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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Radical Islamists Or Muslims–Who Are We Fighting?

I never thought badly about Islam until the Age of Terrorism.  I lived in India during the 1971 war with Pakistan, knew that the two countries had fought before, and had read the history of Partition; but never assumed that it was about religion per se. I was forced to think more seriously when a particularly violent religious conflict broke out in Ahmedabad resulting in a reported two thousand deaths; but I knew that ethnic, religious, and racial conflicts had been common throughout history and were usually a result of inequitable distribution of resources, power, and territory. The riots in Ahmedabad were certainly no different.  Muslims in India were a minority which had never been assimilated into Hindu culture, an exclusion due at least in part to the distinct and radical differences between Islam and Hinduism – one rather austere, militantly serving one God and requiring complete submission to him; the other monotheistic only in the most abstract philosophical sense, ceremonial if not theatrical, rich in the traditions, lore, and legends of the Ramayana, and effusively expressing faith and devotion in every day life.

One of the flashpoints in what India calls ‘communal’ violence – conflicts between Hindus and Muslims – has been about animals.  Hindus respect and venerate the cow which  is a symbol of the Earth, representing life and its sustenance.  Cows are never killed, and are still allowed to roam free even in congested urban areas. 


Approximately 40 percent of Hindu families are vegetarians today, a number which has declined significantly from well over 50 percent before Independence but still important.  For vegetarians, the killing of animals for any reason, especially for food, is unacceptable.

Hindus are also particularly respectful of all animal life.  I was always surprised to visit rural government offices which were also the home to nesting birds.  Insects and pests are removed rather than killed.

Muslims have no such traditions and prohibitions.  In fact the slaughter of animals is central to many religious ceremonies. Eid el-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, includes cutting the throats of conscious animals. At Eid ul- Fitr young goats are slaughtered and enjoyed at feasts at the end of Ramadan.  The sight of Muslim herders walking their troupes through crowded city streets to nearby slaughterhouses has always been common

It is not surprising that riots broke out of supposed insults to cows; and even the most tolerant Hindu harbored resentments against those who ‘wantonly’ slaughtered animals.

For a variety of reasons – some due to indifference if not neglect on the part of government, others linked to Muslim religion and culture – Muslims were always more poor, less educated, and more reproductive than their Hindu counterparts, a phenomenon also true in other countries such as Georgia where the Azerbaijani population has always ranked lower on all socio-economic indicators. Such perceived inferiority hardens suspicion and prejudice whether in a religious context or in a racial one such as in the United States.

I learned much about Hinduism during my five years living there and in my many return trips over many decades; but I also came to understand something about Muslim uniqueness and separatism.  Muslims were much like Jews who insistently retained their religious and cultural identity, but unlike the Jews, resisted entering the majority.  For Jews religion and secular culture could easily co-exist; but for Muslims this did not appear to be the case.

During my frequent visits to Bangladesh, where during the 80s and early 90s Islam was moderate and apolitical, I spent hours with a Muslim cleric at his home in Old Dhaka where we discussed comparative religion. There was no defiance, anger, or even criticism on his part when I defended both Christianity and Hinduism.  All religions worship God, he said. Accidents of culture and the course of historical events determined which religions prevailed, and although it was natural for theologians to claim that their faith was ‘the true religion’, most serious thinkers understood that only the nature of God was universal.  Besides, he reminded me, didn’t my own Catholic Church claim that only its faithful would ever see God?

I spent many years travelling in Mali during this same period of the 80s and 90s, a country which followed a moderate, mystical brand of Islam very similar to Sufism.  Women participated in economic and political activity, engaged in social interaction, and generally did not wear veils. Islam in Mali absorbed mystical elements, ancestor veneration and the African Traditional Religion that still thrive.

Worship and prayer were common but unobtrusive. One of my Malian colleagues one day requested me to change the timing of a meeting by an hour.  She did not offer a reason, but when I asked, she told me it was the time of prayer. All my co-workers in fact found time during the day to discreetly repair to one of the empty offices by the garden facing east to pray.

This is all to say that I never considered Islam to be anything but a religion.  I was aware of the issues of minority status, but as above, always assumed that conflict was due to significant socio-economic and cultural differences which had nothing to do with the tenets or practice of the religion per se.  I sensed a certain social conservatism in these minority communities, but again assumed that this was a natural tendency of marginalized groups within a powerful majority.  When I visited Muslim countries like Bangladesh or Mali, there was no such antagonism, inwardness, or hostility; and the religion simply guided and animated normal life.

As Islam adopted a radical wing which began to turn  the religion into a political force, I was again not surprised.  Most Bangladeshis were poor, illiterate, hungry, and disenfranchised; and lived in a country which seemed to be a democracy in name only.  Neither political party respected the legitimacy of the other, corruption was rife from top to bottom, the judiciary remained compromised, and the lot of the poor improved very little.  When radical Islamists promised enfranchisement, progress, and spiritual salvation, what poor Bangladeshi could resist?  He had nothing whatsoever to lose.

It was not much of a step, then, for radical Islamists to flex their muscles on a wider political arena. As the world fragmented after the breakup of the Soviet-American blocs, there was more at stake as population increased, entitlement decreased, and the risk of marginalization was real.  The anthem of Western liberal democracy was sung by the rich and privileged while radical Muslims praised Allah.

Only one question remains.  Is there something about Islam which provides fertile ground for radicalism and terrorism? Or is it simply a natural outgrowth of decades of majority hostility, marginalization, and repression? Irish Catholics in Belfast certainly had few compunctions about abandoning the tenets of their faith when they bombed and terrorized the Protestant majority.  Was the militancy of Muhammad whose armies charged across North Africa and attacked the Christian gates of Europe at the heart of Islam?  Is there something about the often harsh, ascetic nature of the religion antithetical to pluralism?

These questions are irrelevant, since for whatever reason Islam has become progressively radicalized and militant.  Whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the defiant Muslims in France, Muslims throughout much of the world have become more politically active.

Militancy and terrorism have become synonymous with Islam.  Muslims were responsible for 9/11, the bombings in Bali, Kenya, and London.  The Muslim world, in fact, is in a state of violent chaos, primed and instigated by a defiant, implacable radical wing.  Non-Muslims are not blowing up busses, schools, and buildings. In fact, Muslims are killing each other in record number.  Syria and Iraq are the best/worst examples of sectarian dispute and dysfunction.   While many condemn Israel for its own Jewish terrorism, others argue that it has acted only in self-defense or, in the case of the Lebanon invasion, to counter an imminent threat.

Muslims are not all terrorists; but most terrorists today are Muslim.  We are fighting a war against Radical Islam, not Islam itself.

It is understandable that most Americans conflate the two.  Why make a distinction between them, they ask?  Who cares? Muslims are threatening the United States, so take the bloody gloves off, call a spade a spade, and get off the PC fence and do some damage.

The peaceful, moderate, and devout Muslims of the world – the vast majority – must suffer because of a radical, dangerous minority.  Yet these moderate Muslims have done nothing – or very little – to contain the radicals, allowing them to give Islam a bad name.  Why?

First, perhaps even moderate Muslims are inwardly pleased that they are finally being shown some respect.  In a world of might and power, Muslims are now players.  The idea of a Muslim Caliphate may be far from the minds of my prayerful Malians, but many Muslims may at least remotely desire kingdom, power, and glory. 

More likely however, most Muslims are angry at the murders, mass killings, indiscriminate slaughter, and violence that are antithetical to the very principles of Islam.  God never intended any of his faithful to be so wantonly destructive, vain, and disobedient.

This minority-majority issue is neither surprising nor uncommon. The majority of blacks in the United States are hardworking, religious, and respectful Americans; but they as a majority suffer from the violence of the inner city.  Until the act of the ‘hood is cleaned up, all blacks will be tarred as drug dealers, shooters, and all-bling pimps.  In other words, until most blacks subscribe to white American norms and values, they will be continue to be stigmatized and marginalized.  Until radicalism is either expunged or dies out as Muslim leaders turn towards secularism, market economics and political liberalism, Islam will be equated with terrorism.

Mustapha Tlili, a Muslim scholar at NYU is hopeful that the latter scenario will happen. Writing in the New York Times (6.4.14) he says:

How to channel the aspirations of that segment of the Egyptian and Tunisian societies that is rural, pious, illiterate and conservative remains a real challenge. Typically, such people are poor and lack economic opportunity. From the period of the dictatorships to the elections made possible by the Arab Spring, these populations were courted by the Islamists and developed into a strong constituency. In Egypt and Tunisia especially, but throughout the Muslim world, political systems must find ways to integrate these communities into the political and economic life of the nation.

Easier said than done. Radicalism is on the rise and economic progress and integration is currently not on the minds of the militants.  First, they say, we must attain political power and create a unified theocracy – i.e. a system of political order reinforced by religious injunction.  Only then can we think of economic and social progress.  The case of Iran is a very good example.

I am fortunate that I learned about Islam long before its radicalization and have been able to distinguish between politics and faith.  I understand, however, why many Americans cannot or will not make the distinction.  Radicalism breeds counter-radicalism, and Americans are becoming more and more resentful and hateful of Islam.  Since sectarian factionalism is pushing aside liberal democracy and secularism, the fight will be a long and hard one.

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