By Stephen Chavura
Two weeks ago I gave a lecture at Macquarie University on Christian fundamentalism.
I discussed Christian fundamentalist readings of the Bible as well as the cultural circumstances that had shaped the political activity of Christian fundamentalists: pro-America, pro-life, pro-traditional family — or, as their critics might prefer to say, quasi-fascist, anti-choice and anti-marriage equality.
Last week it was Islam’s turn. I gave a lecture on Islamic fundamentalism. I unpacked the violent passages from the Koran and Hadith, showed passages from terrorist masterminds such as Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden, and discussed Anglo-European activity in the Middle East and Africa across the past 100 years to explain the modern phenomenon of terrorism.
My classes have Christian and Muslim students. And you know what? We all got through it. We had great discussions and I walked away with a richer appreciation of these movements. I hope my students did as well.
Imagine if I insisted on discussing the anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage movement, or 9/11 and Daesh (Islamic State) without mentioning the words Christianity or Islam, or discussing the Bible, Koran, Hadith or sharia. Imagine that in trying to explain why these movements arose and took the shape they did, I assiduously avoided any discussion of causes that would identify the particular religious nature of the movements. Would my students notice? Yes; they’re not idiots. Would they appreciate this? No; they’d feel patronised. Would I be doing my job? Certainly not. Would they be getting value for their money? Definitely not.
The Australian has pointed out (“Manchester massacre results in media madness as lefties ignore role of Islam”, May 25) the jihad denialism of some of the left-leaning media. Amazingly, speaking about the Manchester bomber, Mamamia declared: “We do not care about his motivation. We don’t care about his cause. There is nothing worth knowing about why a person would do that.” The mothers of the murdered and maimed children may feel differently.
American historian of Islam and expert on terrorism Daniel Pipes has documented jihad denialism during the past 25 years. It isn’t a new phenomenon. Arguably its intentions are basically good: a desire to avoid or minimise the stigmatisation of all Muslims as terrorists. This motive is fair enough. As a matter of fact, it must be said that Islam as a religion does not on its own create terrorists, thus one can be a Muslim and an excellent citizen. Indeed, most Muslims in non-Muslim countries are good citizens, many of whom suffer unfairly because of their extremist coreligionists.
But the problem of jihad denialism is basically that it is irrational; irrational in that its means cannot achieve its ends. It’s like trying to smother a fire with dry wood. Ultimately Muslims will suffer for it.
You simply cannot make people unknow what they know, and people know that these acts of terrorism have motives. Denialists want to stop their description of terrorism at the behavioural level of analysis: individual A brought about event B. That’s that. But all human beings know that behaviour is just the surface of what really constitutes our humanity: agency and intentions.
Humans do things for reasons: it’s what makes us human; it’s what distinguishes the terrorist from the bomb. No amount of jihad denialism will convince ordinary people otherwise.
People know there is a twisted and misanthropic world view justifying much terrorist activity: militant Islamism. Just like we know it makes no sense trying to explain class-based revolutions of the 20th century and their resulting terror without discussing Marxism, we know it makes no sense to discuss terrorism without discussing Islamism.
In delivering my lecture on militant Islamism, I made clear what I sincerely believe to be true: that Islam and militant Islamism are distinguishable. One can, in entirely good faith, self-identify as a Muslim and have no appetite or sympathy for terrorism. But at the same time I made it clear you cannot insist that readings of Islamic scriptures, accounts of the acts of Mohammed in Hadith, the sharia traditions and Islamic history have nothing to do with events such as the Manchester bombing.
To discuss terrorism properly, we do not need to say that events like the Manchester bombing are true expressions of Islamic jihad. That’s a matter for Islamic scholars, not journalists and terrorist analysts. We don’t need to speak about true Islam at all but we do need to talk about expressions of Islam, legitimate or illegitimate, depending on your reading of the scriptures. Militant Islamism is an expression of Islam in so far as its practitioners justify their activities by readings of the Koran and Hadith as expounded by many Islamic scholars during the past century.
Taking the Islamism out of our description of events such as the Manchester bombing is irrational in that, in its attempt to assuage any anger directed at Muslims in general, it merely adds a feeling of betrayal and patronisation by those already tormented by the gruesome horror of the terrorist activity.
Those foolish enough to ascribe such events to Muslims in general will merely add collusion and duplicity to their list of grievances against Muslims. Those not foolish enough to spray all Muslims with their hatred of terrorists will feel grievance against their own governments and media outlets for treating the slaughter of their compatriots more like a PR campaign than a trend that needs to be understood and analysed.
In the end, jihad denialism simply treats people like idiots, and the overwhelming number of people are not idiots.
I feel truly sorry for good Muslims who have to endure suspicion brought about by the horrific activities and attitudes of their coreligionists. Maybe the best thing they can do is to grieve with their compatriots. But it won’t do peaceful Muslims any good for the media to generate more suspicion against them by denying the complex connection between expressions of Islam and terrorism.
Again, people are not idiots, and treating them so will only pile resentment on fear and anger. Good Muslims will suffer for this, and the families of the victims of terrorist activities will be denied one of their most basic needs: to understand the truth of what happened to their children.
This article first appeared in The Australian and has been republished with permission from the author.