By Cody Wiles
Last week, the Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) hosted Mark Lowenthal, distinguished visiting professor and former Assistant Director of the CIA, for a discussion on counter-terrorism. In the midst of comments about mass data collection, Guantanamo prisoners and the apparent irrelevance of international law, Professor Lowenthal echoed a claim that has become axiomatic within certain commentaries on violent extremism: “not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists today happen to be Muslim.” Unfortunately, this statement, combined with Professor Lowenthal’s assertion that the Muslim community bears special responsibility for preventing terrorism only perpetuates a flawed and shallow perspective on the role of religion in violent organizations.
At the root of Professor Lowenthal’s misjudgment is what Harvard Professor Dianne Moore has called “religious illiteracy”–the all-too-common inability to “discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life.” Not only does this tendency distort conversations on terrorism among intelligence and foreign policy analysts, boosting those groups’ religious narratives in the process, it also skews the perception of religious adherents in a domestic context.
In 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested at his Texas high school after a teacher suggested that his home-made clock was constructed to look like a bomb. While many condemned the arrest as islamophobic, the New York Post was quick to call the incident a “false, convenient tale of racism,” and commentators from Bill Maher to Rush Limbaugh defended the school’s concerns as perfectly valid. Amateur bomb-spotting aside, it is hard to imagine that such overreactions have not been encouraged by longstanding political rhetoric of a certain kind: rhetoric that has consistently called upon questionable analyses and reductive religious arguments to construct a Western reality in which young Muslims are deemed more likely to build a bomb than a science project.
The American presidential campaign has exacerbated such unfortunate assessments of Islam and its adherents. In December last year, Republican front-runner Donald Trump gave his infamous call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” while four years earlier he had suggested that “there’s something [in the Qur’an] that teaches some very negative vibe.” Ben Carson, another presidential candidate, suggested in an interview that radical Muslims were “infiltrating” the United States, further stating that, “they have the same goal as they did when Mohammed was around. They want to dominate.” Meanwhile, it has been reported that his evangelical foreign policy advisor, Robert Dees, “strongly suspects that all Muslims are terrorists.”
While these examples may appear at the apex of questionable political rhetoric, they are hardly new, nor particularly unique. One thing strings them all together: a direct and unquestioned association between Islam and violence. This is what underlies Professor Lowenthal’s comments, which both feed off of and encourage incidents like Ahmed Mohamed’s high school arrest.
In a widely shared interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Muslim personality and scholar Reza Aslan argued that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.” Unlike the devotional and textual approaches adopted by media sources and political campaigns which place overwhelming influence on a plain reading of rituals and texts–above and beyond most practitioners themselves–Reza Aslan hints at the “contextual approach” advocated by other religious scholars such as Ali Asani. This approach “stresses the importance of relating understandings of a religion to the various human contexts in which they are situated.” But what does it mean to say that Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace? What does it mean to adopt a contextual approach to understanding Islam? And how would this alter the perception of analysts, politicians and the public?
The answer, as Ali Asani has alluded, is that religions cannot be “reified.” They cannot “say,” and they cannot “do”—they exist only in the abstract, fixed in the minds of assembled individuals as the culmination of texts, rituals and interpretations, themselves influenced by varying contexts of historical and lived existence.
From the perspective of policy analysis and political commentary, both are enhanced by such a new epistemology of religion, especially as we seek to understand and counter the roots of terrorism. Such methods allow us to break out of the paradigm of endless religious conflict, escape the image of an eternally embattled Middle East and become cognizant of the ways in which Islamic beliefs and identities converge intermittently with the personal and political pressures of a given situation. The monolithic scourge of “Islamic terror” transforms into an amalgam of land disputes, power plays and economic distress across Palestine, Syria and into the United States. In each of these cases religious texts matter, as do rituals and expressed belief. But we should not obscure their individualized implementation or let them define in any concrete sense the essential spirit or inclination—towards violence or peace—of Muslims or Islam.
One doesn’t have to look very far to see that such a nuanced perspective is rarely adopted in Western discourse, and in truth it is just as likely to be ignored by Muslim commentators themselves. In 2015, Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa published an article chastising President Obama for “doing a verbal tap dance around Islamic theology and extremism,” and arguing that “We have to own the issue of extremist Islamic theology in order to defeat it and remove it from our world. We have to name it to tame it.” This judgement, however flawed, has proven extremely resilient within modern political discourse and was even repeated by Donald Trump during this week’s presidential debate.
The original article, bluntly titled “Will It Take The End of the World For Obama To Recognize ISIS As ‘Islamic’?” goes on to present an eery exegesis of ISIS propaganda videos, translating and explaining religious phrases and images as they appear in an apparent attempt to verify the group’s Islamic credentials. Their conclusion is that “Islamic State strategists, propagandists and recruiters are very much grounded in a logical interpretation of the Quran, the hadith . . . and fatwa.”
Setting aside these authors’ singular emphasis on ISIS’ religious motivation—especially as derived from dogmatic textual readings, which they confirm are perfectly “logical”—one might be inclined to question Nomani and Arafa’s project in the first place. Why, exactly, must we “name it to tame it?” What strategic or tactical value is gained by the uncritical acceptance of terrorism’s “Islamic” character? With previous articles like “Airport Security: Let’s Profile Muslims,” “NYPD, Please Monitor Us,” and “To This Secular Muslim, Ben Carson Had a Point”—referring to his warnings on “creeping sharia” and the unsuitability of a Muslim president—Nomani’s argument seems clear enough: emphasizing the Islamic character of terror will allow us to target Muslims for discriminatory treatment until they are ready to join the twenty-first century with the rest of us.
Ultimately, commentators like Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa diminish the discourse on Islam and violence by throwing the full weight of their Muslim credentials behind a simplified, religiously illiterate explanation of “Islamic terrorism.” In similar stride, Professor Lowenthal has committed his credentials as a high-ranking intelligence expert to that same end.
Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani outlines an alternative view in his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. “Terrorism is not a necessary effect of religious tendencies, whether fundamentalist or secular,” he argues. Instead, “terrorism is a political encounter. When it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, terrorism needs to be understood as a modern political movement at the service of a modern power.”
A quick glance over the terrorist organizations listed by the U.S. State Department seems to corroborate this idea. Of the fifty-nine organizations included, observers would be hard pressed to find one divorced from a particular political—and often geographical—context. From Hamas and Hezbollah, which emerged specifically to oppose the Israeli occupations in Gaza and Lebanon, respectively, to al-Nusra Front, which began its activities in the midst of the deadly Syrian Civil War, almost every group on the list can be explained without emphasizing any essential Islamic element and most operate alongside secular terrorist groups motivated by nearly identical reasons.
Even al-Qa’ida, the infamous doomsday group behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cannot be removed from a modern political context, no matter how much their Islamic preaching and geographical diffusion may suggest otherwise. In 2011, while attempting to answer the oft-repeated question, “Why do they hate us?” famed political scientist John Mearsheimer posited two explanations: they are either pre-modern barbarians, acting on a religious impulse incompatible with Western values, or they are responding to a series of political grievances, such as the presence of American troops in the Gulf, American support for brutal authoritarian regimes and a cycle of invasions and economic sanctions that have left hundreds of thousands dead throughout the Middle East. “There is an abundance of survey data and anecdotal evidence,” Mearshiemer suggests, “that shows the second answer is the right one.” And while it may appear that their seemingly global reach gives credence to a new form of terrorism—decontextualized, theologically dominated and stretched thin across the borders of two competing civilizations—it seems far more likely that, in the Era of Globalization, even terror has widened its scope.
Importantly, and seemingly missed by commentators from Bill Maher to Asra Nomani to Professor Lowenthal, none of this analysis is meant to obscure or ignore all traces of Islam—or any other religion—from the scenes of terror and violence. Nor is it about downplaying or attempting to justify horrific acts perpetrated around the world “in the name of Islam.” Instead, analyzing threats with an eye towards religious literacy is about assigning religion a proper anatomical place among a larger body of influences and causes. This is something that a phrase like “Islamic terror” or a quip about the number of Muslim terrorists simply fails to do.
It is incumbent upon us as good analysts of global affairs to disrupt the casual equivalency made between Islam and violence and question why one man with a bomb is privileged as a spokesman while the objections of an overwhelming majority are ignored. The answer, I argue, may not lie just in our understanding of Islam, but in our collective illiteracy towards religion and its place in society. Until professionals and thinkers like Mark Lowenthal are able place the “Islam” of “Islamic terror” within its proper political, sociological, and historical contexts, our ability to understand and confront violence of all kinds will continue to suffer.