Why is Islam violent? The question is all over the Internet and there are a multitude of answers from the sublime to the ridiculous, from apologists to hate-mongers, from scholars to scumbags, and from moderates to extremists. The question is being asked anew in the face of the recent violence committed by terrorists in France and atrocities being committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), whose latest headline-hitting act of terror is the threat to kill two Japanese hostages if Japan does not pay a US$ 250 million ransom.
The answer to this question is as much philosophical as political. However, politically a more correct question will be why some Muslims are violent.
If Islam is a philosophy of violence, why is Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, peaceful? Take Malaysia, another Muslim majority country. Neither of these countries has been blighted by Islamic extremism. Take India, home to some 150 million Muslims. Except for a few misguided groups, an overwhelming majority of the Indian Muslims are peace-loving citizens. In Turkey, where 95 per cent of the population is Muslim, instead of extremism what one sees is the concept of ‘Tasawwuf’ or an Islam based on purification of the soul. Even in Pakistan, a country devastated by terrorism, the extremists are a small minority.
True, the history of Islam is full of wars. Prophet Muhammad himself led many a battle when hostile tribes and nations tried to attack his fledgling flock in Medina. Although the Quran denounces the shedding of blood, it permits jihad, the literal and spiritual meaning of which is the struggle to purify the soul and to uphold justice, peace and what is morally correct. But jihad as an armed struggle is subjected to strict rules which among other things insist that one should be mindful of God-consciousness. However, the latter day Muslim rulers or empire builders distorted Islam and justified their insolence by giving a warped interpretation to Islam.
In fact the biggest scandal in Islamic history is the introduction of sayings falsely attributed to the prophet. Generations of Muslim scholars have been trying to sift the authentic sayings from the fabricated ones, but with limited success, although the dim-witted still hang on to these false hadith as divine truth.
It is to these false hadith or fabricated pieces of history that, ironically, both the detractors of Islam and the Islamic extremists are hanging on to – the former in their bid to slander the prophet and the latter to justify their barbarism.
Groups such as the ISIL (also known as ISIS and Islamic State), the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia have projected Islam as a religion of terror, hatred and violence – or as a religion that has little place for love and tolerance. The fact that God is love, mercy and full of kindness is lost on the extremists who have hijacked Islam.
The history of the Middle East is replete with many unholy men who perverted Islam and provoked people to commit acts of violence. The fact that the so-called Islamic violence takes place largely in the Middle East – and not in Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia -- and that too in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s indicates that there is a correlation between terrorism and the tumultuous politics of the region. More than one million died in the independence struggle of Algeria in the 1950s and early 60s; another million died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; nearly 1.5 million have died following the US occupation of Iraq, and another million, half of them children, died as a result of the decade-old US-UN sanctions on that country; hundreds of thousands have been killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria and tens of millions rendered homeless because of region-wide conflicts which have become routine.
The people of the Middle East have suffered enough and they know their suffering is largely due to big power involvement in the oil-and-gas-rich region. The United States is known in the region as the biggest troublemaker or the biggest Satan. Preaching peace to a people who have been denied justice and who have been humiliated by invasions and occupations makes little sense.
Referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, a Palestinian youth once told me that what had been taken away from them through acts of violence could be won back only through acts of violence.
While such suffering goes on, the irony of all ironies is that some rich and powerful Arab countries are the best of friends of the very big powers which are responsible for the misery of the millions of fellow Arabs.
As the frustration builds up, the region becomes a breeding ground for terrorists. Often these terrorists take cover behind Islam to justify their atrocities -- and fatwas or decrees from Imams declaring terrorism a sin are often ignored. Though most terror groups act independently, they have, at one time or another, been armed or supported by Western and other countries. Many Western countries which are now waging war on Islamic terrorism turned a blind eye when hundreds of their Muslim citizens left for Syria to join terror groups that were trying to topple the Syrian regime.
Instead of such double dealings, what is required are concerted efforts to isolate extremists and defeat them. As the European Union and the United States are exploring such a course, their efforts will require the shedding of political agendas and looking at terrorism as a question of terrorism and not as one’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Parallel to such efforts, speedy steps should be taken to address grievances of the Palestinians and other people who have been denied justice, while also improving education and economic prospects of countries regarded as terrorist breeding grounds.
Perhaps, as we said last week, this gigantic task can be given to the United Nations with the creation of a new UN agency that can be named the United Nations programme for elimination of terrorism (UNPET).