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When Denial Can Kill

4 minute read
Irshad Manji

I was surprised last week to learn how easily some Westerners believe terrorism can be explained. The realization unfolded as I looked into the sad face of a student at Oxford University. After giving a speech about Islam, I met this young magazine editor to talk about Islam’s lost tradition of critical thinking and reasoned debate. But we never got to that topic. Instead, we got stuck on the July 7 bombings in London and what might have compelled four young, British-raised, observant Muslim men to blow themselves up while taking innocent others with them.

She emphasized their “relative economic deprivation.” I answered that the lads had immigrant parents who had worked hard to make something of themselves. I reminded her that several of the 9/11 hijackers came from wealthy families, and it’s not as if they left the boys out of the will. Finally, I told her about my conversation three years ago with the political leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. “What’s the difference between suicide, which the Koran condemns, and martyrdom?” I asked. “Suicide,” he replied, “is done out of despair. But remember: most of our martyrs today were very successful in their earthly lives.” In short, there was a future to live for–and they detonated it anyway.

By this time, the Oxford student had grown somber. It was clear I had let her down. I had failed to appreciate that the London bombers were victims of British society. To be fair to her, she is right that marginalization, real or perceived, diminishes self-esteem. Which, in turn, can make young people vulnerable to those peddling a radical message of instant belonging. But suppose the messages being peddled are marinated in religious rhetoric. Then wouldn’t you say religion plays some role in motivating these atrocities?

The student shifted uncomfortably. She just couldn’t bring herself to examine my suggestion seriously. And I suppose I couldn’t expect her to. Not when Muslim leaders themselves won’t go there. Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general for the Muslim Council of Britain, is an example. In the midst of a debate with me, he listed potential incentives to bomb, including “alienation” and “segregation.” But Islam? God forbid that the possibility even be entertained.

That is the dangerous denial from which mainstream Muslims need to emerge. While our spokesmen assure us that Islam is an innocent bystander in today’s terrorism, those who commit terrorist acts often tell us otherwise. Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a note asserting that “it is enough for us to know that the Koran’s verses are the words of the Creator of the Earth and all the planets.” Atta highlighted the Koran’s description of heaven. In 2004 the executioners of Nick Berg, an American contractor in Iraq, alluded on tape to a different Koranic passage: “Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all mankind.” The spirit of that verse forbids aggressive warfare, but the clause beginning with except is readily deployed by militant Muslims as a loophole. If you want murder and villainy in the land, they say, look no further than U.S. bootprints in Arab soil.

For too long, we Muslims have been sticking fingers in our ears and chanting “Islam means peace” to drown out the negative noise from our holy book. Far better to own up to it. Not erase or revise, just recognize it and thereby join moderate Jews and Christians in confessing “sins of Scripture,” as an American bishop says about the Bible. In doing so, Muslims would show a thoughtful side that builds trust with the wider communities of the West.

We could then cultivate the support to inspire cross-cultural understanding. For instance, schools throughout the West should teach how Islamic civilization helped give birth to the European Renaissance. Some of the first universities in recorded history sprang up in 3rd century Iran, 9th century Baghdad and 10th century Cairo. The Muslim world gave us mocha coffee, the guitar and even the Spanish expression olé! (which has its root in the Arabic word Allah). Muslim students would learn there is no shame in defending the values of pluralism. Non-Muslim students would learn that those values took great inspiration from Islamic culture. All would learn that Islam and the West are more interdependent than divided.

Still, as long as Muslims live in pretense, we will be affirming that we have something to hide. It’s not enough for us to protest that radicals are exploiting Islam as a sword. Of course they are. Now, moderate Muslims must stop exploiting Islam as a shield–one that protects us from authentic introspection and our neighbors from genuine understanding.

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