Since the Westminster attacks, many people seem to have been getting stuck on the following question, as they do after most acts of jihadi violence:
“Is there something special about Islam? Something that lends itself to terrorism?”
I’m not just talking about the Katie Hopkinses of this world (they have already decided to privilege gut feeling over actually finding out, so this piece isn’t really for them). Or even the Roger Scrutons: on Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday, he said: “We do need to have a discussion about the Qur’an … how do we deal with those difficult suras [chapters] which are full of these tetchy pronouncements.” It sits at the back of progressives’ minds too, the kind of people who think it’s not good to generalise, and that there are definitely lots of nice Muslims, but still …
And, in fact, it’s not an unreasonable thought if you’re unfamiliar with Islam. It provides an easy-to-grasp account of acts that otherwise seem inexplicable. Who knows (or can be bothered to find out) what those verses say, and how they have been interpreted? The media uses shorthand, focuses on the present and immediate past rather than the vast contemporary and historical context, and therefore nudges us towards the conclusion that there’s something fishy about this faith.
The fact is, however, that a proper explanation isn’t to be found here. And while it’s crucial liberals don’t avoid the question (that just sounds like making excuses), we need to show why it’s the wrong one. Because until we do, all it really does is stand in the way of proper investigation. It’s like a sign that says “look here and no further”, obscuring, sometimes a little too conveniently, far more complex causes.
Let’s assume for a moment, then, that Islam is especially predisposed towards violence. If that’s your view, then you’ll need to show why the history of jihadi terrorism is so very short: this is emphatically a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon, yet Islam has been around since the seventh century.
What about its wars of conquest? Well they definitely happened, but not in a way that marks Islam out from other cultures. The subsequent wave of imperial expansionism came via the sky-worshipping Mongols, before they settled down to become Muslims. Not only that, the dominant (often genocidal) military powers since the 17th century have been Christian – and they frequently regarded themselves as having a religious mission.
Aspects of Islamic teaching do indeed justify some kinds of violence. Islam isn’t a pacifist religion. But again, it has this in common with Christianity, Judaism and other world faiths. Since that’s the case, and since we know that violence in the name of Islam has waxed and waned, it follows that we cannot look simply to theology to explain recent Islam-inspired terrorism.
An interviewee of mine recently pointed out that, before the Iranian revolution, Shiism was regarded by many non-Muslim commentators as a uniquely private, peaceable, apolitical form of Islam (in other words, “quietist”). These were essential and natural qualities of Shiism, they argued.
After the 1979 revolution, this interpretation was turned on its head. Trying to make sense of the fervour with which many Iranians bought into the Islamic Republic, they recognised the inherently radical qualities of Shiism, its obsession with martyrdom and sacrifice, and explained the revolution as a natural expression of the Shia mindset.
What had changed? Not the religion. A political earthquake had occurred and religion was now being used by those in power as a vehicle for massive social reorganisation. But what this story captures is a tendency among non-Muslims to attribute magical, ahistorical qualities to Islam – to appeal to it as a black box when events are perplexing, or, as is sometimes the case, when their own wrongheaded policies are implicated.
It’s here that the question of politics – geopolitics – becomes inescapable. The Qur’an and the hadith, the sources of Islam, didn’t get rewritten in the last few decades. But they were taken up and used by certain political actors to justify horrific violence. Why?
The answer must lie among the political, economic, military and social changes in the Middle East in our times, and how they have ramified in the wider world. It’s only by looking beyond the texts that we can hope to understand why certain interpretations of them have gained currency among a tiny minority – but a minority willing to indiscriminately kill civilians.
This isn’t an excuse. This isn’t the “‘kill us, we deserve it’ school of foreign policy analysis” as described by Nick Cohen. It’s unimpeachable logic. If you think that the causes of terrorism are embedded in the Qur’an and hadith, you’re proving yourself unable to deal with the complexities of a world in which politics – including military and non-military intervention by foreign powers – interacts with religion.
Saying “there’s something special about Islam” saves you from making the effort to learn more about this faith, the people who practise it and the conditions they live in.
It’s psychologically useful, granted. Islam can be a convenient focus for the rage we feel after hearing about acts of brutality. But don’t mistake something being seductive for it being accurate.
For some – and I suspect this includes Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen and more than a few British pundits – the natural conclusion is that people should be convinced to abandon Islam, and if that doesn’t work, it should be driven out. This, of course, would be a grossly illiberal and violent programme – but one, I suppose, that sits in a rather long tradition of nationalism and supremacism in the west.
Remind me: who’s special again?
David Shariatmadari is an editor and writer for The Guardian
This article was first published in The Guardian