The Lure of Radicalism Amongst Muslim Youth
Why is it that a few militant clerics are so popular among some American Muslims? I was asked by an academic at a recent luncheon.
After all, besides being so extreme in their message, don’t most of them lack the scholarly credentials of the many mainstream clerics who oppose their militancy?
The questioner was a highly educated person, someone who had a deep understanding of Islamic theology. He also understood quite well the existence of significant variations in the interpretation and understanding of religious texts. He was one of those who had no problem looking past the right-wing Islamophobic rhetoric of Fox News and Robert Spencer et al., yet was still confused as to why second-generation American and British Muslims would find a message of extremism and militancy so appealing.
He correctly pointed out that the clerics espousing militancy were not only in the minority, but were also not as well-trained in the classical sciences as were clerics belonging to the opposing camp. Why then, were their voices so influential?
This academic at the luncheon was not the only one struggling with the question. A recent congressional hearing also tackled this same issue. And of course, this was not the first time that I, myself, had to confront this very question. It was especially driven home after someone with whom I had only briefly interacted Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the now infamous “underwear bomber” turned radical and tried to blow up innocent men, women and children.
Umar’s transformation provides an excellent case-study that can and should be studied further to shed light on the question of radicalism, and this short essay makes a first, humble attempt at doing just that.
I remember Umar as a shy introvert who attended an intensive retreat, the IlmSummit sponsored by Al-Maghrib Institute in Houston, TX, in the summer of 2008. I was among ten instructors at that retreat.
Umar was in fact so quiet and shy that I almost felt obliged to engage him in small talk, asking him mundane questions about where he lived and what he was studying. And that was about the extent of my interaction with him. Never once did he raise his hand in class to ask a question, or seek any advice, or share any concerns, or confront me on any subject.
It appears that the lack of communication or socializing was not limited to the two of us. Rather, it seems that other students at the retreat had the same experience; they didn’t remember anything significant about him except his nonchalant, quiet presence.
In fact, my encounter with him had been so brief and dull, that when I saw his pictures being paraded on every website and news magazine cover in December of 2009, I didn’t even recognize him until someone alerted me via email that this was the same Umar who had been at the AlMaghrib retreat. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that someone as shy and socially introverted as Umar would have attempted to blow up a plane by stuffing his underwear with explosives!
So, what happened?
From news accounts and our own documentation, we know that the AlMaghrib retreat was his last AlMaghrib course or seminar. We also know that he left England for a Middle Eastern country (where he remained for a few months), and eventually made his way to Yemen, where he interacted with an American-born cleric whose vision of Islam was completely at odds with our own. It was this cleric who apparently inspired him to open a new chapter in his life, and who brainwashed this 19-year old introvert into believing that murdering two hundred innocent people, including many women and children (some of them even fellow Muslims), would somehow bring him closer to his Lord and earn him reward on Judgment Day.
Why did Umar AbdulMutallab, a college-educated young man with a bright future ahead of him, reject the authority and guidance of authentic orthodox Islam, and allow himself to be lured into performing such a destructive and naïve act in the process destroying his own life and possibly that of many others? After all, hadn’t he interacted with us (instructors and students of knowledge) and lived with us for two full weeks? Hadn’t he observed our level of scholarship, our academic grasp of the religion, and our emphatic opposition to irrational and counterproductive militancy?
Umar might have been a social introvert, but he was clearly not unintelligent. What was it in the message of this Yemeni-American that had caused him to ignore the message and methodology of the many teachers that he interacted with at the AlMaghrib retreat?
Some of what you are about to read might not be ground-breaking, but other points that I mention will raise a few eyebrows and perhaps even anger some. That is to be expected, and I do not expect everyone to agree with everything that I write. The point of this article (as is typically my main intention when writing such pieces) is to jump-start the discussion, and to allow for frank dialogue among all parties.
Let’s get to the answer then. It is not rocket science, nor does it require expertise in human psychology. Rather, it is quite simple. There is an external factor, and an internal factor, and when these two factors are coupled together, the result is fertile breeding ground for extremist ideas.
The external factor is an almost total absence of voices from within mainstream Islam (of all varieties: Sufis, Salafis, Deobandis, etc.) that speak to and address the concerns and issues that resonate with the Muslims most prone to extremism. When the only voices that address issues of concern are the voices of radical militant jihadis, it is only natural that young and impressionable minds will gravitate to these voices. From the perspective of these disaffected youth, since the mainstream clerics aren’t discussing relevant issues, or involved in the discourses that concern them, how then can they be turned to for guidance?
The internal factor is a very warped understanding of Islamic texts and doctrines, and a romanticized view of Islamic history. It is only with such a skewed and idealistic vision that a Muslim can allow radical voices to bypass simple common sense and a pure Islamic heart, filtering all the way to his inner psyche.
Let us discuss both of these issues in more detail:
The External Factor
The issues and concerns that are fogging the minds of many Muslims (and all those who turn to radicalism) center around the present state of the Ummah, and in particular the political and social struggles that many Muslims around the world are facing. These struggles are significantly complicated (directly or indirectly) by policies put into place by our own American government (and, to a lesser extent, other Western countries). Before 9/11, most of the grievances were solely linked to the Palestinian question, and it was for this reason that radicalization and militant tendencies during that time-frame amongst Western Muslims were almost non-existent (it is not a coincidence that all those who planned and aided in the 9/11 attacks were foreigners).
Post 9/11, our government reacted in ways that has added infinitely more fuel to the fire of extremism (and hence, the rise in radicalism amongst our own Western youth). From the illegal invasion of Iraq to the foolish military endeavors in Afghanistan, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, from Aafia Siddiqui to Ali al-Timimi, from the ‘War on Terror‘ to the ‘Patriot Act’, it became easier to convince an impressionable mind into accepting the West versus Islam paradigm (as if these two entities can be surgically and neatly delineated, separated and defined).
And instead of such incidents abating with time, every few days a new headline in some newspaper conveys yet another story proving the false paradigm: an American drone missile strike kills a few dozen anonymous, faceless tribe-members in Pakistan, or ever-expanding Israeli settlements steal more land from Palestinians, or a new torture scandal involving Muslim prisoners is leaked, or another military scandal involving the killing of innocent Muslim civilians is exposed. These incidents are a direct or indirect result of either our own American military operations, or our tax-supported military aid, or our turning a blind eye to specific actions of our allies via the use of our veto power in the UN Security Council.
As if such misguided foreign action was not sufficient to enrage a proud young Muslim man, he must also face the constant media onslaught that seeks to portray him and his faith as inherently evil and dangerous. He hears of his friends and families or other Muslims being routinely harassed, humiliated and intimidated at airports and border-crossings, and “randomly” selected for additional screening and questioning. Of course, he too has his own first-hand discriminatory experiences.
His faith attacked on national airwaves, his religiosity treated with suspicion, his co-religionists around the world killed, and his activist brothers and sisters in Western lands jailed, it is no surprise that our young and impressionable Muslim teenager struggles to make sense of all of this.
He wants someone to defend his faith and speak up on behalf of the oppressed. He wishes to hear fiery and angry rhetoric, charging the “free and democratic”nations with hypocrisy, double standards, and the flouting of human rights. It is obvious to him that his government is primarily concerned with acquisition of oil and the control of natural resources, even if that results in the loss of Muslim blood. He clearly sees our politicians pandering more to the interests of corporate sponsors and special-interest donors than to the interests of their own fellow citizens. So, naturally, as a lay-Muslim, he looks to the scholars of his religion, seeking to find solace in angry tirades and verbal lashings against our politicians, leaders, media pundits, and law enforcement agencies who are, in his view, the root cause of all of this anger and terror in the first place.
Instead, all he hears at his local mosque, assuming he is fortunate enough to live in an area where the Imam speaks English, are khutbahs that have no political relevance whatsoever. Finding nothing of significance at a local level, he then looks to more influential scholars: famous national clerics and da`ees, staple invitees to any major Islamic conference. Alas, all he hears them do is to regularly criticize his side: the victims in his eyes. Those who stand up to defend the innocent and fight against the real terrorists “from his perspective” are described as “Muslim terrorists.” Instead of supporting the cause of the weak and oppressed, these clerics side with the oppressors, routinely dissociating themselves from their own, giving spectacle fatwas against violence even as they ignore state-sponsored terrorism and what he perceives as the “greater violence.”
Over time, as acts of violence and terror increase in Muslims lands, and as local scholars only increase in their denunciation of “Muslim extremism,” this young man becomes even more disillusioned with these clerics. In his eyes, these Western scholars, no matter how popular among the masses, are nothing more than sell-outs: government-appeasing servile acquiescing cowards who are more concerned about their own safety and popularity than the safety and comfort of their persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
“Enough of criticizing us! Who speaks up to defend them?” he demands. “Where is the condemnation of our own Western nations, our own policies and our own governments, when they engage in acts of violence, drone bombings, mass-killings, torture, secret renditions and sham trials? Why is such activity not described as terroris, is it not also targeting the innocent? Or is ‘terrorism’ only when a Muslim commits such acts?”
Alas, the token condemnation against foreign policy that does occasionally come from the mouths of these ‘mainstream’ clerics is too shallow for his liking, too weak to satiate his own anger, too lost in the convoluted language and footnotes of their larger message. He is always reminded of the words of Malcolm X and the distinction that Malcolm drew between the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’ and he cannot help but feel that these mainstream scholars are far too entrenched with the powers-that-be to stand up against them.
Not hearing anything from his local or national scholars in the physical world around him, he scours the virtual world instead, looking on the net for voices that will speak to his concerns and address his anger. And in this virtual world, he stumbles across chat-rooms and forums where, for the first time, he finds people who see the world his way. These people, aided by the anonymity of the internet and empowered by the false bravado that only a fake alias can give, finally make our young man feel home, and that he was right all along in his assessment.
It is on these forums that he finds people who list nothing but the political faults of the Western world. It is on these forums where little children pretend to be brave men who can take on the ‘big bad wolf.’ And it is on these forums that he is introduced to ‘clerics who speak the truth’ and ‘fear none amongst men’, of legendary giants that even America fears and will do anything to silence (even if that means sending squads of assassins to murder one of their own citizens without trial). Whereas previously he had trouble finding anyone who would voice his view of the world, here, all the voices on these forums seem to be echoing the same message, spoken from the mouths of militants and circulated online by their testosterone-filled teenage cheerleaders.
And in this worldview espoused by these militants, our young man finds great comfort and solace. According to the militants, every fault in the whole world emanates not from within, but from without. The Muslims are never to blame for anything. It is always the ‘West,’ and in particular ‘Amrika’.
Local persecution of scholars in Muslim lands? ‘Amrika,’ because they were the ones who propped up the kings, presidents and emirs in the Muslim world in the first place. Bombings that kill innocent Muslims in the streets of Baghdad, or the mosques of Karachi, or the shrines of Najaf? ‘Amrika,’ through the use of false-flag operations conducted by American agents, or as a result of the wider chaos originally caused by once again, ‘Amrik’. The awful state of the economy in Muslim lands? You guessed it, ‘Amrika’, via the use of loans that the American-controlled IMF gave out and the economic policies that America put in place.
It is a comforting vision, especially for a young teenager: a simple and self-serving view that reclaims the honor of his faith while laying blame on the feet of others. “It’s not our fault at all! We are always oppressed, always victimized, it’s all America’s fault,” he says to himself over and over again. And on the forums that he frequents, the constant interactions with twenty other kids from around the world, some writing secretly from their parent’s basement, some from their own ‘Star-Wars’ posters-lined bedrooms, this chatter begins to sound like the representative voice of the entire Muslim world.
This young ‘victim’ does not realize that the ‘victim-mentality’ is not a motif of the Quran, nor do we find it ever verbalized in the seerah of our beloved Prophet. It is not a dignified mentality, and even if there are elements of truth in some portions of it, such an attitude does not befit a believer who believes in an All-Mighty Being who Hears and Sees all. Our Prophet suffered more at the hands of his detractors than any Muslim in our time, yet he maintained a moral dignity and an internal courage that would put to shame the entire paradigm of victim-mentality that these radicals espouse.
The Internal Factors
With regards to the internal factors, it is not likely that a mind well-grounded in authentic texts and traditions will gravitate towards acts of terrorism. Thus, it is no coincidence that one will be hard-pressed to find senior clerics, of any theological persuasion, who justify flying planes into building or strapping bombs onto one’s body in order to blow up innocent civilians.
A radical’s mind could only have been exposed to cherry-picked religious texts along with their misinterpretations; typically verses from Surah al-Anfal and Surah al-Tawba (both of which were revealed in specific historic situations very different from our own). Such a mind is only versed in Prophetic traditions of a military nature, sheered of their context and shown in isolation from many other traditions that would help paint a more nuanced view.
However, these are not the only verses and ahadith (the Prophetic traditions) pertaining to the topic of jihad. Many other verses, especially those that seem to conflict with their warped understanding of Surah al-Anfal and Tawba, are simply dismissed as belonging to the ‘Makkan’ phase of revelation. Many Prophetic traditions which would show that military action is not the only way to fight for the truth are simply bypassed or ignored. For every evidence that they quote, there is an almost surreal attempt to isolate that one verse or hadith from the entire corpus of Islamic texts and law. For these militants, it is as if each verse they cherry-pick was actually revealed for their immediate benefit. For them, it is as if every hadith that they quote was stated by the Prophet directly to them and in support of their world-view. Only a mind completely bereft from the necessary hermeneutical tools of usul al-fiqh (the procedure of deriving laws) and maqasid al-Shariah (understanding the goals of Islamic Law) can be so shallow.
With regards to doctrines, a simplistic, black-and-white understanding of wala wa-l-bara is propagated by the extremists; one that the intellectually-challenged (of the ilk of George W. Bush) would have absolutely no difficulty understanding. “You’re either with us or against us”, both Bush and Awlaki pontificate.
Yet, the real world that we live in is not as black and white as these Manichean camps would like it to be. A clear and simple argument can be made that on each and every issue, we should stand with the truth, regardless of which side that truth is on. And it is not uncommon that this truth is not on one side, but somewhere in between.
In the context of the very verses that many militants use to justify their black-and-white understandings of wala wa-l-bara, one verse (8:72) specifically mentions that even if Muslims under attack ask for help, and reach out to you based on religious loyalties, you are not obliged to help them if that help will compromise your political alliances. Extrapolating from this, one can state that while American Muslims are with the Palestinians, Iraqis and Kashmiris in wanting freedom, safety and security for them, at the same time we cannot help them militarily if that help will compromise our own safety and the safety of our families and communities, or if such help would contradict our political alliances. We can still help our suffering brethren in many other ways, for example, by educating our fellow countrymen regarding the dismal plight of these people and how our own government has been, many times, complicit in perpetuating or even causing such predicaments.
The point that I am stressing here is that a more nuanced and pragmatic reading of the Quran can also just as easily be done “ but it takes more wisdom, foresight and moral courage than many of these testosterone-filled youth are willing to undertake (and for the record, I firmly believe that one of the best ways to de-radicalize these young men is to help them get married early and encourage them to have kids, and I mean this in all seriousness).
Muslims need to understand that anyone who approaches the Quran and Sunnah with preconceived notions, wishing to find justification for certain theological or legal opinions, can almost always do so. If one wishes to speak to the texts rather than allow the texts to speak to him, then only his imagination will be a limit to the opinion that he seeks to derive.
With regards to our Islamic history and heritage, our overzealous youngster is told of a few romanticized legends of how a woman cried out for the Caliph Mutasim to come rescue her from the clutches of the enemy, or how Umar b. al-Khattab could not rest even if only one Muslim was in trouble, or how Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi almost single-handedly raised up an army to liberate Jerusalem from the clutches of the evil Crusaders.
But this youngster never actually reads a book of Muslim history himself. If he did, he would find a very different story, a very human one. Yes, there is no doubt that there were times in our past when noble men achieved gallant feats and ordinary people faced almost impossible challenges, yet came out as heroes in the end. But, as with any human history, these examples are more the exceptions than the rule.
Politically speaking, the Muslims suffered from as much intrigue, internal backstabbing, civil wars, bureaucratic inefficiencies, secret dealings, internecine warfare, bribery and corruption as just about any other culture and civilization. Were this youngster to read further, he would discover the almost constant insurrections that the Umayyads had to face from various Muslim insurgents, the political intrigues and the civil wars fought multiple times within the Abbasids, the alliances that the Taifa Rulers of Andalus regularly formed with Christian princes against fellow Muslims in order to retain power, the rivalries and fratricide of the Ottoman Sultans, and many, many, many more such sordid facts facts that are not taught in Islamic Sunday school.
Most of the armies that were harnessed and prepared in our fourteen centuries of Islamic history were actually gathered to fight other Muslims for political or material gain, and not to fight the ‘inglorious infidel’. Muslim societies of classical and medieval times struggled with many of the same issues that their modern counterparts do (albeit to different levels), of societal corruption and moral decay and religious indifference. If there were even prostitutes in the holy city of Madinah during the Prophetic era (as our source books clearly mention), does one believe that later societies would somehow be better than our ‘pious predecessors’?
What a thorough reading of our history shows us is that our societies and people were not angels, but simply humans. Yes, there was much good as well, and there is no denying that having a Caliphate that ruled according to Islamic law led to a society of greater Islamic accomplishments than what can be obtained in our times. But by the same token, because we live in an age devoid of a Caliphate, the good that does occur in our era is of a different type, and the endeavors and struggles of our times will inevitably form its own legends and heroes for future generations.
It is immature and dangerous to over-glorify our past. By painting an imaginary and overly-romanticized picture of an Islamic epoch, it is easier for misguided clerics to convince energetic but naïve youngsters to reclaim and resuscitate such a fantasy, no matter what the cost might be.
I have no doubt that Umar AbdulMutallab saw a level of academic excellence at AlMaghrib that he would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the Western world. I also have no doubt that he was highly impressed with the scholastic content of our seminars. However, in the end, what was important to him was not what he saw, but what he didn’t see. And what he didn’t see was an exposition and condemnation of the role our own countries play in spreading terror around the world. What he didn’t see were explicit solutions being offered in light of the current situation of the Ummah.
In other words, what he didn’t hear was a discourse regarding the current political and social ills that he felt so passionately about, and a frank dialogue about the Islamic method for correcting such ills.
And in that vacuüm, where neither AlMaghrib nor other mainstream voices had anything substantive to offer, the voices of radical extremism proved to be the only bait dangling in front of his eyes. For him, there never was a competition between Orthodox Islam and militancy; there never was an ‘either-or‘ choice to be made because these two visions of Islam (from his perspective) were completely independent of one another. Each one discussed different topics and each was active in a different arena. So convinced was he by that message of radicalism that he was willing to give up his life for it, not realizing that living one’s life for the sake of God is far more difficult than committing suicide for His sake (as if the latter can ever truly be for the sake of God!).
By allowing radicals to speak on behalf of the voiceless, we who remained silent simply lost the battle for the hearts and minds of people such as Umar.
If we truly wish to fight radical ideas amongst our youth; if we wish to persuade them away from rash measures drawn from raw emotions, and to persuade them to act upon wisdom and perform real acts of courage,then the first step that we will have to take is to become more vocal about the grievances that drive young men to acts of desperation. We will need to be frank about the role that our governments play in ruining the freedoms and happiness that specific societies around the world deserve. And after discussing these woes, we will need to educate our youth about the proper way forward in solving them: away from foolish and un-Islamic militancy, and towards education, political activism and other positive channels.
Those who choose to take on this task will have much to worry about for themselves. They will have to brave the attention and subsequent fury of a fear-mongering media empire that loves to demonize any who dares disagree with its own romantic notion of a lost American utopia. These individuals will have to put their trust in Allah as they fight legal and political battles against their own governments and law enforcement agencies, as they themselves are wiretapped, monitored, harassed, baited and perhaps even jailed merely because they state the obvious: that it is our own country’s domestic and foreign policies that are the greatest source of the anger and resentment fueling radicalism.
It is an awkward position to be in; for some, it appears to be a hopeless battle. How can one simultaneously fight against a powerful government, a pervasive and sensationalist-prone media, and a group of overzealous rash youth who are already predisposed to reject your message because they view you as being a part of the establishment (while, ironically, the ‘establishment’ never ceases to view you as part of the radicals)?
But there really is no other alternative. We need to protect our religion for our children after us, and we need to preserve what we can of the freedoms this country still offers us. And while I am skeptical that America will ever revert to its innocent pre-9/11 state of affairs; still, despite all that has occurred to change this country, America remains far better than any European equivalent, and we need to appreciate and cherish this fact even as we struggle to balance our loyalties between the requirements of our faith and those that are increasingly being imposed upon us by our country.
The journey ahead of us is long and difficult, and the task is well beyond simply acknowledging the root cause of anger. Real and tangible solutions must be offered, and we must assess the pros and cons of any step that we undertake. This is but one step, and many more arduous miles lie ahead. But even the journey of a thousand miles must begin with one step.
To be continued.
Image courtesy artcornwall.org
Sri Lankan Muslims To Fast In Solidarity With Fellow Christians
On Sunday morning Sri Lankan Christians went to their local churches for Easter services, as they have done for centuries. Easter is a special occasion for Christian families in ethnically diverse Sri Lanka. A time for families to gather to worship in their churches, and then to enjoy their festivities. Many went to their local church on Sunday morning to be followed by a traditional family breakfast at home or a local restaurant.
It would have been like any other Easter Sunday for prominent mother-daughter television duo, Shanthaa Mayadunne and Nisanga Mayadunne. Except that it wasn’t.
Nisanga Mayadunne posted a family photograph on Facebook at 8.47 AM with the title “Easter breakfast with family” and had tagged the location, the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo. Little would she have known that hitting ‘post’ would be among the last things she would do in this earthly abode. Minutes later a bomb exploded at the Shangri-La, killing her and her mother.
In more than a half a dozen coordinated bomb blasts on Sunday, 360 people have been confirmed dead, with the number expected to most likely rise. Among the dead are children who have lost parents and mothers & fathers whose families will never be together again.
Many could not get past the church service. A friend remembers the service is usually so long that the men sometimes go outside to get some fresh air, with women and children remaining inside – painting a vivid and harrowing picture of the children who may have been within the hall.
Perpetrators of these heinous crimes against their own faith, and against humanity have been identified as radicalised Muslim youth, claiming to be part of a hitherto little-known organisation. Community leaders claim with much pain of how authorities were alerted years ago to the criminal intent of these specific youth.
Mainstream Muslims have in fact been at the forefront not just locally, but also internationally in the fight against extremism within Muslim communities. This is why Sri Lankan Muslims are especially shaken by what has taken place when men who have stolen their identity commit acts of terror in their name. Sri Lankan Muslims and Catholics have not been in conflict in the past, adding to a palimpsest of reasons that make this attack all the more puzzling to experts. Many here are bewildered as to what strategic objective these terrorists sought to achieve.
Sri Lankan Muslims Take Lead
Sri Lankan Muslims, a numerical minority, though a well-integrated native community in Sri Lanka’s colourful social fabric, seek to take lead in helping to alleviate the suffering currently plaguing our nation.
Promoting love alone will not foster good sustainable communal relationships – unless it is accompanied by tangible systemic interventions that address communal trigger points that could contribute to ethnic or religious tensions. Terror in all its forms must be tackled in due measure by law enforcement authorities.
However, showing love, empathy and kindness is as good a starting point in a national crisis as any.
Sri Lankan Muslims have called to fast tomorrow (Thursday) in solidarity with their fellow Christian and non-Christian friends who have died or are undergoing unbearable pain, trauma, and suffering.
#MyFastMySriLanka Terror at its heart seeks to divide, to create phases of grief that ferments to anger, and for this anger to unleash cycles of violence that usurps the lives of innocent men, women, and children. Instead of letting terror take its course, Sri Lankans are aspiring to come together, to not let terror have its way.
Together with my fellow Sri Lankan Muslims, I will be fasting tomorrow from dawn to dusk. I will be foregoing any food and drink during this period.
It occurs to many of us that it is unconscientious to have regular days on these painful days when we know of so many other Sri Lankans who have had their lives obliterated by the despicable atrocities committed by terrorists last Sunday. Fasting is a special act of worship done by Muslims, it is a time and state in which prayers are answered. It is a state in which it is incumbent upon us to be more charitable, with our time, warmth and whatever we could share.
I will be fasting and praying tomorrow, to ease the pain and suffering of those affected.
I will be praying for a peaceful Sri Lanka, where our children – all our children, of all faiths – can walk the streets without fear and have the freedom to worship in peace.
I will be fasting tomorrow for my Sri Lanka. I urge you to do the same.
Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. Surah Maidah
White Activism Is Crucial In The Wake of Right-Wing Terrorism
The vicious terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15 were a punch to the gut for peace-loving people all over the world. Only the most heartless of individuals could feel nonchalant about 70 innocent children, women, and men being killed or maimed mercilessly as they prayed. However, even a brief glimpse at comments on social media confirms that among the outpouring of sadness and shock, there are, indeed, numerous sick individuals who glory in Brenton Tarrant’s deliberately evil actions. White supremacy, in all its horrific manifestations, is clearly alive and well.
In an enlightening article in The Washington Post, R. Joseph Parrott explains, “Recently, global white supremacy has been making a comeback, attracting adherents by stoking a new unease with changing demographics, using an expanded rhetoric of deluge and cultivating nostalgia for a time when various white governments ruled the world (and local cities). At the fringes, longing for lost white regimes forged a new global iconography of supremacy.”
“Modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalized like never before,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “The hatred that led to violence in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville is finding new adherents around the world. Indeed, it appears that this attack was not just focused on New Zealand; it was intended to have a global impact.” (link)
Many people want to sweep this terrifying reality under the rug, among them the U.S. President. Asked by a reporter if he saw an increase globally in the threat of white nationalism, Trump replied, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
However, experts in his own country disagree. A March 17 article in NBC News claims that, “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned in a 2017 intelligence bulletin that white supremacist groups had carried out more attacks in the U.S. than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years. And officials believe they are likely to carry out more.”
Although they may be unaware of — or in denial about –the growing influence of white supremacist ideology, the vast majority of white people do not support violent acts of terrorism. However, many of them are surprisingly, hurtfully silent when acts of terrorism are committed by non-Muslims, with Muslims as the victims.
When a shooter yells “Allahu akbar” before killing innocent people, public furor is obvious and palpable. “Terror attacks by Muslims receive 375% more press attention,” states a headline in The Guardian, citing a study by the University of Alabama. The perpetrator is often portrayed as a “maniac” and a representative of an inherently violent faith. In the wake of an attack committed by a Muslim, everyone from politicians to religious leaders to news anchors calls on Muslim individuals and organizations to disavow terrorism. However, when white men kill Muslims en masse, there is significantly less outrage. People try to make sense of the shooters’ vile actions, looking into their past for trauma, mental illness, or addiction that will somehow explain why they did what they did. Various news outlets humanized Brenton Tarrant with bold headlines that labeled him an “angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer,” an “ordinary white man,” “obsessed with video games,” and even “badly picked on as a child because he was chubby.” Those descriptions, which evoke sympathy rather than revulsion, are reserved for white mass murderers.
The media’s spin on terrorist acts shapes public reaction. Six days after the Christchurch attacks, millions were not currently taking to the streets to protest right-wing extremism. World leaders are not linking arms in a dramatic march against white supremacist terrorism. And no one is demanding that white men, in general, disavow terrorism.
But that would be unreasonable, right? To expect all white men to condemn the vile actions of an individual they don’t even know? Unreasonable though it may be, such expectations are placed on Muslims all the time.
As a white woman, I am here to argue that white people — and most of all white-led institutions — are exactly the ones who need to speak up now, loudly and clearly condemning right-wing terrorism, disavowing white supremacy, and showing support of Muslims generally. We need to do this even if we firmly believe we’re not part of the problem. We need to do this even if our first reaction is to feel defensive (“But I’m not a bigot!”), or if discussing race is uncomfortable to us. We need to do it even if we are Muslims who fully comprehend that our beloved Prophet said, “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab, nor for a non-Arab over an Arab. Neither is the white superior over the black, nor is the black superior over the white — except by piety.”
While we might not hold hatred in our hearts individually, we do hold the power, institutionally. If we truly care about people of color, peace, and justice, we must put our fragile egos aside and avoid “not me-ism.” The fact is, if we have white skin, we have grown up in a world that favors us in innumerable ways, both big and small. Those of us with privilege, position, and authority are the very ones who have the greatest responsibility to make major changes to society. Sadly, sometimes it takes a white person to make other white people listen and change.
White religious leaders, politicians, and other people with influence and power need to speak up and condemn the New Zealand attacks publically and unequivocally, even if we do not consider ourselves remotely affiliated with right-wing extremists or murderous bigots. Living our comfortable lives, refusing to discuss or challenge institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and rampant Islamophobia, and accepting the status quo are all a tacit approval of the toxic reality that we live in.
Institutional power is the backbone of racism. Throughout history, governments and religious institutions have enforced racist legislation, segregation, xenophobic policies, and the notion that white people are inherently superior to people of color. These institutions continue to be controlled by white people, and if white leaders and white individuals truly believe in justice for all, we must do much more than “be a nice person.” We must use our influence to change the system and to challenge injustice.
White ministers need to decry racial violence and anti-immigrant sentiment from their pulpits, making it abundantly clear that their religion does not advocate racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. They must condemn Brenton Tarrant’s abhorrent actions in clear terms, in case any member of their flock sees him as some sort of hero. Politicians and other leaders need to humanize and defend Muslims while expressing zero tolerance for extremists who threaten the lives or peace of their fellow citizens — all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, immigration status, or ethnicity. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is an excellent role model for world leaders; she has handled her nation’s tragedy with beautiful compassion, wisdom, and crystal clear condemnation of the attacker and his motives. Similarly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demonstrated superb leadership and a humane, loving response to the victims in Christchurch (and Muslims in general) in his recent address to the House of Commons.
Indeed, when they put their mind to it, people can make quite an impactful statement against extremist violence. In January 2015 when Muslim gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, there was an immediate global reaction. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” trended on social media and in fact became one of the most popular hashtags in the history of Twitter. Approximately 3.4 million people marched in anti-terrorism rallies throughout France, and 40 world leaders — most of whom were white — marched alongside a crowd of over 1 million in Paris.
While several political and religious leaders have made public statements condemning the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, there is much less activism on the streets and even on social media following this particular atrocity. Many Muslims who expected words of solidarity, unity, or comfort from non-Muslim family or friends were disappointed by the general lack of interest, even after a mosque was burned in California with a note left in homage to New Zealand.
In a public Facebook post, Shibli Zaman of Texas echoed many Muslims’ feelings when he wrote, “One of the most astonishing things to me that I did not expect — but, in hindsight, realize that I probably should have — is how few of my non-Muslim friends have reached out to me to express condolences and sorrow.” His post concluded, “But I have learned that practically none of my non-Muslim friends care.”
Ladan Rashidi of California posted, simply, “The Silence. Your silence is deafening. And hurtful.” Although her words were brief and potentially enigmatic, her Muslim Facebook friends instantly understood what she was talking about and commiserated with her.
Why do words and actions matter so much in the wake of a tragedy?
Because they have the power to heal and to unite. Muslims feel shattered right now, and the lack of widespread compassion or global activism only heightens the feeling that we are unwanted and “other.” If 50 innocent Muslims die from terrorism, and the incident does not spark universal outrage, but one Muslim pulls the trigger and the whole world erupts in indignation, then what is that saying about society’s perception of the value of Muslim lives?
To the compassionate non-Muslims who have delivered flowers, supportive messages, and condolences to the Muslim community in New Zealand and elsewhere, I thank you sincerely. You renew our hope in humanity.
To the white people who care enough to acknowledge their privilege and use it to the best of their ability to bring about justice and peace, I salute you. Please persevere in your noble goals. Please continue to learn about institutionalized racism and attempt to make positive changes. Do not shy away from discussions about race and do not doubt or silence people of color when they explain their feelings. Our discomfort, our defensiveness, and our professed “colorblindness” should not dominate the conversation every time we hear the word “racism.” We should listen more than speak and put our egos to the side. I am still learning to do this, and while it is not easy, it is crucial to true understanding and transformation.
To the rest of you who have remained silent, for whatever reason: I ask you to look inside yourself and think about whether you are really satisfied with a system that values some human lives so highly over others. If you are not a white supremacist, nor a bigot, nor a racist — if you truly oppose these ideologies — then you must do more than remain in your comfortable bubble. Speak up. Spread love. Fix problems on whatever level you can, to the best of your ability. If you are in a leadership position, the weight on your shoulders is heavy; do not shirk your duty. To be passive, selfish, apathetic, or lazy is to enable hatred to thrive, and then, whether you intended to or not, you are on the side of the extremists. Which side are you on? Decide and act.
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for their injury.” — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.
For the past decade, writer Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, and About Islam. Her articles frequently tackle issues like Muslim American identity, women’s rights in Islam, support of converts/reverts, and racism. A graduate of Grinnell College, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband and five children. Laura recently started a Facebook page, The Common Sense Convert, to support Muslim women, particularly those who are new to the deen.
Spiritually Processing What Happened In New Zealand A Few Days Later
It feels like we’re living in the times that were described by the Prophet ﷺ in a number of different narrations. The Prophet ﷺ said, “A time will come upon people when a person practicing his religion with patience will be like one holding on to a burning ember.”
عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِمَالِكٍ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم “ يَأْتِي عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ الصَّابِرُ فِيهِمْ عَلَىدِينِهِ كَالْقَابِضِ عَلَى الْجَمْر
Just like holding on to a burning ember is very difficult, it causes physical pain, holding on to our religion will also be very difficult. It will lead to hardships and difficulties. It seems as if every other week we’re dealing with some type of tragedy, some type of crisis. And each one seems to be bigger and worse than the last. As Anas told those who were complaining about the trials and difficulties they were facing at the hands of Hajjāj ibn Yusuf, “There is no year, except that the one that is after it will be more evil than it, until you meet your Lord. I heard this from your Prophet ﷺ.”
“ مَا مِنْ عَامٍ إِلاَّالَّذِي بَعْدَهُ شَرٌّ مِنْهُ حَتَّى تَلْقَوْا رَبَّكُمْ ” . سَمِعْتُ هَذَا مِنْ نَبِيِّكُمْ صلى الله عليه وسلم .
Similarly, the Prophet ﷺ told us that we will face trial after trial, difficulty after difficulty. The Prophet ﷺ said that near the end of times the Ummah will be faced with trials and difficulties that it will dislike. Then he said, “There will be tremendous trials one after the other, each making the previous one dwindle into insignificance. When they would be afflicted with a trial, the believer would say: This is going to bring about my destruction. When at (the trial) is over, they would be afflicted with another trial, and the believer would say: This surely is going to be my end.”
· وَتَجِيءُ فِتْنَةٌ فَيُرَقِّقُ بَعْضُهَا بَعْضًا وَتَجِيءُالْفِتْنَةُ فَيَقُولُ الْمُؤْمِنُ هَذِهِ مُهْلِكَتِي . ثُمَّ تَنْكَشِفُوَتَجِيءُ الْفِتْنَةُ فَيَقُولُ الْمُؤْمِنُ هَذِهِ هَذِهِ .
This week, the Muslim ummah was faced with another devastating trial. Two separate mosques were attacked by a right-wing extremist in New Zealand during Friday prayer. According to the latest report approximately 49 god-conscious, mosque-going Muslims were massacred in cold bold. This is an absolute act of senseless violence. They were killed in the masjid simply because they believed in the kalima la ilaha illa Allah… There’s absolutely no mistake that this was a cowardly act of terrorism. May Allah ﷻgrant all the deceased the highest ranks in Jannah and may He give patience and strength to their families.
This is a result of years of unchecked and unfiltered hate speech, xenophobia, Islamophobia, prejudice, and racism that has been propagated through the mainstream media. All of us know that the mainstream media, whether its CNN, BCC, or Fox News, portrays Islam and Muslims in the most negative light possible. There’s a whole well-funded industry of Islamophobia and propaganda dedicated to tarnishing the image of Islam and Muslims in the average person’s mind. They’ve created an environment where the word Islam has negative associations. To an extent that when someone hears the word Islam, they automatically think of violence, terror, bombings and the enemy.
Although the perpetrator himself carried out the massacre in cold blood, I can’t help but place blame on all those who demonize Islam and Muslims. Part of the blame rests with those politicians who use fear-mongering, hate and prejudice to paint Muslims as the “other” just to win votes. They say outlandish things like Muslims are colonizing and invading our countries. That they want to take over and impose Sharia Law. They introduce anti-Sharia bills to create more fear. Part of the blame goes to these obnoxious, loud-mouthed, bigoted pundits, like Bill Maher and his likes, who constantly spew inflammatory rhetoric from their influential platforms. Part of the blame goes to people like Lauren Southern, Tommy Robinson, Richard Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Frank Gaffney who are openly prejudiced towards Islam and try to create a sense of hate and fear in their viewer’s hearts. They openly speak of something they call “the Muslim problem”. Part of the blame goes to all these other bigots who use their influence to preach against Islam. There are so much bigotry and fear-mongering that at times it seems overwhelming. There’s so much bias, hate, and prejudice that sometimes we feel stuck. And it’s this rhetoric, this hate, this prejudice and bigotry that has created an environment that would allow for something like this to happen. Senseless acts of violence like this don’t happen in a vacuum. There are circumstances that are created that allow them to take place.
This tragic incident really hit home for a lot of us. Part of the reason is that Muslims living as minorities can actually relate to it. It feels real. It is real. The individuals killed in the masjid could’ve been any one of us. It could’ve been any one of our family members and that’s a scary thought. Whenever we see Muslims in pain, struggling, dealing with death and loss we’re supposed to feel that pain as well. As the Prophet ﷺ said, “The believers are like a single body. If the eye hurts the entire body feels the pain. If the head hurts the entire body feels that pain.” All of us are feeling that pain. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of pain the parents and the families are feeling right now.
How do we channel this pain?
How do we deal with it? What are we supposed to do? One thing that we can definitely take solace in is the fact that the Prophet ﷺ, the last and final messenger, our role model also felt that pain. He experiences similar trials and hardships. There was a very powerful anti-Islam, anti-Muslim sentiment among the people of Makkah. The Prophet ﷺ himself was attacked both verbally and physically. He dealt with the pain of rejection, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred. He had to deal with the pain of seeing some of his closest companions tortured, beaten, persecuted, and even killed. Yasir, his wife Sumayyah and their son ‘Ammar faced painful persecution at the hands of Quraish. Yasir died as a result of his persecution and his wife was killed by Abu Jahl just because they were Muslim. They were made to feel this pain, to go through these trials, difficulties and struggle to make them stronger. To develop their faith, personality, and character. This pain didn’t cause them to give in to fear; it didn’t make them scared. Rather, it made them stronger.
In multiple places throughout the Quran Allah ﷻ teaches the Prophet ﷺ how to deal with this pain. How to derive strength from these trials and hardships. When the people of Quraish rejected him when they called him a liar, a magician, a sorcerer and a madman Allah ﷻ told him, “So be patient, [O Muhammad]. Indeed, the promise of Allah is Truth. And ask forgiveness for your sin and exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord in the evening and the morning.” Allah ﷻ told him to seek strength through patience and prayer.
To focus on his relationship with Allah ﷻ. Allah ﷻ told him something similar in Surah Taha, “So be patient over what they say and exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and during periods of the night[exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied.”
These are the same words of advice that Allah ﷻ gives to us as believers, “O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.” The true strength of believers has never been through financial or physical means. Their true power has always come through their spiritual strength. These incidents are meant to push us closer to Allah ﷻ, to unite us, to strengthen our faith, and make us more dedicated to our religion.
These are wake up calls. Allah ﷻ is literally shaking us and telling us to come back to him. It’s time to come back. That’s the only true way of changing our situation.