Even as the world was witnessing in horror, eerie scenes reminiscent of Mumbai’s 26/11 attacks, play out in the streets of Paris, that eventually left (until this piece was published) 129 dead and hundreds wounded, my Twitter mentions began flooding with notifications, that I have come to make my peace with, quite grudgingly, particularly over the past few years, as a constant reminder of my identity and my name, in this country and a world that seems headed towards a “Clash of Civilisations” – that I am a Muslim and and therefore by implication a supporter of and responsible for “Jehadi terror” and ISIS.
That ever since a “war on terror” has been declared, I must give proof, at every instance, that I am with “us” and not “them”, that I must condemn if not apologise, for every lunatic act of brutality that is carried out in the name of my religion, notwithstanding the fact that those carrying them out are hardly representative of the peaceful faith I believe in. That I and over 1.7 billion Muslims, one quarter of humanity, must be held to a standard and benchmark that doesn’t hold true for the practitioner of any other faith, for the actions of 0.001 per cent. Would it seem equally sound and legitimate to ask every Christian, over 2.2 billion of them, to denounce the brutalities committed in the Iraq War and the subsequent occupation of Iraq by American forces led by George W Bush, launched on the false premise of the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that did not exist and eventually led to the rise of ISIS- a fact that has been quite candidly admitted to by the former British PM Tony Blair who allied with Bush in leading this “war on terror” in the first place? Would it be pertinent to ask why every Christian must not apologise for the mass murder of six million Jews in a predominantly Christian and anti-semitic Europe of the 1930s, the killings of thousands by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in Africa, the organised gendercide of over 30,000 women, branded as witches, in the infamous “witch-hunt” in Europe during the 15th to 18th centuries, and of course slavery, all of which were carried out in the name of Christianity and were said to be sanctioned or justified by religious scriptures? Would it also be legitimate to ask of every Hindu to apologise for the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the riots that ensued thereafter, the killing of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 simply because we have now chosen to impute the acts of a few individuals like Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi as representative of the entire 800 million population of Hindus in India? May be not. This is a double standard only meant to be applied to Muslims.
Patronisingly, I am told, that one has to accept the “fact”, that most acts of terror in the world draw motivation from “violent” Islam and are carried out by Muslims strapping themselves up to a bomb, aren’t they? Most terrorists are Muslims, aren’t they? Well that is far from true. In India for instance, Naxalism or left wing extremism, which has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims, claims 10 times more victims than “Islamist terrorism” and this can be verified from the casualty rates! No wonder governments and security experts across the board consider it to be bigger challenge than terrorism! The FBI on its official website had put up a list of all terrorist attacks committed on US soil from 1980 to 2005 and it indicates that 94% of terror attacks were committed by non-Muslim extremists.
According to Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specialising in international security affairs and the Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism whose work focuses on the causes of suicide terrorism and who has put together a complete data of suicide attacks post 9/11 says “95 per cent of the suicide attacks were in response to a military occupation”. According to him, “ISIS, and most suicide groups, are driven by an ideal of nationalism; they want to control their destiny with a state.”
Politics and control of resources are the main “secular” drivers and motivations of terror groups and not the religion of Islam. A hard line interpretation of Islam may well be a convenient tool for them to legitimise the actions of the extremists but it would be just as wrong to believe that mainstream Islam has anything to with ISIS just as it would be wrong to draw a linkage between mainstream Hinduism and extremist Hindutva groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal or between Christianity and the LRA or KKK!
Imagine if this was true- that Islam was a violent religion, that Islamophobes believe it to be, that sanctions wanton and senseless killing of innocent people, then prey why are only a handful of politically driven Muslims subscribing to that view? Why aren’t the rest of us- 1.7 billion of us strapping ourselves up with bombs and blowing up everything? Is it the case of these “experts on Islam” that 99 per cent of the Muslim community has no idea of the religion they are following? Co-incidentally, the only two sets of people who agree on the idea of Islam sanctioning mindless violence are the ISIS, al Qaeda types and the battery of Islamophobes, both of whom, cherry pick verses, selectively quote parts of it, misinterpret and misrepresent the teachings of the Holy Quran to suit their vested interests and skewed narratives.
Not for a moment am I saying that Quran doesn’t talk about war but this is neither exclusive to Islam and the context of these references has to be understood just like it is to be understood for the Bible, which also talks about violence far more than the Quran (according to the Skeptic’s AnnotatedBible.com the Holy Bible contains 842 violent passages as opposed to the 333 verses in Quran) and the Ramayana or Mahabharat, epics which are almost entirely based upon going to war, even against one’s own cousins! If there is a concept of Jihad in Quran there is also a concept of Dharm Yudh in Mahabharata. It would be foolish of us to label an entire religion and its practitioners as “violent” based on such simplistic, selective readings rather than understanding the deeper meaning and substance behind the words and concepts in all religions.
Whether it’s the greeting “As-Salamu alaykum” or the root of the word Islam- Salam or all the 114 Surahs i.e. chapters of the Qur’an except for Surah Taubah , that begin with “Bismillah-hir-Rahman-nir-Rahim” signifying Allah as being the Most Merciful, the teaching of Islam is rooted overwhelmingly and conclusively rooted in peace not terror. There can be no other interpretation of Islam. When a terror attack does take place and groups like al Qaeda or ISIS misuse the name of Islam, adherents, clerics and seminaries come out strongly against them and condemn their actions as UNISLAMIC. Just recently over 1,000 prominent scholars, organisations issued a fatwa against ISIS. In fact Arabs and Muslims refuse to give its un-Islamic activities legitimacy by referring to it as “Islamic State” and call it “Daesh”. Even the French foreign minister refused to call this group ISIS and stated “This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.” As a matter of fact, many of the victims of terror groups like Daesh have often been Muslims themselves and Muslims themselves are leading the fight against Daesh be it forces from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Turkey.
The problem is not with Islam or as Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said the lack of “Sufi influence” in Islam. If you view the narrative of terror in this manner that Islam lacks something inherently or is pre-disposed to violence inherently, then you cannot claim that you have de-linked “religion” from “terror”. There is no doubt that Sufism is a great tradition but to say Islam minus Sufism amounts to terrorism is again laying the blame for the acts of a few politically motivated folks on the 1.7 billion adherents of a peaceful religion and smacks of Islamophobia! It is as offensive as somebody saying any Hindu who doesn’t practice Gandhian values is automatically pre-disposed to violence and rioting! Does it make sense? Often right wingers are up in arms against those who label terror as “Hindu” terror or “Saffron Terror” or object to terminology like “Hindu Taliban”. Why do their standards change when it comes to Islam?
I know after reading this article haters will continue to abuse me particularly on social media and will deliberately twist my words. But I am going to say this loudly, clearly, boldly and unapologetically. I feel just as sorry about the deaths in Paris as I would feel for the deaths of thousands of innocent folks in Iraq by invading forces. It is an integral part of my faith, Islam to identify with the suffering of another human being, Muslim or non Muslim. I will take no certificates on what is right and what is wrong with my religion from hypocritical trolls and members of the sensationalist media, who have little understanding about Islam.
To paint political problems with the broad brush of faith and religion will only ensure that we legitimise the divisive agendas of those who carried out the Paris attacks. For the sake of those who lost their lives, stop finding fault with my religion and start finding solutions to the political problems that confront the world.
(Post Script: France and the world are at a cross roads. They can judge their Muslim citizens, most of whom are peace loving, ordinary folks trying to make ends meet, for the actions of a few extremists and subject them to state sponsored discrimination, human rights violations and isolation in the name of “security”. In their paranoia, they can curb freedoms and allow the extremists to succeed in their political agenda by destroying the very ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity which is at the core of their democratic set ups or they can continue to remain tolerant, inclusive and respect civil rights of all their citizens, including Muslims.)
(Shehzad Poonawalla is a Lawyer-activist, Founder-Member of Policy Samvad www.PolicySamvad.com.