More Than a “Muslim Problem”

After each big terrorist attack, there is always the usual flood of analysis indiscriminately linking Islam and terrorism. After the London bombings, the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote about finding “a Muslim solution” to the “Muslim problem”, while his colleague Peter Bergen worried about all the Muslims who might sneak into the US from the UK. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly was busy wondering what the US could do against an enemy that is so “religious-centric”/ The subsequent bombings in Egypt a few weeks later, in Sharm El Sheikh, yielded yet more speculation about the causal links between Islam and terrorism.

Cohabitating in Cairo with about 16 million peaceful Muslims makes this line of questioning rather ridiculous to me. The day after the London bombing, the elderly man from whom I buy newspapers everyday took it upon himself to apologize for what had happened, and let me know how much he disapproved. I don’t know what was stranger: that an Egyptian should be apologizing to an American in Cairo for bombings that Pakistanis and a Jamaican carried out in London; that he should have grasped quite so clearly that he, and all Arabs and Muslims, are in fact being held responsible on some level; or that he might have come to the conclusion by now that it is best to apologize when Muslims do anything bad anywhere in the world, because otherwise there may be serious, military-invasion-size consequences. But the saddest thing for me was that he should have accepted his role as stand-in for a religion that has a billion adherents worldwide and is practiced in many countries, and that he should assume that he needed to tell me that he didn’t support terrorism.

Islam — like many other religions — has been and is used to oppress, to accrue power, and to incite to violence. But “Islam” is much too complex to be distilled into a single, cohesive entity. Islam doesn’t causes terrorism anymore than it causes intolerance or backwardness. It can lay no special claim to violence, fanaticism, extreme ideologies, or the blood-lust of young men (these phenomena belong to all cultures and all religions, as Christianity’s own bloody history more than attests to). Islam can’t even lay a claim to terrorism, which has been practiced by Israelis, Irish, Basques, Americans and Sri Lankans, to name a few.

Some Islamic groups and forces are ignorant an intolerant, and pose a threat to the freedom and the physical safety of non-Muslims and of their fellow citizens. In the last few months in Egypt, where I live, a suicide bomber blew himself up just 10 minutes from my house, and car bombs destroyed hotels I’ve stayed in before at a Red Sea resort. On 15 July, Egyptian writer Said El Qemni received an e-mail death threat, purportedly from the Al-Jihad terrorist group, that apparently convinced him to quit writing entirely (he announced his retirement from public life shortly thereafter). Also this summer, the editor of a major literary magazine (whose name I won’t mention, as he asked me not to) had to move his offices to a new building after receiving threats. His magazine had published a cartoon that juxtaposed a girl in a g-string with a crying munaqaba (veiled woman). “We have a real problem,” he told me, “talking about religion.” And joking about it is apparently a capital offence.

Egypt has seen a growing religious conservativism over the last several decades; more and more often, Egyptians interfere with each other to recommend appropriate Islamic behaviour, or to censure those who are not adhering to such standards. A majority of Muslims have been seemingly cowed into believing that they do not have the right to think on their own about one of the most fundamental aspects of their life: their religion. There is much talk in Egypt about “renewing religious discourse” but this talk does not seem to admit that people who are not “authorities” of one kind or another might participate.

Yet to talk about terrorism in terms of Islam is to dodge addressing the very specific actions of very specific groups of people — CIA agents in Afghanistan and Saudi sheikhs, to name a few — who have a direct impact on creating the kind of men who drive cars packed with explosives into hotels. To intelligently investigate the causes of terrorism, one must look at precise historical, political, economical, ideological and personal factors.

There is research that suggests that terrorism has little base in religion, and is in fact a thoroughly modern, Western, and often secular phenomenon. In his recent book Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah French scholar Olivier Roy compares today’s jihadists to Europe’s radical left of the 1960s and ’70s (they were also movements of alienated, dislocated youth, using acts of individual violence to affect a new utopian world order). In an 18 May New York Times article (“Blowing Up An Assumption”, 2005), writer Robert Pape, who has complied a database of every suicide bombing and attack around the globe from 1980 through 2003, argues that more suicide bombers have been politically rather than religiously motivated, and religion, rather than being the cause of terrorism, is often used as one of its tools, invoked to galvanize and solidify popular support.

Within the Arab world, terrorism may be best understood as a reaction to colonialism and to political stagnation and powerlessness; a dark and deformed outgrowth of the national liberation and internal opposition movements of Arab countries. For Westerners to explain terrorism in terms of religion and culture is to make it a matter of identity, of something essential that cannot be changed and that is not our responsibility (it bears no relation to policies or specific actions that our governments have taken or might take). Terrorists are Muslims, Muslims are terrorists, the phenomenon wraps itself in a perfect circle: they’re just “like that”. This kind of explanation allows Western media and societies to carry on a long and prolific tradition of representing Islam (which has posed a potent economical, military and cultural challenge to Europe since the Middle Ages) as the quintessential “other” — violent, depraved, unexplainable, and evil.

What is troubling about Islam is what is troubling about many religions, as they are fallibly lived and applied: people limiting each other’s freedom and happiness and access to the truth, people being afraid to think for themselves or let others do so, people hiding from the terrors of death and sex behind the walls of ignorance and intolerance. And what is terrible and maddening in the case of Islam is that a religion that millions of peaceful, well-intentioned people believe in is used as a shield by a fringe that steals its language and deforms its principles.

What Arab societies do need to worry about and hold themselves responsible for is the unfortunate fact that it is much easier for terrorists to appropriate Islam, to make it their emblem and their cover, than for progressive forces to do so. Just as those who bomb abortion clinics and lie to teenagers about the effectiveness of contraception are hardly the representatives of any Christianity that I understand, Al Qaeda and other terrorists groups should not be allowed to speak for Islam.