“Then there came to our country a big army…It took me and walked me to the big sea and sold me into the hands of a Christian man.” This was written in 1831, in Arabic, in America. They’re words from an autobiography (The Life of Omar ibn Said), an African and Muslim, whose story is an anchor of Islam within American history. As the publisher’s book (in Ala Alryyess’s translation) description claims, “Islam” and “America” are not mutually exclusive terms.
But how could we understand this in today’s climate?
The bombing attack on concert-goers in Manchester, the murder of a bus-full of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the devastating attack in Afghanistan yesterday are just a few of the most recent in a long string of violent events inextricably linked with Islam by the Muslims whose interpretations and embodiment of the 1400-year-old religion justify these acts as jihad in the name of Allah. Included among those are not only the individual souls who carry out such atrocities, but their mass of devout brethren who approve.*
It is impossible, however, to divorce an evaluation of the rise in radical terrorism entirely from the role played by Western nations, including the U.S., inside territories Muslims have historically called home, for reasons having nothing to do with a response to 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction. It is unwise, in other words, to reject history — the submerged berg of glacial proportion whose tip is only the last few decades of conflict — if what we seek is understanding. The scope of this blog entry prevents me attempting to even begin a historical survey, per se, but permit me to work with an example.
Following the Manchester attack, a spontaneous memorial appeared in a town square made of the too-familiar assortment of flowers, toys, and notes from a grieving community. A video was shared yesterday on Twitter titled “Migrants Caught Stealing Flowers & Soft Toys from Manchester Bombing Memorial.” It is less than two minutes, and records a (presumably) Manchester man confronting two individuals about their having ‘nicked’ some flowers and a Smurf doll from the memorial. The Englishman is incensed, accuses them, curses them, and threatens them. They clearly do not speak English as a native language and seem confused, but the locals aren’t buying it as they berate and demand the men put the items back.
Aside from the fact that there appears no effort to determine if these men are actually ‘migrants’ (they could be tourists) and the pejorative cast to the whole migrant population by the headline, the video itself does not give an objective viewer a sense that these men were criminal or violent. On the contrary, the image is one of compliant, grown men, one of whom is happily clutching a child’s toy (a far cry from, say, a machete or suicide vest). If he/they had defiantly committed a venal act, why stick around, lounging on a city bench? This feels more like a case of innocent disrespect than thug thievery. Yet, the Englishman is outraged and reactive. The threaded comments in the Twitter posting were all affirmations of his outrage, and it’s understandable. When you’ve been attacked — when your children have died horribly — feelings of retribution are inflamed. You want to right the wrongs and see justice done. Problem is, where to start with so-called justice?
The civilized world generally relies on legislation and enforcement to make sure justice is done against those who would do harm to citizen populations, but sometimes such systems fail or become impotent. Not being equipped with omniscient stability, human systems are also prone to inevitably narrow and self-interested definitions and application of justice which are bound to fail someone, somewhere, sometime, including not only their own “selves” but, especially, the designated “others.” It’s reasonable to say, I think, that for many in the UK (and other western nations), there is a growing sense of government failures in this regard. But if we can sympathize with an Englishman for lashing out at someone he perceives (at very least symbolically) to be similar to his (community’s) predator, then how can we not acknowledge as a legitimate reflex, this same human impulse among Muslims, whose countries — men, women, and children — have been decimated by violent, western-backed invasions?
Let me be clear. I am not blaming the West for, or legitimizing, terrorism. But if we refuse to remember interventions, military and non-military, of the West in the Muslim world as part of any honest assessment of current dynamics, then we resign ourselves and our future generations to more of the same. We should begin to believe those who have consistently explained and defended their violence against us as blowback for our own coups, occupation, bombs, and guns against them. Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, blamed his deadly attack at Pulse nightclub on the U.S. continuing to bomb “his” country (his dad is from Afghanistan). But he is not the only one, and if you are interested, make a genuine effort to search how often this is used to justify terror and you will be met with ample testimony.
A question this begs is whether if the West were to stop interventions, would offensive jihad also decline? “But, 9/11,” you might argue — “was before Iraq and Afghanistan.” Except, it wasn’t. Many of us forget that Operation Desert Storm launched in Iraq in 1990 and the U.S. continued, both crushing sanctions and destructive military presence, in that country without stop until we went back (under false pretext) for Shock & Awe in 2001 and, still, remain. The foment of resentment among Afghanistan-based terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda has been stoked by what is considered an attack on the Muslim world by our foreign policy. Bill Clinton’s Sec’y of State Madeline Albright claimed that the loss of 500,000 children in Iraq was a price “worth” paying for “it.” What was “it,” exactly? And what feelings of retribution did “it” implant for Muslims, feelings which are met with a promise of recompense and divine reward through the prescription of jihad?
There is a problem with Islam. The religion’s history and texts do permit, even promote, a violent doctrine of domination in pursuit of a utopian world for Allah. The West has not fully appreciated the dangers of that project or the risks of supplying it with fuel by taking for granted that the Muslim-majority continents of the world upon which we operate will simply continue capitulating to economic and military subordination. In Islam, “submission” has a discrete meaning which does not involve giving up. But next to risk is opportunity, and the numbers of Muslims who do not approve of terrorism, who embody and envision coexistence are significant. It is they with whom all non-Muslims should be working — diligently and hopefully — to counter dubious interpretations and enactments of their history and traditions that will only ensure more sorrow and destruction on all sides.
A pendulum swing to anti-Muslim sentiment is not the answer. Neither is naively trusting all Muslims or Islamic organizations the answer. Hard as it is, a middle path on this global problem really is the only sensible path. On the one hand, we must be wary of Shari’ah-promoting Muslim voices, posing as champions of the marginalized (e.g. Linda Sarsour), who consider the tenets of that law to be superior to all others (including the Constitution), which law far pre-dates U.S. foreign policy and is, itself, intrinsically unacceptable as a standard for anything but an Islamic theocracy. However, we should also learn to work with fellow Americans who are also Muslim and ensure their constitutional freedoms to worship in this country.
There’s been a knee-jerk reaction from some corners of the conservative wing to news from the DOJ about the New Jersey city who recently settled a case with local Muslims over denial of permission to build a mosque on their 4-acre parcel. First of all, it is a case that Obama’s (not Trump’s) DOJ joined before Trump was elected. Second, it is a settlement — a much wiser resolution than spending more on extended litigation. Third, the city is not being “required” to build the mosque. Fourth, the agreement includes the municipality’s agreement to diversity and inclusion training. Hopefully, such training will mention Omar ibn Said and that Muslims have been in America for a long time, and mention the West’s damaging engagements with Muslims over time. And hopefully, it will also acknowledge the legitimate concerns of non-Muslim community members about the real threat of Islamicism. And hopefully, it will also provide tools for recognizing how to tell the difference between the genuine threats and the peaceful neighbors. If we are to reconcile that “Islam” and “America” are not mutually exclusive terms, it is this middle path where they can meet.
* The site link here is not an endorsement for the source, rather is provided for the page’s efficient collection of links to studies on Muslim attitudes toward terrorism. One should note that in many cases, the percentage of Muslims who do not approve are far greater than those who do, which points to hope and opportunity for more robust efforts to work together.