Qur’an Burning, Violence and the Political Instrumentalization of Islam

For many Muslims, writing about the recent Qur’an burning incident and ensuing criminality in Afghanistan is a highly problematic exercise. It puts one in the unenviable position of wanting to condemn subhuman behavior that contravenes the most elementary canons of Islamic morality, while simultaneously wanting to explain the political context and circumstances that give rise to the lawlessness that claimed twenty-two lives. A Muslim will find that if he fails to strike an almost-perfect balance between these two considerations he will be either branded as a covert apologist for terrorism or, in the alternative, regarded as a traitor to the world Muslim community. Indeed, Islam’s modern antagonists often accuse Western Muslims of speaking with a forked tongue, tailoring their response to terrorism to the audience they are addressing rather than speaking in a solitary voice. My belief is that this charge of duplicity is largely unfounded, although I suspect that, like all communities, Muslims are not immune from double-speak, particularly given the heated political environment in which they find themselves. Indeed, American politicians are frequently accused of this same cunningness when speaking on the Israel-Palestine conflict–one need only compare President Obama’s June 4, 2008 address to AIPAC, to his “landmark” speech to the Muslim world on June 4, 2009, exactly one year later.

Despite the inherent intellectual and political challenges that moral consistency presents, Muslims, in my view, should do their level best to not allow cynics to derail them from cultivating a moral discourse that is equally unforgiving in its condemnation of vigilante terrorism as it is in its denunciation of state terrorism. Given the current balance of power, the former is often practiced by Muslims, while the latter is most often visited upon them by the world’s major powers, including the United States, Russia, China, India, and Israel. As the highly professional reporting of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International has consistently shown, the Iraqi, Afghani, Chechen, Turkestani, Kashmiri, and Palestinian people represent the most tragic victims of state terrorism in the Muslim world today.

In several of my essays, I have argued forcefully that terrorism and vigilante justice find no currency in the classical Islamic tradition and the textual sources upon which this tradition is founded, namely the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. In so doing, I have admittedly adopted an apologetic stance by not discussing the underlying atrocities committed against Muslims by Western powers, which have nurtured a criminal psychology in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world. A reader not familiar with my politics could reasonably infer that I am merely a “secular” American Muslim inclined to adopt a pro-Western position whenever controversy arises and that my stance represents a departure from a traditional Islamic view. However, my decision to focus, first, on violence emanating from my own religious community was a conscious one; I believe that a committed Muslim, in order to possess any moral standing, must make his unflinching opposition to terrorism known openly and unapologetically. In my mind, the world Muslim community must fashion an articulate anti-terrorism discourse that will not only pay homage to the Muhammadan tradition, but also enable it to discuss the many legitimate grievances of Muslims throughout the world without being accused of acting as accomplices to terrorism. It has become obvious that branding as a “terrorist sympathizer” even the most committed Muslim peace activist has been remarkably effective in silencing morally conscientious Muslims who are critical of Western foreign policy.

The recent 600-page legal opinion issued by the internationally renowned Pakistani scholar, Tahir ul-Qadri, condemning terrorism and suicide bombings without qualification, represents the most comprehensive Islamic condemnation of the unlawful useful of political violence to date. I regard this as a highly positive development, one that I hope constitutes only the beginning of a revival of Islam’s great humanistic tradition and renders silent those bent upon portraying Islam as a violent “political ideology.” Nevertheless, it would be an abdication of one’s basic moral responsibility to condemn only the terrorist acts of Muslims while remaining silent in the face of the daily state terrorism that is visited upon Muslims, and non-Muslims, throughout the world. Elementary fairness and justice demand that terrorism in all its manifestations be condemned without caveat, regardless of the perpetrator, or victim.

How, then, does one make sense of the recent violence that claimed the life of 22 people in Afghanistan, including seven UN workers? The surface explanation has been that the madness was carried out in purported opposition to the desecration of the Qur’an by a lunatic church in Florida. While superficially correct, this analysis is impoverished on many accounts, in my view. I prefer to examine vigilante terrorism from the vantage point of psychology and politics, not religion. Tariq Ramadan, one of the world’s foremost Muslim intellectuals and Professor at Oxford University, frequently discusses the “political instrumentalization” of Islam and how religion is often co-opted to justify violence, in much the same way that notions of democracy, human rights, Marxism, socialism, and other secular ideologies have been invoked to justify the greatest crimes of the 20th and 21st century. Did not politicians in the United States, on both sides of the political spectrum, hijack the highest ideals of secular democracy to justify America’s inhumanities against the Iraqi people, which have claimed more than half a million lives? Were we not told that the United States was embarking upon a civilizing mission to bring “democracy” and “liberation” to Iraq, an earthly paradise not unlike one envisioned by Muslim extremists who long to enter gardens of paradise in the Hereafter? Are we to really believe that if Iraq’s primary exports were bananas or coffee that the US would have shown the slightest concern for the people of Iraq, as it did for the Christian-on-Christian violence that blighted nearly one million human lives in Rwanda? In order words, Islam is far from the only intellectual tradition that is frequently co-opted in furtherance of political terrorism. Rather than engaging in facile debates about whether abstractions like “Islam” or “secularism” countenance violence, a more rational approach, one that seeks to truly understand the motivations for political violence, must be permitted to enter mainstream political discussion. To date, every effort has been made to relegate this approach to the sidelines.

To apprehend the rage and animosity that emanates from Afghanistan, a useful thought experiment would be to place oneself in the shoes of the average Afghani. The United States is now entering the eleventh year of its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which, according to the ABC News and other mainstream outlets, stands as the longest war in American history. That is to say, what was initially presented as a narrow mission to eradicate a fringe extremist group has become a decade-long war, with no obvious end in sight. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, reported by NPR  as well as the conservative National Review, a substantial majority of Americans, 64 percent, “now say the Afghan war has not been worth fighting.” But far more relevant, since the war’s inception, polls of Afghans have consistently shown a remarkable hostility towards the United States, particularly its responsibility for countless civilian deaths, which are caused not merely by direct US bombing and military operations but also the subsequent power vacuums and instability they create, giving life to home-grown insurgencies, of which the Taliban is merely one. Indeed, even in polls in which Afghanis have expressed rare optimism, commonly championed by NATO to show that military operations are going “well,” this constant holds true. It is quite impossible to know for certain how many Afghan civilian lives have been lost but the number, by most estimates, is in the high tens of thousands. Since the first “anti-American” demonstration in Afghanistan on July 4, 2002 following the deposition of the Taliban government, Afghanis have engaged in countless street protests in Kabul, Kandahar, Azizabad, Lashkar Gah, Khost, Armul, Ghazni city, Shindand, and numerous other cities and provinces to express unmitigated outrage towards NATO and US military personnel. “Stop bombing us, please,” has been the repeated plea. The recent mob violence following the Qur’an burning is but one trigger that has prompted religious extremists to engage in criminality. Far more frequently, such violence erupts immediately following a US air raid that kills scores of civilians in which the mob makes no effort to distinguish between civilian and military personnel. (see Afghan public protests over civilian deaths).

Thus, it must be asked, should one be surprised to learn that millions of Afghanis, far from glorifying the US-led invasion as a humanitarian intervention, regard this war as a criminal intrusion upon their sovereign homeland that has left behind tens of thousands of decaying human corpses? On the latter point, in what speaks eloquently about the moral poverty of the American intelligentsia, even liberal publications such as the New York Times have not shown the slightest interest in providing careful and transparent reporting on civilian atrocities in Afghanistan. Without trivializing this debate, it is undeniably the case that Afghani life ranks low on the scale of human importance as it is virtually impossible to find an educated Westerner who has the scantiest knowledge of the human impact this war has had on Afghan civilian society.

Those few politicians who have come out in articulate opposition to the war have focused almost exclusively on its impact on American soldiers and the US Treasury, not the defenseless victims of the invasion who, in my mind, are most deserving of American, indeed human, sympathy. It must be said that Democrats have shown themselves to be as lacking in moral courage and given to nationalistic hysteria than their Republican counterparts—one ought to be very clear about this fact and remind the American people that there has been a criminal silence from the entire American political establishment regarding the human tragedy this war has precipitated. We are told that any discussion about “collateral damage” will undermine US war efforts; however, what of the tens of thousands of human lives that have been “undermined,” indeed extinguished, by this “humanitarian” effort? Do not the lives of Afghanis constitute an equally compelling moral interest that should be permitted to enter the arena of mainstream debate? Why have the anchors of MSNBC or the editorial board of the New York Times not shown the same regard for Afghani civilian life as they have for American military personnel whose casualties and injuries are reported daily, with meticulous and unfailing accuracy?

Moreover, despite the historical amnesia common to Americans whenever US foreign policy is subject to honest scrutiny, Afghanis have not forgotten the US’s deeply insidious role in assembling the most extreme religious elements in the Muslim world to fight the Soviet Union by proxy in the 1980’s. This reality is not the product of conspiracy theory, but universally acknowledged by conservative commentators as part and parcel of the US’s foreign policy in Afghanistan. Ronald Regan, while working in concert with Pakistan’s most oppressive dictator, Zia al Haqq, referred to the mujahideen as the “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers,” even inviting them to the White House (see photo). In what amounts to an act of unforgivable treachery, the United States flooded Afghanistan with mercenary fighters and tens of millions of dollars in sophisticated armaments, only to abandon the entire nation the moment the Soviets retreated. How many Americans are aware that fully two million Afghanis were killed during this US-Russian gamesmanship and the ensuing power struggle it created? No matter how emphatic apologists in the West are about the America’s benevolent role in Afghanistan, the scale of violence and schism the US has sown in the country is almost incomprehensible and should disturb every patriotic American to his and her very core. Do not Afghanis have every reason to feel extreme moral outrage at the United States for its repeated treacheries and depredations? Why do Westerns expect Afghanis to exhibit almost super-human moral restraint when every facet of their life has been violently intruded upon by the world’s leading superpower?

Add to this tragic history, the lack of access to accurate news reporting, an illiteracy rate than hovers around 65 percent, and the crises in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and indeed much of the Muslim world—should one be surprised to see eruptions of mob violence such as the one we witnessed this week? Was this really about the “violent character” of Islam or rather a political resistance that has co-opted “Islam” to give meaning and metaphysical purpose to its struggle? Have not Marx’s godless writings and other secular systems of thought been co-opted to service even greater inhumanities during the past one hundred years? Shall we really spend our time tallying up the number of dead bodies committed in the name of Islam versus secular (or Christian) ideology? Indeed, it is a remarkable irony that right-wing commentators in the West and many purportedly secular elements in the Muslim world have entered into a rather unholy union by insisting upon focusing exclusively on the element of religious extremism as opposed to the political environment in which this criminality has been allowed to be fester. Why were Afghanis lavishing praise, rather than beheading, American diplomats in the 1980’s—were they not reading the same Qu’ran, after all?

The case is Palestine is equally instructive: if violence and political terrorism are inherent to Arab and Muslim culture, why do we find almost no examples of suicide bombers who descend from Israel proper (i.e within the green-line)? Having consulted with Mouin Rabbani, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel, Palestine and political terrorism, I learned that in the last eleven years, since the second intifada first erupted, we find exactly one instance of an Israeli-Arab suicide bomber, and even here the circumstances are shrouded in mystery. In other words, it is those Palestinians living in the midst of occupation, death, and destruction, who have politicized Islam and resorted to vigilante terrorism to resist Israeli brutality. Why have their Arab Muslim brethren, living next door and who profess the same Islam, read the same Qur’an, and claim the same reverence for same Prophet Muhammad, not resorted to terrorism? The answer is obvious: one group finds itself living under a brutal military dictatorship while the other a thriving industrialized nation.

Despite this week’s horrors, the people of Afghanistan should be collectively honored for the remarkable patience and human dignity they have exhibited for more than three decades. I remain firm in my belief that introspective self-criticism must be reciprocal. Muslims must continue to remind not only those within their own ranks, but the world community, of Islam’s uncompromising opposition to terrorism. Their faith demands as much, and no matter how much they suffer, I pray that Muslims will not allow the perpetrators and apologists for state terrorism to push them into a moral sewer. But to ignore the terrorist crimes of state actors, whose combined violence makes vigilante aggression look like child’s play, is itself a gross dereliction of duty. There will be those who insist upon portraying Muslims, no matter how unqualified their opposition to terrorism, as subversive political opportunists. But Muslims must pay no mind to them and remain firm in their moral obligation to condemn violence and injustice wherever it exists in the world, whether from within their own ranks, or without.

But it must be asked of the apologists for state terrorism, “why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” (Matthew 7:3).

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2 Responses to Qur’an Burning, Violence and the Political Instrumentalization of Islam

  1. Meera Ghani says:

    Bravo Abid, very well said. I agree with each and every word you wrote. An excellent analysis of the incident that ensued. People tend to forget the resilience and patience the Afghan people have shown over the past decades. One of your best pieces yet. I know I say this every time…but you produce one excellent piece after another. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. These must be shared as widely as possible.

  2. Raza Raja says:

    Brilliantly writen and the best thing is that you have spoken your mind. Here on the “liberal” side people have started to tailor their writings to fit in with an existing liberal narrative. According to this narrative. you just can not be critical of West also while being crtical of Muslim extremism. The moment you do that, you are branded as a closet conservative. You have written a very balanced account which is critical of both the extremists, Islamic and the Red Necks

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