often than not the way Islam spread so fast.

    There still are Christian communities in most Middle Eastern coutnries. Edward Said for instance the academic and Palastainian activists was a Christain.

    The article is accurate in talking about how Islam is not a monolithic religion

    I think it’s a little misleading in claiming that
    fundementalism is the last resort of the marginalised and put upon. If anything its more, like Marxism, the preserve of the well to do, both Osma Bin Ladin and the london bombers were well off.

    She tries to rationalise it by saying that its all about anti-colonial resistance and civil rights. This IMO is an attempt to see the problem as something that can be solved by a rational political process. A more benign intertpertation would be that she’s using the terror as political capital to highlight political goals she would like to see advanced. E.g. be nice to Palistanians or esle.

  • Biffo

    “..the preserve of the well to do, both Osma Bin Ladin and the london bombers were well off.”

    What about Hamas? I don’t think anybody would describe their bombers as such.

  • Abucs

    The Crusades were a complex series of wars spread over many centuries. They had many ‘Christian’ initiators for many different reasons. But they were in essence a movement of Christian soldiers of Western Europe being mobilised to meet the invading Muslim soldiers coming into Western Asia and Eastern Europe (and then onto Jerusalem which had been Muslim for 100 years).

    If it weren’t for the Crusades, half of Europe (and perhaps all of it) would be Muslim now. Too late for the formerly Christian countries where now stand Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, but just in time for Spain and most of the Balkans.

  • DCB

    Biffo

    Surely Hamas is different from Al Q’uida, its more a radical offshoot from the PLO. They’ve never, as far as I’m aware been interested in carrying out activites beyond Isreal.

    You can more closely relate hama’s activities to the struggle for a palastanian state than you can do with any Al Q’ida activities

  • Waitnsee

    I could write an essay on why what Abucs has just written is wrong but I can’t be arsed.
    Somebody else do it, please.

  • aquifer

    It seems to be airtime terrorism, nobodies without ability or imagination promoting ideas we would not ordinarily entertain.

  • George

    Waitnsee,
    I couldn’t really be arsed either but I’ll throw in a few pars because this man is so off the mark.

    Abucs,
    if the First Crusade was anything, it was an organised land grab by second, third, fourth born European gentry who had no future where they were and so saw a chance for their own lands in the east. The powers that be were more than happy to see these people leave, thus staving off any revolution.

    Jerusalem was Moslem for over 450 years when Pope Urban II suddenly decided in Clairmont that it was time to “liberate” it.

    Other reasons:
    Innovative people they were, Muslims had a sh*tload of cash and were very prosperous while the Papacy and Europe was broke. Lots of booty was to be had from the then “superior” civilisation.

    95% of Christian Europeans were serfs so enough booty meant they could buy their freedom from their master.

    Men love going to war.

    It also gave the Papacy a chance to massacre any dissenters at home.

    If Islam in Spain did anything, it was to bring enlightenment and spark and end to the Dark Ages to Europe.

    By the fourth Crusade, Christians were sacking Christian cities and massacring Christians.

  • DCB

    Biffo

    See the Times today in the T2 bit – surprised me but it seems that even the Hamas bombers are mianly from the educated middle classes

  • Biffo

    DCB,

    Thanks for the tip, I’ll try to get my hands on it.

    But so far I’m inclined to take it with a pinch of salt.

    Closer to home, I remember the Times reporting in the 1980’s that a new generation of well educated middle class recruits were changing the character of the IRA. It was around the time the media cottoned on to the “cell structure” phenomonen.

    I doubt if it was true and this type of story seems to me to be a perenial journo story. I’ll look forward to reading it.

  • DCB

    Your right, I wouldn’t take it as read due to being in the Times

    But it comes from an aid worker who spent a few years out in the West Bank studying them.

  • Waitnsee

    There is a good case to be made for saying that the real victim (and even on occasion the real target) of the crusades was the Christian Byzantine empire. Three little Syrian city states under intermittent Norman control hardly justifies a millennium of hostility. Saladin was gracious in his final victory – it’s a pity the modern age can’t be so civilised.

    It’s a pity too that none of this is widely taught. I was amazed when I started reading up on it.

  • Marty

    “She tries to rationalise it by saying that its all about anti-colonial resistance and civil rights. This IMO is an attempt to see the problem as something that can be solved by a rational political process. A more benign intertpertation would be that she’s using the terror as political capital to highlight political goals she would like to see advanced. E.g. be nice to Palistanians or esle”.

    DCB,
    I fully agree that one should not, indeed cannot, appease terrorism, in any form. It attacks the very foundations of modern democracy. However, this does not mean that one can simply ignore the legitimate political stresses of the Palestinian people.
    I live in London, and have been devastated by last weeks terrible events. There is hope however. In many of the current affairs shows, such as News night last night, people are attempting to transcend the modern approach to the “war on terror”, with its short term goal orientation, and instead are making real efforts to address the apparent “root causes” or “motivations” behind such horrific attacks.
    I totally condemn all forms of terrorist acts. But, in addressing the protests( opening alternative routes) of such groups , and their ever increasing support bases, we are not “appeasing” terrorism, but attacking its very source of survival, “popular support”.

  • DCB

    Marty

    I agree, there are real problems that need to be addressed. The horrible thing is that if we immeidiatly rush to solve striaght after an outrage it looks like the outrage has achieved something.

    I’m not sure if there’s even anything we can really do about Isreal/Palastian. The US have some leverage, we don’t seem to.

  • Marty

    DCB,

    I accept your argument regarding “unintended messages”. Indeed, I have heard some convincing arguments that Spain’s foreign policy change following the Madrid bombings may have bolstered the perceived “value” of terrorism. However, I still think its undesirable, indeed dangerous, to target an entire grouping, the vast majority of which are not involved in acts of terrorism, in one’s campaign against terrorism. Such a policy only acts to expand the support base of such groups. Indeed, the London bombers were “home grown”, a dangerous new phenomenon. Thus, we need to concentrate on giving such political groupings more a voice in our societies, organise them into effective lobbying groups, give them alternatives. I am not advocating a short-term policy of rapid reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but long-term sustainable political development.
    However, I totally accept that its extremely difficult to do any of this without it seeming as though it is in direct response to the “tactic”, rather than the “issue”. Bit of a utopian at heart!!