Engaging the Muslim Terrorist Argument – Nasir Mohammed Bello


It is difficult to appreciate a complex issue with a simplistic definition, and that underscored the mystery behind our understanding of terrorism especially as a symbol of an extreme religious ideology. The concepts of ‘Freedom and Identity’ are in my view critical to our understanding of ‘why and what’ makes a terrorist in us. Our conceptualization of our identity (be it Cultural, Tribal, Racial, National, Religious etc.) and the expression of it, and our view of the scope of freedom in expressing our identity decide our disposition and movement within a spectrum that highlights the bearing of people with Liberalist expression on one end and Terrorist at the opposite end. Often our identity lens tells us ‘what’ the other is and ‘how’ we should interact with him/her.                                                              

Religion like many other features is a very important identity that has the potential of creating a monster in the society when understood wrongly. Power to negotiate one’s interest in a world where nobody gets what he/she deserves is often reduced to violence particularly by those who lack the power to bargain for their interest through a peaceful means and equally felt persecuted or deprived.  While some would think extreme religious ideologies informed by ‘Theological Conservatism’ are the main drivers of ‘Religious Terrorism’ others would think ‘Religion’ is just a smoke screen or rather a coloration used to cover an acute social frustration to legitimize the act.

Though it is difficult to generalize because the push and pull factors vary among the aggregate numbers of terrorist groups across the globe, certain features seem common among almost all the popular contemporary terrorist organizations. The two major divides in their composition are:

  1. The drivers- they are usually the intellectuals and the organization’s ideologues- the type one can conveniently call ‘the vital few ’and,
  2.  The followers- the foot soldiers or what one can aptly tag ‘the useless majority’- most of whom are ignorant regarding the doctrinal basis for why they do what they do.

The Terrorist Arguments

Terrorist organizations across the globe have an aggregate number of arguments, justifications and/or defense they put forward as basis for their engagement in Terrorism. The bulk of what they often present at an organizational level are not peculiar to any specific group, there seems to be an unofficial consensus of some sort about their grouse among all of them.  A study of those arguments will reveal the following:

  1. Interpretation and application of specific text on a subject that will require studying of all relevant Quranic verses and Prophetic Ahadith (Narrations). A very good example is their reasons for Jihad.
  2. Quoting text out of its context- ignoring what the scholars called the reason for the revelation of a specific text, which usually explains the scope and limit of its application.                             
  3. Literal interpretation of the text, deliberate selection of an opinion and/or interpretation that fits in with their motive even if it clearly contradicts the Maqasid (objectives) of Shariah.             
  4. They are poorly grounded in the religious sciences—an area that guides the process(es) of crafting legal ruling in Islam (Usul alfikh)— and lack of understanding of the basic ‘Principles and Objectives of Islam. It is no surprise if a person, ignorant of all the aforementioned areas, messed up when he/she speaks of and for Islam. The outcome of this grand delusion is better imagined than described.

Having explained the main reasons for the departure in their approach from the mainstream Muslims, I now present their major arguments:                                                            

  1. That Islam means absolute submission to the will of Allah (as embodied by the concept of Tawheed {Oneness of Allah}), and that transcends all walks of a Muslim’s life including politics, economy etc. Therefore, allegiance to or believe in any system that is not Islamic is Shirk (Associating partnership to Allah) which will render one to committing Ridda (Apostasy) and therefore automatically make one a Kaffir(Disbeliever).                                        
  2. The belief that the only determinant to a genuine Islamic system of governance is the implementation of Hudud (capital punishment like the cutting of the hands of a thief, stoning to death an adulterer, lashing a fornicator etc.).
  3. The idea for struggle in the re-establishment of a Universal Islamic Caliphate as a condition for being a true Muslim and living in Islamic way. And failure to partake in such struggle will amount to Kuffur (Disbelieve). 
  4. Their understanding of the concept of Alwala Wal Bara’a (Loyalty and Dissociation) would mean any action that shows recognition, submission, obedience to and admiration of, any other system of life beside the ‘Islamic’, or of any individual non-Muslim will lead to Kuffur.                                                         
  5. Jihad (otherwise as erroneously translated, Holy war) is a fundamental responsibility of every Muslim because it is the only way for the realization of the Universal Islamic Caliphate.                                                      
  6. Treaties between Muslims and non-Muslims are only legitimate when done with their (Terrorist) leadership only. Reason because other Muslims that are not part of them are apostates for the simple fact they didn’t join their cause and, therefore, whichever peaceful agreement reached with them is null and void.
  7. They believe Muslims are under siege and, are being oppressed, they are not allowed to be governed by their own Shariah (Laws). And, therefore, waging a violent Jihad is the only means Muslims can regain their freedom. And whoever died in such struggle is a martyr and gains entrance to God’s Paradise.                                                                      
  8. For the group in Nigeria, Western system of Education (Boko) is Haram (prohibited) because it has theories that are unIslamic which originate from disbelievers, and promote nudity and corruption.                                                     
  9. If a Muslim changes his religion (apostasy) he should be killed. 
  10. Non-Muslims are inferior and should, therefore, be subdued and sanctioned with the payment of Jizya (Tax for their protection).
  11. The Christians and the Jews of our contemporary world, are not Ahlul Kitab (the people of the book) whom the Qur’an commanded us to accord some respect, because they have contaminated the scriptures, and, therefore, it is legitimate for them to be annihilated.

Refuting the Arguments

 Islam as a religion claims universality (in terms of history & geography), and therefore has a book (Qur’an) which contains principles that will always guide these divergent followership, with instructions or rather teachings that are generally categorized into two; the conclusive (thawabit) mainly the rituals and the variables (Al-mutagayyirat), transactional matters that are usually contextual and always change in form within the scope of the principles of Shari’a.

The case of leadership and governance is purely a transactional matter, and many scholars would argue on the historicity of the models of leadership that existed in the Islamic tradition including the Caliphate as being  models that were reflective of the nature of governance and nation building of their  times. And that is even why within the history, we had variant pattern of leadership particularly from a look at what the process of the emergence of the leadership was, and all that were referred to as Caliphate; from the reign of the four rightly guided Caliphs, the Umayyad, the Abbasid, the Ottoman, the Safavid up to the Andalusian Umayyad(which Islamic historians call a nation in exile), and in fact  the existence of some as independent contemporaries was equally a refutation of the so-called argument of the necessity of a global Islamic Caliphate, hence, none among the classical scholars was having any problem with the divergence.                                                          

A Renowned fifth Century scholar, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, posited that it is impossible to detach the text from human rationality and in fact, the revelation which he called ‘light’ could only have an effect if the receiver of the message has the ‘eyes’ – which is his rationality within which he/she can see or understand. This is even why scholars defined ‘Ijtihad’—an effort made in the formation of rulings from the sources of sharia—as an intersection between reason and revelation (RnR=I).

The point which condemned a society as a Tagut just because it is using a man-made law is too simplistic. This notion started with a group called ‘Haruriya’ which later became what is now known as‘Kawarij’ during the time of the fourth caliph Ali Bn Abi Talib(RA)when he agreed to arbitration between him and his opponent Mu’awiya (RA) after their conflict, even though Caliph Ali (RA) was categorical that the principle of Shari’a should guide the arbitration, yet this group insisted that he is wrong for allowing a human being other than Allah to judge, and so they considered him a disbeliever and continued to fight him until they succeeded in assassinating him.

An interesting episode about Caliph Ali’s engagement with the Kawarij was when he once brought out the Qur’an publically and asked the Qur’an to judge, the people said; how could that be? He then said that is exactly my point—the Qur’an requires human agency to understand and apply its meaning within a context.

Our understanding of the text is just an attempt to understand what Allah said, and it is always probable that what we understand is what Allah meant and those are the ‘laws’ often claimed to be in the Islamic tradition.

Contingencies and context play a key role in the dynamics of usage and conceptualization of some important terms particularly those with multiple meaning, in fact, that is why we have Fiqhul Wa’qi (The Jurisprudence of Reality) as a subject in our tradition. Terms like ‘Almuhajirun’ which was before the conquest of Makkah being referred to those among the Sahaba(companions of the prophet{SAW})who migrated to Madinah, and immediately after the conquest, the Prophet (SAW)gave it another meaning which is not necessarily abrogating the other meaning but echoing a more fitting meaning in the post-conquest era. He (SAW) said: Almuhajiru (the migrator)is he/she who desist from that which Allah forbid. Such examples are equally applicable to concepts like Muslim, where the Prophet(SAW)said a Muslim is he “whose fellow Muslim brothers and sisters are protected against the harm of his tongue”- meaning, he will never bad mouth them. Jihad is also another concept; it is literally translated as “an effort”- which one exerts in resisting and reforming the self and others. Jihad is a term that has divergent forms, and given the contingency and context of Muslims in Madinah, permission was given to them to make effort(Jihad)to secure their freedom as a nation surrounded by enemies, and that situation underscored the reason for the amplification of the military form of jihad.

But one would find many verses of the glorious Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet(SAW)of Islam highlighting other forms of Jihad like the effort we make in dealing with the self, obeying our parents, giving money for a good cause etc. And it is in view of the above that scholars argue on the need to always appreciate the dynamics in trying to understand the what, why, and how of the mention of Jihad in any given context.                                         

The Qur’an has undoubtedly spoken on warfare, and as earlier mentioned, divorcing a text from its context is a very dangerous methodology of interpretation and potentially misleading. To appreciate the message of the Qur’an on any particular subject, we need to read how scholars were able to relate all the verses to their contexts. For instance, the case of Jihad, Scholars studied several verses that talked about Jihad. They therefore came up with classifications on the verses that highlighted the pre-warfare period and planning moments; the revelations that came amidst the battles; those revealed after the conduct of the battles—which usually emphasize reconciliation, mercy and courtesy to the conquered or defeated enemy.

Scholars also argue that freedom of religion is the critical factor whose protection was the main cause for Muslim’s participation in any battle. This was very well captured by the verses that permit self-defense, and the injunction which clearly forbid killing of non-combatants, women, children etc.

Warfare is just a circumstantial necessity that allows survival, and therefore, its usage as a defensive mechanism is to guarantee Muslim’s freedom to practice their religion. No compulsion in religion  has always been the norm in the Islamic tradition, and that was the way the Prophet(SAW)conducted the affairs of Muslims and their relationship with others.

With respect to Apostasy, there is not any stipulated punishment for Apostasy in this world from the Qur’an, and the prophetic tradition which sanctioned the apostate with a death penalty was understood by many scholars to mean “switching of the apostate to the camp of the enemy which automatically render him or her as an ally or a part of those who are fighting the Muslims”. The hadith which is the only reason for the pro-death penalty is sanctioning treason, because, then the state was the religion for the Muslims, and it was the world that was hostile and with a binary expression of Muslims and their enemies. However, in a world such as ours, with peaceful treaties, the Qur’anic injunction on the freedom of every being and no compulsion in religion will prevail as argued by so many scholars, especially the contemporary ones.

 Regarding western education and the terrorists’ view of non-Muslims, the verses of the Qur’an and many Prophetic traditions are very clear on the value of knowledge and the encouragement to search for it wherever it is. Issues of nudity and mingling between boys and girls are specific attachments that could be handled and corrected based on the values and teachings of the people. The Prophet(SAW)has sent a companion to go and learn the language of the Jews for diplomatic reasons, and when people with knowledge emerged as war prisoners, the Prophet(SAW) used to ask them to teach Muslims any of their skills as a ransom for their freedom. The coming of the prophet(SAW) itself indicates the deviation of humanity from the right path and therefore he was sent to right the wrong. He(SAW)accepted the Jews and the Christians as a class that are the closest to Muslims and should be respected even when it is believed that they have altered the teachings of Torah and Bible, respectively.

Suffice to say that ignorance and self-adulation are critical in the Terrorists paradigm. The gap in their understanding is largely emanating from the interpretation of the text out of its context, deliberate selection of the part of the text that serves their selfish interest.

Challenges of Developing Counter Narratives

  1. Idealization of the past: it is natural that civilizations rise and fall, and many, are buried in the sands of time. Therefore, when a giant fall, people of that civilization will keep making an effort to recreate that past glory or rather regain their previous supremacy. In the event that they lack the capacity to peacefully achieve their goals they often resort to a violent means. Until Muslims appreciate the dynamics of our reality, and the need to develop the intellectual capacity to faithfully adapt those realities, the society will always have a tendency of resorting to terrorism.                                                                    
  2. Conservative Theology: it is really difficult to navigate through with counter narratives when the dominant voices in the Muslim communities are those of the puritans- whose literalism always projects Islam as a dogmatic religion that must never change. Such view often ends as the hatchery of extremism over the years. This would continue to be a challenge until we are able to do the needful.
  3. Media: the challenge with the media is on the way the Terrorists are offered free publicity wittingly or otherwise. Their views are news as against the counter narration. It would require huge investment, and henceforth, to succeed, we need a very strategic media engagement.                                      
  4. Islamophobia: Terrorism is a common problem. Unfortunately, most of the non-Muslims, out of hatred, will choose to go with the Terrorist’s definition of Islam. And this has in so many ways affected the effort from the mainstream Muslims in countering the Terrorist narratives.
  5. Lack of Political Will: it has always been a factor and a challenge in the countering effort.

Factors Critical in Developing Counter Narratives

  1. Identifying the right stakeholders. The most important stakeholders are the scholars.
  2. Prescribing a fitting solution to the variant problems, those with grievances should have their challenges solved while we offer a different prescription for the ideologues within the terrorist’s camp.
  3. More energy should be channelled on vaccinating potential terrorist, those that are the highly vulnerable members of the society through sermons and enlightenment programs. And it’s equally important to engage the Terrorist prisoners.
  4.  The medium to channel the counter-narratives is equally important. Effective networking from production to dissemination is a critical ingredient.

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