Politics & Policy

A Time For Choosing

Muslims face a moral challenge.

The latest Islamist terror outrage–the September 3 mass murder of at least 350 students, teachers, and parents in a Russian primary school–prompted this remarkable acknowledgment of an undeniable reality: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”

These are the words of a prominent Saudi journalist and observant Muslim, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of al Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arabic satellite news network that is al Jazeera’s chief competitor. His bitter reflections–which deserve to be read in their entirety–are a rare and welcome departure from the Muslim world’s usual pattern of post-atrocity responses: silence, denial, equivocation, or lies.

“The majority of those who manned the suicide bombings against buses, vehicles, schools, houses and buildings, all over the world, were Muslim,” he writes. “What a pathetic record. What an abominable ‘achievement.’ Does this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies, and our culture?”

“We cannot clear our names,” Rashed admonishes fellow Muslims, “unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.” Rashed rightly places the unspeakable atrocity in Beslan squarely within the larger pattern of similar outrages perpetrated in the name of militant political Islam since 9/11. For it is the exact same ideology of jihad at work in the most recent mass murders in Indonesia, Israel, Iraq, and elsewhere that animated the Beslan child killers–who shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is most great) under the banner of the Islambouli Brigades (named for Anwar Sadat’s assassin, not for some local Chechen martyr or grievance).

Rashed’s reflections also happen to be the first notable application of 9/11 Commission’s two principal recommendations. One is to connect the dots–to look squarely at the world as it is, discern intelligible patterns from apparently disparate events and trends, and then draw appropriate conclusions. The other is to call the common enemy of civilization by its proper name. “The catastrophic threat at this moment,” the report concludes, is not some “generic evil” of terrorism, but rather “the threat posed by Islamist terrorism–especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology” (emphasis in original).

Who exactly is responsible for this totalitarian ideology? Rashed rightly singles out clerical exponents of militant political Islam–the “Neo-Muslims.” “Our terrorist sons,” Rashed writes, are “the sour grapes of a deformed culture.” Muslims as a whole, now reaping what their most prominent clerics have sown in the name of Islamism, must “confront the Sheikhs who thought it ennobling to reinvent themselves as revolutionary ideologues, sending other people’s sons and daughters to certain death [e.g., as suicide bombers], while sending their own children to European and American schools and universities.”

Let the confrontation over the “theology” of kidnapping and executing hostages begin.

Consider first the fate of twelve Nepalese cooks and cleaners kidnapped and murdered in Iraq in late August. The obligatory video of this crime showed one hostage being beheaded (“The victim moaned and a shrill wheeze was heard,” according to the AP); the others were dispatched with gunshots to the head while lying side by side in a ditch. Nepal has no troops in Iraq, but the murderers sought to link their victims with “the so-called war on terror, which is nothing but a vicious crusade against Muslims.” According to their statement, “We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalese who came from their country to serve the Jews and the Christians…believing in Buddha as their god.”

A deafening silence followed this crime in the name of Islam, perhaps owing to the terrorists’ fraternal admonition: “Our brothers, do not feel any mercy for these nasty and spiteful people.” No condemnation was forthcoming from the two most prominent and normally outspoken “mainstream” clerics in the Sunni Muslim world: Muhammed Sayyed Tantawi, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the flagship academic institution of Sunni Islam), and Yusef Al-Qaradawi, whose many roles include serving as spiritual adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and the al Jazeera television network. Seldom is either one at a loss for words after nearly any event in the Arab or Muslim worlds.

This silence was broken only by some equivocal and contradictory remarks from Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars, a rump group of Sunni clerics who lost their government positions and salaries with the collapse of the Baathist state (see the invaluable blog Healing Iraq, maintained by a brave Iraqi dentist). In an interview with al Arabiya, one Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabbar pointedly refused to express any regret for the murders of the Nepalese menial laborers in an interview, noting that joblessness among Iraqis is a legitimate reason for hostility to foreign workers (who number 80,000 among a population of 25 million). His more polished colleague, Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, has this to say of the victims: “We believe most of them were simple-minded and tempted to come to Iraq. We wished they could have been released so that they could have become messengers for their brothers to warn them not to come to Iraq.” He added this stylistic objection: “We are against the killing of hostages, particularly if it has been a group execution.” In other words, blame for this crime lies with the victims (“the simple-minded”) and their exploiters (Jordanian middlemen). In any case, their lives represent at most a wasted opportunity to send a message to stay out of Iraq.

Where both Iraqi clerics agree emphatically, however, is that this is a “completely different situation from that of the French journalists” kidnapped by another Sunni Islamist group and held captive since mid-August.

Now consider just a few of the innumerable appeals for clemency and freedom in that “completely different situation.” According to an official Jordanian government spokeswoman, “We denounce the kidnapping of all civilians, particularly journalists, because it does not help Arab and Muslim causes, in Iraq, Palestine, or elsewhere.” Jordan’s main opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (itself a front for the banned Muslim Brotherhood), cited “France’s distinguished position in rejecting the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.” Nobel Laureate Yasser Arafat and the Muslim Brotherhood itself both weighed in in behalf of the hostages, with Arafat saying that the two “journalists were helping the Iraqi and Palestinian causes.” This point was emphasized by Yasser al-Serri, director of the London-based Islamic Observatory (“widely respected by Islamic groups,” according to IslamOnline). The two hostages, he said, “had been denouncing the American crimes in Iraq” and were known to “present the right image of Islam and of Islamic civilization.”

Sheikh Qaradawi himself urged the kidnappers to free their hostages because “they broke the American monopoly on relaying information.” In an August 31 press conference (see Healing Iraq’s September 1 entry for a full account unavailable elsewhere), the Iraqi cleric Faidhi offered this rationale: “Our goal is to besiege the Americans politically in every spot in the world, and this act is not serving our goal. France, as an anti-occupation country, has been helpful to our cause,” with the result that rewarding France by releasing the hostages “serves our interests because it keeps the occupation weak.”

These are but a few of the innumerable appeals issued on behalf of the French hostages. Their common denominator is an utter absence of any properly moral concerns and an exclusive preoccupation with expediency and perception–what works and what looks bad, not what’s wrong in all circumstances. It is above all the primacy of the political and the corresponding rejection of the moral that lie at the heart of the corruption within Islam. As with the “theology” of suicide bombing, a general prohibition against taking innocent life has been hollowed out by purely expedient exceptions, with the result that this prohibition is transmuted into a right and finally perverted into a duty.

This bodes ill for two Italian relief workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta (both aged 29), taken hostage September 7 and made subject to this threat addressed to the Italian prime minister: “We promise you, Berlusconi, to burn your heart, and the heart of the crusader criminal Italian people, with these two Italian women, as a punishment to you for stealing the land of Muslims and killing Muslim people.” Will Islamist clerics–Tantawi and Qaradawi among them–denounce their kidnapping as an intrinsically evil and morally illegitimate act? If expediency trumps morality and human life and dignity possess only a merely instrumental value–Nepalese being worthless and disposable, Frenchmen politically useful in identical circumstances–then the outlook is grim indeed. As a fresh deadline for their execution approaches, we can only pray for these two young women.

Only Muslims can find their own way out of this moral cul-de-sac. Perhaps Abdel Rahman al-Rashed’s reflections on Beslan and Islamism will prompt some long-overdue introspection in the Muslim world; but whether he will be hailed as a prophet or punished as an apostate remains to be seen. Thanks to the Neo-Muslims, he writes, “an innocent and benevolent religion, whose verses prohibit the felling of trees in the absence of urgent necessity, that calls murder the most heinous of crimes, that says explicitly that if you kill one person you have killed humanity as a whole, has been turned into a global message of hate and a universal war cry.” Thanks to the Islamists, Muslims as a whole now face the same moral challenge Yeats outlined in his unsparing condemnation of the purveyors of a similarly hateful ideology: “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal on the fare.”

It’s time to choose.

John F. Cullinan, a lawyer, formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.


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