September 13, 2004 - The murder of close to 350 people in Beslan, Russia, most of them children, some of them teachers, has elicited a significant reaction from Muslim clergy around the world:
Why should they react at all? Because these murders were committed in the name of Islam. The terrorists stormed the school shouting "Allahu Akbar!" The massacre was an act of jihad.
But why should they react at all? Are Muslim clergymen responsible for the actions of a few terrorists?
Well, it's more than just a few. In recent years hundreds of people have died in terrorist attacks around the world. The U.S. State Department published a list of significant terrorist incidents between 1961 and 2003. Of the 245 listed incidents, 154 of them, or almost two thirds, were perpetrated by Muslim terrorist organizations. (Others were mostly the responsibility of extreme leftist groups such as the FARC, ETA, and IRA.) The list notes only "significant" terrorist incidents around the world, and does not even attempt to list the dozens of attacks against Israeli civilians that took place during that time.
These numbers are bad enough. It gets worse. If one looks just at the years 2001-2003, one finds 107 significant terrorist incidents listed, 99 of which were perpetrated by Muslims. The number of attacks committed by Muslims has skyrocketed. And the victims include people from many countries besides Israel: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom - just to name a few.
What makes all of this even more alarming is that, increasingly, Islam is being used to justify these attacks. It has become difficult to distinguish Islam the religion from Islam the political ideology.
it is therefore in the interests of Muslim clergy to make this distinction. Or so one would think.
But they are not making it. For the most part, they are leaving it alone. Perhaps Islamic terrorists know this. They know their clergy will not condemn them, and that many in the clergy even secretly give them their blessing. In contrast, it is hard to conceive of such atrocities being committed in the name of Christianity or Judaism without loud condemnations following in churches and synagogues worldwide.
Here is a sampling of Muslim scholarly reaction. Only two days after the slaughter of the Russian children, the "Holders of the Black Banners," an Iraqi insurgent group responsible for kidnappings of foreign civilians, appealed to the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical organization, for a fatwa or ruling on whether such kidnappings are justified. This was the scholars' response:
"To issue an edict on such a subject is not an easy task. Such a call needs a profound study."
How many more innocents, including children, will die while they are profoundly studying the issue?
Actually, one Muslim cleric has taken a forthright stand. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential senior Egyptian cleric based in Qatar, has issued a fatwa calling for the killing of American and foreign "occupiers" in Iraq, including civilians.
A few columnists - not many, but a start - have dared to criticize the clerics. Faisal al-Qina'I, whose columns appear in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Siyassa, wrote: "It is saddening to read and hear from those who are supposed to be Muslim clerics, like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and others of his kind, that instead of defending true Islam, they encourage these cruel actions and permit decapitation, hostage taking and murder."
And Bater Wardam wrote in the Jordanian daily Ad Dustour of the tendency in the Arab world to "place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists and the American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case.''
These words are encouraging, but unfortunately they are not typical. Most Muslim criticism of Muslim terrorists seems more concerned about Islam's image than anything else.
In an article entitled "Butchers in the Name of Allah" appearing the Saudi government daily Okaz, columnist Khaled Hamed al-Suleiman wrote that "the propagandists of jihad succeeded in the span of a few years in distorting the image of Islam.... They turned today's Islam into something having to do with decapitations, the slashing of throats, abducting innocent civilians and exploding people.... They have fixed the image of Muslims in the eyes of the world as barbarians and savages who are not good for anything except slaughtering people."
Ahmed Bahgat, columnist for Egypt's semi-official daily Al-Ahram, wrote that pictures of the dead children "showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families.... If all the enemies of Islam united together and decided to harm it... they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations, and misunderstanding of the nature of this age."
So the terrorists aren't wrong, just miscalculating?
Many of those who are speaking out seem to give with one hand and take with the other. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, avoided using the word "terrorism." "What happened," he said, "is not jihad because our Islam obligates us to respect the souls of human beings.... Real jihad should target occupiers of our lands only like the Palestinian and Iraqi resistance."
Rami G. Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, made a similar comment: while most Arabs "identified strongly and willingly" with Palestinian guerillas, "all of us today are dehumanized and brutalized by the images of Arabs kidnapping and beheading foreign hostages."
The implication is clear: terrorism is OK in Israel but not in other places, where it gives Muslims a bad name. This duplicity is very common among Muslim writers who seem to express regret that their religion has become linked to gratutious violence.
Another way to clear the name of Islam: blame it on the Jews. The Bahraini religious scholar Ali Abdullah condemned the attack on the Russian children but had his own definite idea about where responsibility lies: "I have no doubt in my mind that this is the work of the Israelis who want to tarnish the image of Muslims and are working alongside Russians who have their own agenda against the Muslims in Chechnya."
This next one is particularly shameless. Hassan al-Batal, columnist for the official Palestinian Authority newspaper Al Ayyam, wrote of the attack on the Russian school: "There are no mitigating circumstances for the inhuman horror and the height of barbarism." He called for the "day of horror in the school" to be designated an "international day for the condemnation of terrorism." With so many acts of terror committed by Palestinians, how come he never thought of this before?
An article by Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya Television, deserves special mention since it has attracted the most attention. He too is horrified by the massacre of the Russian children. In an article appearing in the London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat he wrote:
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.
The hostage-takers of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, were Muslims. The other hostage-takers and subsequent murderers of the Nepalese chefs and workers in Iraq were also Muslims. Those involved in rape and murder in Darfur, Sudan, are Muslims, with other Muslims chosen to be their victims.
Those responsible for the attacks on residential towers in Riyadh and Khobar were Muslims. The two women who crashed two airliners last week were also Muslims.
Bin Laden is a Muslim. The majority of those who manned the suicide bombings against buses, vehicles, schools, houses and buildings, all over the world, were Muslim.
What a pathetic record. What an abominable "achievement". Does all this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies and our culture?
These images, when put together, or taken separately, are shameful and degrading. But let us start with putting an end to a history of denial. Let us acknowledge their reality, instead of denying them and seeking to justify them with sound and fury signifying nothing....
We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds. These are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image.
We cannot clear our names 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.
These words sound very good. They have drawn many compliments. But what do they really mean?
There are at least two glaring omissions from this list of self-confessed Muslim terrorist atrocities. The first omission is the Jewish victims of terrorism, not only in Israel but around the world. Israel, the favorite staging area of Islamic radicals, is not mentioned at all. Islamic terrorists have carried out bus bombings in other countries, including India, Pakistan, and Kosovo, so not even the inclusion of bus bombings can be taken to refer to Israel.
The second omission, just as serious, is Christian victims of Islamic terror. There is no mention of the bombing of Christian churches in Iraq and Pakistan or the shooting of Christian worshipers, as well as the persecution of Christians in many parts of the Muslim world. This is significant because al-Rashed seems to avoid mentioning Christians deliberately: "Those involved in rape and murder in Darfur, Sudan, are Muslims, with other Muslims chosen to be their victims." No, it is not just "Muslims chosen to be their victims." What about the mass murders and forced conversions of Christians in the Sudan, including the gang-raping and mutilation of Christian women who have refused to convert to Islam? How odd to single out only the Muslim victims of the Arab jihadist Sudanese regime. And odder still not to mention that they are singled out not because they are Muslim but because they are black.
Haven't enough children already died, that protests against terrorist child murder should have been heard long before this? Why is it wrong to kill Russian children but OK to kill Jewish children? Is "occupation" the excuse? How is Russia in Chechnya any less an "occupation" than Israel in the territories? In fact, Russia's behavior toward the Chechens has been far worse than Israel's toward the Palestinians. And Jewish worshipers in the bombed synagogues of Tunisia and Istanbul - whom are they occupying?
Yet practically all expressions of regret for Islamic terror make no mention of Jewish victims. It would not have occurred to any of these writers to condemn Islamic terror if there had not also been a massive number of non-Jewish victims - otherwise they would have done so long ago. The only way to make sense of these denunciations of terrorism is to consider their timing.
Only once before have we heard similar disavowals of terrorism from representatives of the Muslim community: right after 9/11. We heard exactly the same kind of statements back then: terrorists are staining the image of Islam, they are giving Muslims a bad name, but Palestinian terrorism against Israel is a possible exception. There does not seem to be any widespread concern in the Muslim world about terrorism in the Middle East. With all the terrorist acts that happen there, not just in Israel and the Palestinian territories but in India and Pakistan and more recently in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, it takes a real attention-getter like 9/11 or the Russian school massacre to bring out even a barely perceptible quantity of half-hearted Muslim denunciations of terrorism.
The obvious conclusion is that what motivates these denunciations is not compassion for the terrorists' victims but fear of an anti-Muslim backlash. And so we often hear more about damage to Islam's image than damage to the victims of terrorism and their families.
The attitude that some terrorism is wrong, but other terrorism (specifically against Jews or even against Christians) is acceptable, is not an advance. It is a hypocritical attempt to gain the sympathy of the non-Muslim world. Muslim extremists commit terrorist acts with increasing frequency, yet only when something really show-stopping like 9/11 or the slaughter of hundreds of Russian children happens, threatening a backlash against Muslims, do we hear these Muslim condemnations of terrorism.
As long as the Muslim world refuses to recognize the epidemic of anti-Semitism that infects it, all these condemnations of terrorism are just empty words. If it's OK to kill Jewish children in Israel, then it's OK to kill anyone's children anywhere in the world. And that is precisely what is starting to happen.
Any Muslim condemnation of terrorism that does not specifically include all terrorism anywhere in the world, and that does not specifically mention Jewish and Christian victims of Islamic terror, must be rejected as insincere and hypocritical. Denunciations of terrorism that only go halfway are unacceptable. If the Muslim world does not recognize and combat its anti-Semitism, the infection will continue to spread outward, harming Jew and non-Jew alike. One cannot say, or even imply, that terrorism is wrong in some places but right in others and then say one is against terrorism. A partial denunciation of terrorism is like taking half an antibiotic. The germ only survives and gets stronger.
Islam is the only religion with a historic, canonical doctrine of holy war, enshrined in its earliest traditions and codes of law and invoked even today to justify mass violence. The world has the right to an accounting. Is Islam a terrorist religion? Only Muslims can answer that question. But Islam today is being put to the test. And right now it is failing that test, and failing it badly.
Al-Rashed, Abdel Rahman. "Innocent Religion Is Now a Message of Hate." telegraph.co.uk, September 5, 2004.
Associated Press Staff. "Siege prompts horror among Arabs." cnn.com, September 5, 2004.
Baker, Peter and Susan B. Glasser. "Russia School Siege Ends in Carnage." Washington Post, September 4, 2004.
"By Danica Kirka." Associated Press, September 5, 2004.
Kifner, John. "Massacre Draws Self-Criticism in Muslim Press." New York Times, September 9, 2004.
Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs. "Significant Terrorist Incidents, 1961-2003: A Brief Chronology." U.S. Department of State, March 2004.
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