Observer: The Violence that lies in every ideology
The violence that lies in every ideology
Like most beliefs, Islam is a religion of peace that has to accept that it can also breed terror
The two young men, both clean-cut in neat trousers and well-ironed shirts, both studying computer science at a university in Pakistan, their homeland, have, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same views about their religion and its relation to the events of 7 July. 'Islam is a religion of peace and no one who does this is a true Muslim,' they say.
Then they start talking about civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq: 'Every action has a reaction. An action against Muslims causes a reaction by Muslims such as this. This is not unjustified.' There is a pause as we all consider the patent contradiction in their responses. 'Anyway,' they say almost together, 'it was probably the Americans or the Israelis.'
Such ludicrous conspiracy theories surfaced after 11 September and, on the evidence of the letters pages of many newspapers in the Middle East and south-west Asia, have once again. Quite apart from the xenophobia and racism, such ideas are rooted in a simple evasion. The unpleasant truth is that there are considerable elements within Islam that are very useful to violent militants. As a result, Islam is an integral part of the threat we now face. This is difficult for a non-Muslim to state, and leaves me open to accusations of Islamophobia, but is true. And it needs to be admitted and discussed, not swept under a carpet by a politically correct broom.
It is interesting to compare the statements of many of our politicians and community leaders with those of opinion-makers overseas. I am writing this in Pakistan, the world's second biggest Islamic nation. Alongside the letters implying that 7/7 was the work of Mossad, there have been a number of articles which contrast starkly with the continuous mantra heard so often recently.
'It is no use saying that Islam is a religion of peace or that there is a foul plot afoot to blacken its name when from Bali to Madrid to London it is Muslims who are behind acts of terrorism,' said Ayaz Amir in Dawn, a Karachi newspaper. 'To outsiders, a religion is known by the fruits it produces and if the present brand of terrorism has a Muslim substance it becomes difficult to sell the true meaning of Islam.' President Pervez Musharraf, the ruler of Pakistan, made exactly the same point in the summer of 2001. 'How does the world see us?' he asked. 'As hypocrites and terrorists.'
Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, but it is a religion of many other things, too. Compare the following two quotes from the Koran: 'There shall be no compulsion in religion' and: 'Slay the unbeliever ... wherever you find him.' Throughout its existence, Islam has evolved into a repository of a vast range of different resources, allowing its texts to be interpreted, sampled and deployed in myriad ways. When the Muslims were a persecuted minority in 7th-century Mecca, the stress lay on tolerance and pluralism.
When the Abbassid and Ummayad empires went to war a few centuries later, the more belligerent elements within the Koran provided justification for what were basically campaigns for land and booty. When Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in 1258, Ibn Taimiya, a radical thinker often quoted by today's extremists, called on the world's Muslims to go 'back to basics' to restore their former strength.
The paradigm of Mohammed the prophet and his vastly outnumbered band of men triumphing over Evil has provided Muslims with succour and strength throughout the ages. This has particularly been the case when a powerful external threat has developed, such as when the West aggressively and violently conquered and colonised pretty much the entire Islamic world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The very practical nature of Islam, a religion that enjoins the faithful to act in the world to change it, is also a boon to activists, good and bad, as does its emphasis on public demonstration of faith. The sight of rows of believers facing Mecca to answer the call to prayer often moves me, an atheist, deeply. Yet the Arabic word for martyr - and currently suicide bomber - comes from the same linguistic stem as the word for bearing witness.
The mindset of the Leeds suicide bombers is clear. They saw themselves not as British citizens but as defenders of a global Muslim community threatened by an aggressive and brutal foe. They felt themselves to be at war. Their enemy was the whole construct that is Western modernity, with all its power, temptations and confidence. Their victims were not civilians, but enemy combatants. Identity issues, frustration, anger, a sense of injustice, alienation ... all may have motivated the four bombers. But it was resources within Islam that underpinned their sense that their acts were justified.
Yet before we embark on a round of religious finger-pointing, we should note that all major faiths are the same. They can all offer help for different needs and agendas. Think of the muscular Christianity of imperialist, Victorian Britain (or, indeed, of contemporary America) or Hinduism's lunatic fringe. In Sri Lanka, even smiley, happy Buddhism has exacerbated one of the most vicious civil conflicts of our time.
In the Lebanese war of the early Eighties, more than 70 per cent of the suicide bombers came from Christian secular groups. And, before being outraged by the more belligerent quotes from the Koran, we should examine the words of many hymns currently sung in British schools, considerable portions of the Old Testament or the religious references made by extreme Israeli settlers. The English word 'martyr' derives from the word for witness, too, except that it is the Greek rather than the Arabic word. We have our own tradition of spectacular demonstrations of faith.
The logic can be extended to secular religions. Marxism, which had as many prophets, dogmas, rituals and myths as any more traditional faith, provided a deterministic explanation for all the wrongs in the world and set out a clear and cogent programme of action for how to set it right. Radical Islam does something similar. When we analysed the leftist violence of the Seventies or Eighties, we neither parroted that Marxist thought was 'dedicated to the human happiness and peace', though it theoretically was, nor did we dismiss it as inherently evil and the product of a diseased civilisation or race. We recognised that within leftist thought, there were elements that, if deployed properly, facilitated violent action and, if committed to non-violent means, discussed how best to counter them.
The debate over these issues has been continuing since Mohammed first began preaching his essential message of justice and social reform in the 7th century. The best thing non-Muslims can do is to avoid doing anything that makes the moderates' job harder, such as invading Muslim countries on what turn out to be completely spurious pretexts or making inflammatory Islamophobic comments. We also need to recognise the way our own faiths and ideologies can lead to violent action.
But Muslims need to recognise this as well. It needs to be said, loud and clear, that it was not the CIA or Mossad who brought down the Twin Towers and bombed the tube but Muslims. We need to be clear that, like any faith, Islam is a religion of peace - and sometimes of violence.