Getting Islamism and Terror Wrong

Published as "A Letter to the West from an Ex-Muslim Eastern Christian" in Turkish Daily News, 14 April 2007

A lot of things have changed since 9/11 attacks. None of us can say that we live in a safer or better world now. On the contrary, things have never looked this pale or chaotic before. We all realized one thing for certain. We are not immune, strong or distant from the problems of others as much as we imagined ourselves to be. In the old days, the ‘others' were allocated in far away exotic lands which we had no interest in. The battles were fought and problems were dealt with far away from us. Now, it is right here, at the centre of homelands, where we realize and experience that we all share a common humanity and vulnerability with millions of people living in this planet with us.

With this realization comes along a new wave of healthy and unhealthy panic attacks. You turn on your TV, you read the news, and you see an increasing amount of foreigners on your streets. The media representations are full of radical preachers of hatred, with foreign words like “jihad,” which you probably know more about now than an average Muslim do.

There are the prophets of doom, who preach a Manichean worldview that divides the world into two camps, the good and the bad. The civilized-who embodies higher values and the backward ones who only exist to harm or destroy. Then, there are the wise men and women of letters, learned ones, who provide legitimization for popular distastes of other cultures and peoples.They see "irreconcilable or unbridgeable distances" in what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences.” Thus the clash that we see outside becomes fixed and eternal, a clash of inherently different, imaginary “civilizations.” There is no hope for a common ground or a shared future. Within this picture, there is a come back of sentiments of Enoch Powell, who saw an inescapable result of “rivers of blood” when the races wanted to be mixed during 60'ies and an ultimate danger that they would in some 20 years have more power than the white man.

The problem with such a worldview of opposing two poles, which is clear and neat and problem free is that it is only a prescriptive transference onto reality rather than a descriptive observation. It isn't there as it is, but once you believe it, you see it everywhere. However, the issue here isn't just opposing religions, or religious texts. There are so many shades of the black, as well as the white. Above all there is so much that you need to bring in the argument besides verses from the Qur'an and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

When Muslims see a monolithic, united Christian West, which actively seeks to destroy them, we stand up to the task of showing that this notion of “Christian” West does not exist, as Christians in the West fight to remain in the public domain. When Muslim preachers and media represent the West as a unified body that is all about money, immorality, and decadence with inherit thirst for blood and destruction of innocent people, with no fear of God, we rightfully challenge such a perception. When France and the UK, Greece and the US, Spain and Sweden are perceived to be united Christian nations, we laugh at how someone cannot realize the deep differences that lie between these countries. But sadly, we see no problem in reducing Islam, and the Islamic people to one simple box.

Allow me to look at international jihad groups like Al-Qaeda for a moment, not with the usual, “this is the true classic Islam expressing itself, see its in the Qur'an” hermeneutical lenses, but as they really are. International jihad networks are uniquely late modern, rather post-modern in their frameworks, ideologies, organizations and aims. Unlike the traditional jihads, these new formulations have no particular geo-political aims of capturing a specific land, or defending it or leading it. Hamas and Hezbollah do have particular tangible goals that they seek to achieve with the use of force, whereas Al Qaeda is engaged in a global battle with no practical goal in mind except that of making a point and fighting a metaphysical war against the devil wherever his manifestations are found. In traditional jihads, the order is given by a leader with direct details and limits, whereas, what we see now is a democratized structure, which gives the individual the chance to fight his own jihad as a personal religious ritual.

In traditional jihads, there is a clear expectation of adherence to certain doctrines and religious and moral behaviours. But now, these doctrinal demands do not exist. Everyone can be a member. You do not even have to be pious. We now see suicide bombers who frequent nightclubs, consume alcohol and engage in acts which are not deemed “Islamic.” In the old days, what we wanted to see the most in our profiling of the terrorists was the naive youth who grow up in depraved places and had no education or future. Now what we see is terrorists with college degrees, fluent in various languages and who have grown in the West where they have been sheltered from much of the suffering they seem to be reacting against. It could have been a lot easier for us if they were just merely brainwashed poor lives. Yet their very ‘sane' profiles lead us not to psychoanalyze them, but to give an ear to what it is they are trying to communicate.

I do not have time here to go into deeper analysis of new jihad movements, let alone the change Islam itself has been going through for the last 5 years. A change full of inner conflicts, growing calls for reform as well as growing attraction of fundamentalism. Suffice it to say, the mental boxes we hold, or our perceptions of Islam today is neither able to incorporate the present reality into our neat and tidy perceptions of Islam, nor be of much use as a basis for policy making. Yes, there is a correlation between certain Islamic doctrines and what we see today, but correlation does not mean causation.

The context within which such doctrines and movements find favor and is lived out is what we need to address if we want to see an end to this chaos. This context is full of historical and continuous mistakes of imperial agendas, neo-con masculinities, wars, and economic deprivations. Above all, this context is a dehumanized zone, in which some see terror attacks as a rational option to be heard by the rest of world. Within this context, the only way they find to assert their humanity and worth of life is through death.

As a Muslim background Christian who live in the Middle East but has been educated in the West, I seem to fit nowhere in this two poles world. The World of Islam fighting an imperial and immoral West. The West, which embodies justice, democracy and civilization, fighting a backward, blood-thirsty East. I am not at home anywhere, nor I am allowed to be, as random security checks at the airports or tensions with local authorities continually remind me my anomy. But as someone who is between these two narratives, I only see the same fear of the other. The fear that the other will harm, destroy or diminish us. This fear combined with narcissism of ourselves blinds us to what we share in common with them. The other becomes the embodiment of evil, who is effaced, united under one banner, no matter who and how different they are. Thus the Allies talk of “collateral damage” and the Islamists see no one in the West innocent, including fellow Muslims who do not follow their jihad, thus they can all be killed in impunity in a bomb attack.

When you are hurt, or fear for your life, or are unsettled by the presence of people who are not like you, the instinctive reaction is to fight back, hurt others and exclude the strangers whom you see as the main cause of your problems. It is in fact what the US has done since 9/11 attacks. It has launched a global metaphysical war against terror, with no actual physical target or enemy, except a language of good versus evil. The enemy is everywhere, yet nowhere, the enemy is no one particular yet at the same time everyone. On the tide of such a psyche and political theology, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq destroyed “pre-emptively” lives of millions of people, grotesque Human Rights abuses at Abu Gharib, the Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA prisons and operations, kidnappings has hit the tabloids and the souls of Muslims. All along it only proved Nietzsche to be right, “those who fight against monsters should be careful not to be monsters themselves.”

It appears, in a very common sense way but apparently not found that commonly amidst policy makers, that violence begets violence. How we have responded thus far has only escalated the problem. The urge to dehumanize the others in order to feel safe for a moment, only makes us more vulnerable to be hurt by the others who will not stand sheepishly as their lives destroyed. The fuel, which gives energy to Islamisms isn't the Qur'an. It is not only the absence of any other viable option but also the previous and sadly the present tense mistakes of Western governments that do not accept and grant the humanity and inherent value to the rest of the world and that continues to see the world as its legitimate play ground. The only way to counter the destruction that surrounds us isn't more military power, tighter borders, further dehumanizing tortures, but to grant the other the same humanness we think we posses only. This way goes through mourning in recognition of the deep wounds we have caused each other, so that we can, after enough tears, embrace each other and concile, if not reconcile.