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Effectively Promoting Moderation in an Age of Extremisms

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Message Younes Abdullah Muhammad
War on Terror is too often presented as .good. vs .evil. or .us. vs .them. causing more violence and terrorism.
War on Terror is too often presented as .good. vs .evil. or .us. vs .them. causing more violence and terrorism.
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By Younus Abdullah Muhammad

Almost 14 years after the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent declaration of a global war on terror, violent Islamic extremism, previously known simply as terrorism, continues to dominate the headlines. Public reaction to the latest wave of Islamic terrorism has been vehement across the globe. Everyone recognizes an enhanced extremism in jihadist groups but few acknowledge that most effort to counter terrorism with force, typically a similar but unreported state-sponsored terrorism, only exacerbates matters. This is particularly true in the West, where punditry of both primary political parties portrays a war between good and evil; a violent Islamic extremism threatens to destroy Western culture and to occupy Western nations.

Current discourse tends to divide Muslims into the good and the bad. Unconsciously many equate the "good" with those supportive of what are haphazardly called "western values," more properly classified as passive acceptance of western dominance. An extension of this overly simplistic dichotomy then surreptitiously defines "bad" Muslims as any that remain critical of the repressive aspects of "western" policy and practice. While Muslims must condemn dissolute and excessive violence, such passive acceptance of this Manichean perspective cements an almost complete inability to address the root causes of the ongoing conflicts.

There have been four waves of terror in the modern era, all of them driven primarily by extremist ideologies. The anarchist wave ran from 1880-1920; the Anti-colonialist from the 1920's to 60's; the New Leftist from late 60's to the early 90's, and the current Religious Fundamentalist wave began in 1979 and continues unto the present. Modern terror is also a product of advancements in communication and evolving revolutionary doctrine. The expositions of bin Laden are not unlike the anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin.

Terrorist tactics tend to invoke extraordinary, obtrusive and destructive reactions. Surveillance, military and law enforcement measures are typically enhanced and broad and oftentimes illegal application of law blankets suspect populations. In the same way McCarthyism eventually birthed COINTEL in the age of communism, domestic and foreign policy and practice today, particularly in the United States, challenges cherished notions of civil liberties. As George Washington put it, "He who would sacrifice civil liberties for security deserves neither." Today, individualized IP-addresses and I-phone tracking mechanisms make the national security state less obtrusive, but they also create the prospect of virtual internment camps, enforcing unwritten but punitive laws against dissidence. This helps forego the necessity of more extreme measures and intimidates those that might advocate publically against a system that oppresses the masses. It must be stressed that these current maneuvers overwhelmingly target Muslim populations.

Due to this enhanced scrutiny and discrimination, terrorist movements typically spark the most animosity amongst the populations they claim to be defending. But the overreaction of those they target sustains conflict and simultaneously induces what social movement theorists call 'radical flank effects,' where less violent radicals are emboldened on the principle they represent a 'lesser evil.' Thus terrorism can be seen as a pragmatic strategy, effective for moving towards a target.

Additionally, law enforcement practice and policy has enhanced a growing Islamophobia. The NYPD, for example, was forced to shut down its 'demographics unit,' a special-ops unit contrived by a former CIA official. It was criticized by activists, not only for overstepping rights but for its chilling effect on free expression. The overstepping associated with today's counterterrorist narrative may prove more extraneous than previous eras. Where other waves of modern terror had 40-year life cycles, the West is already 35 years into a wave of sacred terror which seems, at this moment, to be interminable. Perhaps that is by design but it all suggests that both terror and counterterror tactics only enhance the phenomenon, a never-ending cycle.

Another effect of the Manichean perspective lies in an insolent alter-extremism. The assassination of the French cartoonists epitomized this fundamentally, but mostly unrecognized, issue. Extreme fundamentalist interpretations stem from the faulty analogy of texts, called 'qiyas' in Islamic jurisprudence. Extremist interpretations are based on oversimplifications and generalizations that do not consider the specific nuances of events that occurred during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They also do not account for social change or historical progressions. In the case of assassinating those that defame or depict Muhammad today, a primary fallacy lie in not considering that those residing in the West are not bound by Islamic law, are not living under shariah, and are under no covenant like those that were assassinated for defamation (and actually treason) during the Prophet's 10 years as a statesman.

Nevertheless, there is a responsibility that comes with power, especially when dealing with the weak. Attacks like those against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or the even more nonsensical attempt in Texas more recently by ISIS followers, are ultimately political reactions to antagonistic portrayals, deliberately seeking incitement and publicity. One of the Charlie Hebdo covers posted lewd caricatures of the Prophet of Islam just days after the September 11, 2012 murder of the American ambassador in Libya. Pamela Geller, a primary target in the "Draw Muhammad', Texas attack has consistently provoked and prodded Muslims at large, expanding the idea that every Muslim in the mosque secretly wants to implement shariah in America and other ignorant conceptions. Provocations like these certainly don't justify such wanton and senseless violence, but the ultimate reactions are interesting.

Charlie Hebdo was a marginalized publication before the incident, which induced 3 million citizens, many of them Muslims, onto the streets in support of democracy and free expression. Pamela Geller never had so much publicity in her life and her contest will likely become a popular annual event. Nevertheless, a deeper irony is always missing. The Charlie Hebdo attackers were of Algerian descent, a nation the French brutally colonized from 1830 unto the non-colonial era. In fact, the French alongside the British, created the modern Middle East and its authoritarian structures through the Sykes-Picot agreement, a betrayed promise for a united pan-Arab or caliphate-like order. Since that time, western powers have done their utmost to prevent free expression and independent democracy throughout the Middle East. Many true academics point out that Islamic political violence is largely a result of having no other alternative avenue of contestation. The U.S. hegemon has largely assumed the same role. The Obama administration just reestablished full-fledged military ties to the dictatorship in Egypt, amongst other examples. Muslims are not ignorant of these salient realities and their connection to violence. They are simply afraid to speak about it out loud.

To be sure, the recent wave of religious terror is not confined to Muslims. The era includes Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist terrorism as well. It is also uncomfortable for the West and its allies to discuss state and state-sponsored terrorism. Yet, to deny that the overwhelming amount of religious terror stems from those claiming to act in the name of Islam is also deceitful. Unfortunately, many Muslims fail to acknowledge the mere existence of "Islamic extremism." For example, when an ISIS-inspired decapitation occurred in Texas late last year, many sought to brand it "workplace violence." This was true of Nidal Hassan's Fort Hood attack as well.

For years, self-righteous community leaders left extremism largely unchallenged, pretending it didn't exist or acting as if those adopting the terrorist's ideology were simply not significant enough to warrant their prestigious attention. Such an attitude subliminally adopts the same excommunication (takfiri) tactic of those they claim to oppose. It is as if to say they are not Muslim at all. Only now, with funding for initiatives that counter violent extremism are leaders coming to the fore. Unfortunately, they have no influence in at-risk populations. In the process, they are being exposed as simple charlatans and their efforts will prove counterproductive as well.

Truth be told, Islamic thought is indeed in desperate need of a reformation and renaissance. In the 11th century, a debate between al-Ghazzali and Ibn Rushd -- known as Averroes in European circles- initiated a divide, the consequences of which continue to plague much of Islamic thought unto today. Al-Ghazzali attacked Ibn Rushd's reliance on 'scientific knowledge.' His critique was skeptical that we could really know anything at all about reality, its principles of causality, for ultimately all was determined solely by God. Interestingly, Ibn Rushd's work was highly influential in Christian and Jewish circles. It helped inspire the Renaissance in Europe On the other hand, al-Ghazzali's thoughts were misconstrued and led to the adaptation of a detrimental mysticism that still covers Islamic peoples. This fatalism has proven largely responsible for the gradual backwardation of the Muslim world. It is an uncomfortable truth, but it was indeed an anti-intellectual decline that preceded Western colonization.

Today a rigid and anti-rational mindset lie at the root of fundamentalist ideology. Such conceptions lack any appreciation for the application of Islamic principles, while simultaneously accepting positivist advancements in social, political and economic arenas, most of which are in full agreement with the Islamic tradition. Rule following over substance and rote memorization over abstract and critical thought prevails. This despite the fact that all the prophets included in the Quran were serious dissidents within their respective societies. There can be no doubt that outmoded and archaic authoritarian structures have long prevented a progressive political Islam from inducing such a reformation. As the remaining authoritarian governments suppress calls for reform, freedom and electoral political structures, elite networks of privilege supported by western powers, continue to benefit while the masses remain in chains.

However, by monopolizing force in the hands of the repressive state and ignoring populist pushes in the name of protecting 'interests,' western nations betray the very principles the supporters of Charlie Hebdo claimed to be defending. This hypocrisy has proven so pervasive and long-lasting that to mention it leads to immediate dismissal and in some cases consequential repression. Such is the core denial that underlies all pride, prestige and privilege. Nevertheless, when terrorism "experts" call for diverse measures that seek to eradicate evil or "degrade and destroy" terrorist movements, they fail even to acknowledge the root causes. In the sophistic rhetoric of politicians we find allusions to such but the policies never include an actual concern for human rights or democratic norms, only blatant hypocrisy and more weapons sales for the military-industrial complex.

The typical sentiment is as Alan Dershowitz explained in his Why Terrorism Works (2002), "The current mantra of those opposed to a military response to terrorism is a plea to understand and eliminate the root causes of terrorism. There are several reasons why this is exactly the wrong approach" The reason terrorism works -- and will persist unless there are significant changes in the responses to it -- is precisely because its perpetrators believe that by murdering innocent civilians they will succeed in attracting the attention of the world to their perceived grievances and their demand that the world "understand them" and "eliminate their root causes" We must take precisely the opposite approach to terrorism. We must commit ourselves never to ty to understand or eliminate its alleged root causes, but rather to place it beyond the pale of dialogue and negotiation."

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Younes Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs. He is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison system. He is the founder of Islam Policy and can be contacted at
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