Muslim groups on both sides of the Atlantic have categorically condemned suicide attacks made in the name of Islam, leading us to ask why have they taken so long to address the issue and what needs to be done henceforth to build on this new momentum and craft a peaceful conclusion to the war on terrorism.
Following the London attacks, Britain’s largest Muslim groups issued a fatwa condemning suicide missions. Muslim groups in the United States and around the world have followed suit. As noted by Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, terrorism is not consistent with Islam, and “those who try to commit acts of terror in the name of Islam try to misinterpret and misuse certain issues in Islamic jurisprudence and have no authority or qualification except their anger.” Their anger is rooted in perceived injustices against Islam, such as the occupation of the Arabian peninsula, the disregard of Muslim civilian life throughout the war on Iraq and the perceived indifference to the Muslim plight in areas such as Kashmir, Chechnya, and throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has saturated public discourse, has left the impression that Islam and its followers are being targeted for annihilation. The reaction from the Muslim community has been to strike out in violence to defend its survival and restore its honor and restore dignity.
Often the rhetoric of radical imams, which is highly politicized and deeply rooted in prejudice, is cited as the true face of Islam. However, unlike Christianity and Judaism, in which religious leaders interpret the holy texts for the faithful, imams lead Friday prayer services. The Koran is instead interpreted by Islamic scholars, whom Muslims look to for guidance — thus instilling the recent fatwas with added significance.
As Mr. Awad said, “these legal scholars come to say that we are the authority on this subject, and we are the ones who determine how to interpret Islam. Therefore, (no) person in the globe can quote the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet to justify the harming and the killing of innocent people.” As noted by Salam al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “our children need to be very clear on these matters. There should be no confusion and no ambiguities. As we stand together tall as leaders of established Muslim-American organizations, this is a message to our future generations and to our children that this notion that suicide bombing or terrorism has any room in Islam is rejected outright.”
The Muslim world is in crisis, and issuing fatwas is not sufficient to address the problem. Practical action needs to be taken to save Islam from itself. Muslims living in Western societies need to revert to the Islamic tradition of “ilm”, that is, the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and turn away from ignorance, hatred, isolation and rage. Islamic society was not always thus. It once enjoyed a Golden Age, which prized rationality, moderation, and pursuit of the arts and sciences.
However, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and European colonization of Muslim lands, Islamic societies have fallen to tyrannical leadership and chaos, illiteracy, self-mutilation and violence. The Muslim world has fallen hopelessly behind as the rest of the world races ahead towards globalization. Unsettled by changes and not perceiving many options, Muslims are desperately holding onto obsolete traditions which no longer serve them and view Islam as a cultural, political identity as opposed to faith to draw one closer to God, to lead a righteous life.
While acts of terrorism are unforgivable, the West needs to understand the state of the Muslim world. Horror and anger are natural reactions, but the West could help by reaching out to help Islam in this time of need instead of exacerbating matters with more hateful rhetoric and violence, which will only incite further violence and despair.
Muslims, for their part, need to remember their great traditions and embrace education and scholarly pursuits, moderation, law and order in the tradition of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who resisted radicals and rose to power through constitutional means and respect for human rights and rule of law. The West needs to continue to support democratic impulses in the Muslim world. It needs to appreciate through the example of Jinnah that democratic tradition is an obtainable goal for Islamic societies and not give up hope. Further dialogue is not only possible but necessary between Muslim and Judeo-Christian societies to achieve peaceful resolution between them.
Susan Bradford is a producer for Middle East Broadcasting Center. Amb. Akbar Ahmed is former high commissioner of Pakistan and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies atAmerican University..