As New York turns its gap-toothed face to the sky, wondering if the worst is yet to come, Muslims, largely unheeded by the wider world, are counting the cost of the suicide bombings. The backlash against mosques and hijabs has been met by statements from Muslim communities around the globe, some stilted, but others which have clearly found an articulate and passionate voice for the first time. In comparison with the pathetic near-silence that hovered around mosques and major organisations during the Rushdie and Gulf War debacles, the communities now seem alert to their cultural situation and its potential precariousness. Many of the condemnations have been more impressive than those of the American President, who seems unable to rise above clichés.
The motives are twofold. Firstly, and most patently, Sunni Muslims have been brought up in a universe of faith that renders the taking of innocent lives unimaginable. By condemning the attacks, we know that we defend the indispensable essence of Islam. Secondly, Muslims as well as others have died in large numbers. The Friday Prayers in the World Trade Centre always attracted more than 1,500 worshippers from the office community, many of whom have now surely died. The tourists, who spent their last moments choking on the observation deck, waiting for the helicopters that never came, no doubt included many Muslim parents and their children.
But the Western powers and their fearful Muslim minorities, both battered so grievously by recent events, now need to think beyond press-releases and ritual cursings. We need to recognise, firstly, that there has been a steady ‘mission-creep’ in terrorist attacks over the past twenty years. Hijackings for ransom money gave way to parcel bombs, then to suicide bombs, and now to kiloton-range urban mayhem. It is not at all clear that this escalation will be terminated by further anti-terrorist legislation, further billions for the FBI, or retina scans at Terminal Three. America’s tendency to assume that money can buy or destroy any possible obstacle to its will now stands under a dark shadow. Far from being a climax and the catalyst for a hi-tech military solution, the attacks may be of more historical significance as an announcement to the militant subculture that a Star-Wars superpower is utterly vulnerable to a handful of lightly-armed young men. There could well be more and worse to come.
Sobered by this, the State Department is likely to come under pressure from business interests to ask the question it never seems to notice. Why is there so much hatred of the United States, and so much yearning to poke it in the eye? Are the architects of policy sane in their certainty that America can enrage large numbers of people, but contain that rage forever through satellite technology and intrepid double-agents? Businessmen and bankers will now start to read carefully enough to discern that it is not US national interest, but the power of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, that tends to drive Washington’s policy in the world’s greatest troublespot. Threatened with disaster, corporate America may just prove powerful enough to face AIPAC down, and suggest, firmly, that the next time Israel asks Washington to veto the UN’s desire to send observers to Hebron, it pauses to consider where its own interests might lie.
Among Muslims, the longer-term aftershock will surely take the form of a crisis among ‘moderate Wahhabis’. Even if a Middle-Eastern connection is somehow disproved, they cannot deny forever that doctrinal extremism can lead to political extremism. They must realise that it is traditional Islam, the only possible alternative to their position, which owns rich resources for the respectful acknowledgement of difference within itself, and with unbelievers. The lava-stream that flows from Ibn Taymiyya, whose fierce xenophobia mirrored his sense of the imminent Mongol threat to Islam, has a habit of closing minds and hardening hearts. It is true that not every committed Wahhabi is willing to kill civilians to make a political point. However it is also true that no orthodox Sunni has ever been willing to do so. One of the unseen, unsung triumphs of true Islam in the modern world is its complete freedom from any terroristic involvement. Maliki ulama do not become suicide-bombers. No-one has ever heard of Sufi terrorism. Everyone, enemies included, knows that the very idea is absurd.
Two years ago, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, warned of the dangers of mass terrorism to American cities; and he was brushed aside as a dangerous alarmist. Muslim organisations are no doubt beginning to regret their treatment of him. The movement for traditional Islam will, we hope, become enormously strengthened in the aftermath of the recent events, accompanied by a mass exodus from Wahhabism, leaving behind only a merciless hardcore of well-financed zealots. Those who have tried to take over the controls of Islam, after reading books from we-know-where, will have to relinquish them, because we now know their destination.
When that happens, or perhaps even sooner, mainstream Islam will be able to make the loud declaration in public that it already feels in its heart: that terrorists are not Muslims. Targeting civilians is a negation of every possible school of Sunni Islam. Suicide bombing is so foreign to the Quranic ethos that the Prophet Samson is entirely absent from our scriptures. Islam is a great world religion that has produced much of the world’s most sensitive art, architecture and literature, and has a rich life of ethics, missionary work, and spirituality. Such are the real, and historically-successful, weapons of Islam, because they are the instruments that make friends of our neighbours, instead of enemies fit for burning alive. Those that refuse them, out of cultural impotence or impatience, will in the longer term be perceived as so radical in their denial of what is necessarily known to be part of Islam, that the authorities of the religion are likely to declare them to be beyond its reach. If that takes place, then future catastrophes by Wahhabi ultras will have little impact on the image of communities, whose spokesmen can simply say that Muslims were not implicated. This is the approach taken by Christian churches when confronted by, say, the Reverend Jim Jones’s suicide cult, or the Branch Davidians at Waco. Only a radical amputation of this kind will save Islam’s name, and the physical safety of Muslims, particularly women, as they live and work in Western cities.
To conclude: there is much despair, but there are also grounds for hope. The controls of two great vehicles, the State Department, and Islam, need to be reclaimed in the name of sanity and humanity. It is always hard to accept that good might come out of evil; but perhaps only a catastrophe on this scale, so desolating, and so seemingly hopeless, could provide the motive and the space for such a reclamation.
Although the response from Muslims in the UK seems to have been very favourable to my essay, with one or two requests that it be sent to national newspapers for reprinting on their pages, it is inevitable that under pressure from real or potential rioters and cross-burners, some Muslims consider premature any attempt to begin a debate among ourselves about the cultural and doctrinal foundations of extremism.
It is true that no convictions have been secured, and that in the Shari’a suspects are innocent until proven guilty. However it is also regrettably the case that these suspects will not be tried under Shari’a law, and that we need, in the absence of a traditional framework of accusation and assessment, to hold our own discussions. This is particularly urgent in this case, since the damage to the honour of Islam, and the physical safety of innocent Muslims, in the West and in Central Asia and elsewhere, is very considerable. We Muslims are now at ‘ground zero’. As such, we cannot simply ignore the duty to ask each other what has caused the attitudes that probably, but not indisputably, lie at the root of these events.
My essay, which endeavoured to kick-start this debate, takes its cue primarily from the UK situation, which is no doubt less intense than in the US, but is nonetheless serious. In particular I am concerned to insist that Muslims distance themselves from, for instance, the janaza prayer for the hijackers that was held two days ago at a London Wahhabi mosque (the term Wahhabi is more useful, since ‘Salafi’ can also refer to the Abduh-Rida reformism and is hence confusing). Having spoken to the editor of one of this country’s major Muslim magazines, it is clear that the small minority of voices which have been raised in support of the terrorist act were in every case of the Wahhabi persuasion. Clearly, we cannot simply ignore this on grounds of ‘Muslim unity’, since those people appear so determined to destroy Muslim unity, and endanger the security of our community.
I hope that the recent events will spur Muslims to consider the implications for the wider ethos in which we understand our religion of the shift which we have witnessed over the past twenty years or so away from accommodationist and tolerant forms of Islam, and towards narrowmindedness. Al-Ghazali recommends a tolerant view of non-Muslims, and is prepared to grant that many of them may be saved in the next world; Ibn Taymiya, as Muhammad Memon has shown in his book on him, is vehement and adversarial. In our communities in the West, and indeed worldwide, we surely need the Ghazalian approach, not the rigorism of Ibn Taymiya. Not just because we need to reassure our neighbours, but also because we need to reassure those very many born Muslims who are made unsure about their attachment to Islam by events such as this that they can belong to the religion without being harsh and narrow-minded. Extremism can drive people right out of Islam. In 1999 the Conference of French Catholic bishops announced that 300 Algerians were among the year’s Easter baptisms. Noting that ten years earlier Muslims never converted at all, they reported that the change was the result of the spread of extreme forms of Islam in Algeria.
In Afghanistan, too, there are now Christians for the first time ever, and I have heard from one ex-Taliban member that this is because of the extremism with which Islam is imposed on the people. The shift away from traditional Islam, and towards Ibn Taymiya’s position, has been widely documented, for instance by Ahmad Rashid, in his chapter ‘Challenging Islam’, in his book on the Taliban. The Saudi-Wahhabi connection has been very conspicuous.
We must ask Allah to open the hearts of the Muslims everywhere to recognise that narrow mindedness and mutual anathema will lead us nowhere, and that only through spirituality, toleration and wisdom will we be granted success.
The most appropriate du’a’ for our situation would seem to be: ‘Ya Hayyu Ya Qayyum, bi-rahmatika astaghiith’, which is recommended in a hadith in cases of fear and misfortune. It means: ‘O Living, O Self-Subsistent; by Your mercy I seek help.’