'We are Fighting a War on Terror.'
To declare war on an emotion is no ordinary thing, but then, President George W. Bush was no ordinary man. Given a few more years in power and he may well have brokered an unsteady peace treaty with surprise and declared a general amnesty on feeling low. However, the question at the heart of this crusade goes often unexamined: just what exactly makes a terrorist?
In today's world terrorism is essentially associated only with Islam. "This is now a federal terrorism investigation led by the FBI,"reported Director James Comey two days after the recent San Bernadino shootings, confirming that the cold-blooded murder of 14 civilians only qualified as terrorism when Islam was brought into the picture. In stark contrast was the Planned Parenthood attack just a week earlier. This was not an act of terrorism- it was a 'shooting.' It seems that terrorism is a loaded term, with the barrel pointed squarely at Islam.
This pattern, familiar to Muslims, is bewildering. Do the victims of these 'shootings' feel mere dread, desperation, 'horror' perhaps, but never terror? If not, then why use a different term for the same phenomenon? The case of Robert Dear, the Planned Parenthood 'shooter' is a case in point. Here was a man described by those who knew him as 'deeply religious.' He was a seasoned internet troll who would web-shout at others for failing to accept Jesus as their saviour, he believed in an impending apocalypse, his actions were in response to socio-political issues, and he was inspired by other religious extremist groups. Fill in the gaps a little differently and there would emerge a profile of any terrorists inspired by Daesh.
Do we treat Islam differently to other faiths? Image courtesy of David Evers.
And yet, something would nag in the conscience of many that the symmetry between Muslim extremists and Christian extremists is not perfect. When examined, it stems out of our belief that the peaceful message of Christianity cannot be held responsible for Dear's actions. Thus our eyes move immediately away from the religious beliefs of Christian extremists and towards their socio-political grievances and mental health. That is, the fault must lie with Dear, and not with Christ. For many however, the parallel cannot be said with confidence for Islam. Who is to say that the religion championed by the barbaric Saudi Arabia regime would not only condone such attacks, but encourage them? The terrorists are after all convincing. They speak Arabic, wear turbans, and shout that they are killing in the name of 'Allah.' Can we really be so dismissive of the inspiration the terrorists themselves cite?
The answer for many commentators of the right is a resounding 'no.' Islam is to them a Pandora's Box of extremism, tempered only for the majority of peaceful Muslims by enlightened secular values.
Herein lies the rub. We are susceptible to being more terrified of Islam because we know less of it. And what little we know, is not good. But, like extremism itself, this perception is born out of an ignorance of Islam, rather than an understanding of it. A fair-minded investigation of the religion's original teachings is sorely needed, yet rarely pursued. The outcome of such an analysis would perhaps surprise many. For, contrary to popular opinion, Islam has always championed pluralism and freedom of thought. "There is no compulsion in religion,"(2:257), teaches the Qur'an, elsewhere instructing Muslims to live in 'kindness and equity' with people of other faiths, (60:9). The Qur'an is replete with such peaceful teachings which were revealed in every era of the prophetic mission. The idea that some verses arbitrarily cancel out other verses, (a critic's favourite), is specifically condemned by the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad.
The key to defeating extremism? Image courtesy of the Ahmadiyya Times.
When it came to interfaith relations, the Prophet was revolutionary. His Charter of Medina was a landmark in the history of human rights, uniting at one stroke the pagans, Jews and Muslims of his city. With the Christians of Arabia he made the Pact of St. Catherine's Monastery, himself serving as a guarantor of Christian rights on behalf of his true followers. What few wars he fought were explicitly in defence of a beleaguered religious minority in a hostile Arabia.
The reality of Islam's true teachings is therefore poles apart from the caricatures that extremists on both sides present. These are no great secrets- in the age of the internet, online copies of the Qur'an and biographies of the Prophet abound. But we must seek to move on from the hackneyed debate on whether Islam is inherently dangerous towards more productive avenues of discussion. Can we improve the education of true Islamic values in Muslim countries? What drives extremist interpretations of Islam in the first place? And how should we tackle the socio-political causes of radicalisation? These are conversations worth having, but they can only be had when we as a society overcome our fear of Islam, and equip ourselves with authentic religious knowledge. In the end, that may well be the best defence against extremism we have.