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Friday, July 06, 2007

...And what does cause terrorism?

I just saw this great essay after my last post:

Tanveer Ahmed: Islam must face its uncomfortable truths

THE latest attack in Britain shows how the Islamist threat is being driven by something much grander than mere foreign policy or feelings of grievance. The perpetrators believe they are soldiers in the perceived historical battle between good and evil.

The methods of attack are becoming more brazen, amateurish and desperate, illustrated most profoundly by the burning terrorist at Glasgow airport shouting "Allah" while struggling with a policeman, but the ideological roots are unchanged.

As a commentator on Muslim affairs and home-grown terrorism, I am often asked whether there is something in Islam itself that is contributing to terrorist acts. As someone who is not a theological expert, I shy away from strong pronouncements on the issue, preferring to discuss the sociological roots of alienation and the modern symbol of protest that Islam has become.

But the question is impossible to avoid and I believe that theology is central and not peripheral to the problem. It is grounded in history, but the sparks have been generated by the information age.

While the images of poverty and war in countries such as Sudan, Palestine or Iraq combined with the relative disadvantage of some Muslim communities in countries such as France or Britain may contribute to radicalisation, the foundation for their acts lies very much in the set of ideas called Islam. I have lost count of the number of occasions disgruntled Muslims have responded to my writings with comments like "Islam is peace" or "You are not a Muslim any more".

Truth be told, I was never a practising Muslim, despite growing up in a Bangladeshi community where religiosity was the norm.

This had more to do with being raised in a secular household and society than any great misgivings about Islam. In fact, I often watched friends who were able to practise a spiritual version of the religion with envy, wishing that I could subscribe to a greater purpose than myself.

But with hindsight, I can see that what we now call extremism was virtually the norm in the community I grew up in. It was completely normal to view Jews as evil and responsible for the ills of the world. It was normal to see the liberal society around us as morally corrupt, its stains to be avoided at all costs. It was normal to see white girls as cheap and easy and to see the ideal of femininity as its antithesis. These views have been pushed to more private, personal spheres amid the present scrutiny of Muslim communities.

But they remain widespread, as research in Britain showed earlier this year: up to 50 per cent of British Muslims aged between 15 and 29 want to see sharia law taken up in Britain. This needs to be seen in the light of American data collated by the Pew Research Centre that showed close to 80 per cent of American Muslims believed they could move up the social ladder in the US and had no interest in Islamic laws on a public level. Like most things Australian, it is likely we sit somewhere between our British and American cousins.

But the threat is very real. It was reported yesterday that up to 3000 young Muslims are at risk of becoming radicalised in Sydney alone, according to research by a member of the now-disbanded Muslim Community Reference Group, Mustapha Kara-Ali. But when these views morph into the violent political act that is terrorism, it is very much based in theology.

At its core, Islam is deeply sceptical of the idea of a secular state. There is no rendering unto Caesar because state and religion are believed to be inseparable. This idea then interacts with centuries-old edicts of Islamic jurists about how the land of Islam should interact with the world of unbelievers, known as dar ul-kufr. The modern radicals then take it further, declaring that since, with the exception perhaps of Pakistan and Iran, there are no Islamic states, the whole world is effectively the land of the unbelievers. As a result, some radicals believe waging war on the whole world is justified to re-create it as an Islamic state.

They go as far as reclassifying the globe as dar ul-harb, "land of war", apparently allowing Muslims to destroy the sanctity of the five rights that every human is granted under Islam: life, wealth, land, mind and belief. In dar ul-harb, anything goes, including the killing of civilians.

While it may appear absurd to most, this nihilistic but exclusivist world view is clearly attracting significant numbers of young Muslims. British police have suggested the latest attacks and foiled plots may have involved teenagers. But the obvious absurdity of the set of ideas is still grounded in Islam, which, regardless of how theological experts argue, can be interpreted in many ways.

Muslim communities must openly argue precisely what it is they fear and loathe about the West. Much of it centres on sexuality. This is the first step in rooting out any Muslim ambivalence about living in the West. But thereafter, the argument must proceed rapidly to Islamic theology and all its uncomfortable truths - from its repeated glowing references to violence, its obsession with and revulsion at sex and its historical antipathy to the very possibility that reason can exist as separate from God.

Tanveer Ahmed is a Sydney-based psychiatry registrar and writer.