Vicken Cheterian

Paris Terrorist Attacks: Don’t Blame Islam…

Who is to blame for the Paris attacks? Some blame Islam and Muslims for it. Others have put forward Huntingtonian concepts about Muslim civilization being intrinsically inclined to violence. 

Such accusations are as indiscriminate, as the criminal attack of terrorist. They are equally ahistorical. In we look at history of mass violence most crimes against humanity were committed elsewhere: the First and Second World Wars; the Stalinist Gulags and Nazi concentration camps; the Genocide in Cambodia and mass killings in Maoist China; extermination of colonized populations from natives of the Americas to that of Congo under Belgian occupation took place away from Muslim societies. Even the Armenian Genocide, the greatest single mass murder under Muslim rule, was the work of self-declared atheists of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). 

Historically, Islamic jurisprudence developed detail rules on warfare. Here are the famous ten rules of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the companion of the Prophet: 

“Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies; do not kill a woman, a child, or an old man; do not cut down fruitful trees; do not destroy inhabited areas; do not slaughter any of the enemies’ sheep, cow or camel except for food… You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”[1]

Islam as religion or culture does not explain the ideology and the crimes of ISIS.

One may also hear the contrary argument: that Muslims have nothing to do with the violence, that those terrorists originate form outside the community. Conspirator theorists would go as far as to pretend that ISIS or al-Qaeda is the creation of foreign secret services, etc. Although Islam as religion has nothing much with ISIS, political Islam and its radicalization in the last decades needs serious debate.  

Political Islam originates to the 18th and 19th centuries when new innovations such as newspapers made it possible to communicate, and imagine a common Islamic community. It was also a reaction to the weakening of Muslim states and especially of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of European – Christian – modern states. European states were simultaneously a source of admiration, in what regards in their achievements in science, education, and rule of law; but also of fear as colonial, expansionist empires. 

Political Islam took various forms. There were those arguing that Muslim institutions needed reform. Early pan-Islamic thinkers, such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, looked in the Islamic past as well as modern European models as a solution to the crisis of the Muslim societies. His disciples looked for Muslim unity as well as revival (tajdid) by integrating European rationality to Islamic law. For this early generation of salafis there was no problem to borrow the best scientific and political innovations taking place in the West, just as the great Muslim civilizations under the Umayyad’s or Abbasids had heavily borrowed from the best of Greek philosophy and science. There were other reactions to modernity seeking solutions in Islam. The most important was Wahhabi revolt in Arabia, which rejected Ottoman rule considering it corrupted by Western ways. Wahhabi ideology was austere, rejecting any outside influence under the dogma of unity of the Divine and practice. 

Since Arab volunteers joined the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, there has been a process of continuous radicalization of political Islam towards salafi-jihadism: a dogmatic ideology inspired by the early Wahabbis mixed with admiration of limitless violence. Jihadism evolves in well-defined environment: in failed states, where societies are broken down and living through civil wars: Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria are breeding grounds for jihadists.

The Middle Eastern Arab countries have a series of structural problems: archaic economic models with rapid demographic growth created massive youth unemployment. This was the central contradiction that led to the 2011 explosion. 

In the past, Leninism was the ideology of armed struggle. Today, it is the simple formula proposed by jihadism that mobilizes radicalized youth. If you give a Kalashnikov to an Islamist, will his ideology be different than al-Qaeda? In the 1970’s Islamists had a slogan: “Islam is the solution.” Today, it is evidently part of the problem. Not only jihadists have no answer to the deep social and political problems of their societies, they even fail in bringing unity: today al-Qaeda and ISIS massacre each other in Syria even before Assad is gone from power. 

Paris is also the failure of the West. An operation involving a multitude of targets means that French police is unable to stop terrorists, for a second time this year. It also means that “war on terror”, invasion of Afghanistan, occupation of Iraq, with thousands of casualties and trillions of expenses did not bring a solution. Instead of al-Qaeda now we have ISIS, a bigger, and more violent problem.  

Don’t blame Islam for Paris – or Beirut attacks. But if we want to change the horror around us we need to demand accountability.