A Narrative, Blown Up

One weird way in which Western citizens, particularly American citizens, are apt to excuse Islamic terrorism is to say something along the lines of, “Non-Islamic people commit acts of terrorism as well!” For their part, Americans are often given to pointing towards Timothy McVeigh as a counterweight to terrorism committed by Muslims. It is an odd hand to play: when confronted with the geopolitical and religious reality of modern-day terrorism, many people are apt to say: “Yeah, but what about this thing that happened over two decades ago?”

All of which is ultimately a distraction of sorts. Yes, non-Muslims can and do carry out acts of terrorism, sometimes very brutal and deadly acts of terrorism. But the right way to fight terrorism as a whole in the 21st century isn’t to join hands and gaily sing “We’re All In This Together,” it’s to ask: from where and who are the vast majority of these attacks coming, and why? This is the question the people in counterterrorism efforts ask themselves every day; they don’t stand around saying, “Well, sure, Saudi Arabia seems to produce an overlarge number of terrorists, which might signify something noteworthy about Saudi Arabia—but hey, what about that white guy twenty years ago?!”

Just the same, the equivocations and the excuses roll on, driven in large part by a media and a cultural zeitgeist that is deeply committed to protecting Islam from any real criticism whatsoever. If you propose that maybe elderly charity nuns should maybe not be forced to provide abortion drugs to their staff, a screeching cadre of feminists will materialize to accuse you of attempting to install a Catholic caliphate in the United States. If you point out, on the other hand, that Islam sure seems to attract and inspire a lot of terrorists, you’ll be treated to a decidedly different kind of dialogue.

Case in point, from the Huffington Post:

Extremists and Islamophobes alike have attempted to paint violent factions within Islam as the true expression of the faith. But a new study gives credence to what countless Muslim leaders, activists and scholars have argued: that groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State are Muslim in name alone.

A group of German scholars at the Universities of Bielefeld and Osnabrück analyzed 5,757 WhatsApp messages found on a phone seized by police following a terrorist attack in the spring of 2016. The messages were exchanged among 12 young men involved in the attack…

Researchers conducting the study said the young men’s conversations demonstrated little understanding of their professed faith and that the group constructed a “Lego Islam” to suit their purposes.

Bacem Dziri, a researcher at the University of Osnabrück and co-author on the report, examined the messages from an Islamic studies perspective and concluded: “The group had no basic knowledge about Islam.”

Well, maybe they didn’t. And yet they still carried out a terrorist attack in the name of Islam. Which is kind of weird. What is more strange is this: I know plenty of Christians of varying denominations who are as clueless about their nominal religious beliefs as these young Muslim men allegedly were about theirs. I have known Catholics who believe the Church allows them to “divorce” their spouses and “remarry;” I have known Jews with zero understanding of their faith from either practical or historical perspectives; I have known Presbyterians who believe…well, whatever it is that Presbyterians believe, which is probably enough said. Curiously none of these people was even remotely motivated to construct a “Lego religion” as part of a plot to murder a bunch of innocent people. What gives?

That’s the trouble with discussing Islamic terrorism: we are dealing with a regular procession of young men (and some young women) who claim Islam as a mantle, who scream “Allahu Akbar” as they blow themselves up, who are part of terrorist groups with names like “the Islamic State…” and yet nevertheless, endlessly, day after day after day, we are assured that these incidents have nothing to do with Islam. It is, of course, not improbable that many terrorists are ignorant of, and/or ultimately disinterested in, many aspects of Islamic faith. But just the same, they continually gravitate towards Islam—not Catholicism, not Methodism, not coconut milk Buddhist yogaism, but invariably the same religion. Why? What is so special about Islam—even half-developed, poorly-studied Islamic belief—that makes so many young men want to self-detonate?

To their credit—sort of—the same people who so assiduously deny a link between Islamic terrorists and Islamic faith are weirdly willing to be semi-honest when it comes to the realization of their own policy goals: we are ceaselessly told that if, say, Trump’s “Muslim ban” is allowed to stand, then one of its principal achievements will be to create more terrorists, not less. So we are left with a most curious cultural narrative: Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, but Muslims can be driven to terrorism by a mildly controversial temporary immigration policy. Talk about “legos!”

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