Hijacking Islam

This article by Martin Kramer was published at National Review Online on September 19, 2001. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Islam, the religion of more than a billion believers, has been hijacked. If the first week’s suspicions are confirmed, the suicide attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are the capstones of nearly twenty years of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. As layer upon layer of violence has accumulated, Islam itself has come to be associated in many Western minds with terrorism. It is a tragic turn — and one for which the vast majority of moderate Muslims bears some responsibility.

Islam is no more inclined to terrorism than any other monotheistic faith. Like its sisters, Christianity and Judaism, it can be both merciful and stern in practice; like them, it also teaches the love of God and the humanity of all mankind, believers and unbelievers alike. In times past, Islam has served as the bedrock of flourishing, tolerant, and peaceful orders.

But sociologists will say that a religion, at any point in time, is whatever its adherents understand it to be. If that is so, then Islam, as understood by too many Muslims, is in danger of deteriorating into a manifesto for terror. The reason: Too many Muslims have been silent in the face of horrific deeds committed by an extremist minority.

“Islamic terrorism” first entered the lexicon on a Beirut morning in 1983, when two suicide bombers destroyed the barracks of American and French peacekeepers. The American toll came to 241 dead; the planners, Shiites inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini, claimed credit in the name of Islamic Jihad. For decades, modernizing Muslim thinkers had worked to demilitarize the concept of jihad — struggle waged “in the path of God.” Secular revolutionaries had mothballed the term, employing the vocabulary of “resistance” and “liberation.” But it was an act of jihad that drove America from Lebanon, with electrifying effect.

A new era had begun — an era in which Muslim extremists interpreted their faith as a license to kill foreign “enemies of God.” Radical Muslim clerics scoured Islam’s sacred texts for justifications of violence, and found them. In the years to come, the clerics and the terrorists widened their license. At first, it included only “intruders” in Muslim lands: foreign forces, embassies, and civilians. Later it was extended to include “enemy” installations in third countries, and finally, civilians in the “lands of unbelief.” No moral red line could stop the escalation.

In a parallel process, suicide operations became a matter of routine. Suicide is forbidden in Islam. Back in 1983, only a handful of radical clerics were prepared to classify kamikaze-type acts as deeds of “self-martyrdom,” guaranteeing immediate entry to Paradise. After the first operations, an intense debate ensued over religious law, some clerics ruling in favor of the tactic and many against.

But as the years passed, “self-martyrs” became popular heroes and the resolve of the critics waned. When, last April, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti suggested that such acts were no more than suicide, the head of Egypt’s Azhar University, supposed bastion of moderation, waffled. (It was permissible, he said, but not against civilians.) In some quarters, the “self-martyr” is hailed as the most noble of all believers; according to one particularly respected Sunni cleric, “these operations are the supreme form of jihad.”

In this climate, it is now possible to recruit “self-martyrs” not one at a time, but by the dozen. And for the first time, terrorist planners can envision what was once unthinkable: large numbers of simultaneous suicide operations, carried out by teams of “self-martyrs.”

Paradoxically, the Middle East itself is less vulnerable to extremist violence than it was a few years ago. The regimes in most countries — most notably, Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia — have suppressed their own Muslim opponents. But the regimes have opened a “safety valve” — not against themselves, but against America. As a result, the region is awash in incitement.

This has combined with a moral timidity among Muslim moderates. They have condemned and disavowed the atrocities in New York and Washington, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. But these same people were silent in the face of similar deeds, done on a smaller scale in other places. Each small outrage undermined those very religious inhibitions that might have prevented last week’s mass murder. And in a globalized world, a red line erased in the Middle East is erased everywhere.

In recent years, some Western observers of Islam have claimed that it is moving toward an enlightened reformation. What happened last week was the opposite: a dangerous slide toward a medieval holy war. To stop the regression, the moderate majority will have to argue against the mobilization of Islamic religion for war. Individuals may rely on their faith to inspire them in adversity. Religion may be invoked at times of loss. But it is impossible to deploy religion to justify killing and self-immolation, without undermining the foundations of the religion itself.

In the pained expressions of decent Muslims, there is more than regret at America’s loss. There is a growing realization that the men who brought down the twin towers put Islam in peril. Only Muslims can redeem it.