A mourner reacts during a candlelight vigil in the aftermath of Monday’s (Matt Rourke/AP )
A cacophony of pain and outrage pierced my heart when I discovered that two Muslim men were believed to be behind the vicious Boston Marathon bombings.
First, there was the sorrow for the loss and destruction of innocent life. But then, there was the anguish of realizing that people who shared my faith are alleged to have committed this unspeakable horror. It was unfathomable, unimaginable and unforgivable to see my religion, my source of refuge, hope and peace in the world become a tool for violence in the hands of men who had no regard for the sanctity of human life. It is both hurtful and outrageous that a fellow Muslim could be so deluded as to think that he is fulfilling a holy objective by killing innocent life.
Yet feeling pain and outrage is not enough. These times call for courage, honesty and leadership. The Muslim American community needs to stand up and seek ways to root out radicalization at its core. As rare or uncommon as radicalization may be, the fact is that it only takes one extremist Muslim to wreak havoc, inflict terror, take away the lives of innocents –and malign our faith. We need to honestly discuss our problems and the grievances that outrage many Muslims without fear or intimidation. Finally, we need leadership to guide young Muslims to work towards civic and humane solutions that alleviate those grievances that most disturb them.
None of this is to suggest that we, as a Muslim community, should take blame for those despicable acts of terror or that we can prevent such an attack from ever happening again, just as no law enforcement agency or school administration could ever completely prevent another Columbine, Aurora or Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
However, the Muslim community can and must take measures to significantly reduce the chances of such an act repeating. No other group in the United States carries the legitimacy that we do to speak to co-religionists from an authentic, credible position from within the faith.
There are two parts to the narrative of Muslim extremists who wind up taking violent action, and we must confront both.
The first component of their narrative is factual, although somewhat distorted by conspiracy theories and inaccuracies. They observe, as do people of various faiths, that there are injustices and abuses occurring throughout the Muslim world. Some of these injustices are inflicted by the U.S. government, such as civilian deaths or destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, while other injustices are due to domestic problems or corrupt dictatorships.
The second part of their narrative is the most disturbing and twisted: to somehow “avenge” the deaths of innocents in the Muslim world, these terrorists then proceed to kill innocents in the West. They convince themselves they are pursuing some sort of holy vengeance, whereas they are committing the most atrocious and un-holy crime by taking away the lives of innocents. It is a symptom of a disenfranchised warped psychology that is fundamentally un-Islamic. As a Muslim community, we need to wake up and start talking about this phenomenon.
So, what can we do?
There are four concrete measures the Muslim American community must take:
The Muslim community should tackle the first part of the narrative.
We need to reasonably and objectively talk about grievances in the Muslim world. Most Muslim preachers and leaders’ approach to politics tends to fall under two opposite ends of the spectrum: either they completely ignore those political issues that run deep in Muslim sentiment and that, frankly speaking, outrage a lot of Muslims; or they deliver fiery talks that border on conspiratorial and focus only on the problem, not the solution. Both trends are ineffective and exacerbate the problem. Muslim communities need to create a forum a safe space where young Muslims can vent their feelings about issues that deeply disturb them.
These discussions must be accompanied with a prognosis, not just a diagnosis, of the problem.
Encouraging the participation of young Muslims in civic, political and advocacy venues can significantly reduce the type of disenchantment and outrage that lead to radicalization. Instead of treading towards extremism or resorting to violence, they are able to diffuse the frustration they feel by taking effective, civic action. By raising public awareness or influencing policy on those issues that deeply concern them they become part of the solution not the problem.
Let’s talk about jihad.
We must define what jihad is, in order to determine what it is not. Clearly and obviously, the Muslim community’s clich responses that ‘Islam means peace’ and that ‘Muslims condemn terrorism’ are not enough. These trite statements only serve to reinforce Muslim extremists’ perceptions that the rest of us are following a watered-down, diluted form of Islam. How do we define jihad, based on authentic texts of Islamic law and its primary sources? What are the conditions of a jihad and what are its legal parameters?
Jihad is the struggle for good, be it spiritual, intellectual or military. On a military level, it is an act of defense to protect Muslims’ lives and properties. It is an open declaration of war that is fought on the battlefield, not in public spaces. Further, the killing of civilians, even if they are on a battlefield, is strictly prohibited in Islamic law. This is a simplified summary for the sake of brevity. One only needs to read the legal texts of the five mainstream schools of Islamic thought to conclude that terrorism is as far from jihad as the devil is from heaven.
In addition, as Imam Zaid Shakir, a scholar at Zaytuna College, wrote in an article on the tragedy of Fort Hood four years ago, Muslims living in a non-Muslim land are under a covenant of protection that cannot be violated. It is illegal for them, according to Islamic law, to betray this public trust or expose the public to any harm. This is a violation of the covenant between them and the non-Muslim state which has given them protection to live therein.
Lastly: We need to inject a healthy dose of Islamic history into our own understanding of current politics and the crises in which we live.
There have always been fringe groups who have interpreted religious texts literally and out of context to justify extreme acts of violence against people. Al-Qaeda was not the first or last group in Muslim history to espouse such views, as remnants of history will always echo in the present.
For example, if we carefully study the history of the Kharijites (i.e. khawarij), a fringe, extreme group in Muslim history, we will find unmistakable parallels between their ideology and that of “modern” groups who justify acts of terrorism as jihad. They both draw upon the same textual evidence to derive similar ideological positions, such as their literalist interpretation of the Koran, doctrine of takf r (declaring Muslims as apostates) and belief in the religious obligation to overthrow a sinful government. Despite their strict adherence to Islamic rituals, religious scholars always considered the khawarij to be a deviant and radical group.
The Muslim American community is doing itself a disservice by focusing on trivialities like whether perpetrators of terror should be called terrorists or madmen or some other term. After innocent people have died, lost their limbs or their lives have been utterly destroyed, our outrage and pain should not push us towards semantics or trivialities. They should instead lead us towards trying to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Mubarak is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, where she has studied Islamic Political Thought, Reform and Militancy in Medieval Islam and Islamic Law. She was the former president of the National Muslim Students Association and a contributor to “I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim.”