The Motives for Islamist Terror
In the wake of last week's attempted car bombings in the UK, the debate over why radical Muslims resort to terrorism has been kindled anew. Considering that these incidents were just a few of the many examples of jihadist terrorism carried out by educated professionals, the idea that this phenomenon results from poverty and marginalization can be safely disregarded. Writing in The Australian, Irshad Manji offers an alternative explanation:
In short, it's not what the material world fails to deliver that drives suicide bombers. It's something else. Time and again, that something else has been articulated by the people committing these acts: their religion.
Consider Mohammad Sidique Khan, the teaching assistant who masterminded the July 7, 2005, transport bombings in London. In a taped testimony, Khan railed against British foreign policy. But before bringing up Tony Blair, he emphasised that "Islam is our religion" and "the prophet is our role model". In short, Khan gave priority to God.
Now take Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-born Moroccan Muslim who murdered Amsterdam filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri pumped several bullets into van Gogh's body. Knowing that multiple shots would finish off his victim, why didn't Bouyeri stop there? Why did he pull out a blade to decapitate van Gogh?
Again, we must confront religious symbolism. The blade is an implement associated with 7th-century tribal conflict. Wielding it as a sword becomes a tribute to the founding moment of Islam. Even the note stabbed into van Gogh's corpse, although written in Dutch, had the unmistakable rhythms of Arabic poetry. Let's credit Bouyeri with honesty: at his trial he proudly acknowledged acting from religious conviction.
The alleged ringleader of last week's attacks, a British born Iraqi doctor named Bilal Abdulla, was officially charged earlier today for his role in the attempted bombings. A look at Abdulla's motivations amply comfirms Manji's argument.
While a July 5 New York Times article describes Abdulla as having been radicalized by the Iraq war, other sources paint a different picture. According to the Times of London, Abdulla's radicalization began well before the invasion of his homeland:
A friend who attended the Medical College of Baghdad University with Dr Abdulla told The Times that he was a religious fanatic, and that in 2001 or 2002 he mysteriously abandoned his studies for a year.
“There was some talk that he went outside Iraq to develop his religious culture. I heard that he went to Lebanon or Pakistan,” the friend said.
On his return Dr Abdulla adopted a much more intense demeanour and isolated himself from his former friends. “He became more radical, but not to the degree that he took part in actual actions or clashes. He kept silent and became more isolated. He prayed and he kept himself away from the rest of the group.”
At medical school he fell in with “a group of radicals and extremists”. “They carried extremist thoughts,” said a friend, who also went to the elite college. “They had beards and talked about religion. He was against people wearing Western clothes and asked female doctors to put on a headscarf and gloves.”
Shiraz Maher, a former Islamist who knew Bilal Abdulla, paints an even more vivid portrait of his friend's fanaticism for the magazine New Statesman:
Bilal had grown up in Baghdad. He told me how he hated Saddam Hussein, how even after the American invasion his extended family stayed there. All were of the same ideological persuasion. All believed in Wahhabi ideology. He didn't see himself as being radical: he saw himself as following Islam. He developed a vitriolic hatred for the Shias after one of his closest friends at university in Iraq was killed by a Shia militiaman. He would say they needed to be massacred. He called them kafirs, disbelievers who insulted the Prophet.
I remember one incident well. Bilal lived above a Bengali restaurant. The other guy in his flat used to sing and play guitar, diabolically out of tune. I went round one day to Bilal's and heard this guy singing and wailing. I said, "What's this?" Bilal called him a "waster" and boasted to me that a few days earlier he had brought the guy into his bedroom. He sat him down and told him he needed to pray. He told him: "If you ever play again I'm going to smash the guitar." He then put on a video of al-Zarqawi beheading one of the hostages in Iraq. "If you think I'm messing about, this is what we do. This is what our people do - we slaughter." Bilal laughed when he recounted the story. I laughed with him, although I remember thinking the word slaughter was a bit disproportionate.
Abdulla's choice of targets is also illuminating. As Phyllis Chesler and Nancy Kobrin have noted, the first car bomb was set to go off outside a London nightclub on "ladies' night". While this wouldn't exactly have been a devastating blow against the British government, it would have murdered lots of decadent, immoral, infidels. This was not the first time jihadists have chosen to target such establishments, and it is reflective of, in James Robbins' words, "a basic rejection of the human spirit as expressed in any life-affirming activity."
In short, Abdulla, like most Islamists, was motivated at heart by a deep seated hatred of "immoral" and "un-Islamic" western society that transcends opposition to western political and military actions. The testimony of former Islamists only confirms this interpretation. In this prescient May 3 piece from the Guardian web site, Catherine Bennett quotes one such individual:
Some people do. Ed Husain, author of a revealing and alarming account of his experiences inside radical Islam, said of the "slags" comment: "That was me, man. That's classic Hizb-ut-Tahrir rhetoric." In his new book, The Islamist, Husain identifies a professed horror of western decadence as the next, infinitely promising excuse for Islamist murder. "When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with," he writes, "Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind."
Like Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher notes that both he and Abdulla were members of an organization called Hizb-ut-Tahrir:
And so it was through my involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir and its ideology of extremist political Islam that I came to befriend Bilal, the would-be bomber. That's why I believe it's wrong to distinguish between "extremism" and "violent extremism" as the government has been doing in recent months. The two are inextricably intertwined. Without movements such as Hizb creating the moral imperatives to justify terror, people like Bilal wouldn't have the support of an ideological infrastructure cheering them on. And, I believe, it's a fallacy to suggest that the culpability of agitators and cheerleaders is any less than for those who actually carry out acts of terror.
As Maher notes, even allegedly peaceful Islamists such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir serve as enablers of jihadist terror, as well as conveyor belts for new recruits to the cause. Ultimately it is Muslim dissidents and reformers who will need to speak out against the Islamists and refute their totalitarian interpretation of Islam. In that regard, I'll let Irshad Manji have the last word:
Moderate Muslims denounce violence in the name of Islam but deny that Islam has anything to do with it. By their denial, moderates abandon the ground of theological interpretation to those with malignant intentions, effectively telling would-be terrorists that they can get away with abuses of power because mainstream Muslims won't challenge the fanatics with bold, competing interpretations. To do so would be admit that religion is a factor. Moderate Muslims can't go there.
Reform-minded Muslims say it's time to admit that Islam's scripture and history are being exploited. They argue for reinterpretation precisely to put the would-be terrorists on notice that their monopoly is over.
Reinterpreting doesn't mean rewriting. It means rethinking words and practices that already exist, removing them from a 7th-century tribal time warp and introducing them to a 21st-century pluralistic context. Un-Islamic? God, no. The Koran contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think, analyse and reflect than passages that dictate what's absolutely right or wrong. In that sense, reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as moderates and quite possibly more constructive.