by Jalees Rehman
“These terrorists aren't true Muslims” is a phrase that I have often heard being used by American Muslims when talking about terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam. Recently, I encountered another version of this comment. Parents at a suburban Islamic Sunday School were encouraged to use this same approach when talking to their children about the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Arguments for denying the Muslim identity of the perpetrators include the moral incompatibility of the atrocities committed by the terrorists with Islamic law, which does not sanction the extrajudicial killing of civilians or suicide, which is frequent element of the attacks. This is an understandable reaction. The views of the perpetrators and their actions seem so abhorrent that it is impossible to reconcile their perception of Islam with those of the vast majority of American Muslims. However, even though one may sympathize with the desire to distance oneself from the terrorists, declaring terrorists to be non-Muslims or not “true” Muslims is the wrong answer.
The first problem with the arbitrary post-hoc excommunication of terrorists is that it is not really grounded in Islamic law. The process of takfir (excommunication Islam) requires very strong evidence and is difficult to uphold in most Islamic legal traditions if the person in question continues to see himself or herself as a Muslim. Someone may commit a grave sin or terrible crime, but these actions alone do not propel the person outside of the faith.
In fact, many of the terrorists or the organizations that endorse and support them portray themselves as true followers of Islam. Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) claimed responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (March 2016), Dhaka (July 2016), Baghdad (July 2016) and Nice (July 2016). Members of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram detonated bombs in a mosque in Maiduguri (January 2016), killing 22 worshipers and themselves. American-born Omar Mateen who murdered and injured over 100 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando (June 2016)swore allegiance to the leader of Daesh just minutes before his murderous shooting rampage. A group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban targeted the Christian community celebrating Easter Sunday in a Lahore park (March 2016) with a suicide bombing. Even though the precise nature of the involvement of Daesh in each individual attack is not always clear, the attackers and their handlers routinely invoke Islamic justifications for their actions. One may disagree with their logic and interpretations of Islam but this is not sufficient to warrant their excommunication. In fact, extremist groups are the ones which play fast and loose with takfir when it comes to Muslims with differing views on religion and it is important for the majority to resist the impulse of following their example. The second problem with declaring terrorists who view themselves as faithful followers of Islam to be non-Muslims is that it serves as a form of dangerous absolution. If atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, then Muslims need to carefully scrutinize what elements of their faith or the manner by which the faith is taught could have inspired such violence. Such introspection can serve as a starting point for change in approaching and teaching religion within Muslim communities to prevent the spread of Islamist ideologies that promote hatred and endorse violence. On the other hand, if the acts were committed by people who weren't true Muslims, then the community absolves itself of the responsibility to engage in introspection. They had a completely erroneous view of Islam, which is why we do not need to change.
The importance of avoiding false absolution is especially important when it comes to parenting Muslim children. Engaging the youth in introspective analysis of what aspects of religion (or any ideology) can promote supremacist and violent views may allow them to become active partners in thwarting the rise of extremism. As a parent, I discuss terrorism with our children, covering the broader sociopolitical context as well as the aspects within the Islamic tradition and history that are often used to justify atrocities. I am guided in part by my experience of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany. This German composite word combines Vergangenheit (the past) and Bewältigung (the process of struggling and overcoming) and refers to actively discussing the Nazi past in Germany. It would have been very easy to shrug off the Nazi ideology as not being truly German because it violated many ideals of German culture and absolve Germans of their historic burden but German society instead chose to confront its history. Schoolchildren visit concentration camps, talk to their parents about their grandparents' or great-grandparents' involvement in the Third Reich and are thus sensitized to the re-emergence of supremacist ideologies or fascism.
When I talk to my children about contemporary Islamist terrorist attacks, I try to engage in Gegenwartsbewältigung (Gegenwart = the present). These discussions do not only revolve around terrorism and violence but also involve broader contemporary issues in ethics, religion, decision-making and responsibility. As a family, we routinely sit together and listen to the inspiring Philosophy Bites podcasts by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton which allows us to then segue into the discussions about philosophy and religion.
Terrorist acts perpetuated by co-religionists require Muslim parents to engage in difficult conversations with their children. Hiding behind false absolution is a disservice to their children and to their community. My hope is that Gegenwartsbewältigung will foster open-mindedness and introspective critical thinking which is antithetical to the rise and spread of hatred and violence.