Islam and terrorism: should our leaders be linking the two?
24 Feb 2015|

Terrorists operating against Western targets claim their acts are inspired, and in many cases required, by Islam. But should our leaders be openly linking Islam and terrorism or is it better if they publicly deny any such links?

In his National Security statement on Monday (video above) Prime Minister Tony Abbott made it clear where he stood on that question:

‘I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it. I have often cited Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, who has described the Islamist death cult as ‘against God, against Islam and against our common humanity’. In January, President al Sisi told the imams at Egypt’s al Azhar university that Islam needed a ‘religious revolution’ to sweep away centuries of false thinking. Everybody, including Muslim community leaders, needs to speak up clearly because, no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents must surely be a blasphemy against all religion.’

John Hudson at Foreign Policy, writing about last week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, noted that neoconservatives ‘blasted the White House for not focusing exclusively on radical Islam’, while civil-rights groups pointed out that incidents of extremist violence attributable to Muslims are only a fraction of those carried out in the United States.

Our political elites aren’t experts on the Islamic religion. They won’t have much credibility disputing Muslim scholars who point to Islamic sources that reject terrorist behavior. But does that then require them to keep silent on the issue of any links between Islam and terrorism? There’s a strong argument that Islam, like Christianity, is neither a violent nor a peaceful religion: it contains texts that legitimize both, (although there’s no Islamic equivalent of a Pope who can rule on those controversies.)

Publicly saying there’s a link might be self-defeating: it could stir up trouble with moderate Muslims who oppose terrorism. And most political leaders will want to avoid being open to the charge that they’re somehow at war with Islam. It’s a sensitive and complex debate. But I’d side with Thomas Friedman’s recent take on this issue:

‘When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble…I am all for restraint on the issue, and would never hold every Muslim accountable for the acts of a few. But it is not good for us or the Muslim world to pretend that this spreading jihadist violence isn’t coming out of their faith community. It is coming mostly, but not exclusively, from angry young men and preachers on the fringe of the Sunni Arab and Pakistani communities in the Middle East and Europe.’

Friedman cites with approval Asra Q. Nomani, an American Muslim born in India.  She argues that there’s a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals ‘that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.’ Nomani says this coalition

‘throws the label of “Islamophobe’’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion…The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere…The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism…They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.’

It’s clear from Tony Abbott’s remarks on Monday that he’s not about to be bullied by critics. On Sunday a statement signed by 64 Australian Islamic organisations (including Hizb ut-Tahrir) and 42 community and religious leaders was released. It stated they opposed Abbott’s ‘politically convenient’ threats to crack down on Islamic groups who have been bold enough to speak out about his stance towards Muslims. I’m looking forward to seeing this collection of individuals and groups issue a statement on terrorism, al-Qaeda and ISIL, making it clear that they won’t tolerate those who try to impose their values on others by killing people.

In this context, it was encouraging to see what occurred in Norway over the weekend: more than 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community and condemning a recent attack on a synagogue in Denmark.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Video courtesy of YouTube user Liberal Party of Australia.