Robbie Travers – Executive Director
Harvir Dhillon – Guest Writer
Whenever a mass-casualty terror attack occurs in the Western world, there is always an attempt to perform a postmortem of the events. Although, on careful consideration, perhaps post-mortem is an inaccurate description of the media frenzy and the simplistic “analysis” of social networks that are prevalent after the debate. Post-mortem suggests clinical experts dissecting a cadaver to find the objective truth that caused the death, however, when these mass-casualty attacks are examined in closer detail, this could not be further from the truth. Ideas bolstered and formulated on the basis of flimsy pre-existing prejudices will come to the fore, shoddy overly-broad conclusions will always be parrotted despite substantial evidence, and illogical dogma will be repeated as meaningless platitudes fill the debate. This mythology arising around terrorism is originating from every segment of the political debate, whether it be the regressive parts of the left, the authoritarian and xenophobic segments of the right, or the well-meaning center. People will use the terroristic attack to further their own political agenda or societal narratives and agendas.
It has become increasingly clear that when we analyse the motivations behind terrorist attacks, for our discourse on terrorism to improve, we must do so with the utmost honesty. We may not like the truths which we unveil, nor the political or logical ramifications of those hards truths, but ignoring them would be dishonest. And furthermore it would be fundamentally wrong when dealing with an issue in which shoddy analysis can lead to false conclusions to be made, which can have devastating ramifications in creating strategy to defeat jihadist terror.
Therefore, this piece seeks to tackle these insurgent myths marauding around the debate at the cost of logical discourse. Analysing the Paris attack and its wake correctly is not only essential to creating a better discussion of the phenomenon of Islamism, but so is also correctly dissecting the commentary surrounding the attacks themselves. It is obvious that much of this commentary is well meaning, but it often fails to address the issues honestly, and often promotes a certain opinion, slant or bias.
Myth 1: Terrorism has no religion
This myth falsely promotes the idea that attacks which have religious motivations and justifications do not actually have any religious connection, and it also promotes the questionable proposition that terrorism is somehow incompatible with religious belief: this is in and of itself factually inaccurate given the numerous verses in religious texts that can be used to justify violent acts. Take excerpts from the Qu’ran like passage 8:60, which argues that “Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorise the infidels,” and Qu’ran passage 8:12 that clearly commands Muslims to “terrorise and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Qu’ran.” The idea also that somehow people who commit terrorist attacks in the name of a specific religion or deities are not religious, or influenced by religion, is also flawed. The fact that since someone who commits atrocities is Islamic doesn’t not implicitly mean we believe that committing atrocities is an integral component of being a Muslim, or that it is even part of being Islamic.
The idea also that somehow people who commit terrorist attacks in the name of a specific religion or deities are not religious, or influenced by religion, is also flawed.
We must separate the fact that it is possible to be a part of any religion or none and continue to be both a dreadful human being, or commit atrocities and human rights violations. When Islamic State quotes verses five and six from Sura 23 of the Qu’ran in their sex-slave manual as justification for raping Yezidi women, this clear act of terrorism can be directly pinned down to a literalist reading of the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran claims to be the literal word of Allah, so claiming that those who take a literal interpretation are infidels seems intellectually suspect at best.
Of course, anyone that disagrees with this particular implementation of Qu’ranic verses can do so without denying the fact of its origin. Many abolitionists in America were Christians, yet it is plain that religious texts were used by their fellow Christians to justify the prolonging of slavery. One can recognise certain religious ideas within scripture yet not make the presumption that all followers adhere to these ideas. To argue that there is only one correct interpretation of a religious text, and that those who disagree with a certain interpretation are not part of that faith is absurd.
The Qu’ran claims to be the literal word of Allah, so claiming that those who take a literal interpretation are infidels seems intellectually suspect at best.
Myth 2: Western foreign policy means we should have seen this coming:
This is a troubling form of masochism that seeks to blame the victims of this attack, and lay the blame for the deaths of innocent people at the feet of the French Government. Even worse, it suggests the French people should be ultimately held accountable, with their life, for the actions of their government. Innumerable examples could be cited of disastrous Western foreign policy and as a whole, it is undeniable that Western policy has certainly not been successful in many instances.
But this can never justify the use of violence against innocent civilians. In other words, this line of reasoning wishes to distract us from the main issue of a terrible ideology being acted out. Not only this, but simply because individuals disagree with the minutiae or wider actions involved in Western foreign policy, this never gives someone the right to commit violence against another. Violence against one people does not excuse violence against another group of innocent people.
It is logically incoherent to excuse deaths from terror as justified, especially when much of rationale behind the terror attacks was that since the West kills innocent muslims, IS will respond by killing even more innocent muslims in the Middle East and citizens of western nations.
Also, this flies in the face of facts: France did not support the 2003 Iraq war, and furthermore, we can see that when Islamic extremists target cities like Copenhagen, they do so not because of foreign policy, but because of their hatred of liberal democracy, universal human rights and commitment to tackling theocracy.
When Islamic extremists target cities like Copenhagen, they do so not because of foreign policy, but because of their hatred of liberal democracy, universal human rights and commitment to tackling theocracy.
Myth 3: The attackers are not “true” Muslims and do not represent Islam
To come close to refuting this pernicious platitude, we must answer the question of who is the arbiter of being Islamic? Arguably, nobody can determine how Islamic a Muslim is, as being Islamic is a part of people’s identities and it is consequently hard to argue that someone is definitively not islamic.
The No True Scotsman fallacy is often called into play here, with people imply that anyone who is violent, or who legitimises violence, is not a true Muslim, since true Muslims wouldn’t commit violence. Apparently Muslims only preach peace, which is demonstrably false when verse like Qu’ran passage 9.123 argues “Make war on the infidels living in your neighbourhood.” The problem here is that since the Qu’ran is such a subjective document, arguing that there is but one true interpretation of a holy text is a claim that is dubious given the plethora of sects within Islam. But even within this, there are records within the Qu’ran of Muhammad committing anti-Semitic violence by killing every man in the Banu Qurayza tribe, even ordering torture of al-Rabi and taking his wife as a concubine. Whilst many Muslims obviously do not preach anti-semitic slaughter, torture and the taking of concubines, the idea that there is no basis for interpretation of the Qu’ran as legitimising violence would be incorrect. It is inconsistent at best.
Apparently Muslims only preach peace, which is demonstrably false when verse like Qu’ran passage 9.123 argues “Make war on the infidels living in your neighbourhood.”
When Saudi Arabia inflict inhumanities upon their populations, like the stoning of rape victims and executing the LGBT, we do not see the same response of denying the fact they are an Islamic nation, practicing a strict, literal and conservative interpretation of Islamic scripture. It seems odd that only IS are dismissed as not being true Muslims when so many other groups commit dreadful atrocities.
Ultimately, you cannot pick and choose who is Muslim, what you can do, however, is empower religious reformers by criticising those who follow dangerously conservative religious points of view, rather than disempowering them by suggesting Islam is without fault.
Myth 4: Because of the recent attacks, refugees should be stopped from coming into Europe
The idea that we should leave refugees to the ravages of theocracy and extremism in the nations they are fleeing is flawed, as is the idea that we neglect our humanitarian duty to respect the dignity of refugees. This is not arguing that we should not check their identities as screened by those in camps and by our home office, but the idea that somehow because we may be increasing our risks of being attacked by terrorism does not mean we should not neglect our duty to address the plight of the many.
If we do not help displaced peoples, it feeds into the IS narrative that the West hates Muslims and that the West does not care for them, and stopping our compassionate policy would actually cause more terror. Also, we must challenge the perception that refugees are good and that migrants are bad: not being a country that actively persecutes them doesn’t make their situation desirable, many countries they have fled to now suffer economic problems and resources problems that make these migrants position unenviable as they flee the economic destitution and lack of resources in their initial country.
If we do not help displaced peoples, it feeds into the IS narrative that the West hates Muslims and that the West does not care for them, and stopping our compassionate policy would actually cause more terror.
Myth 5: Islam is the problem
Islam per se is not the problem. A religion that hosts 1.6 billion followers will inevitably have a diversity of viewpoints. Islam is not one homogenous bloc that can be essentialised. It is a set of doctrines and ideas that not all Muslims will necessarily agree upon. This idea that somehow banning Islam will solve the problem is also mistakenly naïve. For it is contrary to the principle of freedom of expression to ban ideas and further reinforces the flawed narrative of “the West versus Islam”. This framing of the discussion will only seek to alienate those reformist liberal Muslims and does the Jihadists’ work for them in that their own narrative of Islam being attacked becomes vindicated. We must also add that reactionary attacks on religious freedoms will both undermine our liberal democracy, but also that freedom to practice one’s religion is essential.
Islam is not one homogenous bloc that can be essentialised. It is a set of doctrines and ideas that not all Muslims will necessarily agree upon.
Myth 6: An inability to distinguish between Islam and Islamism
Hence, when we refer to the ideology of these attackers, we should be wary of using Islam and instead use Islamism. Here, Islamism refers to imposing a given interpretation of Islam over society. Many Muslims do not subscribe to the Islamist ideology and do not wish for an Islamic theocracy. Even if one does have sympathies with Islamic causes, not all Muslims try to overturn the current established government through violence. Just as one can be a Christian or Jewish secularist, one can be a Muslim secularist. It is important to state firmly that it is theocracy that must be opposed. A Muslim can be progressive, liberal or conservative but they may not wish for a pan-Islamic caliphate. This is a crucial distinction which has to be made.
Myth 7: Islamists despise the West solely because of Western foreign policy
The Islamic State’s official statement in the aftermath of the Paris attacks says:
“In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe — Paris.”
When one reads this, it is plain to see that a religious justification has reinforced an extreme form of in-group–out-group bias. Phraseology such as “capital of prostitution and vice” and “lead carrier of the cross” draw a firm distinction between the pure Muslims and the filthy crusader West. This simplistic narrative is precisely what the Islamist Jihadists are capitalising on.
It isn’t just foreign policy that annoys these groups. It is also domestic policy. Gender equality, LGBT rights and personal autonomy are all things that are anathema to the Islamist ideology. All the gains that have been made in furthering progressive causes would be reversed if the Islamists were to have their way. They despise Western values of pluralism, tolerance and universal human rights. Conceding ground to them on these points would be tantamount to capitulation to fascism.
Gender equality, LGBT rights and personal autonomy are all things that are anathema to the Islamist ideology. All the gains that have been made in furthering progressive causes would be reversed if the Islamists were to have their way.
Myth 8: Islam itself is a religion of peace/violence
One extreme will tell you that Islam is inherently a peaceful religion. The other will say that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Both are misleading ways of framing our discourse. That one can find peaceful verses in the Koran is a basis for Muslims to ignore or contextualise the violent verses to be found. Indeed, the theologian Usama Hasan is actively seeking to popularise religious reform within an Islamic context. An unintended consequence of the former results in a game of hide the ball in which any link to religion is ruled out. Rather than even fail to address the problem, this reasoning fails to even name the problem.
For us to come to terms with opposing the fascistic ideology of Islamism, we must address the clear and demonstrable links to religion. However, the latter can also present problems in that the risk is of again essentialising Islam and telling Muslims that they have two choices: either subscribe to the religion of war or leave it. This is not helpful or even plausible. To expect that Muslims, en masse, will leave their faith is either pure delusion or extreme optimism. Another thing to point out is that we do not aim to establish this with other religions – so why with Islam? It seems hypocritical and contradictory not to acknowledge that all religions are a mixed bag, so to speak.
Myth 9: Islamism isn’t related to Islam
This is demonstrably false given the yearning for a caliphate governed by strict interpretations of Sharia under the Islamist ideology. Islamists utilise concepts such as the Ummah in order to galvanise Muslims to find sympathy for their cause. They do this by promoting narratives that assert that Islam is under attack from the kuffar and that the deen must be defended. To thus say that there is no relation between the two is to fail to recognise the lengths to which Islamists go to claim the superiority of their own readings of scripture. It would be the equivalent of saying that the Crusades have nothing to do with Christianity. The key point is that this isn’t to say that Islamists have the right interpretation but that they do infact have one.
We need a better discussion on Islamism to be able to empower religious moderates and reformists, to understand the threat against us, and to be able to fight against this theocratic fascism, but importantly, if we do not tackle prevalent myths in our civil discourse on Islamism and Islam, we leave ourselves poorer and without a coherent strategy to counter possibly one of the greatest threats of our time.