As terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, and, more recently, Melbourne, Australia, unfolded over the past weeks, we have all collapsed into bewildered dismay at the violence perpetrated. Within the horror of these events, it is clear that things have changed.
Regardless of this change, the now familiar denunciations began: about the need to interrogate Islam; about the failure to hold Muslims to account; about the failure to take on extremists and to have held too dearly to our liberal values of diversity and pluralism and the evils of political correctness.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s “enough is enough” heightened the intensity of these calls.
Illustration: Mountain People
I understand the sentiment. I understand the anger. I understand and agree that questions need to be asked. I do not agree that accusations and blame are necessary or can be meaningfully apportioned. It is not an honoring of lives lost.
Whether we are trying to find answers or, for some, search for reasons to voice anti-Muslim vitriol, censuring Islam results in the same questions being asked and the same accusations being made.
This ignores the fact that the violence being perpetrated today has changed from what it was. To stay narrowly focused on Islam impedes our understanding of this change.
We have come to increasingly define criminal acts as terrorism by the impact of the violence, when traditionally terrorists have been defined by their intention to change society and to force governments to act in specific ways by causing terror.
Terrorism by Muslims has traditionally been a type of guerrilla warfare when one side was greatly overwhelmed by the force and power of the other. It was a strategy of war. Muslim terrorism was never and, I would argue, still is not about furthering Islam.
It was almost always about land rights, theft of natural and economic resources, and global monetary policies that left entire populations in Muslim countries living in deprivation and destitution. Even when the rhetoric was Muslim, terrorism was almost always in pursuit of a nationalist cause.
Traditionally, terrorist organizations recruited soldiers in a way an army might — it sought out those who could be controlled and were disciplined. Those prone to indiscriminate acts of violence were excluded.
What has changed is that there are no longer soldier-like terrorists serving a perceived higher cause. Those being selected and aspiring to membership of the Islamic State group are an entirely different breed.
Rather than disciplined actors, today’s terrorists are either troubled men with a propensity for violence or opportunistic criminals. In no way can this be said to meaningfully represent the higher cause of defending Islam.
In the Australian context, Abdul Numan Haider and Farhad Jabar Kahlil — who both attacked police officers — appeared to be profoundly isolated young men consumed by inner turmoil.
Man Haron Monis — who was responsible for the Sydney siege — and Yacqub Khayre — who was responsible for a siege near Melbourne — both had a long history of violence, and Khayre struggled with drug addiction.
Many of the Australian men who traveled to Syria and Iraq have long histories of petty crime and drug trafficking or drug abuse.
It is not insignificant that both gangs and terrorist organizations seek to recruit disenfranchised young men and those in prison.
It is clear of Monis, because we have a lot of information about him, but it is also true of many of the men who traveled to Syria and Iraq, that their adoption of the Islamic State group’s cause was entirely opportunistic, a desire to make their violence — and themselves — matter.
This confusion of intention, the meshing of personal dysfunction and pain with broader political objectives, means that Muslim terrorism has now morphed into something else.
The Islamic State group’s strategy of attacking Western nations for not allowing it to invade and occupy two Muslim nations, speaks of how profoundly in flux Muslim participation in terrorism actually is. Western Muslims who traveled to Iraq and Syria had the express task of invading and occupying Muslim populations. The new hyper-violence practiced by the militant group was overwhelmingly practiced on indigenous Muslim populations who viewed Western Muslims as foreign invaders.
Given this state of flux, different questions need to be asked. It is no longer helpful to expect Islam to explain the act of violence we see both in Australia and in Muslim countries. This was always a practice in futility.
Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State had such a profoundly chaotic approach to Muslim text and doctrine that it was near impossible to comprehend how they arrived at their account of Islam. The only organizing principle to their reading of Islam seemed to be violence; almost everything of Islam was expelled from their reading.
Speaking about terrorism as if it is something about all Muslims not only displays breathtaking irrationality, but reveals that some people cannot see beyond their own prejudice. It denies that ordinary Muslims read their faith and hear no call to violence or destruction of any kind.
Perhaps part of the anger directed at Muslims is that Islam to date has not provided meaningful answers to why Muslims commit terrorism. None of this is designed to hide from the reality that some Muslims are carrying out terrorism.
However, the complexity and morphing nature of what is happening now needs to be acknowledged and we need to start looking at a different framework to understand our current reality.
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