MELBOURNE, Australia -- Since the tragic events of 9/11, millions of words have been written attempting to understand and explain the causes of Muslim terrorism and the extremist ideologies that underpin it. Many have suggested that terrorism is simply a reaction to social injustice, whereas others have argued that terrorism is the natural result of certain ideological conditions.
The truth lies somewhere in between. An examination of Muslim extremism from the early period of Islam till now shows that it manifests almost exclusively in environments that are unstable: whether due to political, social, or economic factors. Extremist thoughts appear in reaction to the belief -- whether in reality or perception -- that something is wrong.
However, it would be intellectually dishonest to explain away the terrorism of Muslims as being merely a reactionary impulse to social and political injustices. Not everyone born into an environment of civil unrest or socioeconomic disadvantage becomes a terrorist.
Rather, the fundamental force that propels a Muslim toward extremism and terrorism is ignorance and misguidance. While most Islamic terrorism is a reaction to environmental conditions, it is also always accompanied by an ignorance of the Islamic religion and a detachment from the its scholars.
The war on terror is therefore a war on ignorance and misguidance, as much as it is a military war against the terrorists themselves. While the United States has assembled its natural allies, such as Australia and Britain, in prosecuting its military campaigns against its perceived enemies, it has failed to recognize its natural allies in the intellectual struggle against terrorism.
If the cause is ideological, then it stands to reason that those most well-equipped to address the root causes of terrorism and extremism are the Islamic scholars themselves and the charitable organizations that support them. Rather than engaging with the scholars of the Islamic world, the U.S. has fallen prey to the misconception that fundamentalism equates with extremism; that fundamentalism is the ideological basis for the type of terrorism we witnessed on 9/11.
The reality is that long before U.S. President George W. Bush declared war on terror, Saudi Arabian scholars had been waging their own war against terrorism and extremism; refuting and debunking the ideas that underpin contemporary extremist and terrorist movements.
Former Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ibn Baz, who died in 1999, was of the opinion that hijacking airplanes was "an extremely great crime" and that it was obligatory on governments and scholars alike "to exert themselves as much as possible in ending this evil." Ibn Baz also condemned the Jamaa'atul-Jihaad, a terrorist group, saying "they are to be cut off from, and the people are to be warned against their evil. Since they are a fitnah (tribulation) and are harmful to the Muslims, and they are the brothers of Satan."
Last April 21, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz, the present grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, stated that suicide bombings "have no basis in the Shariah" and that hijacking planes and frightening passengers are also against Islam's holy law. Six days after the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, he described the terrorist acts as "nothing but oppression and tyranny," adding the hope that "Muslim scholars should explain . . . that the religion of Islam does not endorse such acts."
These denunciations of terror and extremism are not examples of sophistry as part of some well-engineered PR campaign; they were denunciations in Arabic, issued to a mostly-Arabic audience and based purely on scriptural evidences. These denunciations were not communicated to the Muslim world via CNN or Fox, but via the Islamic charities such as al-Haramain Foundation.
However, rather than engaging these scholars and the Islamic charities that disseminate their message, some in the West have included them in an overly broad and ill-defined war on terrorism. Such a misguided approach guarantees that while the U.S. may score some military or legal victories in the short term, it will ultimately lose the war. In some of the more totalitarian Muslim societies, where terrorism and extremism finds its most fertile ground, there is an inherent distrust of the government. The scholars and charitable institutions are the most trusted and revered entities in the society. By waging an undeclared war against them, the U.S. is guaranteeing that this war, regardless of the legitimacy of the cause, will be perceived by the Muslims as a war against Islam; a thinly veiled attempt to impose a foreign interpretation of Islam upon the world's one billion Muslims.
The U.S. government must therefore adopt a more nuanced approach to the Muslim world that recognizes the distinction between fundamentalism and extremism. It must also recognize that battles for self-determination in places such as Chechnya are not equivalent to wanton attacks on innocents such as 9/11; that those who argue for justice for the Palestinians do not by necessity argue for the destruction of the Western world; and that charities whose work in war-torn environments forces them into contact with the warring parties do not necessarily subscribe to their ideals and objectives.
As the U.S. Congress has sought advice from a range of special interest groups in its recent hearings on Saudi Arabia, it should remember that the enemy of its enemy is not always its friend; likewise, as the U.S. pursues its quixotic war against Islamic fundamentalism, it should remember that sometimes your assumed enemy is really your friend.
Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee (AMPAC). He can be contacted at email@example.com
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