Radical Islamic terrorism is an ideology. It is a belief in an idea. And it is an identity to that idea. By adding the label “Radical Islamic” to terrorism, we change the way we think of it, how we fight it and more importantly who is responsible. Radical Islam is not new and over the centuries prompted everything from military campaigns (Crusades, Ottomans, etc.) to insurgencies (Algiers, Iraq, etc.), to today’s terrorism (Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, etc.). And with the creation of radical groups like Al Queda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), its popularity is rising and its reach is global.
And to make matters worse, the U.S. over the last few decades has spent blood and treasure trying to defeat it with little success; no matter whose been in charge. Every time we cut off the head of this snake another one grows. It almost appears as if it is invincible. Why does it appear this way and what is the problem with defeating it?
The answer is right in front of our nose but few have the courage to see it and even fewer have the courage to tackle it.
A label means something
To begin with, labels mean things. The last administration worked very hard to remove any association of Islam with terrorism explaining that terrorism is universal (an act) and should not be unfairly connected to a religion. However, it is a stretch to say that Islam has not provoked violent inspiration or that recent terrorist acts are not Islamic inspired. For example, according to the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, 24 out of 25 designated worldwide terrorist groups are tied to Islam.
Yet, Muslim’s continue to preach that Islam is a religion of peace and that groups like this are a perverted representation of Islam. The community feels unfairly targeted and wants to see the “Islamic” label removed. However, continual Islamic associated terror actions seem to support the label. For example, since declaring its caliphate in June 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State terror group has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries, killing over a thousand people. It is hard to dispute these facts and their tie to Islam.
To many in the world, the damage is done. As a result, Islam continues to find itself in the crosshairs of criticism and the appearance of disconnectedness toward terrorism. And some of this criticism is deserved as little is done by the Islamic community to police itself or purge the bad apples? And simple condemnation isn’t enough.
Why is it so difficult for Islam to recognize its problem and do something about it?
The problem is twofold
The Quran where much of the inspiration and backing of radical Islam originates is considered flawless. It is the direct speech of God, purely divine without any human aspect. This understanding implies the absolute correctness and infallibility of it. The perfect book with the perfect words; the foundation of Islam — it cannot be challenged. And here is where much of the problem lies.
When confronted with concerns about Quranic violence, many Muslims defend it as a misinterpretation or that statements are being taken out of context. However, it is hard to ignore the violent nature of certain verses in the Quran. For example, “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve” (Quran 8:12). Further, experts say that the Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers in the name of Islamic rule. Terror groups like Al Queda and ISIS routinely use Quranic verses publicly to incite and justify violence or to recruit ignorant Muslims. At a minimum, the book tolerates violence against non-believers.
Yet, the problem is not just the infallibility of the Quran or even the argument of its violent nature but something even more challenging.
Along with the Quran, comes the entanglement of its teachings and words into the fabric of Islamic culture. For those countries who are predominantly Islamic, their faith is woven into their daily lives and is integral in how they worship and govern. Cultural conditions, norms, laws and beliefs are underpinned with it. And coupled with its “infallibility,” Islam is not questioned; therefore, Islamic faith and culture are one and infallible.
Consequently, it can create an environment of singular ideas, oppression of free thought, lack of creativity, and little innovation. It holds back human intuition and curiosity, and worse governs erratically. To say nothing of its antiquated and non-progressive manner. Over time these governments become isolated, backward, and irrelevant.
In contrast, what makes modern nations compelling is the fact they routinely ask the “why” of things by testing the effectiveness of their existence. Good governance is free of biases and uses governmental legislation and judicial adaptation to solve societies challenges and promote humankind’s advances. A great example is our constitutional amendments and supreme court decisions, the important point here being flexibility and change.
By the same token, intellectually stagnant societies (no matter if it due to a book or isolation), rarely adapt or progress (e.g. Sharia or Canon law). Therefore, dysfunction and isolationism sets in, and eventually they become obsolete. For instance, I can remember my tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. They would say, “be careful because you may see Muhammad around the corner.” Meaning that their cultures had not changed for thousands of years and the ideas and practices of millenniums ago were alive and well. It did not imply that everyone rode donkeys and pulled wooden carts. In some parts of the major cities, it was like any modern center in the world. But even within those areas, the underlying norm or culture of society was grounded in ancient Islamic beliefs.
How does a modern Islamic community account for this and more importantly change it?
Over 500 years ago, Christianity went through a similar problem. The “Reformation” was the result of Catholic indulgences and perversions of Christ’s teachings. Crusades, inquisitions, and waging war in the name of God stood as a testament of how far away from Christ the Catholic church had gone. Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk) unintendedly led a reformation that shook the foundation of Christianity and the West. This change of ideas (or norms) affected more than just a religion. It was a catalyst for progress, creativity, freer thought, civility and most of all, freedom from theological governance. It significantly moved the west into its present global dominance; the Christian Reformation changed more than the religion, it changed the world.
It is now time for another dynamic and instrumental reform. Islam must change and be more inclined to separate Mosque and state. Otherwise, a significant portion of the globe will be shackled by social stagnation and ineffective governance. The result will be limited access to resources, conflict, and misaligned migrations. One could argue that the Middle East or predominantly Islamic nations are plagued by 1500 years of weaving a religion into a culture. The result is that they were left behind. Islam has already missed one renaissance, if they do not reform, they will miss the next one.
Govern people’s lives, not govern governments
Religion at one time may have been able to govern communities, but at some point, in our social evolution, it became apparent that it was inadequate to guide complex societies. Instead, religion is best relegated to its original purpose, and that was to govern people’s lives. Our founding founders understood this better than anyone. As an example, our constitution is grounded with the understanding and intent of “separation of church and state”, as described in the first amendment.
The separation of religion from governance is essential. Religion falls severely short of governing complex societies where adapting to changes, progress, and conflict is constant. Good governance is critical in adjusting to human development, and religion’s rigid laws grossly restrict acclimating to it. And in the end, religions own rigidity hinders any solution to it own perversion. In essence, it does not police itself.
Islam is at a Crossroad
Radical Islamic terrorism is not going away soon. And in order to defeat this growing threat, the Islamic community must recognize the uncomfortable connections and have the will to disconnect from it and change. It must unweave itself from governing governments and reform. An almost impossible task. Currently, it is group’s outside of Islam that recognize and challenge its problems, and so far, these challenges have fallen on deaf Islamic ears. Christian reform was difficult and resulted in 100 years of brutal conflict. However, conditions, norms, and civility are different today. A peaceful movement is possible but like the Christian reformation must have strong leadership and the will to change. Anything else will be futile.