Stoning your own glass house

Stoning your own glass house

Herald News Op-Ed
By AREF ASSAF

It is a fact that more suicide bombings by Muslim terrorists have killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. It is this realization, I believe, that may soon emerge as the rallying point for most Muslims who oppose suicide bombings. It should also send a wake-up call not only to Christians, but also to Muslims worldwide that the extremism of al-Qaida is an equal opportunity murderer. To them, if an innocent Muslim dies in these horrific attacks, he dies a martyr; if a Christian dies, he dies an infidel not worthy of sorrow or compassion.

While the entire world must respond to suicide bombings, Muslims must particularly confront it not only because they are its primary victims, but because their entire cultural and religious traditions are being castigated.

It is no longer terrorism or suicide bombings, but Islamic terrorism and Islamic suicide bombings. The association, deliberate or haphazard, puts Islam and true Muslims on the defensive as they attempt to disavow and disassociate themselves from the wrath of terrorism. Consequently, it remains unacceptable that Muslims should rest until there emerges a new and all-encompassing movement, which teaches and enforces the sanctity of life and does not glorify and legitimize suicide bombings or any method used to inflict harm and bring death onto innocent people. This movement must be matched by a concrete effort to deal with the challenges of poverty, democracy, and modernity.

It must also not underestimate the illegality and immorality of occupation, corruption and denial of human rights. Resistance to these fronts is enshrined in all human laws, covenants, and religions. The ultimate question for all to ask is whether an immoral act as deliberate and systematic as the Israeli occupation of Palestine or the American occupation of Iraq must be met with similarly immoral acts in the form of suicide bombings that also needlessly take the lives of innocent people and force the hollow argument of moral equivalency between victim and victimizer.

But why do Muslims commit suicide bombings? It is important to note first that suicide, whether for political or psychological reasons, is strictly forbidden in Islam. Additionally, many religious authorities have repeatedly issued religious rulings, or fatwa, which unambiguously disallow and forbid suicide bombings for any reason.

Muslims cannot claim to have invented modern suicide bombings. It is also important to note that there are many different forms of Islam, and as such, no one specific remedy can be prescribed to cure the economic and political ills of the diverse cultures and unique experience of the different Muslim countries.

Violence in the name of Islam cannot be attributed to one single, unambiguous root cause. Causes, motives and objectives are plural and constantly shifting. This kind of terrorism stands, I believe, at the nexus of four sociopolitical and psychological factors whose role and influence varies in each case.

Combined, the emotional consequences of these factors form a highly combustible mix of despair, anger, frustration and shame. Identifying the root causes of terrorism is by no means an attempt to justify it. But if we truly desire to end terrorism, then we must address and find appropriate responses to the causes, even though we do not have to accept the justifications for such acts.

The first factor, the breakdown of traditional religious culture, leads to an existential malaise, which leaves the individual desperately searching for meaning in life and susceptible to extremist ideologies that can appear an eruption of truth into a psychological wilderness. The multifarious and fragmentary religious revival of recent decades is at once an attempt to overcome this spiritual disintegration and a consequence of that same process.

The second factor, western and particularly U.S. foreign policies, have caused deep anger in the Middle East: in particular, the United States’ almost unconditional support for Israel, its long-term support for autocratic stability over the potential risks of democracy, and its misconceived invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

History has repeatedly shown that an external threat and foreign occupation can transform a peaceful, moderate Islamic tradition into the confrontational “jihadist” alternative.

The third factor, repression of political dissent and stifling of economic opportunity by rulers in the region itself, is provoking levels of anger and frustration that for many people approach boiling point.

Osama bin Laden’s own statements clearly show his immense feelings of disgust and betrayal of what he sees as a fatally corrupt and self-serving Saudi ruling family. The rallying cry of a radical religious reformism provides a further tool to mobilize the disenchanted and marginalized.

The fourth factor in the rise of Islamist extremism and violence is the cultural dimension, which includes influences like the strong tradition of honor, especially in the Middle East.

For many people, simply being host to foreign forces on home soil is an intolerable affront to their integrity and must be resisted by any means necessary.

Another aspect of this is the frustration generated by the persistence of traditional customs regarding sex and marriage in a globalized world where the alternative approaches to these issues are so evident on satellite TV and the Internet.

All these factors provide a convincing argument that terrorism by Muslims indeed has more to do with political aspirations than with religion.

Islam and the West can coexist and their survival is mutually inclusive. As Muslims begin to fervently reassess their moral and practical stands vis-à-vis terrorism, the West must offer all its help to these feeble efforts and embark on a campaign to address the outstanding issues that preclude a more harmonious relationship between the followers of Islam and other religions.

The process of reassessment may have just started. The release of the award-winning movie “Paradise Now” is thrusting the entire issue of terrorism versus legitimate resistance center stage amongst many Arab and Muslim intellectuals, community leaders and average people. The Palestinian movie masterfully enjoins the audience into the mindset of those about to engage in a suicide attack only to conclude that life is worth preserving and no good cause can justify suicide bombings.

Although uttered in an entirely different context, the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King seem eerily prescient as the world attempts to understand and respond to the curse of suicide bombings: “If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, based in Paterson. Reach him at www.americanarabforum.org

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