Thursday, May 30, 2013

The role of religion, the definition of terrorism – beware the original thinkers

Following a public beheading on a quiet London street, the ‘’terrorism’’ debate has once again assumed center stage.

As I see it, this discussion is taking place under two different orbits. 

The first concerns the role or non-role of Islam in motivating this and other terrorist attacks.

Today, some argue that in the context of terrorism, the very mention of Islam is unacceptable. These commentators claim that in order to confront terrorism, we must disconnect religion from our consideration of the terrorist identity. They assert that to do otherwise is to commit the cardinal sin of analysis – allowing emotion and simplicity to drive observations against pure logic. But these postulates are wrong. Their obfuscation isn't an act of intellectual boldness, it's political correctness cloaked under a banner of false original thinking.

Do we really believe that Hizballah is a secular actor? Or that the jurisprudence of Sayyid Qutb played no role in shaping the political identity of the Muslim Brotherhood (you know, the group that now rules Egypt)? Or that Catholicism wasn’t important to the IRA? Or that the KKK burnt crosses just because they liked that shape? Give me a break. Yes, from most perspectives, extremists abuse the ideological tenets of the faiths to which they claim allegiance. However, by restricting our conceptions of the political faces of religious faith, we impose an intrinsic limitation upon our broader understandings of terrorism. This is the philosophical process of the dark ages.

Facing the rise of both populist and political anti-Islamic groups, it’s easy to understand why Muslims fear the real hand of prejudice. Yet the counter to this abuse doesn’t reside with sensitized debate. Instead, in order to address prejudice, we must re-frame the debate towards the greater truths. The truth, for example, that the real representatives of Islam are not those who murder with gleeful indistinction, but rather those who live for tolerance and die for freedom.

Next, there’s the question of terrorism as a term.

Here, writers like Glenn Greenwald are arguing that terrorism is an explicitly subjective and therefore implicitly worthless word. But again, for me at least, this is an intellectually weak argument. There’s a clear distinction between those who behead an unarmed man and those who wage war to attack oppressive enemies. Ignored by Greenwald and Moore is the truth of Afghanistan and Iraq. That from the early years of the US and British engagement in those countries, American and British military personnel were fighting and dying to support foundations of democratic governance. Yes, this democracy was (and is) far from perfect. Yes, civilians were killed. Yes, on a few occasions horrific war crimes did occur. But many civilians were undoubtedly saved. In the absence of American and British soldiers, Iraq would be a sectarian slaughterhouse (Iraq’s present difficulties providing terrible evidence to that effect) and Afghanistan would remain a citadel of gross inhumanity. Describing US and British foreign policy as the cause or the companion to terrorism is the ultimate endorsement of a blinding hypocrisy. It implies that we were responsible for al-Zarqawi’s bomb factories, torture chambers and beheadings. It's the equivalent of blaming bodyguards for assassins. It is, in short, morally repugnant and intellectually absurd.

It’s true, our discourse on terrorism and religion is often overly simplistic. But we won’t resolve this challenge with qualified speech or false moral equivalency. Such a course will excuse the extremist whilst disrupting our grasp of critical and complex issues.

For links to some of my other terrorism focused analysis, please click here.

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