A memo to Americans

An Islamic scholar suggests that the roots of Muslim anger against the U.S. lie not in the religion itself, but in the political misery of its believers.

Published October 23, 2001 9:37PM (EDT)

I hope this memo finds you all well on the way to recovery. I pray that God, who is most merciful and most benevolent, will be with you every step of the way as you recover from the collective anguish and fear precipitated by the events of Sept 11. God promises in the Quran (2:286) that He does not burden a soul beyond its capacity to bear pain. He will keep his promise.

The catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have raised several questions about Islam and militant Muslims. The chief among them are, why are some Muslims so angry at the us that they would perpetrate such an inhuman act? An even more puzzling question is how could Islam or any religion be a source of motivation or justification for such an act?

Before we answer the above questions, I want to thank all those wonderful Americans (especially President Bush) who came out to protect American Muslims, their mosques and their properties from a xenophobic backlash. I congratulate you for displaying such humanity and safeguarding the American way even under such adverse and challenging circumstances. May Allah reward you all and this nation for its restraint.

Now I turn to the difficult task of making the events of Sept. 11 intelligible. I need your patience and your understanding to accomplish this. It is important to clarify that in spite of its gross inhumanity, the attack on America is certainly not the most egregious of crimes against humanity. The Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia, the systematic elimination of the Native American population, the ethnic cleansings in Africa and the slaughter in Cambodia are each, in sheer number of casualties, much bigger crimes. One may also recall that in India nearly 50,000 Sikhs were slaughtered in less than a week as revenge for the assassination of Indira Gandhi in the early 1980s. The attack on American is significant because of its spectacular nature, its target -- the world's sole superpower -- and the fact that a part of it was caught on tape.

Why are Muslims angry at the U.S.?

There are several theories being advanced by various commentators explaining why Muslims generally hate the United States. The silliest of them is the one that the Bush administration and the conservative elements in America entertain. They insist that bin Laden and other Islamic militants hate America because they hate American values of freedom and democracy. Nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed most Muslims are great admirers of democracy and freedom and insist that these values are not only consistent with Islam but were the bedrock of the glorious Islamic civilization. They point to the diversity, tolerance and harmony at the peak of Islamic civilization to substantiate their claims.

As Islamic awareness increases in postcolonial Muslim societies and Islamic activists try to rebuild their civilization, they find that the economically motivated alliance between secular authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world and the West, in particular the U.S., is the biggest barrier to freedom, democracy and self-determination. Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait are just a few examples of states where nondemocratic regimes thrive and repress popular movements with U.S. support.

In 1953 a CIA coup replaced the democratic government of Mossadeq Hussain in Iran with a monarchy so that Iran could become a client serving U.S. interests in the Middle East. In Algeria the West financed and legitimized a military coup that prevented Islamists from coming to power after winning an election. In the 1960s, and again in the 1990s, Turkey forced Islamists out of power, even after they had won popular mandates, with tacit support from the U.S. Even now all that the American establishment can think of, as an alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan, is the reinstatement of a senile monarch, not the establishment of democracy.

The utter lack of peaceful channels for protest and dissent in the entire Arab world has slowly radicalized most moderate Islamic oppositions. The use of brutal force by secular regimes has further incited reactionary violence from Islamic militias. There is also a false notion circulating that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Today nearly 650 million Muslims live in democratic societies. As of now there are two Muslim nations with over 100 million people that have women heads of state -- Indonesia and Bangladesh. The U.S. has not had one in over 220 years!

It is not a hatred of democracy and freedom but the desire for it that has made many Muslims hate the U.S., which they blame for the perpetuation of undemocratic polities in their world. Surely there are some Muslims who argue that democracy, like everything Western, is un-Islamic and evil. Fortunately, such misguided people are few and have very little influence in the Muslim world.

Many Muslims also believe that the U.S. is inherently opposed to Islam and Muslims. Bin Laden for one has claimed that by maintaining troops in Saudi Arabia (to protect the monarchy from any popular revolutions) the U.S. actually occupies the two most important Muslim holy sites, Mecca and Medina. And through Israel, which is seen as an outpost of Western imperialism in the Arab world, the U.S. occupies Jerusalem, the third most holy Muslim city.

Add to this the systematic destruction of Iraq, the death of over half a million Iraqi children through U.S.-sponsored sanctions, and the daily atrocities, assassinations and dispossession of the Palestinians by a U.S.-armed and -funded Israeli army, and it is not difficult to imagine why the U.S. is not seen as a beacon of freedom and virtue in the Muslim world.

Does this mean that angry Muslims are allowed to perpetrate collateral damages that include over 5,000 innocent Americans? Certainly not. The purpose of this article is not to condone what happened on Sept. 11. What happened was horrible, inhuman and un-Islamic. But reflection over Muslim grievances can help us understand how even devout people can be driven to commit themselves to terror. Systematic repression dispossesses people of their humanity, inciting them to commit inhuman acts.

Americans must take these grievances seriously and address them in good faith and that, in my opinion, is the best way to fight resentment, anger and the resulting violence.

How Can Islam permit/incite terror?

Any observer of the Palestinian problem who does not nurse malice towards Islam will understand why many Palestinians would resort to suicide bombings against Israel. Surely, if we were to equip them with F-16s and Apache helicopters, they would also fight fair and square with Israel. As far as killing of innocent civilians is concerned, the Israeli army kills many times more Palestinian children than the casualties caused by suicide bombers. Those are realities of the region. Islam however, is irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestine violence.

Distorted interpretations of Islam are used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a rhetorical instrument for mobilization of resistance and justification of their actions. Islam specifically forbids suicide (Quran 4:29) and the killing of civilians, women and children (Bukhari: Book of Jihad). The important point is that it is not the Islamic belief of Palestinians that leads them to suicide bombing, but rather the logic of the circle of violence and the hatred many of them now nurse against their occupiers. Also remember that Japanese pilots in World War II and Tamil Elam Tigers (of Buddhist and Hindu religions) have used suicide bombing more often than Muslims. Long before Hamas emerged, a suicide bomber had assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, India's prime minister.

Islam, according to Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche and Hegel, is the most practical, rational and realistic of all religions. It is this realistic element in Islam that does not fully advocate pacifism, permitting the use of force. The theory of Jihad (struggle in the path of God) forbids violence except when 1) Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith (freedom of religion is threatened); 2) when people are oppressed and subjugated (in pursuit of freedom); and 3) when people's land is forcibly taken from them.

Islam allows a range of responses. One can forgive the oppressor or one can respond in kind. There are Quranic sources encouraging both positions:

And slay them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than killing (2:191).

Tell those who disbelieve that if they cease persecution of believers that which is past will be forgiven them (8:38).

There is no hierarchy of verses in the Quran. Those who privilege the first verse over the second will wage war to fight injustice. And most militant Muslims invoke this verse in the defense of their actions. But then there are Muslims who privilege the second verse and seek a diplomatic end to persecution through forgiveness. The two verses above are exemplary of the tension between realism and idealism in Islam. But in the final analysis Islam is what Muslims make of it.

While war in search of justice and to escape persecution is permissible in Islam, what happened on Sept. 11 certainly is not. I wonder how those Muslims responsible for the slaughter of American civilians would rationalize their actions in the light of this Quranic verse:

He who has killed one innocent soul, it is as if he has killed all humanity. And he who has saved one soul, is as if he has saved all humanity (Quran 5:32).

To my mind there is absolutely no justification and no way of rationalizing what happened on Sept. 11. I am convinced that Islam does not shape the perpetrators' values and their beliefs. Islam is a religion of peace and I pray that good Muslims (Quran 11:116) will rescue Islam from the clutches of those who use it for their political purposes. Until Americans revisit their foreign policy practices and good Muslims challenge distorted interpretations of Islam consistently, we may not come out of the circle of terror and counter-terror.

By M.A. Muqtedar Khan

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