Many Western scholars and commentators and the mainstream media have freely and indiscriminately used the term “Islamist terrorism” to describe violent and terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslim youth. The Economist, for example, frequently uses this term. The mgazine ran a story entitled “Why Italy has not suffered Islamist terrorism” in its issue of 30 September 2017. In its issue of 9 August 2019, the magazine described the outbreak of deadly violence in Mozambique as a “bubbling Islamist insurgency.” The magazine has often described Nigeria’s Boko Haram as an “Islamist militant group.” On 18 August, 2017, a Muslim militant drove a rental van into a crowd on La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain, kinng 13 people and injuring 130 others. The dastardly attack was described by The Economist as “Islamist terrorism.” In a YouTube post, Robert Guest, the foreign editor of The Economist, said that “Islamist terrorism” has fractured relations between Islam and the West.
In an article published on 1 March 2019, The New York Times discussed at length what it described as “Islamist extremists and fighters” in Wet Africa.
A Fallacious Term
The term “Islamist terrorism” is derived from another equally questionable term “Islamism,” which is used by Western scholars and commentators and the media to refer to activist or political forms of Islam. It is often equated with political Islam and “Islamic fundamentalism.” The unstated assumptions underlying the use of the term “Islamism” are human rights violations by Muslim groups, extremism and violence. suffused with oversimplifications, sweeping generalisations, prejudice, and preconceivedand and misguided assumptions. Four points in this connection are note-worthy. First, White Christian supremacists who have indulged in acts of violence and terrorism are generally described by Western commentators and the media as “right-wing extremists” and “White nationalists,” and not as christian terrorists. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian Christian White supremacist, shot 77 people in cold blood in 2011. Dylann Roof, a White Christian, gunned down Black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Both were desribed as “right-wing extremists.”
Second, the term “Islamist terrorism” suggests that the Islamic faith is the motivating force in terrorist attacks. Nothing could be more preposterous and further from the truth. The Quran and the recorded conversations of Prophet Muhammad (Hadith) unequivocally denounce violence and terrorism, in which most of the victims are innocent civilians.
Islam places a great deal of emphasis on maintaining order, peace and harmony in the world and condemns those who sow the seeds of hatred, discord and violence. The Quran says: “On that account We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person—unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land—it would be as if he slew an entire people; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of an entire people” (5:32). At another place the Quran says, “But seek, with the (wealth) which Allah has bestowed on you, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget your portion in this world, but do good, as Allah has been good to you, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land, for Allah loves not those who do mischief “ (28:77). The Quran urges Muslims to return evil with good. “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one that is better, then lo! He, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend” (41:34).
In pre-Islamic Arabia as well as in many ancient civilizations, prisoners of war were generally enslaved and treated like chattel. The Bible says that in the event of victory in a war, male prisoners of war are to be killed (Deuteronomy 21:10). Islam made a radical departure from earlier practices by emphasising that the prisoners of war should be treated in a kind and humane manner and that efforts should be made to liberate them. According to the Quran, war prisoners are to be liberated gratuitously or on payment of ransom (47:4). According to Islamic law, a prisoner of war qua prisoner should not be killed. However, this does not preclude his trial and punishment for crimes beyond rights of belligerency. According to Islamic law, prisoners are to be well treated and given food and clothes. The costs for their food and clothing are to be borne by the Islamic state. Among prisoners, a mother is not to be separated from her child nor any other near relatives from each other.
Armed combat is one of the forms of jihad, but it is permitted only as the last resort. Islam does not sanction aggression; it only permits a defensive war. The Quran says, “And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely Allah does not like the transgressors” (2:190). It is remarkable that the wars that were fought during the Prophet’s lifetime, which led to the conquest of about three million square kilometres of territory, took a toll of only 300 people from the enemy camp. Armed combat is regulated by wide-ranging conditions and stipulations, including those relating to the avoidance of wanton destruction and barbarities, compliance with treaties with the enemy, the protection of women, children and old persons as well as places of worship (of other faiths) and the flora and fauna in the war zone, and kindness towards the prisoners of war. The Islamic ethic of war is clearly reflected in the instructions issued by Caliph Abu Bakr to Muslim troops who were to embark on a military expedition: “O people! I charge you with these rules; learn them well. Do not commit treachery nor deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate the dead bodies of soldiers. Do not kill a child or a woman or an aged man. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruit trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food. You will meet people (in enemy territories) who have set themselves apart in monasteries. Leave them to accomplish the purpose for which they have done this”.
Third, a large majority of the victims of terrorism and violence carried out by Muslim youth are innocent Muslim civilians, including women and children. Between 2004 and 2013 almost half of all terrorist attacks and 60 per cent of fatalities due to terrorist attacks worldwide took place in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the victims were overwhelmingly Muslim. The horrendous acts of violence and wanton killing by a small group of extremist and hardliner Muslims have widened the gulf between Muslims and the rest of the world and fuelled Islamophobic sentiments. Suicide attacks carried out by misguided youths in many parts of the world, in which innocent civilians, including women and children are killed, have heightened the atmosphere of fear and insecurity around the world.
In 2012, armed groups in Mali owing allegiance to a militant group Ansar Deine and said to have links with Al Qaeda, took control of Mali’s three main cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. They broke down the door of a 15th-century mosque, the Sidi Yahya mosque, in the historic city of Timbuktu. A few days later members of the group destroyed two Sufi tombs at the 14th century Djingareyber mosque in Timbuktu. The militants also burned and destroyed thousands of precious ancient Islamic manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research at Timbuktu.
Ansar Deine’s vandalism has been condemned by the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations, International Criminal Court and international human rights groups. The OIC said in a statement that the mosques and mausoleums vandalized by Ansar Dine were part of the “rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harm’s way by bigoted, extremist elements.”
Since 2002 the northern part of Nigeria has been in the grip of reckless violence perpetrated by a militant movement called Boko Haram. In the Hausa language, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.” The basic goal of Boko Haram is to overthrow the present government and to establish an Islamic caliphate governed by Shariah. It considers any kind of association with the West, including modern education, Western culture and democracy, forbidden and unlawful. The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram has been directed against government buildings, police stations, infrastructure and public services, politicians, churches, schools and Muslims who disapprove of its ideology. In 2009 it carried out a spate of violent attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri, in which hundreds were killed and thousands of civilians fled the city. More than a million people in the northeastern part of Nigeria have been displaced as a result of attacks by Boko Haram. Boko Haram militants killed some 70 teachers and more than 100 students in northern Nigeria in 2013. More than 100 schools in the region were either forcibly closed down or burned. In February 2014 Boko Haram militants shot and burned to death 59 boys at a boarding school in Damatury in Yobe State. On November 10, 2014, Boko Haram fighters bombed a high school in Potiskum, killing 48 children. On April 14, 2014, 276 Nigerian girls, including Muslims and Christians, were kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters. The fate of the kidnapped girls remains unknown. More than 100 people were killed during Friday prayers in Kano’s central mosque on November 28, 2014 by suspected Boko Haram militants. More than 23,000 people, including women and children, have been killed in the violent attacks launched by Boko Haram.
The reckless violence and destruction carried out by Boko Haram fighters has created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity across the country and has widened the gulf between Muslims and Christians. Many Muslims have stopped sending their daughters to schools due to fears that they may be targeted by Boko Haram. Prominent Muslim scholars and Muslim organizations, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, have unequivocally condemned the violence unleashed by Boko Haram. Nigeria’s Muslim scholars have questioned Boko Haram leader Abu Bakar Shekau’s understanding and interpretation of Islam. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’adu Abubakar, a widely respected spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, has described Boko Haram an un-Islamic outfit and an embarrassment to Islam. Emir Muhammad Sanusi, a highly respected and influential Muslim leader of Kenya called on people to arm themselves against Boko Haram.
The Al Azhar University in Cairo and Darul Uloom Deoband in India as well as many prominent scholars and institutions of Islamic learning around the world have condemned reckless violence and terrorism -- which are ostensibly legitimated in the name of jihad-- in unequivocal terms. In 2007 one of Osama Bin Laden’s most prominent mentors, Salman al-Awdah, wrote an open letter criticizing him for “fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families”. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of al-Qaeda’s founders, who had described the 9/11 attacks on the US as “a catastrophe for Muslims,” said in 2007, “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property.” Shortly after the 2005 London bombings, the National Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa condemning all forms of extremism and any destruction of property or human life, and specifically called the perpetrators “criminals.” The fatwa stated that it was forbidden for any Muslim to cooperate with individuals or groups involved in violent and terrorist activities and added that it was a part of the religious and civic duty of Muslims to support efforts to protect the lives of all civilians.
Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent and influential Muslim scholars of present times, has unequivocally declared that violence and terrorism and the killing of innocent people is against the principles and teachings of Islam. He condemned the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Extremism and acts of senseless violence and terrorism perpetrated by a small and misguided section of young Muslims have been strongly condemned by Muslims around the world. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, in a survey based on interviews with 17,000 Muslim respondents across 17 nations, found that the majority of Muslims believed that radicalism and extremism posed a serious threat to the stability of their respective countries.
A leading Pakistani Muslim scholar, Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri issued a fatwa on March 2, 2010, backed by extensive references to Islamic legal principles and precedents and judicial pronouncements, denouncing terrorists as the enemies of Islam. Dr Qadri, the founder of an influential religious and educational organization and a socio-religious movement called Minhajul Quran International, said in his 600-page edict that suicide bombers were destined for hell. Dr Qadri emphatically pointed out that attacks against innocent citizens are “absolutely against the teachings of Islam” and that Islam does not permit such acts under any excuse, pretext or reason. On September 24, 2014, more than 120 Muslim scholars from around the world signed an open letter addressed to fighters and supporters of the so-called Islamic State, denouncing their actions as un-Islamic.
The Imams of mosques in London, Leeds and other cities in Britain refused to perform the funerary prayers for the deceased perpetrators of the terrorist attack on London Bridge on 3 June 2017. They asserted that the “indefensible attackers” were not true Muslims. Imams in Mumbai likewise refused to perform the funerary prayers of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on the city on 26-29 November 2008.
The perpetrators of violence and terrorism often justify their actions in the name of jihad. It is necessary to dispel some misconceptions surrounding the idea of jihad. Jihad literally means “striving in the way of God,” which is carried out entirely for the sake of God and is not motivated or blemished by worldly gain, power or fame. Jihad encompasses a wide range of means and methods: it can be pursued by spending one’s financial resources for the glory of God (Quran 9:41, 8:72, 49:15), through self-purification, and by showing courage of conviction in the face of fear and persecution. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The most superior form of jihad is to speak the truth in front of a despotic ruler”. Defending one’s family, honour and faith from external aggression has been described as jihad.
Following the defeat of the Islamic State, terrorism has drastically declined. According to Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre’s Global Attack Index, fatalities linked to the Islamic State declined by 51.5% in 2018.
Fourth, one should take cognizance of the specific historical, regional, political, economic and cultural factors in terrorist attacks in which Muslim youth are involved. The upsurge in violent attacks carried out by groups of Muslim youth in recent years is a manifestation of a deep sense of frustration and anger over the fact that Muslims in many parts of the world are at the receiving end of injustice, oppression, discrimination and atrocities. Muslims in the Middle East have borne the brunt of numerous wars, military interventions and covert operations launched by Western powers, which were aimed at maintaining and strengthening Western geopolitical control over the region. The inhuman oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, with the connivance of the US, continues unabated. The painful memory of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had no legitimate grounds and which flouted international law, for which the US never apologized, and in which more than 100,000 civilians were killed, is still fresh in the collective consciousness of Muslims. The US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has brought nothing but devastation and ruin. The CIA stoked the flames of the civil war in Syria, in which more than 200,000 Syrians have died, 3.7 million have fled the country and 7.6 million people have been internally displaced. Muslims in some European countries, particularly France, are at the receiving end of widespread discrimination and exclusion.
It is note-worthy that while Britain, France, Germany and Spain have faced repeated terrorist attacks in recent years, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have not been experienced any major terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists. An article “Urban poverty and support: Survey results of Muslims in fourteen countries,” published in the Journal of Pew Research on 15 February 2011, says that survey respondents in 14 countries, representing 62 per cent of the world’s Muslim population feel that “Islamist terror” is not associated with religiosity, poverty or income dissatisfaction. Instead, it is associated with urban poverty. The Economist has rightly pointed out that “tackling poverty, access to education, integration with the wider community and access to decent jobs could drastically reduce terrorism.
On 1 August 2016 The Wall Street Journal reported a speech by Pope Francis Pope Francis, in which he said that the inspiration for terrorism was not Islam but a world economy that worshiped the “god of money” and drove the disenfranchised to violence. “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its centre the god of money and not the person,” the pope told reporters as he returned to the Vatican from a five-day visit in Poland. “This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.”
Speaking on his flight from Krakow, the pope was responding to a question about links between Islam and recent terrorist attacks, particularly the killing of a priest in northern France by followers of Islamic State. Pope Francis suggested that the social and economic marginalization of Muslim youth in Europe helped explain the actions of those who joined extremist groups. “How many youths have we Europeans left empty of ideals? They don’t have work, and they turn to drugs and alcohol. They go [abroad] and enrol in fundamentalist groups,” the Pope said.
He said that his own experience in interreligious dialogue had shown him that Muslims seek “peace and encounter. “It is not right to say that Islam is terroristic,” he said and added that no religion had a monopoly on violent members. “If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent,” Pope Francis said, dismissing Islamic State as a “small fundamentalist group” not representative of Islam as a whole.
“In almost all religions there is always a small group of fundamentalists, even in the Catholic Church. It is not necessarily physically violent, but one can kill with the tongue as well as the knife,” he said.
Islamic Fundamentalism and Terrorism
The term fundamentalism was originally applied to a specific Christian expression or tradition that emerged as a response to Christian modernism in the US in the late 19th and the early 20th century. Some Christian theologians emphasized the literal inerrancy of the Bible in all its statements and narratives. Those who espoused or supported this belief came to be known as Christian Fundamentalists. From the 1970s the term began to be applied to manifestation of religious revival in a wide variety of contexts. Thus commentators have spoken of Jewish fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism. The term generally carries negative and pejorative connotations.
In the late 1970s, following the Iranian Revolution, the US identified Islamic resurgence as a force for global subversion and a threat to US interests. The term Islamic fundamentalism gained currency in mainstream academic discourse and the media in the US and thus acquired a measure of legitimacy. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences instituted a Fundamentalist Studies project at the University of Chicago in 1988, which focused on the Middle East. The term Islamic fundamentalism is vague, obfuscating and derogatory. It reinforces and legitimizes prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. Recently, policy makers in the European Union have set guidelines to ban the use of terms such as Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, which are considered offensive to Muslims. The EU has emphasized the need for formulating a non-emotive lexicon for public communication.